This Is Not a Metaphor

By

To net a lobster by hand, three things are required: a bully net, a catch bag and a tickle stick. I once caught a spiny lobster with nothing but the bottom half of my bathing suit. This was before kids, when I still wore bikinis. I never repeated the act, which nonetheless passed into lore for my clan. We like making legends of ourselves.

Grandpa and Dad, in a gesture of feminism which forever changed their annual Key West dive trip, taught me to hunt underwater. No sons in my generation, so. I learned to tickle lobsters from the shadows.

My heart beats faster when I see antennae waving beneath a coral head. Spiny lobsters are aggressive creatures. Under threat, and perhaps annoyed by the stick sweeping their legs out from under them, they will leave their holes and stride out to face me head on, unless my opponent is old enough to have been through this rigmarole before. Using a long metal stick with a bent end, I vex my quarries until they expose themselves to capture.

My goal is to position the oval head of the bully net behind its body. Lobsters move most quickly backwards, contracting their tail—what I’m after—in powerful clenches, legs and antennae trailing behind. My net blocks that escape. They chitter, legs clinging to my glove as I unwind net from tail. A lobster’s gaze is furious, so unlike the terror of landed fish.

To assure they’re of age to die, I measure each body between black dewdrop eyes and the far end of the carapace. Only then do I bag my trophy. I once netted nineteen lobsters on one tank, the catch bag so heavy I had to release my weight belt to surface. As a child, my prowess—good as a boy—was measured by such things.

 

At dock, we de-head the lobsters over the side of the boat. I am not angry when I twist their bodies apart. Lacking claws in warm seas, they are also called crayfish. Their innards are famous for gunking up the deck. I do feel a fair amount of satisfaction.

I had become practiced in the art of cruelty when I first encountered “Consider the Lobster” by David Foster Wallace. I read it several times, in various stages of sobriety. What remains with me is the lobster’s sensitivity to heat. Just a few degrees can affect a great migration. The seas do not bode well, these days.

Panulirus argus. We call lobsters bugs, but I think it’s so we can kill their children. The babies, we call shorties. We let them go.

 

Since childhood, Key West provided the most togetherness I ever had with Dad, who performed his parenting in front of Grandpa, who tried to make up for paternal years he spent logging flight hours. A fighter pilot ace, Grandpa risked his life, again and again, for an idea of America. He shot other planes from the sky. He sank barges and what they held, whether men or cargo. He became famous for killing from great heights.

We take that instinct with us wherever we go. Even on vacation.

By the time I came along, Grandpa and Grandma were living in a small town on the coast of Florida, paradise of my youth. Their beachfront condo was the only place I didn’t get the sense I was broken, a burden.

After my parents divorced, on weekends and school vacations, my mom drove two hours for a mid-route kid transfer at a Waffle House in Orlando. Her ex-in-laws converged on us from the opposite direction like a math problem I learned to solve against my will. Even in dingy roadside dives, a T-bone was my standard order, unless I was clearing out bacon from the buffet. I shoveled food as fast as I could, but it never filled the hole.

Back at the beach, we played poker—they with scotch on the rocks, me with a mug full of pennies to up the ante—and built houses with cards. We demolished platters of hors d’oeuvres. Grandpa never went out on the water without a net, a machete, and a bucket. With one weighted end in his teeth, he cast for mullet that he smoked and spread on crackers. Cocktail fare was his favorite, and remains mine.

They took me oystering in murky lagoons, where we shuffled through silt to scare off the stingrays, grilling our finds alongside strips of the rattlesnakes Grandpa killed to make the island safe for us. He revved our boat up fresh water springs to spot manatees—yes, we could enjoy nature without a slaughter. We paddled our canoe through phosphorescence under the stars. They gave me the joy of life.

My dad rarely hung out with me and his parents. When I consider the reasons why, it comes down to a question of efficiency. The presence of grandparents effectively cured me of the loneliness induced by his absence. Why pour more water into the pitcher?

 

And so, Key West was everything. One week per year to live out the needs and judgments of a lifetime. Currents flatten the turtle grass fanning from the mangroves that cradle our favorite lobster hole. Kick with all your might, or be swept past the islands to open water.

