Yep, my mother spoke those words to me today. And in context it makes sense. What she is referring to is an incident that happened roughly 1 year ago — the moment I stopped eating fish. Until then I was a pescatarian, which for those who don’t keep up with the latest “name your diet” trends is someone who doesn’t eat mammals or birds but will indulge in fish or shellfish on occasion. Those “occasions” were usually when my parents were visiting Seattle and wanted to go out to nice dinners or when I was forced to choose between steak, chicken or salmon at a wedding. And by the way, why is it always salmon? It’s probably the most divisive of all the fish. Why not something innocuous like halibut? Who can hate on halibut?
Anyway, a back to what happened a year ago.
I was in Florida as I am right now, visiting the snowbird parents, when we got word that our beach was being overrun by sharks. That’s right — sharks. So naturally we all went running to the beach. That’s right — ran to the beach. Why trust 3 lifeguards, the 5:00 news crew from 3 local stations, and a policeman? We had to see for ourselves.
Sure enough there they were. A bevy of sharks. No, a gaggle. A gang? Whatever. There were thousands! Maybe hundreds. Maybe thirty. Whatever. But still — sharks! And you could see them clear as anything in the crystal blue water. You saw them riding the waves before they crested. You saw them swimming in circles in the calm between the rolling waves. You saw them churning in the foamy surf like Aphrodite being sprung to life. It was, in a word, creepy. And surreal. Yes, that’s two words, I know but the situation calls for a little leniency.
Granted, these weren’t Great Whites. They were more like “average whites.” Maybe 4 feet in length (which in my mind is about 4 feet too long for anything I might be swimming with in the ocean.) Good lord, I was swimming right there less than 24 hours before! Ugh. Still gives me the willies.
So there we all are—vacationers, spring breakers, snowbirds and one Maltese whose stupid owner wouldn’t put him on a leash! Hello! There are sharks riding in the surf! They could easily take a bite out of you and your little dog too! Or at least your little dog. But that wasn’t the scary part.
Us humans weren’t the only ones put out by the shark infestation. The fish didn’t like it much either. Every now and again you’d see one shoot through the surface only to be betrayed by gravity and gills and sent crashing back down to whence it came. I’m sure the sharks were just messing with them, right? I’m confident they didn’t want to hurt those fish. Right? RIGHT?!
But then I saw the fish that changed my life. He (I’m sure it was a “he”) darted out of the water like a… like a… like a fish being chased by a maniac shark. (I’m traumatized, people! Cut me some slack with the similes!) He bolted so fast out of the water that he crested above for a good 4 feet on pure momentum alone. Hot on his heels (again—cut me some slack! I know fish don’t have heels!) was a mean, old shark. You could practically see nom, nom, nom in a thought bubble over his mean, gray head. Clearly the race was on under the water. This fish was swimming for his life. I saw it on his face. That’s right. I saw it. Fear in the one little eye facing me. It was huge and terrified and I saw him looking behind to see how close this bastard shark was. Now, one might argue (or argued as the case may be) that fish always look crazy and terrorfied. But this was different. I saw real emotion in that fish eye and it made me realize that fish have feelings. If they have the sense to be afraid of things like sharks, then they must have the ability to think, right? Obviously they can feel terror. They must know when they’re caught in a net and yanked out of the water. They have to know the clock is ticking when they’re flopping on the fiberglass deck of a fish boat. They have to be thinking “not again” when they feel that hook pierce their little fish lips. Most bait doesn’t even look like fish food! What did you think you were chasing, little fishy?! It has streamers and feathers and beads! Hey, I’m not claiming fish are smart. This experience made me realize that fish have enough natural enemies. I don’t need to add to their list. I have more than enough to eat. I can’t do anything about sharks, but I could do something about my diet. I looked at my dad and announced I was never eating fish again.
“You’re crazy,” he told me. “I’m suddenly craving crunchy almond grouper. We’re going to the Fish House tonight!”
And we did go to the Fish House, a restaurant I used to love. But all I saw on the menu were the sad, crazy, terrorized fish eyes of halibuts, mahi mahis, and groupers. I ate a tossed salad and the oyster crackers that came with my mom’s gumbo. Converting from pescatarianism to vegetarianism in South Florida isn’t easy. It’s kind of like deciding to quit drinking while on Spring Break. I spent the next 6 days eating Frosted Flakes, pasta, and dessert. I gained 7 pounds. Even I thought my fish forgoing would be temporary. Or at least until my parents came back for a visit to Seattle. But nope, it’s been a year. When I think of seafood I think of that sad fish eye. Obviously I don’t miss it.
But here I am back in Florida a year later and my vacation is totally stressing out my parents.
“How are we going to feed you?!” they ask. We had similar discussions 15 years ago when I stopped eating birds and mammals. There was still plenty I did eat so I never understood the drama. I mean, maybe if I didn’t have a mouth or something then I could see validation in their question. How would they feed me? My mom hates needles and my dad is way to queasy to watch mushroom risotto flow through a tube. We spent the next decade and a half going back and forth with exchanges like this:
“Do you eat pork?”
“No. Pork is meat, Mom.”
“It’s white meat.”
“How about chicken salad for lunch?”
“I don’t eat chicken.”
“Chicken is chicken! It’s not meat!”
And so on.
So you can image their plight when I announced I was off the fishy stuff. That was always the back up option. That’s when my mom asked me if I would eat a crab.
“Why not? A crab never looked at you!”
“They don’t have to look at me,” I tried to explain. Shellfish has always been a tough one for me because crabs usually come in their original state and you have to tear through their legs and claws to rip out the meat. Not even when I ate seafood would I do that. I can’t see food on my plate when it looks like what it looked like when it was alive.
“What about a crab cake?” Mom asks. “That doesn’t look like a crab.”
“But it’s still a crab.”
“You’re crazy,” she concluded. “And you’re probably going to starve.”
Well, I’ve been here a week and am happy to report I’m not starving thanks to a diet of spiced jellybeans, Peeps, and broccoli. We’ve even managed to go out to dinner and I wasn’t asked to sit outside or bring a brown bag. I think tomorrow I’ll go back to the spot on the beach where it all went down. Have a moment of silence. Pour one out for my (probably) dead fish homie.
RIP little fishie. Your (probable) death was not in vain.
And then I’m going to tell my parents about the sad hunk of brie I saw in the window of the New York Deli we went to. I’m going vegan*.
*Just kidding, Mom!