It has been three days since my fourteenth birthday, since my dad unexpectedly picked me up after track practice and told me he was taking me on what he called a mystery ride. I’d never left Cleveland, never been on a plane and, despite all that, twenty-two hours later I found myself wearing the same polka dot underwear and sharing a thin, hard cot with my dad in Croatia, the place my grandmother had always bragged about escaping—and when I ask if I can call my mother Dad says you’re on a boat and how the hell are we supposed to make a phone call. It’s a good point.
There are men on the boat. They smell like salt and sweat and my dad keeps joking with them that I am not a woman yet. I wonder how he knows the men. I watch them peer over the side of the large boat, the waves of silver tuna streaming past, unable to go far, contained by nets. The men wear orange raincoats and stand over a mound of small dead fish. Dad tells me to pick one. I point. They slip black gloves over their thick hands. They stab the fish with hooks and swing them into the water. They catch one almost immediately. Dad helps the men pull the heavy tuna from the water. It is a fighter. It brutally slams into the floor until one of the men takes out a small metal device and pounds it into its forehead and the fish stops moving and blood spreads across the deck and puddles around my shoes and streaks the faces of the men. Again, I ask if I can call my mother.
“How much you think you’ll get for this,” Dad asks the men. They tell him a number in Croatian that I know is large because he claps and says: good, good. I think the men can speak more English than they let on.
The men peel the thick skin off the fish with a sharp knife. The meat is pink and fatty and raw. Dad takes a slice between his fingers and wiggles it in front of my face.
“I’ll never eat tuna again,” I say.
“You know I have an algebra test today.”
“Who needs algebra when you have all this,” Dad says, tossing his hands into the wind. I tell him I am supposed to go bowling with Kim after school. I tell him about biology lab tomorrow and how my teacher will fail me. She won’t take Croatia as an excuse. The men continue to capture and hit, capture and hit. The blood reminds me of the oval stain on our beige couch, the one my mother scrubbed, pretending it was red wine.
My dad says attagirl, slapping my back. There are white ridges in the flesh of the fish; they seem like they will be tough and harsh, but are not. The men place slices of the fish on their rough hands and hold them out to me, offering more. And I take it.