The first time I went fishing was with my dad, when I was young. It was a Saturday and he came into my room in the mid-morning to see if I wanted to go fishing with him.
My dad was not a fisherman. He liked to golf, and mow the lawn, and stand in the driveway calling loudly across the street to neighbors in their driveway. Later in his life he would get up at absurd morning hours to play blistering games of racquetball. He would come home, sometimes, with purple welts on his legs from the ball. He golfed. But he never went fishing.
I wasn’t interested in fishing either, but I understood what he was doing and agreed. I would’ve agreed to anything he asked, because whatever he asked was never like a question to me, but a mandate, a debtor come to call. Our obvious fundamental differences from one another gave him an oppressive authority over me, and I was too cowardly, undefined, and unassertive to question this authority in any outward-facing part of my personality.
We went to a big store and under its flat florescent lighting bought cheap poles and brightly-colored bait for the fishes. We couldn’t use worms because I was too squeamish to touch them at all, let alone press them, living, down and around a metal barb.
We went up to a nearby park and found out that we needed a permit to fish in the pond there, so we went and bought day permits and came back. We fished in a small pond adjacent to the large man-made lake and caught nothing. I watched the hordes of geese on the lawns. They came every summer and marched across the sidewalk, fouling up long stretches of it with green-white birdshit.
In the early days of middle school a friend invited me to his house. We looked different from one another. I was fat, with a bowl cut, ineradicably apple-cheeked. He was that rangy, skeletal kind of kid you always see in Mid-western suburbs, the kind of kid that always seems to always be wearing a white t-shirt. We bonded over a shared sense of humor. He would take pictures of his shits and show them to me on his phone. He used to peel scraps of vinyl off the front of his binders at school, and poke a bunch of holes in the scrap with a pen. Then he would take this perforated scrap of vinyl and play-scratch you with it. He called these things ‘rasps.’ We used to make “Monster Books” together; these were pieces of notebook paper with drawings of aberrant little creatures on them, in rows of three; nine creatures per side. We’d fold these up and pass them to each other between class.
It was a hot summer day when I went to his house. His house was a small nondescript ranch home with gray carpet and off-white walls inside. Outside, his back lawn sloped down to a lake, which many other backyards in the neighborhood also backed up against. We went down with poles he had in his garage and fished.
He caught one, a bluegill. He pulled it up out of the water, and it hung at the end of his line. It was spiny and glittered like some glaive-like weapon in a sci-fi novel that you flung bolo-like to cut through hundreds of enemies at once. I wouldn’t touch it because he told me the fins were sharp and could cut you. But he took it into his hand with the ease of much practice and threw it back into the lake.
When I was older and living in a different state, I went fishing with someone I didn’t know very well. He was from Iceland, and married, short and strong and stringy. I don’t remember where or how we met, but I remember being desperately attracted to his wife, the kind of attraction that is shameless in its despair. I was always hoping that some circumstance would leave us two alone together, without him around. One time they invited me over and we all got roaringly drunk. I sat on their porch in a folding lawn chair with her, and he was inside. She and I were smoking Camel Crushes. For some reason I was fixated on articulating some idea I had about King Lear to her.
He couldn’t work in the U.S. and she was a student, so he stayed home with their son during the day. He thought of me as his bachelor buddy, a sort of one-man escape from this domestic life. His presiding obsession was fly fishing, and he insisted I come with him one hot day.
We went first to a lake he had found out about online. When we got there, we found that the lake had dried up in the withering summer to a small pool in the center of the dry, cracked expanse of the lake bed.
To his eye it still looked fishable, so we decided to walk out to the little, since we were here already. When we got about of a third of the way across the lake bed, the ground beneath our feet became spongy and wet; then suddenly we sank into the stinking, clayey bed up to our waists.
We tried to go back. We had to scoop slopping handfuls of muck out from in front of us so we could lift our legs high enough to step forward. Each time we put our feet down they plunged with a sucking sound back into lukewarm sludge. We struggled like that back to firmer ground; our jeans and shoes were a uniform off-white color once we pushed off the outer layers of filth.
We went to a second lake. Here, my Icelandic friend insisted we do some tobacco chew, something he wasn’t allowed to do around his kid. It was the kind that comes in a little bag that you lodge up in your gums. I put one into my mouth. It tasted strong and the upper layers of my brain became pleasantly ruffled with a nicotine buzz. He had brought a pole for me but I kept getting my line caught on things. So instead I listened to my friend talk about the finer details of fly fishing as he whipped the line back and forth. I nodded and listened in the absurd heat, caked in lake mud, growing slowly nauseous.