Fishy

Mid-June, shimmering heat. First date. Roy’s: her choice. Daisy ordered roast chicken; Ben ordered a whole trout. “One of the most underrated fish,” he declared. After two bites, he asked for her fork and loaded up a mouthful after deftly sifting out the bones. “You have to try this.”

“I don’t eat fish,” Daisy said, eyeing the trout’s intact head.

“You don’t? Why not?” He looked honestly surprised. “I promise it’s delicious.”

“I’m just not a big fish person,” she said, but she accepted the fork.

“You will be soon.”

He was right. She took the bite and was hooked. The fish was flaky and lemony and light, a pleasant flavor that imbued her with a puzzling nostalgia.

Early August. Fourth date; dinner and a movie. Ben picked the restaurant: this time, Cajun seafood. She balked as he tied plastic bibs around their necks. “Eating with your hands is an unparalleled experience,” he said solemnly, and punctuated this by cracking open a king crab claw. She rolled her eyes and began to protest, but he took the opportunity to pop the first bite into her mouth. Her unspoken words and the buttery crab melted together on her tongue.

Their conversation drifted to family. His parents had immigrated from Chengdu, and his father had passed away when he was young, leaving his mother to care for him and his sister. “I don’t know how she did it,” Ben said. “She would come home late from work and still find time to make us food. Sometimes she would splurge on a whole fish and steam that with garlic and ginger. It was one of my favorite things to eat.” Daisy’s turn. Her parents were busy lawyers, born and raised in Oregon. “Only my grandmother was Chinese,” she said, “yet somehow I turned out like this.” She gestured at her pale blue eyes and self-consciously brushed back her shoulder-length jet-black hair.

She picked the movie: a long indie film about messy relationships and subverting workplace dynamics. Halfway through, she snuck a glance at him to see if he was paying attention. He wasn’t. He was looking back at her.

Deep into September, tenth date, going steady. His pick: a hole-in-the-wall Sichuan restaurant. Peeling paint. Fluorescent lightbulbs. Rickety chairs. She had come to trust his taste, but a quiet thing gnawed at her.

“It smells fishy,” she blurted out. The words didn’t come out as intended, but she had to say something to release the pressure building in her chest. He only laughed, poked her on the nose. “Fishy is good.”

But fishy wasn’t always good. Smell was the only sense that bypassed the thalamus, connecting directly to primordial parts of the brain. Memories threatened to resurface. Elementary school. Pointed fingers. The cruelty of young children, eager to root out differences that mean nothing but also everything.

When Daisy was young, her grandmother had lived with them in Oregon for two months, during which she packed daily lunchboxes of rice, fish, and greens for Daisy to take to school. Homemade lunches were a novelty, and so was the food: the grains clung strangely to her tongue, the greens tasted bitter, and the texture of the fish was off-putting to her seven-year-old palate. But Daisy thought nothing else of it, until one day at lunch when a boy sitting nearby wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”

Another day at recess, as she waited for her turn on the slide, a girl had tugged on a lock of Daisy’s dark hair and then pulled upwards on the skin near her own eyelids. Daisy hadn’t understood what that meant, back then.

Now, she and Ben sat in front of warm bowls of rice and boiled fish stewed with mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorns and star anise. He chopsticked pieces of succulent fish directly into her bowl – an act she initially puzzled at, and pieces she sometimes dropped. But over time she came to understand these gestures as his way of showing affection, and gradually her own chopsticks skills improved.

 

***

 

Daisy set her things down in a corner of the tiny graduate student office and shook her hair out of its ponytail. She had decided to let it grow long, after all the times Ben had said how much he liked it. She ran her fingers through it, but when a fishy smell wafted back, she groaned silently. She tried not to think about how particles of rotting fish were entering her nose, essentially grazing her brain. She had taken out the trash but still couldn’t escape the smell. It stained her clothing, wove through her hair. A visceral experience and re-experience. She pulled out a compact mirror, and the reflection of her jet-black hair reminded her of the time a lab-mate had asked about its color. “It’s dyed,” she had said reflexively. It wasn’t.

