The Imitation Oyster
By Ashani Lewis
Alpine Fellowship 2019 – Writing Prize First Place Winner
Her father is a real estate agent in the Yukon. He’s a trapper on the side – not in the strictest sense, since her mother thinks that snares are cruel. But they make a small income from meats and furs. Her mother kills the animals and her father guts and skins them. There are lots of good meats in her childhood, some fish, wine on Saturdays. They don’t eat out much. Every restaurant is themed, and they all close at winter when the Yukon river freezes over. Her mother can’t look at a deer after she’s shot him, until it’s cleaned and cut and turned venison, but she does the shooting and she’s the better shot. Her mother is a poetess and teaches her about deep sadness. Her father cooks.
When people in New York ask about her childhood, she talks about the Canadian wilderness like it’s been filmed in Berlin; cold shots. Not at all. Flat water, deep blues and greens, Klondike Kate’s, elk. They live in a fortified timber house near the Curling Club where the kitchen is the living room. It’s the gun room, too. She uses the vernacular of what she imagines to be Berlin (chaining cigarettes, concrete, driving without direction) because she isn’t sure how to translate the colour of the walls of her home. She isn’t sure how to say that July warms them, makes them look like fossil-wood, or how to convey the smoke from her mother’s pipe shining over the hanging guns.
July comes slowly in the Yukon. A couple of summers after she finishes school, she waitresses a fundraising dinner at the old Commissioner’s Residence, one of a few local workers supplementing a touring catering company. It’s real July; the evening is still light. There’s music on the veranda and silver cutlery. Someone has laid out little cotton flags in red, white and blue. One of the touring caterers calls them kitsch. He has thick hands.
He’s from Vancouver, travelling through to the Northwest territories and Yellowknife, looking to film once he gets there. She doesn’t ask ‘To film what?’ She smiles charmingly, and says “That feels a little different from catering.” He takes her in like she’s compensated somehow for his having to endure the little cotton flags and says, “Not that different.”
It’s real July, a real July night, and the old Commissioner’s Residence feels like a strange place to be. A kitschified heritage site. The ghost of seams of gold, sitting dirtly in brackish lumps; the ghost of hands that silt it. Cotton furnishings. Fingerprints on the laminated epithets of historical significance. The business is in taking the gold away, she thinks; we don’t know what to do with it. Inside the Commissioner’s Residence all is fur-and-bone wall mounts and bunting.
She turns to the man from Vancouver, watches his thick fingers arrange things delicately on plates that would be carried shining above everyone. Things she’d never eaten – folded violets, asparagus, diaphanous meats. ; Selves on top of each other, as plates are piled on a waiter’s hand. A whole life, dry-cured and spiral sliced.
When she moves to New York that year, her mother is unsurprised. She rents a room in Washington Heights under the table and starts waitressing almost immediately. After a couple of months, she starts working at a sushi restaurant called Kaki, which takes itself very seriously for being in the basement of a middling hotel. Smoke breaks are prohibited in case the smell of cigarettes on the staff interferes with the dining experience. She makes friends with Marion, a girl from Ireland, who receives the diners in perfect Standard American English and who has a vaporizer. They pay particular attention to a certain type of men dining with women and designate them ‘NHH’ – not her husband.
She likes serving men who are sitting on their own. One takes the leaf of the table plant between his thumb and finger. He has very fair, almost babyish hair. Marion and the other girls have told her she ought to hate it when the diners flirt with her, but she’s still at the point where she finds it flattering. ‘That’s because you’ve the psyche of a child. It sets a bad precedent.’ She doesn’t hate it yet, certainly not from this man.
He’s different, even for New York; more than ever she feels the power in the small circuit between the kitchen and the tables. The whole thing of the restaurant heightens, the music, the low light. Dark wines she has only served. He asks where her accent is from. “Gold rush,” he says, and smiles in a way that is quite unfamiliar: a shyness that is only part affect, above all things, polite. ; Lobsters cook themselves. Crawl into the coldest part. They talk about cilantro. He orders everything she recommends. She’s busy with another table’s drinks when he asks for the bill and so Marion handles it; when it comes, he murmurs something – really murmurs, like the women who come here with Not Their Husbands. He leaves a name (Tad) and a number with Marion for her. Marion clarifies his intentions. “Oh, he’s a gourmand.”
Tad is waiting for her at the window table of a Korean fusion bar the next weekend, with four tiny bowls of kimchi placed at equal radii from him. He looks comfortable waiting. As at the hotel restaurant he assumes a shy sort of power dining alone. Their talk comes easy; she is well versed on her mother’s side in tossing out the quiet little profundities that Marion has said New Yorkers like, and she finds Tad’s near-constant litany of proper nouns (Bourdain, Miyake, Gochujang, Pernod) addictive.
He is only a couple of years older than her, but it feels like more – although occasionally she is struck by how like a baby’s his blonde hair looks. The kimchi blinks with vinegar: red circles of cold. He tells her she must try soju. She orders it at the bar and carries it back to the table, one in each hand, falling into waitress step. Tad watches her set them down, smiling with the overlong incisors in which she instinctively knows he takes a secret pride.
They start dating, almost immediately. Tad fries her first ever asparagus with salt, pepper, butter, parmesan. He shows her the lovely places of New York. In Chinatown she tries something called Young Ginger and the Thousand Year Old Egg. It sounds to her like a Nordic folk tale: Little Matt and Mother Roundabout, The Lad and The Devil. When Tad speaks, she smiles charmingly and doesn’t tell him that she understands cuts of meat.
