I came out to my father about a hundred miles off the coast of Hatteras, North Carolina,
on a boat filled with freshly caught mahi-mahi and a couple of packs of thawed but unused
ballyhoo. It wasn’t really planned, mostly because I had never intended to tell him, but I knew
before I set my foot onto the rough surface of the deck what I would want to say if I could ever
find the right words.
The thing that straight people don’t understand about being closeted is how constant it is.
The fear of exposure, making up potential excuses for hypothetical situations that haven’t
happened and almost definitely won’t happen. I felt like a liar and a fraud when family members
asked if I had a boyfriend, and I wanted to tell them about the girl that I was seeing but instead I
would shake my head and smile when they suggested setting me up with a friend’s son. When
you hide yourself like that it’s hard to think of yourself as anything other than shameful, and it
wasn’t until I was in college that I was able to come out to most of family. Even still, Mom
insisted that I leave my father out of it. He was the one last lingering piece of shame, stuck out
on the North Carolina coast, worlds away from where I had settled myself in D.C.
This trip was meant to be an opportunity for reconnection, just the two of us spending
some quality time together cradled between the rolling waves and clear blue sky.
The moment I stepped foot onto his boat, Sailor’s Paradise, he started in on one of his
famous “Captain Lectures.” There was no rhyme or reason to these things, and just about
anything could set him off. That day it was my Crocs, bright green and covered in little designs I
had scribbled on during my middle school years, the only water shoes I owned, that tickled his
trailer the wrong way.
“Now, I know a smart young lady like yourself remembers what her father tells her. So I
sure would like to know why you’re wearing those things on your feet when I specifically told
you that I wasn’t going to allow them on my boat. You’re gonna fall and hurt yourself wearing
those things and you know how much I’d hate to turn this boat around if we’re in the fish.”
He went right into it, not even a “Hello, how ya been?” In my defense, what he
specifically told me was that I needed to wear some good boating shoes and seeing as how I
hadn’t been fishing with him in about seven years I assumed that the Crocs would work.
“It’s good to see you too, Captain,” I said.
“What was that?”
“Well anyways, I’ve got a few pairs of good boat shoes you can try on ‘cause if you wear
those damn plastic things you’re liable to lose your balance and head on overboard.”
“Yes sir,” I said, because age had at least given me the ability to choose my battles, and
this one sure as hell wasn’t worth pursuing. Instead, I was going to abide by The Captain’s
favorite saying of all time, one that was nailed right in the center of his front door:
Rule Number 1: The Captain is always right.
Rule Number 2: If the Captain is wrong, see Rule Number 1.
Reminding him that I had worn Crocs on the boat since I was eight and that I had never
once slipped would be useless and almost certainly lead to a more prolonged Captain Lecture
about how I should listen to my elders, something that I was getting increasingly bad at. So it
was better to just try on the shoes he handed me until I found a pair that were slightly too big but
I got to the dock late – 5:45AM instead of 5:15AM – so The Captain had already stocked
the boat with bait (ballyhoo, frozen tuna, a few packages of freeze-dried squid), bags of ice and
sandwich supplies. When I was younger, before my parents got divorced and my granddad was
the one captaining the boat, my excitement over an upcoming fishing trip would wake me up at
four in the morning. I would carefully craft peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the trip,
cutting off the crusts for mine and putting both strawberry and grape jelly on The Captain’s.
Sometimes I would even sleep in my bathing suit, an eye-searingly pink monstrosity that covered
my little body from elbows to knees.
But on this morning, the only thing I needed to do was make sure the rods were ready to
go, no loose lines in danger of getting all tangled in the reel. An easy enough job, even for a city
slicker like me.
It had been a while since I had set foot (or Croc, as it were) on the Sailor’s Paradise, so it
took me a few minutes to get reacquainted. The open deck had a rough, sandpaper texture to it,
to provide more traction while you fought fish standing up, using the fighting belt. The fish box,
located right over the motor at the back of the boat, smelled like salt and copper and looked like
a scene from Carrie, blood stains splattered all the way up the sides and onto the inside of the
lid. Beyond the deck was the cabin, which contained a bench seat with misshapen padding, a
creaky old chair bolted to the floor, and at least a couple thousand dollars worth of rods, reels,
and fishing tackle. It wasn’t the nicest or the cleanest charter boat anchored in the Hatteras
Landing Marina, but if you wanted a fishing experience, then you wanted Captain Wayne
Arnolds. When I was seven, granddad’s hips got too bad to run the boat he loved and so my
father, now The Captain to everyone, including his children, took over. His style of captaining
was similar to granddad’s: gruff and unforgiving and very loud, so really the only difference was
that now customers asked for Captain Wayne Arnolds Jr.