At one point she had craved these things: the starched white lab coat, the quiet whirring of the centrifuge, the neatly handwritten lab protocols. She liked the quiet, clean, everything-has-its-place-ness of the lab; it was what had drawn her to biology. Friends who understood her distaste for novelty didn’t understand why she had decided to pursue a PhD: Isn’t research all about discovering new things? But the truth was that research was measured, meticulous. Lab-work required an eye for detail, a steady head, a clear mind. If her notes and cell cultures were in order, it meant her life was in order.

She had operated well on those assumptions for a few years – until she met Ben. With Ben had come all sorts of new senses and experiences. Sweating in hot kitchens, recoiling from a splash of hot oil, dodging the spill of soy sauce. Waking up with the smokey remnants from a night of Korean barbecue. Hands growing sticky from peeling lychees bursting with juice. The messiness of it all perturbed her at first, which puzzled him. He didn’t mind the smells, didn’t mind getting his hands or clothes dirty. “You can always wash up after,” he would shrug in reply to her reluctance.

She wished desperately for things to return to the way they were, back to the days when being with him still felt exciting and hopeful, and when all she needed to return to safety was the order of her lab bench. Back to the days before tragedy had sent them careening off into different directions. But the repetition of pipetting no longer gave her the same calming satisfaction as before. Perhaps the concept of order was becoming less appealing. She was growing tired of acting as if things were in her control all the time, when really, they weren’t.

At the coffee machine, one of her lab-mates wrinkled his nose as she walked by. Does anyone else smell that?

 

***

 

Late October. Falling, already deep in. Daisy had carved out spaces for herself in his humble apartment: the left side of the couch, the left side of the sink, the left side of the bed.

Ben had started to cook for them. Glorious dishes of sea bass with charred leek and pickled plum, scallops with pureed yam and sweet corn, salmon marinated in white miso and glazed with brown butter. Yellowtail collar, grilled, brushed with lemon and sprinkled with flaky salt. Plump shrimps, fried whole until crisp, eaten with the skin on. Daisy had never had so much seafood before in her life, belly and soul filling with omega-3 fatty acids and warmth. Before Ben, she hadn’t particularly liked fish; now she craved it.

He introduced her to flavors like yuzu, fish sauce, gochujang. Any ingredient was a fair contender. She began to issue challenges: I bet you can’t use taro in a savory dish. He would take a day or two to brainstorm, then prove her wrong.

“Why do you like cooking so much?” she asked one night as she watched him dice green onions. He moved with quiet confidence, no movement wasted.

“Because of my mom. She was the one who taught me how to make my first dishes.” He paused, humming as he worked the knife, before continuing. “She never said the word ‘love,’ but we could tell how much she cared about us. And I get it. Food is love, you know?”

He scooped handfuls of diced green onion into bowls of noodle soup and nudged one over to her. Daisy put her face over it and inhaled the steam. “I wish I could cook,” she sighed. “I was that kid who would set off the fire alarm in the college dorm because I forgot to add water before microwaving mac-and-cheese.”

Ben smiled. He motioned for her to come to his side of the counter, where he was supervising a scallion pancake frying on the stove. He wrapped her fingers around the handle of the pan, enveloped her hand with his own. Together they slid the pancake around and then flipped it with a smooth motion of the wrist. She laughed, cheeks flushing with exhilaration. Then he set the pan down and twirled her around, and with the small of her back pressing against the edge of the counter, he kissed her.

 

***

 

“How’re you and Ben?” one of her lab-mates asked as they took turns at the microwave.

Daisy plastered on a smile as she took out leftovers from last night’s takeout. “He’s good. We’re good.”

 

***

 

“I’m nervous,” she admitted as they packed containers of side dishes into a large paper bag. “I know this isn’t your typical meet-the-parents brunch, but I’m still nervous.”

