"In sinister shades of slate and silver"
Food replaced sex, after a while. With him, it was the greater passion. Together we'd pore over recipes and restaurant reviews, voluptuously linger in food markets, frantically inhale the tinned macaroni and cheese we'd buy from the 24 hour garage on they way back from the pub. Saturday afternoons were not spent sweatily, frantically twisting between bedsheets, but sweatily, frantically raiding the kitchen for baking paper, the oven set to 200 degrees. We had the odd culinary disaster, but as long as we were experimenting, we were happy.
However, being intimate with him was like making love to a horse . He frightened easy. He would take more risks with his mouth than with any other part of his body. When he licked my cunt he wore the expression of a gourmet trying to acquire a taste; to him it was foreign and freaky, which made it exciting to eat.
Had I known all these things at the beginning I might have passed it up. I may not be happier for it, but I'd definitely weigh less. However, at the beginning I though he was just a nice boy who wanted to take me to a nice fish restaurant.
It had been built six months ago and had a thirties style picture of plated plaice painted on the brickwork outside. There was a slogan underneath, something like "Don't you know there's a war on? Eat less bloody fish!" He walked into the restaurant before me, not bothering to hold the door open. Was this because I had told him I was a feminist? I held it against him anyway.
As we gave our names and were taken to a table, I watched the fish go by. Vivid, livid lobsters and glossy piles of scallops. Breaded cod the size of a small cat, with thick amber chips. I was hungry.As we sat down, he peered at me over his menu. I liked his eyes – they were the same grey as a rockpool on a winter's day at the seaside.
"Shall we get mussels to start?"
Weird translucent slippery things in shells? How delicious. I made a noncommittal noise. "I've not really had them before."
"You've never eaten mussels?" He was incredulous. He was the first person in his family to move away from Yorkshire, and slightly defensive about it. With my elongated vowels and scattiness he had taken me for a posh girl. He thought I subsisted on swan sandwiches and was shucking my own oysters the second I stopped breast feeding. In his head, seafood was fancy – that was why he had brought me here. I mistook his shock for superiority and snapped "No, but I'll try them." Because when you’re a bratty post adolescent there are two rules you live by to trick people into thinking you’re a proper grown up. Say yes to everything and always pretend that it bores you. On a first date, declining the mussels would be tantamount to announcing I'd never given a blow job and didn't intend to. Anyway, if they were really bad, I could spit them out in my napkin.
Big smile from the boy, who ordered for us. Good work! You have won the Golden Shellfish! I felt his approval bounce off me and decided he was a condescending prick.
We waited for our food, and he told me about growing up in the North. Holidays in Scotland with his two younger brothers where they'd catch trout and sometimes salmon. He seemed sweeter after that. Our waiter arrived, bearing four bowls. Two were empty, one was half filled with water and the other was overflowing with mussels. In sinister shades of slate and silver, they did not look like something I wanted to put into my mouth. Ever.
"You open up the shells, and…" I cut him off, raising my eyebrows. "I know what I'm doing". Of course I didn't. Picking up the biggest of the pile and holding it between thumb and forefinger, I flicked the shell open, squeezed my eyes tight and sucked it into my mouth, trying not to think about how it looked like a mushroom that had grown out of someone's vagina.
The mussel tasted visceral and vulnerable. A soft, sweaty piece of fading warmth that made me think of sex and death and velvet and butter. It was slightly unpleasant. I ate another.
When I opened my eyes it was as if I had regained consciousness. The room was brighter than I'd remembered. He looked at me accusingly.
"Why did you do that?"
"You know. Close your eyes."
"Oh, did I?"
I don't think I could have shocked him more if I'd started touching myself at the table.
He frowned, recovered and talked about shallots at length. I turned my attentions back to the pile, silently savouring that mysterious thing that wasn't garlic or parsley or saffron. My efforts to identify it took on an obsessive intensity. Thin rivers of cream and white wine trailed up my forearms, occasionally pooling in my cleavage when I got careless.
I looked up when I was supposed to laugh and discovered I had filled an empty bowl with shells.
"You've got an appetite on you!"
"Sorry, I guess I was just...enjoying them. Shall I order more?"
"No, it's fine. See, you liked them after all."
There was real warmth in his smile. He was happy - not because he was right, or had scored points for educating a culinary savage. He'd shared something he liked with someone new and they liked it too. I took his hand in mine, still slightly greasy from white wine sauce, and smiled back.
It didn’t work out in the end. He was too sure of himself to try the things he found unpalatable or confusing. Then my boredom stopped being pretend. But he was kind and I wish him well. I still think of him when I buy mussels at Borough market or find myself at the seaside on a rainy day.