You’ve been in a pet store. You’ve seen the signs: “Please don’t tap on the glass.” I try to imagine what tapping on the glass of an aquarium must be like for a fish. I imagine it’s a bit like three or four cars exploding near me, maybe with an airhorn or two to destroy the high end of my hearing, too. I imagine it’s quite traumatizing.

That probably explains why a lot of the fish cower at the base of the plastic bushes, shaking and mumbling, and always have trouble making exact change without Tourette’s-like symptoms. Seems obvious to me.

But pet stores need a sign anyway, because apparently people still do it.

For a while, I didn’t get it. I mean, why would someone do that to a poor fish?

I think I figured it out, though.

When you tap the glass, the fish shivers. It moves. It responds (and for all we know, it cries out in fishese “Oh god, please, no, make it stop, make it stoooooop!”, followed by long wracking sobs. I’m gonna run with that image, okay?). For a lesser being, this provides proof that they really exist. Basically “Look, I really exist, because if I didn’t exist, this fish would ignore me.”

That’s a bit on the sad side, depending on the reactions of a fish to prove you exist.

There’s also a minor sense of “Hey fish, entertain me” in that, but people were usually satisfied if the fish wiggled a bit (albeit in trauma) – they didn’t insist the fish come out and dance the Mambo.

I watched some aquariums for a while (I had a girlfriend who worked in a pet store many years ago) and I kept seeing people come in. Some knocked on the tanks and some didn’t. I started seeing a pattern. The people who wanted to buy fish, who had questions about fish, or who clearly loved fish weren’t the ones tapping on the glass. The people tapping on the glass were the bored people. They were someone’s kids, or someone’s spouse or bedfriend. They weren’t there to acquire fish – they were there out of obligation. They were bored. So, rather than make something useful of themselves, rather than go visit pets that interested them, or even ask about these fish, they lost themselves. Then, at some point, they had to come back, and in order to re-assert their humanity, they demanded that the Universe make the fish move. Tap, tap. To the fish, ka-boom! Ka-boom!

Now, if there was a powerful being (or even just another person) blowing up cars around me just to make me jump in order to dispel their boredom briefly, I’d have a word for that kind of person. That word would be “asshole.”

There’s no reason it can’t apply to people banging on aquariums.

But that’s not my point in this essay anyway. That’s just the background.

I know someone. Nice gal. Lots of hope in her. This is a quality I like, because the world could use some more people with a lot of hope in ‘em. Me, I have a feeling we’re tilting toward another civil war, so I’m feeling a little grim lately, but she’s one of the good ones.

She tells me the other day of this fella sniffing after her. Now, she’s been involved with him before, and I guess, from what I recall, he was a bit of a jerky, so she broke it off. That makes sense.

Then, a year or two later, he drifts back into her life with a story about how much he realized he missed her, and they have a great time for maybe four to six weeks. Then he admits he’s having trouble handling it and breaks it off.

That was a sad.

A third time, maybe two years later, he shows back up, different haircut, different brand of boots, and some sort of tale about how he’s figured out what he did wrong and how he’s going to do it right. And right now. So, they have another six weeks of Playtime, followed by two or three weeks of increasing distress, followed by some quasi-tearful breakup situation.

That was a sad, too. She was very unhappy, and a lot confused.

So, eventually, maybe another two years later, he shows up again. Intricate tales of self-examination, inspirational tales of what he’s done to fix himself. I guess it was very impressive. And he has some sexy new hairstyle, too. And smaller Smart Glasses that appear to make him seem more thoughtful and sensitive.

She felt very conflicted, because (as I mentioned) she’s full of hope about things. On the other hand, he’s been a jerky to her three times.

She keeps fish.

So I explained to her the tapping-on-the-glass phenomenon that I had observed.

I told her “He’s just tapping on your glass. When you jump, he feels better about himself.”

I hate being right about stuff like this.

But it turned out that was pretty much exactly what he was doing. Tapping on her glass.

She figured out pretty quick that it wasn’t her job to give his life meaning – even if temporarily. The last time he sent her some amazing letter, I believe she ignored it.

Never heard back from him.

I have a feeling he has a list, though, just as the pet store has a line of aquariums. If the fish in one doesn’t jump, he just moves down the line and taps on another.

He may tap on the glass again, but I think she sees it for what it is, now.

My point is that if you find yourself in a situation that looks like it might just be this sort of thing, then consider the possibility that it might be exactly what it looks like. That lover from a few years back might not be coming around because they actually have a great regret for the mistakes of their life – they’re probably just tapping on the glass.

Just like someone might blow up a car outside your house to get your attention, every couple of years.

I got a word for people like that.