“Don’t be,” Ben said. He hoisted the bag off the countertop. “I’ve told Mom so much about you, she loves you already. And you know Jess.” He sounded casual, but she could see the tension in his shoulders. His mother had recently moved in with Jess, the older of the two, after a recent hospitalization left her too weak to manage on her own.

Daisy fiddled with her hair. She reached up to brush back a wayward lock; his hand caught hers on the way. “Why do you always do that?” he asked, his tone gentle. “You have nothing to be self-conscious about.” He let go, but she tucked it behind her ear anyway when he wasn’t looking.

They bundled up against the cold and drove the half hour to Jess’s place, where their mother lay propped up by pillows on the couch. Her cheekbones were prominent, her frame thin and ravaged by pancreatic cancer. Yet her eyes softened when Daisy shyly introduced herself. They arranged themselves around her, Ben unpacking containers of pickled radish and tendrils of pork floss and slices of salted and preserved duck egg, and Jess carrying in bowls of steaming congee.

Their mother knew little English, and Daisy knew even less Mandarin. Nǎinai, “grandmother,” was one of the only terms she remembered. Instead, Ben and Jess taught her the names of the side dishes – pí dàn, ròu song, lúo bō gān – foreign syllables she tried out along with each bite. In the middle of the meal, their mother set down her bowl to retrieve something from under the table. She pressed the package into Daisy’s hands and said, in accented English, “You are a beautiful girl. I hope my son treats you well.”

“You can open it now,” Jess assured her.

Daisy peeled back the tissue paper. In her palm was a hair barrette adorned with a crystal flower and tiny pearls. “Thank you,” she said, surprised. “It’s beautiful.” She felt a twinge of guilt as she spoke. It really was beautiful, but she didn’t want to call more attention to the strangeness of her dark hair.

Throughout the meal, Ben would deftly chopstick pieces of egg and radish into his mother’s bowl. Her hands trembled as she brought each spoonful to her mouth. Bits of congee sometimes fell onto her lap or her shirt, in which case one of the siblings would dab at the spot and then continue talking as if nothing had happened.

The sight triggered something in Daisy. Her mind rocketed toward a dark place, a foggy memory of visiting her nǎinai in a nursing home the year before she passed. She remembered only fragments. A musty, moth-eaten smell. Television droning in the background. Her grandmother’s paper-thin skin; a trail of porridge dribbling down her chin. An escaped tsch of annoyance from Daisy’s father, nǎinai’s own son.

 

***

 

One morning that spring, they woke to a call from Jess. Ben thumbed it through, then abruptly sat up. Daisy could hear sobs crackling over the phone: Mom is gone.

Ben grew still. He stayed like that, not moving, long after his sister had hung up. Daisy had been afraid to reach out to him then, afraid he might crumble under her touch.

He called in sick from work. The good-natured light left his face; his eyes grew flat. She tiptoed around him, hoping to offer solace with her company. He remained wordless, and when she realized he wasn’t moving from bed any time soon, she let him be.

She spent an hour at the grocery store, a fish out of water; came home with bread, deli turkey, pre-mixed salad, cereal, eggs, and milk. But where was the butter, how do you crack eggs without pieces of shell falling in, how do you stop the pan from smoking? Eventually she assembled a sad-looking plate, knocked softly on the bedroom door, and left a tray for him on the nightstand. Hours later, she slipped in to remove the tray and found the food untouched.

She started to worry the next day when she found the second tray also untouched. “Please eat,” she whispered to the heap under the covers. But he remained silent, unmoving.

He croaked his first word to her on the morning of the fourth day: “Hi.” Her heart leapt. She rushed to his side, held his face in her hands. He smiled crookedly at her, but something had shifted. She tried to ponder what it was as she fixed them each a bowl of cereal. For once, she was the one moving in the kitchen while he sat still.