Our cousin made dive team T-shirts for our crew. On their backs, lightning flashes above a shallow hulled boat, a waterspout twisting through the sky. Not a joke. They did go diving in those conditions, egged on by god knows what. The lore.

Always be willing to walk away, my dad once told me. That way they know you’re serious. Risk closes deals.

Autodidacts, they are thoughtful students of history who amassed wealth in a way once called self-made, before systems of oppression were entered into the record. But like many peoples, we suffer from the delusion of exceptionalism. Even the newly rich believe they’ll be spared the final reckoning.

 

My family grades on a curve, by which I mean, someone must be designated as the fuck-up. This is not a metaphor. It’s a contest, held annually at the end of the dive trip. The Freddie Fuck-Up Award. The winner gets a torn catch bag, a relic of when a boat captain—I won’t name names—turned on the engine while the catch bag was tied to the dive ladder, thereby grinding and scattering our work to other scavengers. Grandpa cut the bag from the prop, but we kept its shredded remains for old time’s sake. And now, the Freddie.

It used to be we held a trial. Did I tell you that Grandpa was an attorney, and Dad, too, and our two best family friends? I’m the only journalist of the bunch. Impassioned testimonies follow rounds of drinks. Evidence is entered, if there’s any left.

I haven’t won one. Yet. Perhaps with this essay, I will. My dad damned near disinherited me when I bowed out of the obligatory end-of-day boat cleaning to tidy our rental unit and fix drinks. I was working for the common good, I protested. But I told you to clean the boat, he repeated, unswayed by my argument that three men could care for a twenty-six-footer just fine. He still brings up this episode, years later, part of his litany against me.

Chain of command is big in my family, and competition fierce. When Grandpa went to law school after he retired from the military, he chose the same class as his son. They formed a champion handball team and won.

 

Rising at o-dark-thirty on opening day, the only annual ceremony we’ve sustained for decades, as a family we ready ourselves to hit the water at dawn, a necessity during the two days of a hunting season crowded by sport fishermen. With SCUBA tanks jutting from our spines, we sit facing each other from opposite gunwales and prepare to go overboard, hand over face to hold reg and mask in place, fins arcing through the air in tandem. We greet the sea with our backs. After that first companionable splash, we get to work. Despite the dangers, we’ve never managed to finish a buddy dive together.

My father once depleted his tank of air down to zero so he could bag two more lobsters than I had, but his victory was short-lived, bested the next day. Military feats be damned, the husbands brought into our family have never managed to beat our bag counts, though they make for good muck men.

Muck men are tasked with wading through—you guessed it—to tie the boat to the submerged roots of mangroves. Gather enough mangroves in one place and an island draws its breath from the sea.

Groupers patrol their shadowy enclaves, where turtle grass abounds. If there is one species that enjoys a lobster more than humans, it’s the goliath grouper. Strong currents hollowed the sponge and coral shelves from the leading edge of our favorite mangrove island, creating excellent hunting grounds, which is what my family calls habitat.

 

Nearly seventy years ago, Grandpa held the world record for the largest fish speared while skin diving, using a pair of fins, a mask and a spear gun. Only a goliath would do. He went to a bridge where behemoths were known to lurk, swam to the deep and looked up to find the largest silhouette against the glimmering undersheen of sky.

Once shot—the other end of the line tied to the boat in which Grandma waited—the grouper swam in dread and horror until it wrapped itself around a piling. Trapped. I imagine its wild eyes casting about for the predator and seeing legs. My grandfather, by now, surfaced.

The way it was unwound: Grandpa jammed his thumbs into its eye sockets (What did they see? A masked man. Whorled fingerpads. Cut to black.) until the grouper, paralyzed, could be swum backward—around the piling, again and again – Grandpa’s lungs aching, his whole body a panic he prepped for in bathtubs, counting the minutes until his next breath.

Grandma watched bubbles trail in the waves. I don’t know if she prayed, or for what. The boat popped like a cork once the goliath was freed, and she was on her way out to sea, towed by a four-hundred-pound fish that soon tired of its burden, Grandpa swimming after them for all he was worth.

