A bottle of whiskey was substituted for disinfectant, and one of my more resourceful colleagues crushed an empty can between two rocks, compressing the aluminum into a sharp edge.
About a year ago, I got a fishhook stuck in the tip of my index finger. My friends and I were floating Barton to Carver, a length of the Clackamas river popular with every type of partier, down to the most novice—which, this particular float only being my tenth or so, was a category I still fit squarely into. A dozen of us had woken up early, shook off the night before, and met at my place. Someone always brought beer, or made sandwiches. Other mixed Gatorade with clear liquors. A friend of mine, bless him, kept telling us he was going to bring Foie Gras along for the ride and fire up the butane on one of the riverbanks. Really class up the float a notch. That day, I think he brought baguettes with gouda instead.
After caravanning to the river, we waited in line at the air station, filling floating coolers, tire inner tubes, and even air mattresses. We had cutoff jeans and frayed bikini tops and peeling sunburns from the previous week’s float. The hangovers were kicking in, so we started drinking in the parking lot as we made our way to the boat ramp, our group looking like some aquatic band of scavengers on their way to the Thunderdome. I was first in, always fearful of that cold fist to the nether regions when your ass hits the water and I paddled around the staging area while the rest of the group else wriggled into their tubes or flopped onto already deflating mattresses.
A current caught my raft before everyone else could get in. And by current, I mean the breakneck speed of eight, nine miles an hour. Still, the schism between my friends and I—and the floating coolers—was widening. The depth of the river, at that point, was only about a foot. I could see the riverbed, carpeted with polished rocks, bottle caps, cans, and the occasional lonely flip flop. This particular portion of the Clackamas had become a veritable wasteland for the debris of excess. So much so, the local news had grabbed hold of the litter infestation and began conducting randomized interviews with floaters as they got out at the other end, bleary eyes from sun and booze, and asked how they were doing their part to keep the river clean. A few of my friends, the week before, had showed up on the eleven o’clock news, saying, “Pack it in, pack it out,” while holding half empty beers and pipes behind their backs.
How could I contribute to the problem or solution if I didn’t wait for those coolers? All I had with me in my tube were cigarettes in a waterproof Otter box. Priorities. So, I shoved my hands into the river’s floor, searching for something solid to anchor me for the few minutes it would take for everyone else to catch up. My concern then, was glass, jagged shards of old Coors Light bottles dropped by some giggling frat bro. There were signs leading up to the boat ramp stressing the prohibition of glass containers on the river, but there were other warnings against alcohol. Not everyone obeys.
I dug my fingers in further, like I was kneading dough or trying to stop myself from backsliding down a muddy hill, and for a time I slowed down. I felt the sting, like a pin prick, and yanked my hand out of the river. Never an avid fisherman, I stared at this hideous slaughterhouse meat hook that could only possibly be used for reeling in great whites or Mr. Moby Dick himself. What I didn’t notice, was the fishing line still attached, and beginning to pull taut behind me. The hook wasn’t coming through the other side of my finger, so I tried tugging it out in the same arc I assumed it had gone in and succeeded in only making my eyes water with the pain. I did, however, feel the silk line along the back of my wrist. I pulled it free of the river bed before my finger was taken off and added to the river’s littering problem.
When they caught up, I showed off my new fashion accessory and we pulled our vessels onto the bank. We searched through waterproof bags and coolers. With all the beer and mini sandwiches and extra packs of cigarettes, no one thought to bring a first aid kit. There wasn’t even a single butter knife between friends. A bottle of whiskey was substituted for disinfectant, and one of my more resourceful colleagues crushed an empty can between two rocks, compressing the aluminum into a sharp edge. When she tried cutting out the hook, she got queasy, and this only served to make the hole more ragged. There was no use, the fishhook’s barb was caught behind the bone. It wasn’t coming out.
We managed to flag down another group of floaters who didn’t have a knife, but did have a length of bandage which I wrapped around my hook and finger. The only option was to keep going, get to the end of the river, and seek professional assistance. I had to sit with it.
Here, we began to diverge, almost immediately.
About a year ago, I was married. I lived in Southeast Portland and was working as a freelance bartender—a wedding reception here, a corporate retreat there. I’d just finished my first novel, and figured I could rest on laurels of that small victory for some time. I split most of my free time between the bar across the street from my house and making preparations for the move to Louisiana. There were big changes on the horizon: a cross-country move, entering a PhD program, teaching for the first time. I knew it would put more strain on an already taxed marriage, but this was the next logical step in my career. And we, in a way, thought a big move, a change of scenery would save the marriage.
Thing is: when something needs saving, you rarely think of the reasons, the jeopardy that prompts the necessity for saving. You just focus on the quick fixes, the acute bleeding.
Minus a few ominous signs—a tumultuous drive East, replete with shady hotel rooms and an excitable rock cracking the windshield somewhere in Kansas, and the angry wasp hiding in my wife’s shirt and stinging her within 48hrs of moving in the new apartment—we began to settle in. I jumped into school and she felt comfortable in a new job, with a whole new, and different set of friends than mine. Back in Puddletown, we shared the same group. Here, we began to diverge, almost immediately. I was teaching, writing, reading, and allowing myself to be all consumed with this new world, while she did the same with her new job. She quickly moved up to head bartender of one of the swankiest new joints in town, and her co-workers became, it seemed, the only people she wanted to spend her time with. Her family, as it were. I understood this, I’d cut my teeth in that industry, and I know how the people you sweat, bleed, and count tips with, become close. When you’re in that world, those outside just don’t understand. And I, well, I wasn’t in that world any longer. This isn’t to say that I hadn’t found a home of my own. At the university, I was suddenly immersed in a whole new world, surrounded by people who, for the first time, shared my interests.