 

***

 

They settled into a new pattern: they would eat breakfast together, baked beans on toast or scrambled eggs, things Daisy was learning to make as she struggled to fill in the gaps he was leaving. He began to pass through the kitchen quickly, nervously, as if he couldn’t stand the sight of his pots and pans. She missed his homemade flavors, the magic he had wrought with those hands. But she accepted this change without comment, yearned instead for other signs of his love. A kiss on the forehead before leaving for work. Quiet chats over takeout dinners. But as time went on, some of the details fell off and did not pick back up.

The chill of loneliness began to seep in. She felt it most acutely when she was physically closest to him; when, right before she turned out the light, she could only see the curve of his shoulder under the covers.

One evening after work she scavenged the kitchen and came up with only a can of tuna, some white rice, and a wilted head of lettuce. Ben came home to her crying helplessly, which automatically launched him into action. He simmered the rice on the stove, mixed the tuna with mayonnaise and pepper, conjured up two packs of dried seaweed, then fed her bites of makeshift tuna onigiri as she stood hiccupping into him, tears drying on her cheeks. I’ll do better. We’ll try harder. He came home the next evening with fresh greens and lemons and halibut and she let herself hope that things would go back to normal.

But it was only temporary. The next week he brought home packets of rock-hard frozen fish filets. “So we won’t have to shop for a while,” was his explanation.

As the weeks bled into months, the packets of fish languished in the cold, collecting fuzzy layers of mold-like freezer burn. Daisy would occasionally take out a packet to inspect. She typed into Google: how long does fish last in the freezer. One night she couldn’t stop herself. “It’s interesting what you said about the fish,” she said, as he placed takeout containers on the counter.

“What’s interesting?”

“Hm. It’s nothing.”

“What’s interesting?” he repeated, impatient.

“You said you’d cook the fish in the freezer. But it’s probably too old to eat now.”

“Oh, I said that?” He sounded strained. “Do I always have to be the one who cooks? Why don’t you pull your weight in the kitchen for once?”

“Excuse me?” Daisy stood. She realized she was itching for a fight. “Who made food for us when you stopped cooking? It’s been months now.”

His expression grew stormy. “You call that real food? I couldn’t have stomached it if I tried.”

Gutted, she countered, “Do you only consider Asian food as real food? What was I supposed to do, make congee to try to comfort you?” He flinched at the word congee and she felt a savage gratification, which was quickly stained by guilt. She backpedaled. “And botch the recipe from someone else’s culture? I couldn’t have done that.”

“‘Someone else’s culture’?” he repeated. “Part of you is Asian, too. I’m tired of you denying it.” The element of anger in his face morphed into anguish. “Are you ashamed of it? Then you’re also ashamed of me.”

Daisy paled. “That’s not what I…”

“Why do you keep turning away from that part of yourself? It hurts when you do that. I know you’ve been bullied before, but come on, those were kids. That’s in the past.”

Something caught in her throat. “You don’t get it. It’s not just ‘in the past’; it’s every day. Just look at me – I’ve never fully belonged anywhere, and I never will.” Before she knew what she was doing, she stormed to the freezer, ripped out the packets of fish, and dropped them into the trash.

 

***

 

Work had become a trancelike refuge. Daisy kept herself busy, calculating fractions to make reagents and pipetting media into wells, repeating each motion until it became smooth and practiced.

Outside the window, the leaves were beginning to turn gold. It made her think of the time, almost a year ago, when Ben had tried to justify purchasing sheets of edible gold leaf by painstakingly garnishing everything he made with it: homemade chocolate truffles, persimmon ice cream, rice bowls topped with grilled eel, bagels with lox spread. She suppressed a smile.

After work she decided to pass by one of the hole-in-the-wall restaurants she and Ben had frequented in the past. She was starting to regret storming out of the kitchen; perhaps takeout would be a suitable peace offering. But as she peered through the restaurant’s window, she felt a sudden punch in the gut. Ben was already there, sitting with a pretty Asian woman whom she vaguely recognized as one of his coworkers. The woman said something that made Ben laugh.

