Sandy was raised kosher and harbored a largely kosher palate excepting her weekly forays into the decimation and consumption of lobsters. She frequented the fish market on Abalone Street as opposed to the one owned by Greeks closer to her house, mainly because she lusted after the proprietor, a virile Arab with serpentine hands. She was a conspicuous Jew, had the Jew-fro, the schnozz, an ample, curvy body and milk chocolate eyes. And he had an accent from wherever he originated—Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine—one of those countries where they hated Jews.
Then, one Friday night, while channel surfing and petting the cat, she settled on a critically acclaimed movie about “Cindy,” a civilized and intelligent lobster. The movie made the case that Cindy typified her species—a hypothesis which Sandy decided was evidenced in the tranquil tanks at the fish market, not that there was much the lobsters could do at that point—their claws clamped tight in rubber bands, mincing around the crowded quarters. In the movie, a marine biologist played by Johnny Depp, who loved Cindy in a vaguely subversive way, deemed lobsters the “philosophers of the ocean floor.” He bemoaned their cruel treatment upon captivity—tangled, en masse, in nets, and crammed into dry buckets to await execution. Sandy had never considered that brainpower and sensitivity dwelled on the ocean floor. She felt a fresh guilt for those she had eviscerated, thoughtlessly mining the white flesh into small dishes of melted butter and sliding it between her greedy lips.
Despite the movie, the next day Sandy went to the fish market. It had been about a week since her last visit. Because she had a lame foot she parked in the designated handicapped spot a few yards from the shop and hung her placard from the rearview mirror. She ambled unevenly along the sidewalk while the owner held the door open. “Thank you,” she said coldly. She was cynical about men, believing that her foot inspired them to treat her badly. Her mother always said, when you’re lame there are not too many fish in the sea.
He picked out a lobster and gently slid it inside a roomy plastic bag. It wriggled fretfully the whole way home on the passenger’s seat. She arrived at her apartment and pulled her lobster pot down from its hook in the ceiling, filled it from the tap, and read the day’s headlines while she waited for the water to boil, trying not to pay attention to the tapping of the lobster as it resisted its new surroundings. When she saw the steam fluffing out, she reached for the bag and stared eye-to-eye at her black-spotted hostage. She lifted it by its slatted corset and held it over the pot, steam glistening its shell. Suddenly Cindy popped into her thoughts. What if lobsters really were highly intelligent and emotionally sensitive? “What fresh hell is this?” the lobster might quote Emily Dickinson. What if it were capable and compelled to figure out a way to open the traps and usher out its comrades? She considered depositing the lobster in the babbling brook across the street, but knew that was a half-baked plan. She decided to seek out Bobo, the musician next door with whom she occasionally shared beer, a movie, and a passable lay. He answered right away, hoping for sex. “Here,” she handed him the lobster, turned, and went back into her apartment, trying to relieve her mind of a nagging culpability. She ate a frozen burrito and was aware of a great disappointment. Sometimes, in private, she would chew every tentacle, sucking out the bodily fluids and meats and ocean water, eating too the green guts. Once, in her zeal, she had accidentally swallowed an eye.
She was never exactly friendly to the Arab; she didn’t want to appear interested. Plus there was the Arab-Jew tension she felt with all Arabs. They frightened her. She stepped close to the tank and bent her knees, aligning her brown eyes with their hard peepers. They propelled themselves slowly, as if through gelatin, they who had once ambled handily along the ocean floor.
“Back for another?” the owner stalked her from behind.
“Actually, I never ate it.”
“Why not? Wasn’t it good? If it wasn’t good, I’ll give you another. It happens… some are sweeter than others.” He wore a striped rugby shirt, yellow and blue, underneath his rubber apron. The apron was soiled with something bloody and fishy, maybe guts, but what did she expect?
“I gave it to a friend,” she said.
“A boyfriend?” he wiggled his eyebrows.
“Well, have one on the house. Do you see one you want? I can cook it for you.”
Perhaps if he dropped it into the boiling pot her guilt would be quieted.
“That’s awfully generous of you. What does it take, about ten minutes?” She figured she could sit in the car, have a smoke, listen to the radio.
“I steam it so it takes a little longer.”
“How about catfish? Got any catfish?”
“Wild-caught,” he boasted, as if he’d lassoed them himself.
“I’ll take a piece just under a half-pound.” She watched his long fingers lift the large fish and splay it on the cutting board, then wield the scythe-like blade and flay a small piece off from the whole. He knew just her size.
She sautéed the catfish in butter and thyme, moistened it with lemon juice, and sat drinking a beer on her porch as the sun yawned. It was not lobster, but it was tasty. She thought of his long fingers peeling it from its whole—dark skin, squared off nails. He must be cruel, she thought, admiring her neighbor’s tidy daffodils and red tulips. It would be one thing if he dropped the lobster into boiling water–that was horrible enough. But instead he inflicted a slow, drawn out torture. She imagined him steaming poor Cindy, pinning her inches from the sun and misting her body with boiling water.