He doesn’t really cook whole meals, but he loves to introduce; loves to see her ‘little face’ learn figs and asiago, loves to display his fingers on a plate his old girlfriend painted. “Smoking will ruin your little tourist palate,” he says, and kisses her deeply. Marion doesn’t like him. His friends are similar, and talk about German beers and the hermaphroditic Venus motif in Spenser. They wear long coats. Two of them are beautiful.
She brings him kippers in bed one morning. She knocks before she enters. He doesn’t sit up, watches her shift his books, a coffee cup, from the bedside table with one hand to make room for the tray. Eyes, incisors smiling.
“Red blood runs in fishes too,” Tad says, like he’s teaching her poetry. She is momentarily furious. Hasn’t she seen at five the red blood of fishes? Hasn’t she dipped her fingers in their guts, watched them tug at life on her father’s lap, seen them laid out in silver like a cut dream? She knows better than he ever could – has killed them more and better than he ever could. But she remembers that she had been amazed, sitting with small fists at the riverbank and learning from her papa that: fish guts are not silver they are dark like clay slip or any organ and so his tone doesn’t matter.
Still there are moments like it. He barely lets her add salt to a meal he cooks her. One day he lets himself into the little apartment in Washington Heights and finds her frying a cube steak with veal stock. “Where did you learn that?” he says, and the incisors come out. “Not from Marion I’m sure.”
“It wasn’t expensive,” she says. He declines to try it; that week they go to a hole-in-the-wall bar and he orders her a salad with lump crab and white chocolate.
“How is it?” he says, satisfied.
She doesn’t say ‘It’s horrible’: she smiles, charmingly.
Tad tells her that they’re going to a Bacchanal (the truth is that one of his friends has got in some natural wines). It’s very classical – ‘Wannabe-Hellenist’, she thinks, in Marion’s cadence – but compelling nevertheless. Oil and vinegar are laid out in clay bowls for bread and someone is talking about what it means when Greek tragedy becomes decorative.
“These instances of deep brutality are painted on plates and mixing vessels and made convex and filled with wine.”
“– and smashed at parties –.”
She sinks into a deep couch. Natural wines taste darker, older. Neon blinks and she remembers that she is in America. Drunk limbs muddle proximities. Thud and glimmer. The film skids along the walls and the alcohol slides like fat. A thin and glittering skin over her eyes: things reform their shapes and when Tad hands her a plate of ice it glistens with wellness.
“Oysters,” he says, and she does not say ‘Duh.’
He’s right, anyway, to assume that she’s never tried one. The oyster gleams – before it slips down, she has the sense that she had in the old Commissioner’s Residence, of seeing visions shining in a china plate.
It tastes blue-green, it tastes of flat salt waters. The Bering Sea, the Yukon-Kusokwim Delta: a single moment; a bank.
She tries to tell Tad something about poetry and deep sadness, but he cuts her off at “My mother –” and says “You just can’t think about your parents when you’re fucked up.”
She takes another oyster. River oysters. Tad’s friends are talking to her, the two beautiful ones. “Did you know,” says one, “the reproductive organs of an oyster contain both eggs and sperm. It’s possible for an oyster to fertilize its own eggs.”
“Hermaphroditic Venus is perfect,” says the other. “Complete unto itself as source and sustainer of life.”
In bed the next morning he bites down on the inside of her foot. She keeps her eyes closed and pretends to sleep. “You’re sweet,” he says. “Hey. Did you have fun last night?”
“I liked the oysters.”
He Tyro smiles. Kisses her ankle. “Of course you did.”
Before winter ends, Tad ruins it. “I think you’ll really appreciate this.” The restaurant is dressed like a surgery in white and glass; the wings of the revolving door beat once before she can follow him and the shutter effect sets her off-kilter. He’s ordered almost before she reaches their table.
They are served a single oyster each, on the same plate. No ice, no lemon, a tiny ramekin of horseradish pearls. She looks at him, duly appreciative; when she reaches for the oyster, he removes her hand. “I wasn’t going to let you in on the secret until after you’d tried it, but I want you to appreciate this.” His hair is so blonde against the white and glass of the restaurant. It shines with mollusc health. “This is the most innovative oyster you will ever eat. Only one man in the world makes it like this. He uses blue marlin, the only kosher fish in the swordfish family and he mixes kelp with something like gelatine to create a kind of film. Then he wraps the marlin in this little veil of kelp and sits it in a real oyster shell and it looks exactly like an oyster.” As Tad talks, he lifts one into her eyeline and holds it to the light. It does slip around exactly like an oyster.
Always some thin, filmy thing, she thinks and eats it. The kelp scudding over some poor jelly like spume or the skim of milk.
It’s delicious, of course – she supposes that it tastes like any little muscle – but there is no blue-green, no spindrift. (Nothing of the Bering Sea).
Tad is looking at the imitation oyster, proud of it, proud to know about it. He wasn’t expecting her to understand, she realises. For a moment, ‘It’s so clever’ feels like everything terrible about New York, everything that she doesn’t need. She needs a break; a green bank.
She stands steady at the edge of the Nisutlin river and raises the gun from her mother’s kitchen. Aims – focuses until she can see the animal’s dark eyes in the gunsight. Ready to take it back home, to skin and gut herself.