Heat surged through her belly, razor-edged. Her throat went dry. Fragmented thoughts began to fly, but none took hold; her mind had fallen blank.

Some details trickled through. Their bowls were not steaming – how long had they been sitting there? More importantly, Ben was not chopsticking food into the pretty Asian woman’s bowl. But he hadn’t done that for her, either, not in a long time.

Was it an innocent coworker outing? Daisy couldn’t bring herself to consider the alternative. She struggled to push the darker thoughts away, but she could feel them hovering at the edge of her consciousness. Her chest ached fiercely. She continued walking.

That night, as she chewed alone on a piece of bread, she thought of the time Ben had made them caviar on fluffy milk toast. The tiny jar of caviar had cost them sixty dollars. He’d scooped large dollops of it onto a bed of crème fraîche and sprinkled on chopped chives. When she bit into the toast, the briny taste of caviar burst into her mouth, sharp against the thick cream. She relished the taste, marveled at the sensation. She could almost feel an ocean breeze against her skin, the spray of saltwater at her feet. Aloud, she had declared that toast was forever changed for her, that she would never eat regular toast again.

It was the first and last time she had eaten caviar. Now she cried silently, salty tears rolling down her cheeks and seeping into the plain bread, a ghost of the taste of the sea.

 

***

 

I’ll be gone this weekend, Ben told her coolly, on an overnight hiking trip with my coworkers. It was meant to be some team-building exercise. As he said the word coworkers, an image of the pretty Asian woman’s face flashed in Daisy’s mind. She worked to rearrange her face into a neutral expression before nodding.

She saw him off early that Saturday morning; they stood in the doorway and smiled distantly at each other. After he left, she went back to bed and stared at the ceiling. Would that woman be on the trip as well? Would something happen between them – or had it already? She had decided to hold off on confronting him until she’d acquired more evidence, but now she was starting to regret letting him leave without a hug goodbye, a murmured reassurance. She punched the pillow a few times, and then the tears came. Eventually, she fell back into an exhausted sleep.

And for the first time in years, Daisy dreamt of her grandmother. In the dream she was still young, her grandmother was alive and well, and they were standing together in the kitchen, sunlight streaming in through the windows. Her grandmother was showing her how to fold dumplings, and together they made rows and rows of perfect little packages on a table dusted with flour. She then dished out steaming bowls of glutinous rice balls, glistening and pearly white. Daisy bit into one, savoring the taste of the sweet black sesame filling. She tried out words in a foreign tongue, cobbling two languages together to the rhythm of the floured folding, her efforts peppered with her grandmother’s full-bodied laughter, the two of them soaking in curls of steam and comfort.

When Daisy woke, bleary-eyed, her cheeks were wet. She lay awake for a long time, unsure if it had been a dream or a long-forgotten memory. Whichever it was, it left her with a longing for something she couldn’t name. As fragmented images of floured tabletops and glutinous rice balls floated in her mind, her thoughts drifted to what Ben he had said the other night. Part of you is Asian, too. Are you ashamed of it? The hurt in his eyes had quietly eaten away at her, and now her insides ached with guilt.

Months-old words of his swirled around in her head. Food is love, you know?

Memories came flowing, unbidden. Of Ben dicing green onions for soup, Ben standing over smoking pans, Ben cracking crab claws for her, Ben laughing good-naturedly at the messes she made. Of her grandmother, packing her daily lunches all those years ago. Her grandmother, teaching her to fold dumplings in her dream.

There was something she needed to do.

