Ways of Easing Ache

“The first step is to get your hands wet,” a man from work tells me. This is the trick to lessening the damage wrought by rod and reel, the inexorable give and take before a fish is pulled to boat or shore and taken dripping from the water. I do not need him to tell me this. My body has always understood the giving of water as a way to lessen ache. See how my eyes do it, all that saltwater spilling.

And it’s not the fish that interest me in this story, not their stupefied, dumb mouths, taut with hook and line as they are pulled to shore, not their scaled, sadly flopping bodies, all silvered and green, not even that simple splash of water when they are tossed back, not too the ripples spreading out from their bodies as they swim away. In the story of this photo from my childhood, it is not the fish I care about at all but rather the boy, the one looking at the fish, both of them now gone, the boy people used to see in the face of my son as infant, even when they couldn’t see my own. I love the picture because I had loved the boy, even if, like the fish, I have had to learn to let him go.

He leaves me on a stretch of asphalt at the end of one September, the husband less than a decade later in March at the bottom of steps, more than one third of my immediate family gone by the time I am 35. I think this will harden me somehow, inure me against all future losses, but it doesn’t. There is too, that living man, the one I might undo if I could, like some cord unraveling, steps I might trace again but only in reverse, how I might learn ways to fold instead of unfold. The first two don’t choose the permanence of their silence any more than does the child I lose unborn from my body in some kind of birth that isn’t. Only the last one does.

This week it has been a long week of nightmares, the same one every time, long nights too, too much red wine to stave off the sleeplessness. I text more than normal, seek out those other voices as if to prove I am still connected to something, wake one morning with scratches on my leg, my shoulder, so desperate to avoid the dream of him that even in sleep I am fighting it off.

There is, too, the night I am on my patio at 1 AM in my pajamas staring at the moon, recall when she had asked me what I had wanted to say, as if what I wanted had ever mattered. In the intervening months between that day and this one, I learn the shape of different spaces, the shape too, of different bodies, ways I could fit against them as though, even briefly, I belonged there, learned the faces of different moons, tracked their progressions across sky, all those white spaces they opened up, learned too the nights without clouds and the ones without stars.

She asked me what I would have wanted to say, as if what I wanted had ever mattered.

Tell me instead of the possible, I think, even the likely, of what I might someday learn to do. Not want. Want is sometimes a dream that, like that other one I keep having, I would instead forget. Because I want still that day on the dock with the boy when we are both small and staring at fish. I want too that husband, even in his anger, even if he never forgave me, as long as it meant he was still living. And I want that man to have said he understood rather than say nothing at all. I want to have been understood.

When that man from work tells me that to lessen the damage to fish, I must first plunge my hands into lake, I am reminded only of how I do not need to learn this. I have always understood the way the body has, how it gives water as a way of easing ache. See how I wake in the morning from it, my eyes damp.

These palms, wet.

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