He had borrowed a livestock trailer from a buddy before the big day—caught hell for it, too, his friend disbelieving the need for so much capacity—but on the way back, with the grouper’s head poking from one end and the tail flopping over the other, they nearly caused several accidents. People kept running off the road, Grandpa said.

On the cover of a diving magazine, my grandparents stand on either side of a fish that outweighed them both. She holds the spear, and he, the mask and fin. Exhausted and grinning, they gleam with youth that eludes me now.

 

Grandpa died during a hurricane. Two days after his funeral, I left Florida for good. Ostensibly, I crossed the country to find my first real newspaper job after college. We went back to our old holes the following season—nine and a half months after the funeral, long enough to gestate a child—but they were silted over. Here and there, through fine white drifts, like the shoreline tracks of wading birds, lobsters had left traces of their lonely search for home.

Some of his ashes were scattered there, though I was not present. My father didn’t invite me. He needed to get it over with, he said, needed closure. He did the deed with our California cousins. I tried not to let my silence play out too long on the phone.

Grandpa was a real hard-ass of a dad. Though he worked hard to encourage me, he withheld praise from his kids when it was most needed. Reassurance feels like love, when it is given. I have no idea what it would be like to have a war hero loom over me as father. He’d relaxed by the time I met him, secure in his reputation and ready to spend time on small people with no power but to adore.

What could Dad do but repeat his father’s mistakes? Patterns hold chaos in abeyance.

I’ve learned to take the measure of a man by the way he makes others feel. Greatness belongs to those who bring joy where they can. But when I was a little girl, I wanted to be a big man. A mover of history, as they’re known. The one down in the arena, like that bastard Teddy Roosevelt, who called comparison the thief of joy. I wonder if he struggled to be enough, and whether others feel lessened or emboldened in the face of greatness. I named my first son for my grandpa. He wears the name well.

Now that I am contented, I fear that my potential has unraveled, that I lack the drive to achieve. As a society, we are afflicted by comfort, which drains us of rigor. I am no longer my family’s future, filled with glory. That honor, and its burdens, goes to my sons.

 

After fifty years of hunting the same grounds, we changed locales. Grandpa was gone, and there were too many bad seasons for a crew used to flying home with coolers of tails on dry ice. We chose the Bahamas, long a favored destination because my dad is a pilot. While he has not gunned down other men, and so is unheralded, my father has distinguished himself with thousands of safe flights. There is no pilot I trust more.

Dad’s checklist is comprehensive. He never fails to go through it for landing and takeoffs. As a kid, I once made, typed, and printed a packing list to please him. Left behind, I wanted to travel with him. After examining my efforts, he took a pen and added one more entry: 25) humility.

When I grew old enough not to complain or cry, Dad took me places. I went knowing that I would be judged according to how I conducted myself on vacation, since he so rarely saw my daily life. At our worst, which I will not describe, the family I was born to, and not the one I made, reminds me of a spearfishing excursion ended by sharks.

We had been skin diving with a Hawaiian sling—a slingshot spear on a rubber tube, drawn back like a bow. I shot a hogfish only to watch it wriggle off my spear. For scant seconds, I studied its spurting death spiral, trying to figure out how to recapture the body. Our guide tapped my shoulder and pointed. A large reef shark had materialized, teeth bared, not two feet from us.

I had been waiting for death. I’ve done so little with what I was given. The shark hunched its back and lowered its pectoral fins during the time we assessed each other, its intelligence cold and glittering. Sharks appeared on earth more than four hundred and twenty million years ago. Returning that gaze was like looking into the dark reaches of space.

I leveled my spear at that sleek nose and swam away, my back to where I was going. My hair escaped its braid. Strands streamed across my mask as we kicked and kicked. I did not blink at those jaws. On the boat, our guide wondered aloud, you were not scared. It was not a question. Were you, I asked. That was too close, he said. You should value your life.

Not many people say things straight.