Daisy got out of bed and set off for the market. She came home with spicy arugula and crisp radishes and leafy parsley, neatly wrapped packages of cod and flounder and snapper, and a recipe book. She pored over the pages at the kitchen counter, scratched her head, and Googled things she didn’t understand. Words like gremolata and mirepoix and mise en place. With the book propped open she got to work, chopping carrots slowly and melting butter in a pan. But the knife was quick, and her fingers clumsy. A sharp, momentary pain. She gasped involuntarily, then pressed the cut to her lips. Where skin had parted, bitterness entered. She thought again of Ben’s coworker, smiling at him from across the table. Her eyes stung. She set the knife down and breathed in deeply, then exhaled slowly, repeating this for several minutes until the more rational part of her mind returned.

She seared the first filet on heat too high, lifting the edge to discover a blackened crust. The recipe had not been for blackened fish. The smoke set off the fire alarm in Ben’s tiny kitchen and she frantically attempted to air it out, an unpleasantly nostalgic nod to her college days. She sweated over the stove, she cried over onions, she sliced lemons and a tiny bit more of her left index finger. When she squeezed a lemon wedge, acid seeped into the cut, retracing the wound – a searing reminder. More than once she considered the futility of the exercise, even balked at her sudden foolishness. Should she not just sweep all evidence into the trash and go back to moping in bed? But despite her inexperience, there was something about the feeling of getting her hands dirty and the gradual coming-together of things that began to resonate with her, to give her a deep and primal sort of satisfaction. There was rhythm to be found in the chopping of vegetables, and something meditative about watching ingredients transform with heat. As the sun arced across the sky, she continued the work of recipe-testing. She learned to level off flour from a tablespoon and to use a timer before checking on things for doneness, finding her footing in numbers. How to slice radishes into thin, crooked half-moons. At some point, she registered faintly that the smell of browned butter had crowded out the smell of old fish.

She was making progress, but something didn’t sit right. During a lull she sat and thought some more. The book didn’t have a recipe for what she wanted to try next, so she turned to the internet, translating websites from Mandarin into English.

Early the next morning she visited an Asian grocery store on her own for the first time. She stood petrified among the endless aisles of sauces and seasonings, overwhelmed by the foreignness of labels and the sheer number of options. Ben used to pluck jars effortlessly from the shelves; she didn’t know where to start. But gradually, into her cart went soy sauce and rice vinegar, black bean sauce and pickled radish, fresh ginger and garlic, green onion and cabbage. She peered into frosted glass doors and found a package of frozen glutinous rice balls with black sesame filling. At last, she walked toward the displays of live seafood in the back, where everything smelled fishy.

That night, when Ben’s keys turned in the lock, she was waiting for him. As he stepped inside, she poked her head out of the kitchen. “Hi,” she said quietly.

His expression was cool at first, but it softened as he looked at her. Something shifted between them. He put down his pack and opened his arms. She hesitated, but then she saw the slump in his shoulders, the tiredness in his eyes. Maybe the horrible thing she had imagined had just been in her head after all. She stepped forward, let herself fold into him. “Missed you,” he murmured into her hair. Two words she’d needed to hear. They left a warm trace in the air, made hope curl in the pit of her stomach. “Welcome home,” she whispered back.

After they untangled, Ben looked at her again more closely. There was a dusting of flour on her collar, the hint of a new stain on her sleeve, sweat glistening on her brow. And clipping back her hair was a barrette adorned with a crystal flower and tiny pearls. His brow knitted in confusion. “What…” he began.

“Wait here,” she said, and disappeared into the kitchen. She reemerged, shyly, wearing a spattered apron and holding a large dish in her hands. There was something new in her eyes: something cautious but also proud and vulnerable and shimmering.

It was a steamed whole fish. The fish was coming apart, the green onions were burnt, and the garlic and ginger were unevenly chopped, but no matter. He stared at her in wonder. His shoulders began to relax; the corners of his mouth slowly curled up. Then he took the dish from her hands and set it down and lifted her up. As she wrapped her arms around him, she could see something in him opening up, softening, his eyes crinkling in a way that she hadn’t seen in a very long time.

 

Comments
  1. Christina on

    Really resonated with the showing of love via cooking and embracing our Asian culture (no matter how fishy smelling :))

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