Oyster Virgin

by Tom  Zompakos

The oyster is the world’s ugliest treat. It’s a chipped up and dirty seashell shaped like a human ear. Inside the shell lies a phlegm-yellow lump.

I’m gigging as a fixer (a driver and local guide) for an effervescent editor of Physiocrat magazine named Rosie. Oysters can clean and filter two gallons of seawater in an hour, she tells me. I love slurping down a heavily-used Brita filter, I answer.

I’m a journalism major, and Rosie is incredible at my least favorite part of the job: pulling strangers aside to talk to them. We’ve been rustling up man-on-the-street interviews all day, and now it’s dinner time.

She loops the bartender into easy banter, and he refills our Riesling with the heavy hand of a happy host. Rosie is dressed in gray jeans and black, roughout, high-heeled boots. She’s wearing an angular black leather jacket with buckles on the shoulders that received more than a few compliments from interviewees throughout the day. It’s a sleek, urban style—it looks like New York City to me.

The wine sounds its upward ripple as it floods her beaded glass. Then mine is refilled—I don’t even have to ask. This is how a pleasant evening is supposed to roll along. We’re in a symphony of chatty laughter and the cling-clang of forks and knives on plates.

Rosie tells me how lucky I am to have grown up eating fresh oysters, being raised on the New England coast.

I answer with a shrug. I’ve never eaten an oyster in my life, but the advice “act like you’ve been there before” keeps looping in my head. Listening to Rosie’s Australian accent, I wonder how she ended up here, on the other side of the globe, when I haven’t even seen my own backyard yet. Yes, it would be good to leave here after graduation.

“Do you like oysters, then?” Rosie asks.

I’m not getting away with acting like this isn’t my first oyster rodeo.

“Never had ‘em,” I admit.

She claps her hands together. “An oyster virgin!” she says.

This catches the ear of the buzzed bartender (also our host and chef)—he raises a sly eyebrow at the two of us and purrs, “Shall I play soft jazz, first?”

“Let me set the mood,” he says, and sticks a Bic lighter in the mouth of a frosted glass with a candle inside. He sets the candle on the bar top and slowly slides it over to us with a wink. He peers over black rectangular eyeglass frames and grins. His cheeks are flushed red with the weighty task of ensuring that each and every wine, liquor, beer, and spirit in stock is up to scratch.

Everything this bartender does is staged and precise—the way he pours white wine without spilling a drop, cutting off the stream with a twist of his wrist. A capital ham, he fans the oyster menu out like it’s a big picnic blanket, though it’s just a small yellow card, then curtsies and steps back to let us look it over.

“It is a texture thing as much as a taste,” Rosie says, maybe scanning for my level of enthusiasm.

Rosie mentions her friend in New York who hates oysters and calls them “seawater loogies.”

Oh, perfect. Just the thing after a long and frigid day. Now wages this inner war: I don’t want ‘em. But I wanna seem worldly.

I must have given a bug-eyed reaction to this boogery comparison, because mid-sip of white wine Rosie purses her lips to trap a laugh. Her brown-blonde shoulder-length hair pitches forward, her shoulders shake with laughter.

I take my own wine glass, circle it under my nose, cock an eyebrow, and say, “Hmm, yes, pairs perfectly with seawater loogie.”

This elicits another laugh from her. “Oh, you’re too silly,” she says.

She dabs her lips with a napkin and tells me about the clean, mineral taste of the Riesling she’s picked, how it’s just the thing before and after an oyster.

The conversation’s been easy all day.

We had spent the day interviewing people out in the cold. We are both still warming up—hunched shoulders and curled red fingertips tucked under our arms. I want hot and hearty food, something in the neighborhood of shepherd’s pie, not a so-called sea loogie over ice, but refusing food from new people in new places and new situations is not the way of a poet warrior.

I sip the wine, and heat radiates out from my stomach and cheeks into my limbs. My stomach’s been empty all day, and after a drive to Boston and back, the first hour of which was in rush hour traffic, bumper-to-bumper with Mad Max Massholes, it’s nice to have a drink.

I feel good. This is fun. She’s fun. Fun and engaged to be married and only here for a couple of days. A tragi-comic combination.

A black-and-white photo hangs on the restaurant wall of two men in front of a mountain of gutted oyster shells. One has been caught scooping an oyster into his mouth, and his dirty, chipped fingernail seems, itself, like a tiny oyster shell. The black moon sliver of dirt under his nail is the same composite of grays and blacks that make up the outer texture of an oyster shell. Maybe it was taken in the thirties or forties, based on the flat caps and vests the guys are wearing.

