Gone Fishing

January 28, 2019

I still cannot commit to fishing on my own, simple as the activity may seem, long as I’ve been fishing. I don’t know how to string the fishing line or tie the hook. I’m too squeamish to bait the line with a writhing worm or a dead fish. One in four casts I find myself hooked to a rock, or my line caught around some unseen obstacle, concealed beneath dark waters, or my bait craftily snatched by a seasoned, or simply lucky, fish. Sometimes I reel in one of the ever-present puffers. There are always at least three circling our dock, in water shallow enough to allow visibility.

There is nothing I can do but yell “I got one!” and wait for you when I pull something up. I have gone fishing countless times, yet I have never once touched my catch. I feel bad, of course, watching an animal in pain, but I know you will put its suffering and fear to a quick end with a flick of your wrist. Hook-free, our scaled, finned friend is tossed back in to the sea. Can fish perceive trauma? Are shock and pain the same?

You patiently cut and restring my line as needed, threading the hook through the next worm, which never fails to surprise me. Patience is out of character for you, and I inherited about as much tolerance as you possess.

It might take me ten or fifteen or twenty casts, some flops and some that, to my immense and undisguised satisfaction— “Did you see that cast?!”— break the surface of the water with a clean plop some five yards away. I watch the red and white bobber dip and crest in the center of our canal, an intracoastal offshoot. I’ve always wondered why fish— and the sharks and the manatees we see on occasion— would choose to swim down this way, rather than out in to the ocean, but they do because there is always something to be reeled in.

There’s a tug.

“I think I’ve got one!” I shout. Prematurely, of course. Nothing but stillness follows the tug, though I wait with bated breath. You wait, too. I sit here on the dock even after you go back into the house. You weren’t fishing, anyway, just lingering to give the help I’d inevitably need. Fishing was my idea, today.

“Do we have bait?” I’d asked you while you were out running errands. “Can you get some? I want to fish later.”

“Yeah, I can do that.” I’m 17 now, but I think you see the little girl I was when I fish. Is it because the sight of me holding a fishing pole reminds you of our catches passed, or because you are holding on to feeling needed by your firstborn? I know it hurts you to think about all the admissions decisions that are about to roll in from out-of-state colleges.

You weren’t there to see me reel in that huge bonito, the largest fish I’ve caught to date. It is, to my recollection, the one time I went fishing without you. I had been roped in to a deep sea fishing trip, though I prefer our casual dockside fishing to anything remotely commercial.

I can still feel the strain of trying to pull in the huge fish. I remember the disappointment I felt handing over the pole to one of the charter staff because I wasn’t strong enough. They didn’t release my fish, instead tossing it, bleeding and gasping, into a waterless bucket with several others. I named it, something that started with a “B,” I think. B— the bonito.

Surely I told you about B— and the shadow of a shark I saw pass under our boat that day. Were you impressed? I no doubt had hoped that you would be, that you’d gloss over how I didn’t reel the fish in myself, focusing instead on my glorious catch. That was years ago. I wonder if you would recall this story if I told it to you now. I know you remember the dozens of jack I reeled in when we lived at that house with the Mexican tiles and the badminton court and the little owls that would hoot from the low-hanging powerlines.

That was the house across from the beach. Of course you remember the nights you’d ride your red bike, my six-year-old figure perched on the front bar, across the highway at dusk. You’d point out all the turtle nests, each carefully marked off with four wooden stakes and orange tape, and make elaborate “kitchens” out of driftwood, shells, and pieces of plastic you found in the sand.

That was the house where Santa brought me a Barbie tour bus for Christmas and where we would record riduculous made-up songs on my miniature piano. The house where we would eat Animal Treasures (Girl Scout Thanks-A-Lots before they were Thanks-A-Lots) by the box. You’d let me sit on the kitchen counter to frost our four-bite devil’s food cakes, fresh out of my Easy-Bake Oven.

Then there are all the things you don’t remember. All the forgotten recitals, games, and shows. Of course, you can’t remember or forget what you never attended. Still, my broken heart would inflate when you’d call that night to apologize and fabricate an excuse for your absence, when you’d ask me how it went or who won and whether Mom had taken photos. You’d make it up to me, you’d promised. “Mom said you can stay the weekend. It’s going to be great.” The promises you make today are just as empty as the promises you made then.

All the stories I wanted to share with you, messages I tried so hard to get through to you, experiences that I wanted you to be a part of… lost. All the nights that I would go through the house locking the doors and turning off the lights. I might pour out whatever you left in the styrofoam cup, leaving you passed out on the couch, before tucking myself in to bed. The details you don’t file away, the phone calls you dodge, the days you disappear, the fights you pick.

Do you remember the look on my face when the cops were called that time? Or that other time? Oh, wait, I remember— you didn’t see. What about on my tenth birthday when we left before the cops arrived? Or when I watched you get arrested and taken away in a squad car? Are these things you remember, too, or is it just my mind that these memories haunt from time to time?

Last year, when I was getting ready to move— you know, the Big Move, what I thought was the final move— you didn’t come to say goodbye. I cried. You don’t know that. I confess that I once thought I would be the one to save you. I believed that I was the only one who could save you. If you were going to listen to anyone, give up the liquor for anyone, it would be me. I realized how absolutely jaded and wrong I was by age 12.

I’m not bitter. Really. I love you. I do. It hurts, but I forgive you. I forgave you a long time ago. It’s all easier if I pretend what you’ve missed is because you’d gone fishing.

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