When I was young I used to stare at the tackle for hours at a time, thumping myself down
onto an old overturned bucket so I could pinch the fake squid and try to see if I could count how
many hooks there were in the top drawer of the tackle box. I always had so many questions on
these fishing trips, about the fish or the gear or the ocean, but I never got to ask The Captain
directly. He resided in a world that seemed impossible for me to reach, up in the captain’s perch
a whole fifteen rungs away. I could scale that ladder easily when the boat was sitting still in the
marina or swaying back and forth softly on a nice summer day, but while the engines were
running and the wake was high, you couldn’t have paid me to get up there. When we stopped to
fish, the only words The Captain exchanged with anyone were in the form of yelled criticism,
occasionally constructive, on how to gaff a mahi so as not to ruin the meat and asking why
everyone was moving so damn slow when there were fish to be caught. When I was thirteen I
finally asked one of my older cousins all the questions I was too nervous to pose to The Captain.
He never took too kindly to ineptitude anyways, and so requesting that information from him
was already unthinkable, even without the added barrier of the ladder.
When I finished checking the rods I pulled out some sunscreen, SPF 75+, and slathered it
on my nose and the tops of my shoulders, which were more susceptible to burning than any other
part of my body.
“Do you want some or did you bring your own? ” I asked The Captain when I was done,
extending the bottle towards him. He and my grandmother, as well as my grandfather, had all
gotten skin cancer spots removed in the past year.
“No,” he said. “I don’t need that mess.”
“I said I don’t need it. Listen up, girl.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Because,” he said, stepping onto the bottom rungs of the ladder, “I’m never in direct
sunlight. I just get boat sun.”
“Boat sun?” I repeated. “Isn’t that just regular sun that reflects off the water?”
“I haven’t been in direct sun a day of my life. Boat sun doesn’t count,” he said, nodding
his head. “Boat sun is different,” and then made his way up the ladder to the captain’s perch.
Rule Number 1, I reminded myself.
I screwed the cap onto the sunscreen and tossed it into the cabin. The Captain could do
what he wanted, but I wasn’t going to risk getting half my nose removed because I didn’t take
“boat sun” seriously.
By 6:10 we were cruising out of the marina, just in time to watch the sun come up and
turn the foamy white wake persimmon orange, tinted with hints of pink as subtle as the shade of
lipstick Lauren would put on when we had date nights.
She didn’t understand why I hadn’t told my father yet, why most of the rest of my family
– my mom, my aunts and uncles, my cousins – knew but he didn’t.
“What makes him so different?” Lauren had asked me one night after my weekly three-
minute-long phone call with The Captain. She sat on the other end of the couch from me,
sticking her socked feet into my lap. She was always good at giving me my space when I talked
to The Captain. But I didn’t have a good answer for her.
“I don’t really know. He’s just so unemotional, I never know how he’s going to react to
anything. And,” I continued, rubbing her prickly calves absently, “I don’t want him to be
disappointed in me.”
She was quiet for a minute, letting the sounds of the neverending D.C. traffic trickle
through the windows of our small apartment.
“If he loves you then that shouldn’t even be an option,” she said.
I smiled slightly and let it go. Lauren came out to her parents when she was thirteen,
defiant and sure of herself and utterly fearless. They had laughed and nodded and said it was fine
if she dated girls and that was that. For her, disappointment and love were two mutually
exclusive circles in a venn diagram, unable to overlap in the slightest. It wasn’t like that in the
“Check our direction,” The Captain shouted down from his chair a few minutes into our
journey. I knew he had some fancy fishing equipment, the kind that had radar and could tell you
about how many fish were around you and where you should go to find more. But he was, to his
core, an old-fashioned kind of person and preferred to do things the natural (hard) way. So I
wandered from the open deck and into the cabin where a simple (simply useless, in my opinion)
compass was embedded into the wooden switchboard that contained what looked like lots of
important seafaring dials, but I had never actually seen The Captain, or my granddad for that
matter, use any of them.
