By Joe Speaker © 2005
"You promised," Mari said, fixing me with an attempt at a stern gaze, the mirth at the corners of her mouth giving her away.
"I know. I know," I replied. "But I think I need another shot first."
Of course I promised, I thought to myself. We're dating. I'd agree to a naked lambada with an unruly cactus to get in your pants. I am brave. I am intrepid. I am a gallant conquistador willing to explore the world's crannies to impress you. I will not be defeated in my quest.
That's how we find ourselves on our first adventure together, midway through a two-week trek across France. For several intensive months, we'd been planning, trying to reconcile our occasionally competing desires. I wanted history. She wanted cuisine. Here in La Rochelle, we found both.
La Rochelle is a strategically situated port town on the southwest coast of France. Since the 14th century, La Tour de La Chaine, essentially a massive chain stretched between two towers to ward off enemy ships, has guarded the entrance to its harbor. The towers later housed prisoners whose jailhouse graffiti, some of it remarkably artistic, remains to this day.
La Rochelle adopted reformist ideas during the Renaissance, becoming a center of innovation and prosperity. At least until Cardinal Richelieu and King Louis XIII blockaded the city in the 17th Century as part of a crackdown on independent factions within France. The city's inhabitants were literally starved into obedience.
Sounds like a good place to eat.
The region is well known for a certain delicacy. An aphrodisiac, some say, which neither of us had ever eaten. Our search brought us to this crowded restaurant, where we found them. Splashed all over the menu.
Mari lives for food. She can recall every good meal she's ever had with startling clarity. Some mediocre ones, too. She favors exotic dishes, experimental and pungent. For my part, I'm a bit more conservative in my culinary tastes, refined, no doubt, by growing up with parents reared in the Midwest. Kill it, cut it, deep-fry it. Not a lot of sushi in my childhood home. My palate has not noticeably expanded since.
This is a vacation, however. A time for experimentation. For proving my explorer's heart to the fair damsel. It's beautiful here. Nothing can befall us. It had rained all afternoon, the wetness only adding to the town's charm. All gray slate and glistening, the buildings looked somehow older, more authentic. Now nightfall, the rain had given way to a heavy mist, softening the light from the iron streetlamps, dusting the cobblestone streets. I could imagine us later strolling through the fog, posed like a lover's postcard, frozen in that romantic moment forever.
We ordered a half-dozen oysters from the affable waiter, the smallest of the ten or so varieties they featured. When they arrived, he suggested we eat the first one au naturale, without any of the condiments he'd brought along.
"It is traditional," he assured us. To this day, I don't know if he was jerking our chain. Regardless, bring on the bounty. I am ready. I am Magellan. I am Pizarro.
"Go ahead," I challenged Mari when the oysters arrived. She pulled a shell from the leaf-covered plate and split it open. There it was, gray and milky white and nebulous, about the size of a marble. I was relieved to see how tiny it was, just an itty bitty little oyster. Nothing to a man of my purported stature.
Mari quickly threw back the oyster, salty seawater running down her chin. I stared for her reaction.
"It's okay," she said. "I don't see what the big deal is. It doesn't really taste like anything."
"Well, honey," I answered with a smile. "The big deal is that it's an oyster. It looks like something I hock up after a two-pack-of-cigs night at the pub. The big deal is that it's raw. And there's no ketchup."
"You're so boring," she laughed.
"Yes, I am. But here I am, on this expedition, prepared to conquer this mollusk. Just for you."
I grabbed for a shell and cracked it open.
Before I could even react, Mari crumbled in a fit of laughter. Oh. My. God. The oyster I'd chosen was quite a bit bigger than her's had been. As long as a man's thumb. A big man's thumb. Andre the Fucking Giant's thumb. Mari buried her face in her napkin, her giggles beyond control. I could only sigh and tip the shell to my mouth. All hands on deck.
"RHURK!" my throat protested. Above the napkin, Mari's eyes widened in surprise. Instantly, she scanned the cafe, seeing startled faces turn our way. Her laugher died abruptly and her forehead reddened in mortification.
The damn thing got stuck on the way down. I choked it back up, only slightly, and tried to gulp it down again.
Holy shit. The sound came involuntarily, a spasm from deep within my diaphragm, with the subtlety of a chainsaw. Everyone is looking at us. Some laughing, some pointing, some horrified. Tears are welling in my eyes.
Just like that, all drawn out and sharp. I'm panicking. I'm desperate. I vaguely think I'm about to die. This thing, this fucking oyster, is trapped in my gullet, salt and metal drowning my taste buds. This can't happen to me! I am a swashbuckler, a hero! An oyster cannot fell me!
I turn to Mari, pleading with my eyes, but she's gone cold. It's obvious she hates me right now. Hates me like she's never hated anything in her entire life. She wants to crawl away and hide from these people forever. Never see me again. Murder me in my sleep. For infinite seconds she only stares at me, her face narrow and caustic.
She reaches back as if to punch me and I brace myself for the blow. She catches me square between the shoulder blades, as hard a smack as I've ever received. I can feel the anger--the purpose--in the impact, which sends the oyster flying back out of me and onto the carpet.
It lands near the waiter, who is striding angrily towards us. He retrieves the regurgitated bi-valve without slowing. He arrives at our table, stone-faced.
"There is no charge," he says, pulling the remaining oysters away. "Bon soir."
"Bon soir," we mutter timidly, and hurry out into the misty night, defeated.
Joe Speaker is a poker- and soccer-playing ne'er-do-well from the godforsaken desert east of Los Angeles. He is universally unpublished and generally pissed off about that fact. He enjoys long walks on the beach and seeing the sun come up through the front doors of the local Indian casino. He's married and has a three-year-old son. You can visit him at The Obituarium.
May 18, 2005
The Conquering Hero
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