This takes a quarter-second to see, and then …

“What’s the etiquette for eating these?” I ask. “I don’t want to make a faux pas.”

She laughs again. “A faux pas,” she repeats. “Nonsense.” She dismisses the thought, claiming to be the world’s messiest eater. I’m having fun again.

Sly bartender is back. He offers his own, less snot-oriented description of the food we are about to eat. “An oyster is like a kiss from the sea,” he says.

Rosie agrees, saying the oysters she had in London were the closest thing to the feeling of surfing the coast of Australia when she was young. That is better imagery. The comparisons are getting more appealing.

“You’ll think you just French-kissed Poseidon’s daughter,” sly bartender says. There, that works. I focus on that comparison as Rosie and I review the yellow card of oyster options.

There are large oysters with shells as big as the palm of my hand, medium-sized oysters, and fun-sized bites called Virgin Oysters.

“The symmetry is too good,” Rosie says, underscoring the last name with a light pink polished fingernail. “We’ve got to have them.”

She orders a half-dozen oysters, two small, two medium, and two large. I stomp down some inner hunger crankiness and remind myself it’s good to try new things.

We spend the wait for our food recapping our day. Isn’t talking to strangers difficult? Yes, we’re all taught not to do it, but anything comes with practice.

Rosie is in New Hampshire to find, as she describes it, “interviews of the great and the good.” This isn’t her typical role at Physiocrat, but there are special circumstances. She asks the interviewees to offer a prediction about the future. These predictions could be as personal as a projection about their business or as big as a guess about global affairs.

(Where’s our food? My hunger outweighs my oyster nerves. How am I going to look cool in front of her if I’m choking down something vile?)

I ask her what the final project will look like.

She tells me the final project will be a collection of videos of people who experience politics the way most of us do—not across the table from a foreign diplomat, or in a committee meeting in Washington, but as spectators.

I think about what she’s saying. It seems true. We regular folk have a sort of distant powerlessness, or we vanish down a wormhole of some boutique ism, complete with its own in-crowd, out-crowd jargon and heresy.

Realistically speaking, even civic-minded people have little influence over global-scale matters. We manage or mismanage our little lives, scream at the TV or at strangers online, or tune out completely. Or, like an oyster, we sit and sponge up the junk of the environment, almost unconsciously.

(Are those our oysters? No, they’re going somewhere else. Boy, they really do look like the mussels at Lake Massabesic that I used to pluck up and “ewwww” at.)

Then Rosie and I move on to chatting about who offered the best interview, who offered the biggest surprise, or the most insight, and that kind of thing.

I dig back through my memories of the day. Who did we speak to? We’d started with a list of suggestions Rosie emailed me ahead of time.

She’d wanted to speak to an oyster man, a beautician, a businessman, and a politician.

I had to admit I didn’t know anybody who fished (or farmed?) for oysters. I’d called a friend who is a farmer for recommendations, but he didn’t know anybody who did that either.

After some digging around, we’d found ourselves at a pier joining a leathery, wiry oyster man in orange rubber overalls for his morning routine. He was happy enough to have us around, he just didn’t want to be slowed down too much as he clumped along in water-proof boots, squeaking and creaking in his overalls, slipping the Kevlar straps over the shoulders of his Lynyrd Skynyrd t-shirt.

I think about the algae-bearded shells I saw him pluck from under brown water and put into his bucket that morning as we sit and wait for a serving of that same animal. This is all being expensed, naturally, an exciting prospect.

“Wait ‘til you’ve landed an expense budget,” Rosie says. “It’s a grand time.” I’m bleak about the resources publications offer writers now, and she reassures me it looked even worse when she was hunting around for opportunities, yet here she is. I find that comforting.

I think about our day again. After the oyster man, we’d driven around in the rain for hours, stopping when someone caught Rosie’s eye.

There were two gentlemen Rosie had found perched at the smooth, metal bar of the Gaslight Bar & Grill, which was decorated in dark, polished woods washed in warm, yellow lighting. There were mermaids and lobsters and other carvings on the walls—they looked as if they’d been hacked out of driftwood.

The two men could have been convincingly cast to perform My Dinner with Andre. One was balding and had crinkles around his blue eyes, and the other wore a mustache and had thin, combed hair. When Rosie asked them about being interviewed, they immediately went into an Abbot and Costello style routine with each other.