“Northeast,” I yelled back up to him, and that was the extent of our conversation for the
four and a half hours it took us to find a school of mahi. I spent most of that time sleeping on the
floor down in the cabin, the engine a comforting rumble right beneath my chest and belly, maybe
not actively avoiding The Captain but certainly not doing anything to spend some quality time
with him, the entire point of this little outing.
My parents have been amicably divorced for almost twenty years now. Mom got
remarried when I was nineteen and The Captain has had a string of long-term girlfriends (some
overlapping) that have never really stuck. Despite going their separate ways two decades ago,
they still insist on getting in each other’s business.
I was back in North Carolina for the weekend a few months before the trip to Hatteras,
just a quick visit down to spend Easter with Mom’s side of the family. After dinner, Mom pulled
“You haven’t been to see your father in a while, you know.”
“Well, I mean, I think he’d like to spend some time with you.”
I shrugged. His phone calls, averaging at most four minutes per call, and not for lack of
conversation topics, said otherwise.
“C’mon now,” she said, not quite pleading. “You should go see him, take a trip out on the
boat. He said the fishing’s been real good lately.”
Maybe it’s unfair to pick sides when your parents divorce, but I had always been closer to
my mom. We were similar people, in many ways. And so I knew that she wasn’t just saying this
because The Captain, in his roundabout way, was trying to show me that he wanted to spend
time with me, but also because she thought that I should at least make an attempt to rekindle our
“Okay,” I said, because I couldn’t not. Because there was some part of me that thought
The Captain might have changed, that spending so much time away had mellowed him
So now here I was, chopping up the thawed ballyhoo into chunks to stick on the hook of
some of the rods because we were, as The Captain had yelled down to me, “Smack in the middle
of a whole school of mahi.”
He was right, of course. The water around the now still boat was almost frothing, the
mahi slipping and sliding all over each other to get at the smaller fish that I saw only as hints of
silver darting here and there. The Captain usually didn’t stop for schools because the ones we
caught were almost always less than ten pounds and not worth his time, but I had always loved
the instant gratification of sticking a rod over the side of the boat and then lifting it up with a
pretty fish on the line.
I have a memory from when I was young, maybe six or seven, of leaning over the side of
the boat to watch the sparkling blues and greens and occasional flashes of yellow from the mahi
all scrambling and writhing to get the little chunk of ballyhoo off my rod. For years after that I
would have nightmares where a huge mahi or tuna or sometimes a shark would take hold of my
line and tug and tug until I was pulled, rod and all, overboard. I don’t think I ever drowned in my
dreams, but I remember vividly the panic and horror and pain of being shoved around in the
melee of flailing fins and the small, sharp teeth of the fish, nipping at my skin and hair.
Of course, I didn’t know at the time that the mahi would probably just scatter had I ever
actually gone over the side, too big and weird-looking to be mistaken for food.
The Captain was yelling directions down to me from up in his perch, instructing me to
put the rods in the rod holders and let the mahi get themselves nice and caught before I bothered
to pull them up and into the boat. I did as he said, sticking them in and twisting until the groove
at the base of the rod caught in the right place and secured it nice and tight.
For years I had watched The Captain and my granddad pull the lines in with their bare
hands, palms scarred and fingers blunt and sure, but I preferred to wear a pair of gloves as I
yanked the fish into the boat and tossed them into the fish box. After each one was dumped in
and the lid shut I pulled the line tight, hook still lodged in the lip of the mahi, and waited for it to
thrash itself off the hook. It didn’t take long for me to go around and collect up all the fish, and
my hands escaped without incident.
After the frenzy was over and the boat was about twenty or twenty-five pounds heavier,
we broke for lunch, a simple affair that The Captain liked to eat at 11:30 on the dot.
We lobbed some ice over the freshly caught mahi, some of them with enough life left in
them to slap around and attempt a dramatic escape when we opened the fish box, but not quite
enough to actually wriggle their way out of it.
“You want ham and mustard or ham and mayonnaise?” he asked me, placing a few slices
of Sara Lee’s white bread onto a styrofoam plate.
