“You guys can choose something fish-y if you want to.” I put on a determined face as I drove.
“You hate fish,” my boyfriend, Mike, responded.
“We can get anything. It doesn’t have to be fish. Let’s go somewhere you would like,” my best friend, Tyler, reasoned.
“No, no,” I said, a touch of the martyr in my voice, “I’m not hungry. Plus you guys never get fish when you’re with me. It’s the holidays. Treat yourself. Just pick something nearby.”
We scanned the map and, determined to show them that I could do it, I picked the fishiest sounding place possible and drove there while they both tried to talk me out of it. Bucket O’ Crawfish. How bad could it be?
I’d been fully vegetarian for a number of years (not vegan, but vegetarian), and I was generally fine with people eating meat in front of me. I don’t like looking at or touching raw meat, and I definitely can’t handle animal carcasses of any kind (it makes me shudder even writing that), but cooked meat being eaten is fine. But there had always been something about fish. Even from my earliest days, the sights and smells of cooked fish gave me a gag reflex response and left my whole body feeling weak and woozy. I have a very difficult time watching someone eat fish, but I can’t stand smelling it being cooked, and I despise tasting it afterward. Not just fish, but seafood, including crab and lobster. Conversely, I love live fish and think they are beautiful.
On rare occasions, when Mike would order fish in front of me, I would respectfully place a menu in front of his plate so that I couldn’t see it, then I would focus on my food and just remind him that I wouldn’t be kissing him until later, even after he brushed his teeth (cause I can definitely still taste it). One weekend while I was traveling, he cooked fish in the house, and upon returning I could still smell it; I deep-cleaned the kitchen, opened the windows, and lit candles, and could still swear I smelled it for a full day. He’s never cooked fish at home again.
Upon walking into Bucket O’ Crawfish, I immediately knew I’d made a huge mistake. The room was well lit, with wooden tables and chairs, and I directed us to a back corner table where I could look out a window without obstruction. The entire room had a thick, cloying, dense smelled of cooked shellfish and pepper-y, heavy, Old Bay seasoning smells that had me gagging. I gave myself lots of positive self-talk as I took short small breaths.
Tyler and I made small talk, avoiding my pale face as they looked over the menu. I had insisted on coming here, and I would stick it out. The waitress soon took their orders: a bag of shrimp, a bag of crawdads, a bag of mussels, some varying levels of spicy seasonings and sauces, and a few beers. (The word ‘bag’ in the order immediately sent me on a spin of nausea and I found myself looking at the floor). Me? I ordered a single cob of corn.
“I’m vegetarian,” I pathetically explained.
“Oh…”, the waitress responded, as if to say, “you fool, what are you doing here!”
Within minutes, plastic bags filled with dead shellfish were placed on the table, steamed and hot, and although I was trying not to look, I realized the shells were still on the crawdads, the tails still on the shrimp. And then I was not okay. Mike reached into the bag for the first mussel and hot fish smells hit the air, leaving me wanting to hide my face in my shirt. I heard the slurp-y sounds of his first tastes, followed by his moan of pleasure from the flavor. Tyler grabbed a crawdad and I listened as he cracked it’s little shell off and then sucked the meat out, followed by a gulp of beer.
Go to your happy place, go to your happy place I muttered to myself in an effort not to be ill, and I thought of a river bed or a beach until I realized the water-y bodies were full of life that men wanted to devour with tangy sauces, and I went even paler. I placed my hands in front of my face to avoid all eye contact, unable to watch them, knowing that a view of those plastic bags full of corpses would cause me to empty the contents of my stomach. Tyler and Mike muttered ‘this was your idea!’ and ‘you can wait outside!’ but I wouldn’t hear it. I would show how tough I was.
The waitress brought out my corn cob, a small yellow thing that looked overcooked. It glistened with red, salty spices, and I quickly devoured it with hearty bites, desperate to be tasting something besides the fish fragrances in the air. It wasn’t until minutes later that I realized it had been cooked in the bags with the fish themselves, and then my face went from pale to red.
“I made a mistake!” I exclaimed softly and went outside the establishment, gulping in oxygen outside until they finished their meals. When we got into the car, I realized my clothing had soaked up the fish smells, and I suddenly wanted to burn my clothing. I drove home with the windows down, despite the winter air. At home, I tore off my clothing and threw it violently into the washer, angry because I knew my car’s interior would still have the scents in the morning. I gulped glasses of water to purge myself.
Later that night, feeling like I had just overcome the stomach flu, I cuddled up tightly to my boyfriend, refusing to kiss him. I looked him in the eyes. “That was my fault,” I said. “I was trying to be brave and do something nice. Never, ever, ever let me be that nice or brave again. That was horrid. God, I’m so stupid.”
Mike wisely stayed silent and just held me close. I soon fell asleep with the realization that I’d just faced my own personal version of Hell, and I’d survived.