X is for . . .
They chartered a boat in XAI-XAI and went out to the reef to snorkel and fish and simply while away a day. After so many weeks spent going to and fro amongst various historical sites, markets, restaurants, airports, and so on, it seemed suddenly awkward to be in one another’s company with nothing else between them. They often returned to their hotel rooms exhausted and therefore free from the obligation of communicating, as they each understood the other’s need for rest. Their routine was set, the need for talk outside of deciding where to go next nearly nil. And now they sat together in the bobbing boat with nothing to say.
Peter tried to remember what it had been like back in London, those few months living together in one place; what had they talked about then? Charles would fill him in on the various interesting people who entered and exited his cab . . . They’d discuss plans for the weekend and sometimes watch a movie . . . All at once Peter recalled the luxury of stretching out on the sofa, his head in Charles’s lap while some ridiculous romantic comedy unspooled scene-by-scene before his eyes. Charles liked romantic comedies. Peter preferred drama, or the occasional psychological thriller.
Now Peter sat chewing his lip like a pre-teen on a first date, a fishing pole in his hand that he didn’t even know how to use. So when the pole moved, its long stem arching gracefully toward the water, Peter nearly panicked. “Charles . . .”
Charles looked over. “Oh, you’ve got something!”
“What do I do?” Reflexively, Peter’s fingers loosened on the pole, ready to relinquish it.
“Don’t let go!” Charles leaned over and took hold of Peter’s fishing pole with one hand, trying to hold his own with the other. “Take mine and I’ll reel yours in.”
Peter couldn’t stop the juvenile burble that rose in him. “You want me to grab your pole?”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Peter, really?” Charles asked as the exchange was affected.
“Who knew you took your fishing so seriously,” Peter muttered. He realized he was bored, drifting out there with nothing much to do and wished he’d brought a book.
Charles’s face took on a look of concentration mingled with determination. “It’s a big one,” he said. “Need to tire him a bit before we land him.”
Oddly, the remark made Peter think of work, of wearying a mark by luring him through a long tail through the streets before pouncing on him. Now Peter watched Charles out of the corner of his eye while pretending to be interested in the blue horizon beyond the fishing pole. Had all this travel just been a way for Charles to wear him down? All the lists of places to visit, bouncing back and forth over the globe. Peter suddenly had the terrible mental picture of Charles at a party, telling everyone how big a fish he’d reeled in, and the fish’s name was Peter.
“There we are,” Charles said, cutting into Peter’s train of thought, and a kingfish fell to the boat deck, its tail flopping half-heartedly as it gasped for air. “Fifteen kilos at least, I’d say.”
Peter stared at it. “What are we supposed to do with it?”
“There are men at the marina who will gut and filet it for us, probably even cook it if we like.”
“I don’t want it,” Peter said, turning away. “Throw it back.”
He expected protest, but behind him there was only silence. And then, quietly, “You feel sorry for it.”
Peter didn’t answer.
“It’s a wonder you’re not a vegetarian,” said Charles, “if you’re so worried about a damn fish.”
Peter moved fast; he had that much on Charles: speed, fine reflexes. And strength. He grabbed the fish and heaved it back into the water. Then, without sparing a glance for his companion, he sat back down and went back to contemplating the various shades of blue in the sea and sky. He went so far as to begin to name them to himself. Cerulean, he thought in bizarre meditation, azure, ultramarine . . .
He was startled when Charles collapsed heavily onto the seat beside him. “Would you like me to show you how?” Charles asked.
Peter turned his squint in Charles’s direction. “How to what?”
A smile tugged on the corner of Charles’s mouth. “To work a pole.”
“You’re saying I don’t know how?”
“I’m saying there’s no such thing as too much practice.”
A surge went through Peter; he was sure he could feel his very blood begin to move faster through his veins as his heart rate increased. But he remained still, visibly unmoved. He watched Charles until he could see the uncertainty begin to creep in, the brave smile begin to falter. And right before the moment he was sure Charles would give up, turn away, change the subject, Peter pulled him into an embrace. One meant to leave no room for doubt that he knew exactly how to work a pole.
He’s hooked or I am, thought Peter. Then decided it didn’t much matter either way.
And if you’re wondering, Xai-Xai is in Mozambique.