“Actually I’m vegan.”
“You’re a what?”
We sat in relative silence, the waves slapping against the hull of the boat, a few water
bottles rolling around down in the cargo hold as he munched on his ham and mustard sandwich
and I bit into the Clif bar I had brought in a rare moment of foresight. We were sitting out in the
sun, The Captain in the main fighting chair and me off to his left, a bit behind him. The chairs
were turned away from each other just slightly, so we could avoid eye contact while gazing out
at the ocean but still at least seem attentive.
“How’s Miss Kitty?” I asked. Miss Kitty was, from what I knew, The Captain’s current
girlfriend. She had given me a journal and a copy of the novel she had self-published for my
birthday that year. It was a romance about a woman that went fishing with the mysterious and
handsome captain of a deep-sea fishing vessel. They end up falling in love and, according to the
reviews on Amazon, the sex scenes were quite steamy. But I never could bring myself to read it.
“She’s fine,” he said.
More silence. Now that I had graduated and gotten employed at a proper job I no longer
had my age old excuse of needing to read a book for class to avoid these uncomfortable moments
of mutual awareness.
The quiet stretched on, the late August sun glaring off the waves and forcing my eyes
into slits, and I could feel a little piece of me, small but persistent, that wanted to make The
Captain feel just as painfully out of place as I did growing up. The uncomfortable silence we
were stewing in was just too similar to that feeling of wrongness I had struggled through for
years before I came to terms with myself.
Maybe I’m selfish, for wanting him to hurt like I did. Maybe telling him out of bitterness,
as a way to shut down the connection Mom had wanted so badly for me to rekindle, was the
wrong thing to do. But I did it anyway.
“Hey daddy, you know I’m gay, right?” I snuck a glance at him out of the corner of my
eye. He looked the same as always. Long and lean, skin tanned and almost leathery from so
many hours spent out in the sun. His sunglasses were planted firmly over his eyes, his long
sleeved shirt, made out of some fancy lightweight material, was rolled up to his elbows. His
mouth was a straight line.
“I’d prefer not to talk about that,” he said, still gazing out at the waves, or maybe at the
mass of seaweed about a hundred yards away, covered in seagulls who had decided to use it as a
“I have a girlfriend,” I pressed. “Her name’s Lauren, we’ve been dating for about three
years now. You met her at my graduation.”
Maybe it would have been better if he had reacted badly, if he had started yelling or
throwing things or acknowledged in some way what I had said. But he didn’t. Maybe I could
have argued with him, talked some sense into him and explained how he was being unreasonable
and ridiculous and reactionary. But I couldn’t.
“I’m gonna go up top and start us heading back,” he said, brushing some crumbs off his
pants and onto the deck speckled red and pink with mahi blood. “It doesn’t look like we’ll be
catching anything else today.”
I said nothing because it didn’t seem like there was anything to say.
As I watched him ascend the ladder up to the captain’s chair, I thought about the mahi we
had just caught, how their colors, so vibrant in the water, were really just manifestations of
excitement and fear. When they went into the fish box they were quickly dimming, bright silver
and green and blue and occasional flashes of yellow reduced to a dull, sickly brown.
Mom likes to tell people that the first time I caught a mahi on the Sailor’s Paradise, a
small one no bigger than two or three pounds, I started crying when I realized it was going to die
and demanded that we throw it back over the side so it could be with its family. I don’t
remember ever doing this, but I wouldn’t necessarily be surprised. I was a sensitive kid.
On the way back to the marina I sat in the big fighting chair and stared back at our wake,
waves rippling out behind us like a zipper being pulled. The Captain didn’t yell down to ask me
what direction we were heading, but we got there just fine.
As we floated into his docking area, I grabbed a rope from the dock and wound it around
the cleat on the left side, and then did it again for the right. I hosed down the deck, washing away
the scales and blood left by the mahi I had hauled into the boat. Someone that knew Captain
Wayne Arnolds Jr, a friend or acquaintance or rival captain, brought over a wheelbarrow full of
ice, so I stuck my hand into the fish box and pulled out the six mahi we had caught. They were
slimy now, and rigid from the ice and death.
I did it all mechanically, the process ingrained in me after years of family fishing trips.
The Captain was still sitting in his chair, fifteen rungs up.