Note: This essay just came out in the Istanbul Literary Review. I wrote it before Bill and I got married (that's why I refer to him as my boyfriend, rather than husband. Oh, and the photo is actually of me catching a bluefish, about a year later.)
It is 3 a.m. but the moon is so bright it feels as if my boyfriend and I are fishing in the daylight. I honestly don't know much about fishing, except that it involves a lot of casting and reeling and no fish. Well, no fish for me.
My boyfriend, Bill, often catches fish. Stripers, bluefish, trout. He has been fishing since he was a little boy in Madison, Connecticut. He wants me to know about this part of his life. He wants me to love fishing as much as he does. I am not the first girl he has taken out fishing, but I am the first one to show true enthusiasm. The others grew bored after one or two trips. This is my seventh. I am not bored, but I am a little scared.
I don't tell my boyfriend this. I smile and follow behind him, into the blackness, thinking there is something disturbingly old-fashioned about us, and the theme song from "Green Acres" begins playing in my head. "New York is where I'd rather stay. I get allergic smelling hay!"
We wear rubber waders held up to our chests with old-fashioned suspenders and we step out into the black surf, like big-footed monsters. I feel my stockinged feet sliding around inside the huge boots as I carefully step over the slippery rocks beneath the water. We walk slowly, trying not making waves, whispering, out into the Long Island Sound, until the water reaches just over our waists.
Everything is silent, except for the ghostly ring of a buoy bell and the gentle sound of water lapping. The air smells fishy and salty with a slight undertone of sulfur. The waders are cold and heavy and then they gradually grow warmer. My boyfriend, Bill, now far off to the right of me, nods and smiles and I began casting.
Truth is, I am good at casting. I have perfected it over the course of the summer from fishing practically every weekend with Bill and never catching anything. I figure this is enough. It is exercise. My upper arms are looking great. And it is zen. Who cares whether you actually catch something? It's the communion with nature. It's being outdoors. It's learning something new. It's stretching the boundaries of what's familiar. Still, the Green Acres song refrains in my head."Dah-ling, I love you but give me Park Avenue!"
I pray I don't have to pee. We have been up since two in the morning and I had to have coffee. I concentrate on the water, the reel, the line. I will not think of my bladder, I tell myself.
When I was a little girl my grandfather and grandmother fished in the Housatonic River in Devon, Connecticut. They went to Jackman, Maine every summer. I have old black and white photographs of my elegant French grandmother wearing a flannel plaid shirt, a straw hat and bluejeans, standing by a campfire. She is smiling for the camera as she holds up a string of trout she had caught.
And here I am, just like her, fishing. Although, I still wear my red lipstick, because I refuse to completely give in. I hear Eva Gabor in my head singing in my head. It's true, I want to impress Bill, but I don't want him to forget either--I am a woman and he is a man.
The mosquitoes have discovered our whereabouts. The fish aren't biting. And I have to pee.
Here's the real problem: I don't really want to catch a fish. I feel guilty about this. I like cats. I have two orange tabbies. Suppose a cat was a fish? Could I catch a metal hook into the side of my cat's mouth and reel him in? Could I pull that hook out? Could I place my half alive cat in a plastic bag, pull it tight and leave it by the shore, knowing death will take him, while I trudge back through the murky water and go for more? See, it's not so easy when you think of fish as a cat. I don't think I want to catch a fish. Does this mean I don't want to keep this boyfriend? Does this mean, I really want to let Bill go? Catch and release? That's what he does with the smaller fish. Apparently, it's the law. I wonder what's the point and if this fishing business will be the end of us.
I stare out into the flat, black water. The endless night, actually early morning, although it feels as if dawn will never arrive. I cast and reel. Cast and reel. Every third try, my line gets twisted and snagged. I release, slowly pull, release and pull, and then I feel the weight of something heavy and I drag it in. I imagine it was not an enormous clump of seaweed or a rock, but that instead I have hooked my line on a dead man's severed arm. This is what happens when you take a red-lipsticked writer out to fish.
But no, there are no dead men's severed arms and the night goes on, the moon huge and yellow, hanging heavy. "You all right?" Bill calls to me from the right. I nod my head. I smile. I don't tell him about the growing boredom, the need to pee. I will be the best girlfriend ever I tell myself and cast again with new vigor.
And then suddenly the black water comes alive. It is a bubbling, boiling cauldron. Splashing all around me. My first response, is to cut and run. Oh my God, get me the hell out of here, I think, my boyfriend Bill shouts, "Cast! Cast!" He is already reeling in a big one. "Stripers!" he shouts and motions for me to get in there. And I think, the gig is up. I don't want any fish. I don't want to kill my cats! But this makes no sense and I do want to be the best girlfriend ever and so I cast and cast and cast and suddenly I feel a tug at the end of my line. This is a tug like no other. No, this is not seaweed, not my plastic bait caught on a rock. This was is not a slow moving horseshoe crab crawling its way at the bottom of the ocean (yes, I once caught a horseshoe crab and Bill has told me that this never happens. It happened to me.) This new tug is different. It is alive and it fights back with me, pulls me forward so hard I practically lose my balance. It takes my line and runs with it, and the spool of line spins out and out, threatening to take the whole thing and me with it. I am tempted to let it go, throw the fishing rod out into the black water, surrender, tell the fish he has won! But, Bill is waving at me, shouting "Hold on!" and "Reel it in!" He slowly inches his way over to me, walking sideways. He tells me, "let out some line. Let it tire itself out." My arms ache from it, but I do hold out. I let the fish tire itself out. It is a strong one, this fish. And the more I feel its muscled tug on my line, the more it resists, the more I want it. I want this fish! It is my biological imperative to have this fish. I want to pull it out of the water and I want to stare at its glassy eye and I want to take it home and yes, I want to cook it and I want to eat it. I will not tell the cats. But this fish, he is having none of it. He is pulling, twisting and turning, lifting me right out of my waders and I hang on. Bill asks if he wants me to take over my line and I say no. In this moment, I am glad of all those months of casting and reeling. I am prepared. I fight the good fight, pulling him in, arching the rod, lowering it, then reeling again until suddenly a flash of speckled silver breaks the surface and slaps hard against the water, hitting my leg hard with its enormous tail. And for a moment, we stare each other in the eye.
This Striper is a beauty, illuminated by the night sky. Big. He is silvery, striped like a grey tabby cat, or one of those shiny jackets the Rat Pack wore in the 60's. I fall a little bit in love with this Striper. I decide he is the Dean Martin of the fish world. This fish could sing and smoke and drink and tell bawdy stories. This fish wants to get away from me and be bad. He is a fighter. And he is all mine.
And now, he is sitting between me and Bill in the car, dead in a plastic bag.
Do I feel sorry for my fish? Do I feel guilty? Do I hate myself for doing this thing? Killing a living creature? Me--the red lipsticked gal who will lift a spider with a piece tissue and gently place it out the window? The gal who wears red lipstick to fish? The gal who only fishes to impress her boyfriend?
The answer, truthfully, is no.
But, here's what I do. When I get back home and I am in my kitchen, I kiss my fish. I kiss his still lips. And I say a prayer for my fish. I weigh my fish--an amazing 10 pounds! We photograph me and my fish. And that night, Bill and I eat my fish, outside on the deck, by candlelight. Later, we make love and I find myself more aggressive than usual. More abandoned. Maybe even predatory. Anyway, it's hot.