A Bottle of Rummy

Beneath me, the boat sways, cresting another insidiously rolling wave before rocking sickeningly to the side. My stomach heaves, and I lower my head once more to the sticky, beige bench seat in the boat’s small cabin. I don’t even care that I am still wearing my rain jacket though I am no longer out in the elements. When the sharp bout of nausea passes, I try to sit up for the dozenth time. I push myself gingerly onto my elbows and breath steadily. I will myself to rise and join the others on deck.

I cannot, for the sharp pounding molests my head with renewed effort. The agonizing throbbing is harsher than when the assault began an hour ago, and I crumple back onto the dirty seat. I curl in on myself, pulling my knees to my chest as I clutch my stomach to calm its violent churning. For a moment, I waffle, deciding whether my head or my stomach is more deserving of my attention. My head wins, and I release my midsection to grasp my temples in an attempt to assuage the pain of the boulders doing their best to smash their way out of my skull.

I groan. No one hears me; I am alone, and my moans go unnoticed. My cries serve only to add to my self pity and quickly become lost in the stagnant air of the tiny room at the front of the boat. I wallow in my own suffering, and my stomach gives another lurch. I fight down the burning bile that rises in the back of my throat.

My mind reels as I contemplate my torment, for a net of my own creation dragged me into the current where I lost control of my fate. Irritation eats away some of my pain as I lay prostrate on the horrid seat. I am angry that I agreed to come on this infernal charter in the first place. I hate fishing, or rather sitting on boats bobbing in the middle of bays, with a passion. I have never actually tried fishing. I dislike the idea of killing anything. For that reason alone, I know I will never cast a line, so there is little point in me being here. I always knew this, and yet here I am, lying seasick as waves toss me to and fro. I squeeze my eyes shut and wish myself far away on stationary, solid earth.

A week ago, Aunt Corinne offered my family tickets to go halibut fishing in Kachemak Bay. This morning, we packed our van. We stuffed our sleeping bags, rain gear, and coolers into the trunk and were soon on the road to Homer. The hour was early enough that merely belting myself to a car seat, trapping myself in a small, claustrophobic space after waking up far too early, put me in a sour mood. To make matters worse, my back cramped and my legs constantly fell asleep. I maneuvered my body into various positions in an attempt to find some modicum of relief, yet my discomfort made napping impossible. This development only added to my petulance, for the crux of my dreary outlook on the weekend ahead was the prospect of killing a living creature with my own hands.

The concept of fishing is utterly distasteful to me although the critters are delicious, yet I’d agreed to it, with a smile on my face no less. If my family fished, I would fish. I would not allow them to prove me incapable. I would not make a hypocrite of myself and submit to blindly eating something that I was not willing to kill myself. And most importantly, I would not appear weak.

By the time we were out in open water, I realized my mistake, but there was no turning back.

Lying here now, I mentally kick myself. I roll onto my back and listlessly stare out the cabin window. I see nothing but a blue-grey swatch of sky overhead. I do not care. My pain makes me apathetic. I think myself useless, unable to cast a simple bit of string with a hook tied to the end into the dark water. I am afraid, whereas the rest of them are brave. My stolid countenance deadens the severity of the thought; the shame, however, still bites.

Excited voices permeate the cabin door. They have a halibut. I try not to dwell on the life I know resides within the defenseless creature hurtling toward a brutal death. I hear a loud smack like the sound of punches landing on muscled flesh during a fight as the crew helps haul the fish aboard.

The halibut thrashes, rocking the boat until I fear the vessel will capsize. I am glad I am inside the relative safety of the stuffy cabin, a bubble of muffled sounds and detachment in a sea of commotion. I hear only a muted version of the tumult, but I jam my fingers into my ears in an attempt to shut out the remaining sound of the blows that will beat the life out of the helpless fish. Despite my efforts, I still perceive the wet thwacks as the club connects with the halibut’s slippery scales. I hum to myself nonsensically to block out the horror, yet I still feel the death of the halibut in the way the boat stops its frantic, careening movement and settles into a steady rhythm once more.

I sit up too quickly when I hear the cabin door open, and my head spins dizzyingly. My cousin Lukas stands in the doorway. I worry he will ask me to join the others on deck, but he sits down across from me and rests his elbows on the table between us. He runs his hand through his hair and smiles.

“Was it a big one?” I ask, though I really do not care to know. I almost regret asking.

“Yeah.” Lukas grins the grin of the well-satisfied, and I know the fish was his. He exhales loudly as if to break the tense atmosphere stretching like a brittle rubber band between us, uncomfortable and strained. “It’s hard work out there,” he comments casually. He leans back in his seat now, arms crossed behind his head.

“There are cards,” I offer, trying to lighten my mood and avoid spoiling his catch with my negative attitude. I reach behind me for the cards I noticed earlier. The old box, lacking sharp corners, feels soft in my hands. As I shake the playing cards from their case, the scent of mildew and slow rot assault my nose. The ancient cards are like the contents of a shipwreck, perpetually in a watery environment. Thick with moisture, the cards’ texture is like flannel. The worn edges are smooth like a bottle washed up on the beach and rounded by abrasive sand. I cannot keep my nose from wrinkling in disgust.

“Do you know how to play rummy?” Lukas asks. I shake my head and silently ask him to explain the game by passing him the deck. I discreetly wipe my fingers off on my jeans.

Lukas smiles good-naturedly. I return his joviality with a twitch of my lips, all I manage with my head still throbbing out a slow rhythm behind my eyes. While Lukas teaches me the rules, my mind clears. Soon, I understand the simple game, and my stomach stops pitching. I nurse disappointment when Lukas retreats to the deck after a sound thrashing at the new game as a result of what must be my beginner’s luck. Before I return to my former misery, my dad clomps into the cabin for a break, his forest green rain boots heavy on the wooden floor.

He digs a sandwich out of our cooler, noticing the deck of cards in my hand when he sits down. He stays to play a few rounds while he eats. Uncle Dan joins us, and then Grandma. We all squeeze together around the small table as Aunt Corinne wedges herself in beside me. My mood lightens as I sit in the midst of people who do not seem to care at all that I would rather play cards than murder a fish.

I stay at the table for hours, the time flying as I shuffle the fabric-like cards and deal out seven of them over and over again, never lacking a partner. The sounds of death outside the cabin door are far from my mind, my concentration focused on the lighthearted rounds of rummy.

Our day nearly done, I watch the crew hang the halibut from monstrous hooks. We are in downtown Homer, and my feet are once more on the unyielding ground. I do not have a halibut to show for this experience, but I gained intangible rewards in exchange for my strife on that small fishing boat.

I discovered a new level of confidence. I acquired surety in my beliefs and in my actions. I realize that I have the freedom to make decisions for myself, rather than follow the crowd, and I found that being different does not alter the way my family perceives me. My family loves me no matter what I choose to do. Strangers may judge me; my family, however, will forever stand at my back.

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