I stared at the fine line stretching from my hand into the water, the soft chippering of birds our only company. Somehow, I thought it made the silence between us louder.
I shifted in place. My legs were stiff from so much time spent standing still. I glanced at my father out of the corner of my eye and saw he was staring serenely into the calm sheet of dark blue below. The morning light reflected on the still water, creating iridescent ripples.
I was going out of my mind with boredom.
I dared a glance at him again and saw his expression hadn't changed. I marvelled at how the hot-tempered, irritable person I knew could also seem so patient. His face was almost unrecognizable displaying such tranquility.
I suppressed a sigh. I felt like I should say or do something to ease the awkwardness. I made a conscious effort to keep myself from fidgeting; he hated it when I did that.
It makes you look anxious, he always said. You need to have confidence. Or at least look like you do.
The last time he'd said that to me was almost four years ago. His words resonated in my mind until this day; every time I caught myself doing any kind of movement that could be considered a nervous tick.
I tightened my grip on the fishing rod until my knuckles were white. I didn't trust myself to make small talk; I was sure that if I opened my mouth, no dam could stop the outpouring of hurtful words and accusations that would come out with the force of a tidal wave. And then this would have been for nothing.
I didn't really mind. I wasn't sure why I agreed to it in the first place. I hated fishing. I didn't have the patience or the determination for it. And he knew that. Unsurprisingly, he had selfishly chosen something he enjoyed doing for our first meeting in four years.
He reached out, and now that I was here, he had barely said three words to me. It was like he wasn't even trying.
I was so lost in thought and my ever-increasing anger that I startled when he spoke.
"How's college?" he asked.
The question seemed innocent enough, but it wasn't. It was as if he wanted us to start fighting.
"Fine," I replied curtly.
"Are you going to court yet? Or doing whatever it is lawyers do?" he inquired with a hint of contempt.
"Yes," I said. I decided not to elaborate; I knew he didn't really care. He just wanted to make conversation. It always started out like this; seemingly harmless questions that ended up in snide remarks and culminated in heated fights and words exchanged that we didn't really mean, but that stung all the same.
How was I supposed to summarize four years of my life, anyway? He clearly hadn't cared all this time. Why start now?
"You know... your brother misses you," he said hesitantly.
I had never seen him be so careful with his words while talking to me before. Maybe it was because we were practically strangers now, but it was almost like he was trying not to scare me away.
It wasn't working.
"Are you trying to make me feel guilty for leaving him with you?" I asked harshly.
"I'm just saying... you could visit," he said almost casually. The way he said it so naturally made my blood boil and my cheeks heat up.
"Really, dad? I should visit?" I turned to him and laughed mockingly. "Because you were the one who said if I left, I shouldn't bother coming back. And now you're reproaching me because Michael misses me and it's my fault because I don't visit. You were the one who threw me out. Forgive me for assuming that meant you never wanted to see me again."
"I said some things that night... things I didn't mean," my father said. His voice sounded so remorseful I had trouble believing it was my father talking. A blanket of sadness shadowed his features. I had expected him to be angry. To start shouting so loud even the fish in the lake fled at the sight, eradicating what little chance we had of catching any. I expected him to tell me how selfish and weak I was again.
I didn't expect this. He sounded so genuinely pained I almost believed him. Almost. But I couldn't erase the memory of that night now that it was fresh on my mind.
So you just want to leave me and your brother? The only family you have? For school! Just what kind of a future do you think you'll have as a lawyer, Will? Because let me tell you now; it's not worth it! he had said incredulously right after I'd told him I planned to go to law school.
How would you know? I had spat. You never even graduated high school. I want to do something useful with my life, dad! It's not my fault you never got the chance to. But I'm tired of living like this! I'm going!
You're doing no such thing! he bellowed. We argued all the time but I had never seen him so furious as he was that night. We need you. You're staying in the family business, Will. Think about your brother; what is he going to do without you? He looks up to you. It's your job to take care of him! So you need to stop being so damn selfish! he ordered forcefully, staring me down and clenching his jaw; daring me to talk back. This was the moment I usually backed down and let him win. I didn't that night.
You know what? I am being selfish, dad. For the first time in my pathetic life I'm thinking about what I want! And maybe it pisses you off so much because you know it means you can't control me anymore! I shouted to his face. He was taken aback for a moment. He just stared at me with red, bulging eyes. I recognized the angry flare of his nostrils and knew he was about to intimidate me into submission, so before he had the chance, I blurted confidently, I'm going!
I stormed toward the door, bag in hand.
Will! my father yelled so loudly I flinched. But I would have kept going had I not heard a door opening. I turned to see a small blond head coming our way.
