I begin as a twitch in my father’s groin. I’ve imagined this moment when two people who think they love each other decide to fuck. I am a condom. I am a puddle of blood on the kitchen floor, my mother standing barefoot in me, screaming. My father washes her off in the tub with a touch more gentle than he has used in years, home for once instead of disappearing on some fishing trip for days where he could trash-talk her to his friends; pretend that I am not a blood-lake. The doctor at the urgent care says, Congratulations! The three pints of blood that came pouring out of your vagina while you were making breakfast just means you’re pregnant! What a blessing! I am a grain of rice in her uterus and already, I am big trouble.
Nine months later, my mom, half-dressed, watches the smoke of a disintegrated life billow out of her apartment complex windows because the man who lived upstairs— not God, the Hispanic one without children— left his coffee pot on before going to work. I decide it is the perfect time to be born. Her water breaks. I am brought into this world by coffee. I am without hair or eyelashes, just a pink, naked peanut with a cry that is quiet, but alive. I am born the size of a large Wendy’s drink which is not as large as a large McDonald’s drink, so I guess I’m still kind of small.
My mother tells a story of the time my father dives into the ocean after a twenty-dollar bucket of shrimp, before I am a twitch. He swims through a boat channel and two schools of translucent jellyfish but he never catches up to it. I imagine he just floats off into the sunset and that he is out there, somewhere, paddling away. This is the story I prefer.
But the truth is one day I blink into consciousness and I am four. My father’s semi-truck is parked in a lot surrounded by dead grass. This is one of the few moments when my mother lets him swoop me up, make up for lost time with dipped cones and the smell of smoke nesting in the shag carpet of his truck. He gives me a gift wrapped in some childish paper I can’t recall, tears the bow off and sticks it onto my head. I am the gift.
The paper on the present is unwoven, reveals The Lion King 2. The father and the daughter on the cover pose in a portrait that is nothing like any of the picture frames at home. I stare at its orange glow and my father runs his fingers through my hair, distresses it. We look just like those lions.
After that, my father drives his truck onto a stretch of highway that must wrap around the world twice, because he never comes back.
I am seven years old. I meet a man in cowboy boots and dirty jeans on a Corpus Christi dock. I can’t comprehend anything above his knees but he is denim and stale and scraggly like how my father must have been. His face disappears into the dark sky.
The cowboy has a fish hoisted into the air, so long that it can stretch the length of my arm. He digs in its mouth, reveals a glistening hook. I am awestruck. He takes a large barb, drives it through the fish’s gills, working it like a sewing needle where instead of thread, there is a long, neon yellow cord. Even in the dark, it glows.
Come ‘ere, the cowboy says, holding out a hand. I’ll show you. Keep your palm straight. He drops to one knee, places in my grip a hook like my mother’s earrings. It’s sharp, so be careful. He takes my other hand and gives that one a piece of red jelly that is actually raw flesh. These little proposals are not live shrimp, but while he guides my tiny fingers into securing these cosmically small pieces together, I understand their importance.
I don’t think the ocean is real. I am at the edge of space with my line cast out into the void. Everything smells like salt and smoke and aside from the looming overheads, the only light is the sharp orange of the cowboy’s cigarette.
I think of the cowboy while parked at a gas station in Oklahoma City, the windows rolled up tight to barricade out the stench of the streets, trying to orient myself after getting turned around again. I have been on the road for eleven hours, and have seven more to go before we, my father and I, meet again at a fast-food restaurant in Jefferson City, for the first time in eighteen years.
I think of that little girl who sits on the dark dock, clutches a white rod. The pole gives the barest lurch, a little tease, like maybe my father has finally been snagged; like maybe I can hold him in my hands before throwing him back.
Amaya L. Koss is a speculative fiction and nonfiction writer born and raised in San Antonio, Texas. She has since lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Cleveland, Ohio with her husband, four fur children, and one skin child.
“Catch and Release” first appeared in Bag of Waters (2017), a self-published collection.