We motored over to pick up my dad, and finally, my husband, who, upon seeing another shark, swam to where waves broke over a coral head and stood upon it. Threats be damned, I winced to see his feet on the reef. But he was smart to get out of the water. Overfishing has drawn us predators close. I could have swum to shore, but the sea was teeming. He and I should have stuck together. That’s what buddy dives are all about. It was I who left to kill a fish. Lesson learned.

Our guide knew the dangers of breaking rank. Seated around a bucket of beers, he told us about a time he spearfished with a friend who was circled by two bull sharks, bumping and nosing. Our guide swam to their boat, raised anchor and roared back, pistol drawn.

Coiling tight, not a bone in their cartilaginous bodies, the pair had not yet gone in for the kill. He shot at a thick streak, praying to miss his buddy, and hit a shark. Without pause, its companion turned and attacked the wounded. In the red swirl of roiling waves, a petrified man clambered aboard. He never went in the sea again, our guide said, and drained his beer.

But I’ve always returned to my family. They are what I know. Even our harshest times once yielded treasures. Such gifts cannot be ruined by mere mortals.

 

Two summers ago, I brought my sons on their inaugural dive trip. I wanted them to see Key West, where coat hangers and milk jugs mark channels we need no guide to find. Though our boat has run aground countless times, we were trying to keep the trip alive. Dad said he wanted to put time in with my boys. I wanted to be big enough to believe he’d give them the love he couldn’t offer me. He put aside his doubts about his own father for me. Less, I cannot do.

But my sons were too young to go underwater and too old to hold still while others dove. My youngest was pale enough to blister aboard our boat, the ocean shimmering like the tinfoil I once held to my face. The sun scorched my husband until he dry-heaved in the mangroves. The air stayed hot as a body well into the night. A sunset cruise meant to bring breezes became instead a provocation. My eldest son dallied despite my chiding, so we were left behind. Opting to have a drink among the crowds at Mallory Square, I asked my husband to remind me not to come back.

Feeling unwanted is primordial for me. I fear inculcating our sons into my father’s culture of scrutiny, which withers the self. At inordinate times, without warning and with little cause, he tenses to the point of discomfort, our spines stiffening like reeds in a hard freeze. We are always down to fight. Disagreements flare and stay burning on old slights. It is hard to love us, though we shine. Ever ready to be antagonized, we seek conflict through our professions. But as a family, we’ve forestalled conversations for decades, fearful of realities we have already lived. On the far side of silence, I suspect, is joy.

 

My grandparents still show up in my dreams. I am always glad to see them—Grandpa teaching a class about empathy, both of them at a cocktail party, and finally, Grandma studying my jewelry, much of it hers, on a sunny afternoon. I creaked up the stairs to glimpse her small frame shuttling into the bedroom, where she sat, looking guilty. I wasn’t supposed to see her. I put my head in her small lap and woke up happy. She passed on about a year after Grandpa.

Once, he stood with my dad in the boat, our wake unfurling behind us, their earlobes flapping in the wind. I wondered whether I would be lucky enough to grow so old that my parts catch a breeze. I’m getting there.

In our last exuberant day together, before hospitals became Grandpa’s gathering place, we anchored near the wreck of an overturned boat we called the Lobster Hotel. Wearing her bright straw hat, Grandma sat next to the outboard motor. Grandpa treaded water and splashed her legs, laughing. The dementia had begun, by that point, but they were keeping it fun while the end neared. Like the sun on my shoulders, their love will always warm me.

If there’s one thing family teaches us, it’s to discern flawed logic and devote ourselves to humanity regardless. Even now, raising my sons thousands of miles from our kin, I find myself unwinding the paradigms of my past and swimming hard toward the beckoning sea.

***

Rumpus original art by Elly Lonon.


Kristen Millares Young is the author of the novel Subduction, a Paris Review staff pick named a finalist for two International Latino Book Awards in 2020. Her prize-winning investigations, essays, and book reviews appear in the Washington Post, the Guardian, and elsewhere. The 2018-2020 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House, Kristen was the researcher for the New York Times team behind “Snow Fall,” which won a Pulitzer. More from this author →