You always told me never to become a fisherman. Said the work was thankless, said it was alienating, said the pieces of cod under your fingernails made the egg salad sandwich you ate every day smell like a corpse. “I could have been a banker,” you said. “I could have been a tax man. I could have been anything I wanted, but here I am, slingin’ shit on this boat for 10 hours a day.”
This was advice I ignored, of course. Fishing was all I knew. From the day I baited my first hook I was caught. The suspense, the peace, the salt in my eyelashes – all of these were as a part of me as my thumbprint. Mostly, though, I became a fisherman because of you.
You were my role model. As a kid, I would watch the way you tied your shoes and imitated it. There was a simple grace in the way your brown callused hands elegantly danced one lace over the other, kissing in the middle, and then, as if the affair had never existed, tersely and abruptly yanked the knot into place. I figured you had been tying knots your whole life – if I was to follow your example, it wouldn’t have been the worst decision of my life.
When I was nine, I noticed the bottles that littered the cabin of the boat – green, clear, brown. I would hold them up to the smudged cabin window and watch the sea bubble through the glass, as if your disease had been the entire ocean. I remember stacking them on the cabin floor and knocking them down with balled-up pieces of paper and little round rocks. If only it had been that easy.
That winter, Mom left. As soon as the first frost set in on the dock pilings, there she went, walking out the door. I don’t really remember it all that well; the only real memory I have of it was the way her hair blew in the sea breeze as she opened her car door. I remember seeing that it irritated her, saw that strands of it remained attached to her damp face but she made no second effort to move them. It didn’t matter to me that she was gone, to be honest. It had always been you and me eating sausage at dawn; you and me baiting hooks for the next day’s trip; you and me mocking the tourists that stumbled onto the boat without a sip of alcohol, while after an entire bottle of whiskey you maintained your still surgeon’s hands, whipping bowlines without even trying to the “oohs” and “aahs” of our sun screened patrons. I remember Mom’s hair, and I remember the next morning seeing your hands shake for the first time. They never stopped shaking after that. That always scared me.
Meghan came crashing into my life during my 24th summer on that boat, loud as the platter of dirty dishes she dropped onto my lap at our favorite restaurant. It was right on the dock across the bay – a quick hop in the dinghy you called “Daddy’s Girl” and a 5-minute sputter yielded the best fried fish sandwiches and cheap beers a father-son team could ask for. Meghan wore the forest-green polo shirt uniform and had her red hair in a long ponytail that fell down her back in a careless cascade, and I remember watching her navigate the restaurant with her heavy load with a mixture of amusement and apprehension. I knew the platter would fall even before my lap was covered in half-eaten lobster sandwiches and tarter sauce-covered napkins, and meeting her eyes as she embarrassingly attempted to clean the broken coffee cups was the single most invigorating thing I’ve ever done – and I caught a 47 pound striped bass one summer while taking the boat out alone for the first time. I taught her to fish and to like black coffee; she taught me that there were more important things in life than a school of mackerel. She sanded down the rough edges that my life with you had created. Meghan and I spent every moment together. You spent every moment with a bottle in your hand.
We got married two summers later. Summer always felt more alive than any other season, as if every leaf were trembling with possibility, as if every wave were breaking with more frustration than the other three quarters of the year. Our wedding was very small and simple; neither of us had ever been about appearances so we got married in her parents’ backyard, her nieces and nephews throwing themselves under our feet while her sisters and brother and the rest of her family were festively drinking home-brewed beers and warning us about the “perils” of marriage. The reception was lovingly loud, the air vibrating with well-wishing and hearty hugs and promises of children and long years. Meghan wore her hair down with a wreath of flowers draped over the ocean of her curls, and I could not stop staring at her. She was a beacon in the crowded yard, welcoming me home. She was the solution to the solitude I felt during my years at home while you were kept company by a full glass. The only person I saw during the whole night was her. I kept picturing our life together, complete with all of the things I knew we’d never be able to afford. I saw her bursting with a new life and glowing; I saw her bending to pick up a length of yarn with silver hair.
I hardly noticed you sitting alone all night, nursing a stiff bourbon, your lily boutonniere limp and lifeless pinned to your shabby lapel. I never expected anything; I only heard you mutter to yourself on your way out to the taxi, after giving me a too-long hug I attributed to the liquor, “I never wanted to be a fisherman. I never wanted to be a fisherman.”