I’ve been writing (and hoarding) short fiction over the pandemic so I thought I’d actually let some of it see the light of day. This piece is based on an encounter I watched some years ago at a local restaurant.
The restaurant was not what she had expected. Described by her co-workers, and the online rating website, as one of the city’s best seafood dining experiences, Malia expected The Oyster House to be a white tablecloth affair. Instead, the long narrow room was decorated in something akin to “upscale sea shanty”. The walls were bead board on the lower half, the raw wood treated to look weathered from exposure to the elements. The upper walls were painted light blue and were adorned with old signs with corny jokes as well as advertisements for crab shacks and oyster po’boys. Shelves above each table included huge dried starfish, glass balls attached to bits of fish netting, and knickknacks made out of lobster shells which Malia found oddly disturbing.
She had tried to get out of coming, but her workmates had insisted. A month into this new job and she still felt out of her element, but Darlene, her deskmate, would not take no for an answer.
“The whole department all go out together for lunch on the last Friday of each month,” the older woman explained. “Since there’s so few of us, we treat it as a team-building exercise. And management pays for half of our food bill.”
Half of a free meal was still not particularly enticing to Malia, especially as it meant giving up a precious hour to herself. On nice days, she normally took her lunch to the park across the street, savouring the hour away from the stress of the hectic office, allowing herself to feel the sun warm on her skin as she sat on a bench hidden within an extensive rose garden. This was the only place she had encountered here in this city that came at all close to quieting her aching homesickness.
She realized she would have to give in to Darlene’s demand, noting that her co-worker thought of the offer she was making as kind and welcoming. Malia was having a hard time fitting in here, and was nagged by insecurity and the feeling that her workmates didn’t especially care for her. Clearly this was a organization that placed importance on being part of a team and as much as Malia dearly wanted to be left alone, to just do her work and go home, she grudgingly accepted that she would have to make some semblance of effort.
“Okay, thank you, I guess I’ll come. But will there be some non-seafood things on the menu?”
Darlene offered a warm smile. “Do you not eat fish? Is it a cultural thing?”
Malia balked, and then felt her face turn hot with both anger and embarrassment. What “culture” did Darlene think she was from? And what gave her the right to ask such a question? She struggled to remember which cultures eschewed shellfish. Was it Jews? Muslims? She was neither. And were there any cultures that avoided all fish? That wasn’t a thing, was it?
Malia was dark-skinned but had never made any reference to her culture, religion, or where her family was originally from, the short answer to which would have been Alberta. She counted to ten in her head before answering with a soft voice that she tried to make sound shy. “No, it’s not that… I’ve just never eaten oysters before.”
As the words left her mouth, she knew she had said exactly the wrong thing. She should have lied and gone with the cultural thing, or made up some kind of allergy. Some carefully-crafted story that would have definitely permitted her to avoid both the eating of oysters and any conversations related to her food preferences.
Darlene beamed with delight. “Oh, then you’ve got to try some. They’re wonderful! Jack, Jack… Malia’s never eaten oysters! Lunch is going to be amazing!” The half dozen people in the office gathered around her, all expounding on how wonderful fresh oysters were, how The Oyster Place had the best in the city, how they were going to order dozens for her to try.
She felt sick to her stomach. The idea of eating an oyster, a live thing, so cold and wet and thick as it plopped onto her tongue, to swallow it whole… the lump of dread hardened in her stomach and began to ache, just like she knew the oysters would do.
She had tried to prepare herself. She scoured Google looking for information about eating oysters — do not pour off the liquid, tip whole into the mouth, bite once then swallow; what kind of toppings were provided — usually horseradish, lemon or mignonette sauce; and what to do if you got a mouthful of broken shell or grit — discretely spit it back into the empty shell. She was still dreading the experience until she came across some information that touted applying liberal doses of hot sauce to raw oysters. A wave of relief swept over her and she felt calm for the first time in days. If she could douse her oysters in hot sauce, she just might be able to get them down. She felt that her job, or at least her acceptance among her co-workers, would be determined by how she managed to get through this luncheon. But with the help of some hot sauce, she just might be able to do it.