My father didn't care about Michael getting caught in the crossfire. You always were so dramatic, Will. You overreact, you get emotional, and that makes you weak. You won't survive a day out there without me, he drawled with deadly calm.
I couldn't stand to see the unhinged look on his red face. It was one of the few times in my life I was genuinely afraid of my father. I looked away.
What's wrong? Michael asked, rubbing his sleep-heavy eyes. Will?
I'm sorry, I said. My last words to him. I turned around.
If you go out that door, boy, don't you come back! my father spat.
My eyes lingered on Michael; my heart thumping with regret.
I went out the door.
"Will, I'm sorry," my father was saying. He looked so different than he had that night. Even though it had only been four years, he seemed to have aged twenty. The wrinkles on his forehead seemed more pronounced. His eyes drooped down, making him look constantly tired. Maybe he had needed me then. And I had left him and Michael alone.
"Why now?" I asked him.
"I'm sorry it took me so long to see it... but it's not just your brother that misses you. I do too."
So he hadn't been trying to make me feel guilty. Maybe he just couldn't bring himself to admit he missed me just as much as Michael did. Just as much as I had missed them.
"It's been four years," I said dryly.
"I know. And we'll never get that time back. But let's not lose any more of it, son, please."
I don't think I had ever heard my father say the word please to me. He didn't ask for things; he merely expected me to follow his orders. But for the first time, he made it sound like I had a choice. I could choose not to go back.
A lot had changed in the years I'd been without them. I felt like a different person. I didn't know if I could stomach being there again, fighting with him about every little thing. I was doing great at college. I loved it. I wouldn't ever consider dropping out to go back to the family business.
"I'm not leaving law school," I said clearly.
"I understand. Just... you know, you can visit. We can be a family again."
I was so close to saying yes. But a voice at the back of my mind whispered that so much time had passed, I didn't remember what it was like; being constantly told what to do, having to fight to do the things I wanted to. Lonely as these last few years had been, I was finally free. I was living out my dream. And I was scared all that would be taken away if I went back to my father.
Maybe this time it'll be different, the hopeful part of me said.
Will it? said the skeptic. Look at where you're standing. It's the first time you've seen him in years and already he's controlling everything; the time, the place. He took you fishing, for God's sake. He couldn't care less about you; all he thinks about is himself.
I looked at my hands holding the fishing rod, my feet standing on the docks; I glared at the infuriatingly calm lake. I realized I was trying to fit in in a place where I didn't belong. For him. Nothing had changed, not really.
I was about to reject his offer and cut him out of my life completely this time when he said as if he had been reading my mind,
"You know why I decided to meet you here?"
I shook my head slowly, lost for words.
"You were eight. Remember? Our first fishing trip. You were so excited to make your first catch. Michael was still a baby, so it was just the two of us," he explained wistfully.
I had completely forgotten about that first fishing trip. The one I had actually enjoyed, maybe not so much because of the fishing but because I was spending time with dad. Whenever I thought about fishing now, I thought about the later, less-than-ideal trips that always started with endless boredom and ended in inevitable arguing.
But the first one... I never knew it had meant as much to my father as it had to me.
"Taught you everything I knew," my father went on. "You were so small, I never actually expected you to fish anything on your first try. But you did."
Part of the reason I hated fishing now was because of the countless hours I spent waiting and standing still only to never catch anything. But that first trip, I actually had. It had been tiny; I'm sure that's the only reason I had been able to fish it at all, but at the time, I had never felt prouder. Maybe that was true for dad too.
"I remember you felt the pull in the rod and started screaming Dad! Dad! What do I do? and I laughed and told you Calm down, Will. The rod is part of you now. The line connects you to that you want and the hook secures it. No matter how far the fish tries to swim now, it'll remain connected to your line. Now all you have to do is pull. Then you started bringing it closer; I couldn't believe you were doing it on your own. And I said: We're all connected by a fishing line, Will. There is never something that is so far away that you can't pull it back to you. Once that thing is within your grasp, son, never let it go. If you really love it, don't you ever let it go."
I was astonished to see tears were rolling down my father's face. And I understood. Years of pent-up resentment seemed to melt out of me. I set my fishing rod down and hugged my father.
He hugged me back tighter than he ever had.
"I'm sorry," he said.
"I would love to go visit. I've missed you too," is all I replied.
We broke apart and I went for my rod. As soon as I picked it up, I felt a tug. My dad glanced at me smiling, his eyes brighter than I'd ever seen them.
I felt lighter than I had in years with the knowledge that there was a line tying him to me and I to him. And that no matter the time or distance, we could always pull it to bring us back to each other.
And so I pulled.