As usual, on Thursday Sandy stopped at the fish market. He always had lobsters on Thursday. She was surprised and disappointed to see another customer there, a woman with shoulder-length gray hair, wearing tortoiseshell glasses that dipped nearly down to her mouth, with a thick Queens accent, pointing at a huge salmon. Sandy recognized the accent; she, too, had originated from Queens. She’d taken elocution classes to soften her own accent back in the days she aspired to be a newscaster. Until she leaned in the window of her car to show her mother how to operate the clutch and her mother idiotically shifted into reverse, running over Sandy’s foot. “You should have gotten in the car with me,” her mother scolded as they drove to the ER, Sandy’s foot throbbing like a herd of cattle was still thundering over it.
It turned out no one would hire a lame woman to broadcast the news, even one with a degree from broadcasting school. At first she didn’t make the connection; after all, what’s a lame foot have to do with reporting the news when you’re only filmed from the waist up? But a lame foot has everything to do with everything.
. “Now you’re sure it’s fresh and not frozen,” said the old woman, admonishing him like he was her nephew.
“Caught this morning,” he said. “Picked it up at the market myself.”
“Because I pass this way often. So you’re going to hear from me if it’s frozen. The texture gives it away.”
“You’re right. Absolutely. You come back and let me know what you thought.” He wrapped the fish in paper, slid the package into a clean plastic bag, and held out the plastic bag, spinning it around and around before securing the coiled end with a twisty. He handed it to her and winked. His showmanship reminded Sandy of a carnival.
He waited until the customer had gone, then turned to her and spoke in a low, confidential voice: “I know what you need,” he said.
“You need a lobster.”
She laughed. “Perhaps.”
“I’ve got some real beauties today,” he wiped his hands on a clean linen rag and stepped out from the behind the glass case, gesturing toward the tank.
“Why not just boil them?” asked Sandy. “At least that’s an instantaneous death, so they suffer less.”
“Steaming is better for flavor.”
“But what about cruelty?”
“Cruelty? You’re kidding me, right? You’re having fun with me?”
“I’m perfectly serious.” His hair was so black, black as shale. Shiny, too, and thick, even though he had to be at least forty-five. What a head of hair. She wondered if it smelled like fish and decided it didn’t, that he took a long, hot shower at the end of each day and used one of those men’s shampoos that smell citrusy. The mirror would be covered in steam and the whole bathroom would smell of soap and the aftershave he wore that she always detected mixed in with the fish. Probably he had women over. Women who weren’t lame.
“Fish don’t have feelings,” he said.
“You don’t really believe that.”
“If I believed fish had feelings, do you think I’d own a fish market?”
She shrugged, unsure whether to be comforted or appalled. He obviously didn’t intend to be cruel. And yet he clearly had no sensitivity to the plight of lobsters. Wasn’t there something sort of NRA about that, sort of Republican? Did he believe roosters liked to fight? And what about fetuses? Were fetuses, by contrast, equipped with complex, human feelings?
“They’re sentient beings,” she said. “They have feelings.”
“Oh yeah, who says?”
The less she liked him the sexier he seemed. She noticed the ropy veins in his forearms and neck. His hard jaw with a trace of growth. His flat, square teeth. Heavy eyelids.
“How about you come to my place for lobsters on the grill?” he said.
“Ah, a new method of torture.” She smiled coyly, looking down, making a rare stab at humor.
She drove nearly a half hour to get to his small ranch house on a quiet street in the next town. He yelled for her to come around back. She limped along the perimeter until she saw him standing in front of one of those souped-up gas grills she’d seen in Wal-Mart circulars—three sections, three stories. The lobsters, still black, were skittering on the bottom grate; he had to keep using tongs to force them back over the flames, blocking the scene with his body.
She held out a bottle of Pinot Grigio she’d been chilling all afternoon. “Shall I open this?”
“Corkscrew is right over there.” He indicated a table nearby. On it were baked potatoes wrapped in foil and some wineglasses.
“It was nice of you to bring wine. I figured you would, for some reason, so I put the glasses out. I usually drink beer. But this is a special occasion.”
“Oh yeah? What’s so special about it?”
“I’m having dinner with my favorite customer.”
“Am I your favorite customer?”
“None of the other Jews come to me. They go to the Greeks. The truth is, we Arab men love Jewish women because you’re tough. And smart. Which we find sexy.”
“Are you speaking for all Arab men?”
He shrugged. “I am speaking about you.”
She pulled the cork out of the wine, poured him a glass and walked over to where he was busy moving the lobsters around.