On the day of the lunch, Malia left the office with her co-workers and boss. They walked through the park to the restaurant and took over a table for eight at the front of The Oyster House. Every other table was already full and almost every table had a large tray of oysters in the middle of it. Behind the bar, three men shucked quickly and efficiently, filling trays of crushed ice with a half, dozen, or two dozen oysters of various sizes, which the servers immediately whisked away.
Malia took a seat at the end of the table, letting the rowdier of her co-workers gather at the other end, closer to the bar. Darlene sat beside her, spouting a constant stream of chatter, but for once Malia found it a welcome distraction instead of an annoyance. Darlene almost never even stopped for air, let alone for feedback or a reply, so Malia felt safe letting her thoughts wander to the task ahead of her. She still wondered if she could get out of eating the things at all, but she knew someone would put her on the spot, that she would be expected to make a show of her effort.
The server came and took their drink orders and Jack took the opportunity to request oysters for the table. “Let’s say four dozen to start, some Colvilles and Malpeques, I think.”
Malia glanced at the menu detailing the oysters available that day and noticed that Jack had chosen the cheapest varieties on offer. It might be only partially on the company’s dime, but the boss was ensuring that things didn’t get too expensive. Four dozen meant a half dozen each. If she played her cards right, she might be able to get away with eating only one or two. Either way, she felt that she would have to pretend to like the things, lest she make herself a target for teasing.
Drinks were delivered and Malia sipped at her soda. She remained quiet as her tablemates discussed work projects, menu items, and weekend plans while quaffing beers and cocktails. Already she had made a mistake, the only teetotaller at the table, but she had no desire to be drunk, or even tipsy, she needed her wits about her, even though the great slimy lumps might actually go down more easily if she were drunk.
At the table next to her a couple were working their way through a tray of two dozen oysters, some of which were almost the size of Malia’s hand. The couple ate with relish, clearly enjoying themselves, slurping back most of the oysters plain, with not even a squeeze of lemon. Malia felt the lump in her gut again, hoping that there were small ones on the tray destined for her.
The server arrived and set down two trays of two dozen oysters. She explained the difference between the Colvilles and the Malpeques. She used her pinky finger to point to the red wine mignonette sauce, the horseradish, and the wedges of lemon. “And can I get you anything else?” she asked, already moving away from the table.
Malia panicked. There was no hot sauce. She scanned the table, then the tables of the other diners. No hot sauce, not even one she could discreetly borrow. She would have to speak up if she was going to manage this. “Yes, may I… could I have some hot sauce, please?”
The server let out an annoyed huff, so loud that everyone at Malia’s table stopped talking. In fact, everyone at the surrounding tables also stopped talking.
“We really don’t like to serve oysters with hot sauce,” the server said in a voice dripping with condescension. “There’s kind of no point in eating them at all if you’re going to kill the flavour of the things.”
Malia looked down, embarrassed and chastised.
“I mean, I can bring you some if you’ve really got to have it, but you’re just wasting the oysters.”
Malia thought about how she’d rather not eat oysters at all, and considered saying just that but held her tongue.
The server moved closer to her end of the table. “We really suggest eating them plain to start.”
The lump in Malia’s stomach moved up to her throat. She held back tears as the server rolled her eyes.
“Then move on to the lemon, or horseradish. But hot sauce is really a last resort,” she smirked as she looked across the table at Malia’s co-workers, some of who nodded in agreement.
“I’m sorry, I just…” Malia tried to muster the courage to stand up for herself.
The server let out a long sigh, clearly annoyed. “I’ll see if I can find some, but no promises.”
As she walked away, Malia’s co-workers all sat silently, unable to look in her direction. Darlene, for once, was quiet. The other diners all turned back to their own food, their meals now less celebratory than they had been moments before.
