The Big Fish
My mind couldn’t keep up with how fast my life was changing, nor could my stomach keep up with the speed of the plane we were on. I was robotic following orders, and all felt surreal. Four days prior, it was declared by the adults in our lives that my brother and I would be moving from my mother’s apartment in Florida to my Aunt and Uncle’s house in New York. I was in the eighth grade. My brother was a freshman in high school. We were more than halfway through the school year; I think it was February.
All I know for sure is when we stepped out of Long Island’s MacArthur airport the cold assaulted us. I could see my breath and my fingers went numb. My body apparently forgot I’d lived in Connecticut a few years prior; my blood had thinned in South Florida. My brother Joe and I did not own proper coats; there was no need for them in a subtropical paradise. I quickly remembered how gray winter looked with its barren trees, dull skies, and pothole ridden roads. Everywhere I turned the view reflected back how I felt: sad, cold, and uneasy. Or maybe it was the other way around? Maybe the uneasiness inside of me was altering my view? Either way, my outlook was grim, and the idea of being the new kid in school again did not bring color to the picture.
Sag Harbor is a close-knit country town when it’s not busting at the seams with tourists in the summer. At that time, Pierson had about thirty to forty kids per grade. Naturally, the students were expecting us, so there was no hiding or blending into walls. The first day some kids even whispered and pointed, it was awkward, we were animals on display at the zoo.
At Pierson, the high school and middle school are connected, so it was ordinary for kids in all different grades to hang out. After the first few weeks, I managed to make some friends, but my brother Joe was still having a hard time. My new friend Jolie was a freshman like Joe. My other new friend Lisa was a senior, happened to be Jolie’s Aunt, and owned a car. From what I understand, not many thirteen-year-olds have friends with cars. I thought this was outstanding and felt very cool.
After school one day they both came to pick me up. I yelled up to my Aunt to tell her I was leaving and turned to say goodbye to my brother. I will never forget the look of sincere disappointment on his face knowing I was about to leave. In Florida, Joe and I usually went our separate ways. I played a lot of soccer, and he either worked at the local Italian market or caused mischief with his friends. I had never seen him like this before. His expression shocked me. I felt terrible and even a bit of shame for not considering him. Now there was no way I could leave him home alone, bored, and miserable. I went out to the car and asked my friends if it was okay that Joe came too. To my surprise, they seemed overjoyed to have him join us. Joe and I got in the car, driving to who knows where. At that moment we weren’t merely siblings, our relationship changed, Joe was now my friend.
When Joe and I weren’t joy riding in cars, we hung out together in the neighborhood. My Aunt, Uncle, and baby cousins lived in a beachfront community outside of town. When the house felt crowded, we found space at the bay. The easy walk to the beach gate was a quick six house distance over a small hill. However, the steep wooden steps down the dune were intimidating, so I took my time and still do to this day. At the bottom, the water was close to the retaining wall, so we typically hung out a few yards to the right. We preferred the area because the eroded dune provided more beach and privacy so we could smoke and no one would bother us. Sometimes we would swim, fish, or watch small boats pass. Each wave that came in and out helped carry away the uncertainty of our family situation from our minds.
When the school year ended, we continuously sought refuge at the bay. One evening, Joe and I were knees deep in the water trying to dunk one another; he could be such a punk, so I know he started it. When I wasn’t horsing around, I would collect the various rocks, Jingle and Slipper shells, and occasionally find the rare beach glass cherished by my Aunt Gina. While seaside gems create character and beauty along the shore, they wreak havoc on your feet and could instantly throw you off balance. My brother took full advantage of this, and my soccer sandals were a poor substitute for water shoes; I was losing the battle. Joe grabbed my shoulders making another attempt to take me out but stopped abruptly at my expression of terror. He immediately whipped around to see what was going on. A five-foot shadow was traveling in the shallow water parallel to the shoreline. My body froze, but my thoughts raced. Uncle Rich had mentioned sand sharks roam the bay, but they’re more afraid of us then we are of them, so there’s no need to worry. At that moment, I begged to differ.
We locked our eyes on the beast, scanning its every move, trying to decipher its species. The sun was low in the sky at our backs, so it cast a very deep shadow making the thing, whatever it was, seem bigger in size. Joe yelled, “Loren, it’s a fish, it’s a fish, come on!” My heart raced and our adrenaline was at its peak, only now it fueled the fight of the hunters, not the flight of the prey. We transitioned instinctively, moving in sync, slowly and carefully, surrounding the creature. I was surprised by the fish’s miscalculation; it seemed as if he thought the bay continued from where the shallow water met the sand, he seemed lost. I felt lost too considering how sharp his fins and scales looked; I was wondering how we were going to get this guy without harming our hands. Joe read my dilemma and yelled, “your sandals, give me your sandals!” Shaking, I ripped them off, Joe grabbed them and flipped the fish up into the air onto the beach.
We were screaming our heads off with excitement! We made such a ruckus, the old lady at the top of the hill came out to check on us. Joe sped up the wooden steps to go home for a bucket, running past her smiling and gloating about the fish. He probably yelled all the way back up the hill to the house. I pressed the big fish down with my sandal. The fish was by no means five feet long, but he was big enough to eat.
Joe arrived back with not only a bucket but Aunt Gina with her camera. We were beaming and laughing when she took our picture. We landed a striped bass with our bare hands! Well Joe did, and he used sandals as gloves, but I saw it first!
That night we ate the striped bass for dinner. For the rest of that summer, we caught other fish, the traditional way, with rods. Well, Joe fished mostly, but I kept him company. Even though none of those experiences lived up to catching the big fish, no one in the house complained about having seafood on the menu a few nights a week. More importantly, Joe and I were in the habit of being in the moment enjoying life as teens.
I look back knowing that a rough patch in my past gave me the opportunity to create a friendship with my brother. Sometimes what seems to be a big shadow in the water can be a precious gift in the vast sea of life; it’s all a matter of perception. Even now my feelings toward the winter have changed. I look forward to the summer’s turn; painted leaves in autumn; and winding branches, mother nature’s sculptures, in winter. I no longer gloom over barren trees, dull skies, and roads ridden with potholes. I choose to pull the beauty from my surroundings. Well maybe not from the potholes, but it gives me something to appreciate in the Spring when they get filled in.