Catch and Release (Conover)

My roommate loves to fly fish. Several days a week he’ll get up before sunrise to tramp through the dead leaves on the river bank and sink knee deep, in rubber boots, into the icy grey river. The night before he’ll get out his rod and carefully choose his flies, sometimes referring to a thick slick book, The Ultimate Guide to Fly Fishing, to aid in his decisions. Saturday morning the smell of coffee will tickle my nose, but the warmer will have long shut off by the time I awake, this time to the crackle of corn meal crusty on a sizzling Brown Trout. Served with tiny green lentils and a seaweedy bed of kale, it is a campfire breakfast in the kitchen.

As much as he loves the humble brown fish, his true prize is a Steelhead. Thick-bodied and fierce, Steelhead are burnished on the side with speckled swaths of copper red, the uniform of a warrior fish compelled to swim hundreds of miles upstream from the ocean to fresh water. Their team motto: “spawn ‘til you die.”

Only a few of these monsters are released each year into the river by our house, and each fall the fishermen in the neighborhood compete to catch the elusive fish – for many the glimpse of a 30-inch beast – a silver torpedo, with teeth, swimming up river – is enough fodder for a bar stool story. There is simply no shame in letting such a formidable foe go uncaught.

The first thing I notice about him are his coppery eyes. I know it’s not unusual to notice eyes, first thing, but often I notice them and then easily forget their color, their nuances, their angle and tilt. I have a shy gaze and many people have forgettable eyes. But, I notice his coppery eyes and I find I can remember them, even after I turn away.

He stands up to get me a beer at the bar and I note his lanky, long frame, his long, thin fingers wrapped around the coppery glass on his return. He is a writer. He likes to travel. To read. To listen. To hike. Fresh air. He’s a Pisces, too, but he doesn’t care. He barely knows me but he teases me, gently, and makes me shy. His hand traces a worn spot on the wooden table, I find a knot and run my fingers across the uneven grain. He is friendly. He feels like a friend.

I’d like to sit here forever but my beer is gone, and then another. “What should we do? Should we go somewhere else?” I smile. He doesn’t want it to be over either. He takes me to a dive bar, he plays twangy music on the jukebox. I think about suggesting a game of shuffleboard, I love a little friendly competition, but that would put him at one end of the bar and me, at another. I don’t want to be farther, I want to be closer.

He places a hand, those fingers, on my knee and leans in. Closer. He’s a really good kisser.

For our second date he suggests a meet/cute. A choose-your-own-rom-com-adventure. We meet as strangers at a bar – he’s a bluegrass mandolin player in town for a gig, I’m a pharmaceutical sales rep from Chicago. He has the spinach salad, I tell him about my imaginary job, and we both maintain the ruse until the movie starts at 9. It’s really fun. As we cross the street to the theater he takes my hand, slipping his long fingers in between mine. “You are so beautiful and I want to kiss you.” He does. And I do, too. I snuggle under his arm and watch the flicker of the movie, rippling like a stream, across his face. 

It’s Christmastime and we are both busy with work and family. “We should go away for a couple of days before New Years. To the mountains, maybe.” I agree. I don’t hear from him for a few days, but it’s the holidays so it doesn’t seem unusual. When I finally call him on Monday, he says “come over now, I want to kiss you.” He has to go to work but we spend an hour canoodling on his couch. He places his warm hand on my hair and presses his fingers gently into my shoulders. “How are you?” and, “When should we go on our next date?” he asks. Wednesday, it is decided. He doesn’t mention the weekend again. I am beginning to think he is a slippery fish.

I try not to get my hopes up, but they are buoyant…I get annoyed. Why can’t I just trust my happiness? Why can’t I enjoy the excitement of getting to know someone new? Why can’t I believe that mutual attraction is real and that he might be sincere? But, the tightness in my chest reads alternately as panic and anticipation and dread. I decide to wear my boots. Knee high. Just in case there is some wading to be done.

The minute he walks in the door, I know my hunch is right. His coppery eyes meet mine, and then they turn away and I know. He does not bend to hug me or kiss my cheek. He walks instead to the bookshelf and peruses the titles while I get my coat. “How was your day?” “It was fine.” And just like that we are strangers again, no longer curious, excited about each other. He asks tepid questions and I give boring answers. We struggle through dinner. He suggests we go get a cup of tea but I can tell he doesn’t really want to and I don’t, either. But, we go get a cup of tea. And he takes me home.

“What happened?” Do I really want to know? He doesn’t know. He can’t say. But I know he knows. I know he can say. And he does. “I just fall too fast, and it burns out, and it’s not healthy. It’s not sustainable. It’s not fair to either of us.” He touches me for the first time, placing his hand on my hair, taking my hand in his. And, I pull away but he pulls me back and gives me long hug, as if to say he’s sorry. “You really are beautiful.” And goodbye.

“Let’s talk tomorrow,” he says. I shake my head, in response. I watch his coppery tail lights disappear down the cold black river of the road. Just another fish that got away, fodder for a bar stool story.