I snuck peeks at the nice girl with a Chanel handbag and a minimalist balayage. Her name was Lily. When she introduced herself—a screenwriter’s daughter from Los Angeles, studying marketing—in a drawl, leisurely and low, during one of our earlier icebreakers, I wanted to hear more of her talk; I wanted her to hear mine.
Sat across from Lily at the restaurant, I felt moved to follow her lead and grab a shell. The little fork.
Then I tossed my neck back to let the crustacean slide into my mouth, a brief, brisk flash of vulnerability washing over me. I returned eye-level to our table—an Olympic swimmer finishing the race, coming up for air.
Despite the oyster’s cool taste, I felt warm, and then feverish because Lily was looking at me. Her symmetrical eyebrows were raised ever-so-slightly. And just like that, I knew she knew—it was my first time.
I had just eaten an oyster. I was ready to own a name-brand purse. I was prepared to study marketing. I sat up straight and placed my palms on the table.
And as I bathed in the minty glow of whatever this was, I reached for another half shell. As though I had done it forever, my fingers squeezed a lemon wedge onto the little creature staring at me. The small fork loosened him from his shell.
This time, I tasted it. Like a melting pat of minerally, nippy butter bursting in the back of my throat. Mind you, it could have been terrible and I wouldn’t have stopped eating. Lily’s eyes crinkled as she grinned at me, gesturing to her mouth. Some of the briny liquid had trickled out the corner of my lips. I caught it with the back of my hand as it formed a droplet on my chin.
She transferred before I ever saw her again. But on that September evening, as everyone else chatted about, I’m unsure what, in those furtive moments, I knew she’d keep my secret.
The thrill from the evening—Lily, the oyster, Lily’s eyebrows—didn’t leave me for hours, even days. I thought of it that night, sharing a cigarette with my new roommates, feet hanging off the dock, hovering over the crisp, toxic Charles River. I thought of it throughout my first journalism class, the memory intruding as we went around in infinite introduction loops. I thought of it weeks later, while drunkenly fooling around with a boy after one too many swigs of green apple vodka.
Some 164,000 years ago, deep in some murky cave, someone cracked open a purplish rock, snaked their tongue in, and sucked lightly. Out trickled some sandy bits, probably. Nothing substantial, but the promise of it. They stretched their tongue further in—wriggling—until it grazed the suspect meat of a bivalve.
Something about the discovery of the oyster’s flesh, the patience needed to harvest it from its shell, and the fortitude required to enjoy it, feels intrinsically feminine.
“An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life,” the food writer M.F.K Fisher says in her enchanting 1941 book Consider the Oyster. She pays tribute to its cool oddness; the eternal, environmental perils it copes with to survive; its ability to satisfy while hardly filling you up.
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