So, as I said, the paths my wife and I were on diverged. Drastically.
At home, we barely saw one another, passing each other in the early hours of the morning, and sometimes late at night, when one of us might come in from the bar. A few months after the move, she began sleeping in the spare room some nights, citing my snoring as the culprit. I didn’t protest, as the prospect of being able to stretch out in the bed was rather appealing. It didn’t occur to me then, that maybe I simply liked sleeping without her.
When it came to outings, bar hopping, work events, we would each attend on the arm of the other, but it felt forced. I never fit in with her friends, and to be honest, it never felt like she wanted me to. That said, when the roles were reversed, I didn’t make any effort to make her feel welcome either. She always seemed to want to leave early, or felt slighted or weirded out by my friends, which, I can imagine, is how she saw me during her events. She was right. I had my life and she had hers. We had become a political couple, forced smiles and waves for the cameras, then splitting off to opposite wings of our small two bedroom apartment.
It only took a few months, and one last Christmas, before we agreed to separate. And that very night, I started imagining what my life would be like without her. I started mentally rearranging my bedroom, and even thought about calling up a coworker and asking if she wanted to make out. That’s it, just a make out. Because I was separated, I could, right?
I had my life and she had hers.
Everything was okay, I said. No big deal.
I did my research, contacting lawyers and waiting on hold with the court house. I discovered that the state of Louisiana did not grant separations, only divorces. And these were only given after the couple were apart for six months. I went to my wife with this information, and insisted we move forward with the paperwork, because, hey, would have six months to change our minds. I was saying this, but inside, I didn’t want to reconcile. She agreed. We signed the paperwork together. We were commended by the notary for being so civil about the whole thing. I submitted three sets of paperwork on three different days in the span of two weeks. Not once did anyone mention a six month waiting period. They just asked for the checks to be made out to the county and, oh, don’t forget your initials right there and there.
And then we were done. His and hers sets of official paperwork arrived in the mail about a week later, telling us that we were no longer legally bound together. I don’t think she was, that either of us were unhappy that we had ended, but rather floored by the realization that something that had existed—so vibrant at one time—was suddenly, without ceremony, no more. The big move, while supposed the fill in the cracks, served to sever us completely. Quick and sharp, like digging your fingers in, hoping for something solid to grab onto and coming out of the water more scarred than before.
I handled myself like every fucking self-help book would stress against. I drank more. I smoked more. I immediately got into a relationship. I should have picked up Divorce for Dummies or something. But really, no amount of advice on the subject could have helped me figure out how to conduct myself. I called few people in my life, let them in on the whole situation, but mostly I kept it all close. Everything was okay, I said. No big deal. I got calls from other friends, those I didn’t contact, who saw my new relationship status on FaceBook, or heard about everything through the grapevine. They told me I was a horrible person, that they could never be my friend again. When the story broke, a third of heaven’s legions fell. Half of those friends who were there when I floated the river with a fishhook bandaged to my finger like a Christmas ornament, don’t speak to me any longer.
And I can’t blame them. I don’t know if I handled everything the “right” way. I could have tried harder maybe, done something to save the relationship, but I didn’t want to. The energy was gone. But this isn’t to say I haven’t been torn apart by it all. I’ve been plagued with guilt, with anxiety and irrational thoughts, with a heavy dose of remorse. For every smile, there’s a voice questioning each move I make, screaming that I am, like I’ve been called, a monster.
There are always sides drawn, and chosen. I’ve stood behind one line or another with many friends’ breakups, hurtling hideous, although witty, insults across the battlefield at the opposing lover. And I felt justified doing it, so I understand the need for all those I’ve shared laughs with, drinks or lines with, to make a stand. And as much as it hurts, as it’s uncomfortable, I’m going to have to sit with it. I’ll get to the end eventually. Sometimes, the current is just slower than others.
When we made it to Carver, the bend just before the river reached more hefty rapids, we pulled our tubes and mattresses and bags of empty cans out of the water. My finger was throbbing, the bandage red and soaked with river water. Sun and whiskey drunk, I opted out of helping everyone break down and clean up, and instead got in my car. Fighting through rush hour traffic, I called the nearest urgent care clinic and inquired whether they handled fishhook removal. They did.When I checked in, the receptionist asked my name, then said, “Wait, are you Fishhook Guy?” Then, she covered her mouth like she’s spoken out of a turn at a dinner party. As if triggered by a silent alarm, other nurses and employees emerged from behind the sliding, file folder walls and congregated around the window. “Can we see it?”
I unwrapped the bandage, but rather than look at the wound, I watched them, gauged my own trauma by the looks on their faces. I couldn’t bear to see it myself. Some winced, other gasped. They couldn’t understand how I’d made it down the whole length of the river with the hook grinding against the bone like that.
I told them I had to. What else was I going to do?
Wait, are you Fishhook Guy?”