Only the woman at the table next to Malia was still looking at her, her mouth agape in fury and annoyance. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding!” she said loud enough for her voice to carry to the back of the room.
Malia and Darlene turned toward her, expecting her to reiterate the server’s comments. The woman had just been throwing back raw oysters the size of plums, after all. “She’s got some nerve,” the woman said to Malia. “She’s got no right to tell you what to put on your oysters. You can have peanut butter on those if you want,” she said with vehemence, her eyes fiery at the offence.
Darlene turned to her. “They’re pretty serious about their oysters here.”
“If they were truly serious, then the things would actually come with no accompaniments at all. Mignonette is just as egregious as hot sauce. Giving a customer grief for asking for hot sauce is just hypocritical.”
Malia smiled her thanks at the woman but said nothing. Meanwhile her co-workers had begun grabbing oysters off the trays. Nobody spoke to Malia, which, to her delight, meant that nobody pressured her to try the oysters. Everyone politely ate their allotted half dozen, leaving the final six that were situated on the tray nearest Malia.
Eventually the tech guy sitting next to Malia, she never could remember his name, elbowed her lightly. “Are you gonna eat those?” She shook her head no. “Because of the hot sauce?” She nodded in affirmation. “I’d like to try one, just to see what the fuss is about. But I’d really like to start with hot sauce, just to help me get it down.”
The tech guy took one of her oysters but the other five remained in front of her.
Beside her, the woman at the next table excused herself to her dining companion and got up, heading toward the back of the restaurant. Moments later the server returned with a half-full bottle of hot sauce, and an apologetic expression. “I’m very sorry Miss, I shouldn’t have lectured you. You have the right to eat these however you choose.”
She skulked away and Malia didn’t know whether to rejoice or lament her situation. She had almost gotten out of eating the stupid things. So close. And now, well now, they were all watching her again and she’d have to eat at least one.
She shook the hot sauce, removed the cap and sprinkled enough bright red sauce onto the smallest oyster to cover it. She lifted it to her mouth, tipped it back, felt it tumble, wet, spicy, briny, fishy, onto her tongue. She scrunched her eyes shut and bit the oyster once, the salty brine briefly mingling with and then overpowering the vast quantity of red pepper sauce. She swallowed, surprised that she had managed to do so without gagging. She smiled widely. Her co-workers let out a cheer.
The woman at the next table slid back into her seat and leaned over to whispered in Malia’s ear. “Now try it with the red wine sauce.” Malia turned to her. The woman raised an eyebrow and nodded her support.
Malia ate another oyster.
“Now with a squeeze of lemon.”
“Horseradish,” the woman whispered again.
Malia put only the smallest amount of the pungent horseradish on the oyster, let it slide onto her tongue and let the heat warm her mouth, the vapour filling her nose and sinuses. She took a great bite and then swallowed, the flavour a co-mingling of the strong, vivid, earthy tang of horseradish and the brine and sweetness of the oyster.
She turned to the woman, her eyes wide with delight.
“Plain,” the woman smiled at her, a knowing expression on her face as she noted Malia’s progress.
Malia gave her a huge grin and chucked back the oyster, just as she had seen the woman doing earlier. Without the accompaniments, the flavour was clean, salty, sweet, and bright. It reminded her of the time her family went to Nova Scotia and she had stood ankle deep in the freezing cold surf, breathing in air redolent of salt, seaweed, and the slightest fishiness, the sun blasting down on her in hot perfection.
As Malia set the last shell back into the tray of ice, the manager arrived at their table. The woman and her companion got up to leave and the manager gave them both a quick hug before turning to Malia. “I hope the issue from before has been rectified to your satisfaction,” he said, carefully not mentioning specifics. “The rest of your meal is on the house, what can I get for you this afternoon?”
Malia looked up at him, his smile kind and welcoming.
“If it’s alright… may I have some more oysters, please?”