“By the way, I did a little research. They don’t know whether lobsters feel pain, but they don’t think so.”
“Marine biologists. I would never knowingly inflict pain on an animal. I love animals. All the fish I buy are already dead—except the lobsters. And that’s part of the whole thing with lobsters—people like to see them swimming around.”
“You can hardly call it swimming, what they do.”
“It never occurred to me they might have feelings.” He turned to face her and she handed him the glass of wine, took a step closer, crossed her legs at the ankles, and leaned forward, showing him cleavage.
“You looked it up?” she asked quietly.
“I didn’t want you to think I was a bad man.”
The lobsters were reddening. “Isn’t it ironic how they get more colorful?” she asked, her glass nearly emptied.
He reached over with his dark hands and combed his fingers through her tight curls. Instantly, she weakened. She wondered what it was about him. He was good-looking, it was true, and he had that mellifluous accent—was it Lebanese? But it was the crazy tumult of feelings—love, hate, fear, helplessness—he stirred inside her that made her want to give up resistance.
They sat on a deck off the kitchen. He brought the lobsters over, along with a vibrant arugula and corn salad, a crunchy baguette with soft butter, and the baked potatoes.
“I’m not a big eater,” she said.
“Just keep the wineglasses full. I’ll take care of everything.” She found herself obeying assiduously, monitoring the level of liquid in each glass, as if she might fail some test by neglecting her charge. He placed a lobster on the plate before her. She looked down at it. It was almost orange, its eyes intact, its antennae shifting slightly in the breeze.
“Bon appetit,” he lifted his glass.
“Bon appetit.” She bumped hers against it.
She cracked the back and pulled the long chewy tail out from the tunnel of shell, went at it with her fork and a sharp knife. She placed a small chunk in her mouth. It demanded a precise mastication, and the flavor of the white meat was milky and buttery with a fishy undercurrent. She closed her eyes while she chewed, overwhelmed by his nearness, the breeze, and the sweet meat against her tongue. When she opened her eyes, he was watching her.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked.
“Yes.” She tried not to sound desperate.
He leaned over. The kiss was insistent. They stood up. He pulled her body to his and then, suddenly, released her. It took several moments for her to return to the porch, to her heavy foot on the wooden floor, the dead lobster on her plate.
“Lobster and sex,” she said. “I’m glad I made the trip.”
“No sex. I never have sex on the first date.”
He began to go at his lobster, working expertly, as if he were a repairman dissembling an appliance.
“I like to know who I’m dealing with. Some women get so crazy after you have sex, they want to get married.”
She was speechless, as if he had seen through to her true motivation—to ensnare him in marriage—even though Sandy had never for one minute desired to be married. Certainly not to the Arab. She looked at his plate. He’d gone for the claws first, while she had immediately cracked the back and unloosed the tail. She felt this spoke to some deep incompatibility.
“I wish I hadn’t seen that movie. I just can’t enjoy lobster now.” She took a sip of wine and looked down at the mess on her plate: Those dead eyes. The disemboweled corpse.
“Eat,” he said. “You were enjoying it so thoroughly.”
“Is it because of what I said?”
“Maybe. Or the way you said it.” She knew how to turn off desire. Had done it lots of times with men who flirted with her, used her one time, then turned her out. She was the sort that could go frigid if necessary, and seem as though she’d never cared for one second.
He reached over and pulled the eyes off her lobster and threw them over the balcony. “Better?”
“Oh, come on. They’re already dead. Do you feel guilty when you eat a hamburger? Cows don’t have it so good in the end either. And how about chickens?” He leaned over, bared his neck, and pantomimed an axe falling.
“I’m sorry,” she said, laying down her nutcracker. “I’ll eat the salad and the baked potato and the delicious bread.”
“Here.” He picked up the lobster and, using his nutcracker, destroyed all defining characteristics, retrieved the garbage can, and threw the shells into it. All that remained was a pile of stringy white meat. Then he did the same thing to what remained of his, knowing the sight of his lobster would be just as unsettling, finally bringing the garbage can, filled with shells, back into the kitchen. He seemed more amused than angry.
“I’m really not this sentimental about most things,” she said when he returned to the table.
“You’re a lobster hugger,” he smiled. She thought again of his hands, what they would have felt like on her breasts and thighs, how she might have collapsed if he’d put them on her bare skin. Now she’d have to start frequenting the fish market across town run by the Greeks. Perhaps they still boiled their lobsters. No! she corrected herself. No more lobsters for you.
He brought out dessert—strawberry shortcake with crème fraise. From now on, she thought, it would be swordfish steaks and salmon fillets. Gone was the ecstasy of plundering a lobster in her living room, shells everywhere, a dish of melted butter and a bottle of stout on the nesting table, an old movie on the TV, and the cat purring for its share beside her on the couch.