One time we decided to have a fish fry in the woods. Because we were young, we didn’t go far: just walked up the street, into a small patch of woods adjacent to K’s neighborhood. But it was dark by the time we left, and we wanted to go as deep as we could into the little woods, so that the lights and noise of the neighborhood and the rest of Aurora didn’t completely poison the sky above us.
It was early fall and the trees were already bare, but warm enough that that all we needed were hoodies. Between us we carried folding chairs, a small frying pan, a grimy half-used bottle of lighter fluid, paper plates, and a small cooler with soda and plastic bags of batter-coated fish inside, still uncooked.
We found a little clearing in the center of the woods. We set up our chairs in a circle around where K said the fire would be. He said he would make the fire. He started to scrape away the wet mat of dead leaves with his foot. He wore a black hoodie, and squarish, toxic blue carpenter jeans; he was fat like me; his hair was shaved down to a colorless stubble. We became friends because we both liked video games, but he also grew up with outdoorsy parents, and had inherited a whole set of experiences and skills that were alien to me. So I sat and sipped a Sprite while he scraped the leaves away.
E was there too. He wasn’t someone we hung out with normally, but for reasons I didn’t understand was invited. E was shorter than either of us, and weighed less, but looked pudgy rather than fat, which was somehow worse at that age. He had small eyes, short brown hair, sparse freckles over the high parts of his cheeks. I thought of him as popular. In general, he wasn’t liked so much as enjoyed. He had chosen to abstract his public, school day personality into a sort of malicious clownishness, an impenetrable veneer of unserious goofiness that you couldn’t ever penetrate at school but that, for some reason, in the few times I’d hung out with him outside, he abandoned completely and without ceremony, so that to point out the difference would make you seem weird, not him. This night he was exhibiting what was probably his actual personality: a sullen, embryonic ironical acerbicness; but even in this more natural state, some obscurity lingered in him; he said everything with the same near monotone, so it was hard to tell when he was happy or upset, pissed off or joking.
Eventually, K took the grody bottle of Kingsford lighter fluid and squirted it into the pile of kindling. The fire jumped and shone and it was time to cook the fish.
In groups of young boys, there’s always an invisible authority that one kid ends up with. Sometimes there’s a struggle for this authority; sometimes it falls without agon onto one of them. Because K made the fire, he had the authority tonight, even though he normally maintained a more subdued presence. And so he sat cross-legged by the fire and put the pieces of fish – perch from Lake Erie that his dad had caught – into the pan, one by one. They hissed and crackled and pulsed lightly, almost indiscernibly, the way your tongue pulses constantly in your mouth. The batter cooked down around them, pale yellow now where the fish was wettest but ruddy gold at the curled edges of each strip.
The fire started to get low and K took the pan off for a minute and told me to add lighter fluid; I took the dirty bottle in my hand and squeezed it. The flames jumped again, yellow and crude. K was looking at the fire dully; E was sitting his chair with his chin against his sternum, looking at the fire too, up from under his brows.
Fire smoke and greasesmoke from the fish rose up. The wind was pushing it all in my direction, so that my eyes stung and my clothes became heavy and fragrant and grody to the touch.
When the fish was done, K ladled the strips onto paper plates for each of us. I looked at my plate. Oil was seeping out from beneath the fish into the plate, turning it gray and nearly transparent; it bent softly under my hand as I held it. Some thoughts came up: about food poisoning, about undercooked fish, about heavy metals getting into my bloodstream. But K and E were eating their fish so I ate mine too. It was hot, and when I bit into it hot grease burned my tongue, but the meat tasted fresh and clean beneath the oiliness.
I don’t remember what we talked about. Something about the experience had locked me into myself, and I was like a passenger on a ship, looking out of my eyes at this unexpected evening, with unexpected company. In every direction the tall tree trunks looked thin in the cold and dark, but were standing so close to each other in intermingling rows; in any direction it looked like white paint being laid with a coarse brush, wet, on top of black gesso; or hallways with the paneling split and splintered from age or pressure, running into the darkness. The heavy smoke, slower now, still passed through me and then up, moving deeper into the night sky, turning slowly, dreamily, fragile, like gauze in water. The dead leaves flipped up their edges and the trees moved swayed like ocean plants in response to the wind’s long vowels. Everything, every motion and non-motion, every gradation of the firelight registered on every inch of every surface, all present temperatures and temperaments, was occurring in unison, striking me simultaneously; everything moved into a complete synchronicity for one golden, cathect instant.
One footnote to this story: someone else, too, was there, but I can’t remember who it was. But imagine one other seat around the fire, one other pair of eyes staring at the yellow light.