“I can’t imagine,” said the mustached one, who turned out to be a Portsmouth city attorney, “why anyone would want to interview a little old city attorney. Surely he’s much more interesting than I am,” he said, lifting a glass to his friend.

His bald friend told him to hop off his nonsense and do the damn interview.

“It seems,” the attorney said when asked for a prediction about 2016 (the coming year at the time), “that nothing has gotten better for decades.” He was concerned about the escalation with Russia and saw no reason the situation would improve. As he brooded about the dark future that awaited us all, he suddenly became aware of his surroundings, the excellent restaurant on a wonderful evening. His face broke into a smile.

“Thank God for drinks and bars,” he joked. On that note, Rosie wrapped up the interview, and we left the two men to enjoy their evening.

Not every prediction was about the sad state of the world. Rosie found a hairstylist next. The hairstylist pled apolitical, but predicted that next year, the simple, linear, angular fashion of New York chic would remain popular, and that burgundy, maroon, and other dark colors would remain popular for hair and nails. Such details of life that often pass unnoticed are being carefully considered by large organizations who need to plan their next clothing line, photo shoot, or magazine. Whatever they decide filters down to become what people end up wearing on the streets.

Our last interview comes from none other than the sly bartender who is playing host for us.

“I think you’ll see people continue to eat a lot of oysters,” he says. “They’re healthy, delicious, local, and I think even vegetarians should be eating them. You’re going to see a push towards eating local food. Vegetarians should keep eating mushrooms, and carnivores should keep eating pigs.” He predicts the oyster will bound in popularity and expresses his hope that “ISIS will go bye-bye,” but adds that it seems unlikely.

He closes with something more aspirational, something I didn’t anticipate. He says there will be some form of life, something small, maybe even microbial, found on Mars.

His role as a chef may not be world-changing, but then again, we all eat, and he is an expert with food recommendations as someone who cooks for people all day, every day.

Our food arrives.

The oyster is a difficult food to present in an appetizing manner. The butterflied mollusks lie bare and naked to the world, shells pried open for all to see on a bed of ice. There are metal pins sticking up from the oysters with the names from the menu on them. The best part is the ice bed, which is lit from beneath with an alien blue glow that flatters the mollusks’ greenish skin, inasmuch as a mollusk can be flattered at all. It looks like a dish the Klingons would serve Captain Kirk.

The best-looking part of an oyster is the inside of the shell, which is waxed with mother-of-pearl streaks, cut off in life before mustering enough fury to snowball its irritant into a precious jewel, a reverse gobstopper growing with time.

The metal circular tray, bedded with more ice and lined with oysters fanned out like flower petals from a center of sauce dishes, looks good. I am hungry. There are two sauces, a light vinegar with chalets and something tomato-based, like marinara but smoother.

Rosie clinks my wine glass and takes one of the smallest oysters. I take the other. She plucks the quivering tissue from its shell using a petite, three-pronged fork. I do the same. Then, like a shot, she lets the little animal slide down all at once.

I try to think of fresh sea breezes and Poseidon’s daughter. Under close scrutiny, I take the shot from the shell. (Act like you’ve been there before.)

Slurp. Glug.

A loogie is a fair comparison. The oyster is a congealed slip of goo that gives way under tongue pressure. Chewing with my teeth feels like overkill. There is no meaty texture, just globs of dense and soft slime.

But the taste is of fresh, clean, brisk, and bracing saltwater.

I remember my audience.

“Well, you didn’t visibly gag, so good for you,” Rosie quips. “And good for you for going raw and not drowning it in sauces!”

I feel a warm rush of pride. I didn’t know that eating a raw or naked oyster is like drinking coffee black or taking a straight shot of whiskey.

The oyster is gone so fast that it leaves me wanting more.

There are four oysters remaining. And there are two sauces to try, and wine to drink after. Tastes and experiences to examine and notes to compare with her. I’ve made it through this mini-gauntlet. I hadn’t needed to tightrope walk and second guess myself the way I had. We’re just having fun. I feel like saying what the city attorney said—thank God for drinks and bars.

The next day, there are more interviews. After, I drive her to the airport. We’re so comfortable and chatty at that point that the trip to Boston goes by too quickly. It is the fastest drive to Logan I’ve ever experienced. She’s on with her life, and I’m on with mine. As she walks away from my car with her gear bag, I watch her go and think a rare thought for me: things aren’t so bad, things aren’t so bad.

Tom Zompakos is an author and playwright. Find his book Odd Jobs & After Hours here.