It stares at me. Scales gleam like sunrise along its curving flank: gold mostly, but hints of lavender and rose. The fish appears to quiver as the candlelight flickers. At my right hand, a sharp, charcoal tail fans just over the rim of the white plate. At my left hand, the head with deep, cold blues, sharply indented with something that looks like a brow, something that must be gills. Its mouth turns down in bewilderment. The large, marbly eye is utterly alien.
I clutch my heavy linen napkin in my lap and stare back. Creamy butter flows like lava from a slit in the trout’s underside and soaks the pillow of rice. A feathery sprig of pine-green parsley curls over a thick lemon slice. I close my eyes and inhale: smoke, tang, Pacific.
I’m eleven. The fish is not alone in staring at me. Sitting elbow-to-elbow across the small table with their forks paused over whatever they’d ordered, are my parents.
“Well,look at that!” Daddy grins at me.
To my side, the penquinny waiter waits, quiet and posed, certain of the outcome. The awkward girl in the homemade sailer blouse will push her heavy black glasses up her stubby nose. Run long fingers through the pixie-cut honey hair. Recoil more and more. The plump farm couple dressed in their polyester Sunday best will admonish. Remind her of the expense. Finally relent. The waiter will then bring the child a hamburger.
To buy time, I re-arrange the heavy silverware, then sip my goblet of water. The damp ring it leaves on the white table cloth embarasses me. Why on earth have I ordered this? Maybe it was the menu’s poetry:
Fresh-caught rainbow trout,
stuffed with bay shrimp and capers,
baked in a light butter-lemon sauce,
and served on a bed of rice.
I hadn’t really eaten much fish, but this one was “rainbow.” And the adjective (and what an adjective!) followed the noun. Trout Cleopatra. Very European.
Maybe the long summer day had dazzled my wits. Ambling under Victoria’s lamposts, each bedecked with a basket overflowing with real flowers. Puzzling over the gentlemen pacing in the bowling green. The royalty in the wax museum. The acres of sunny garden. The ships edging into the harbor.
“Marla’s such a good traveler.” Mama meant I was patient on our long July car trips around the West. Uncomplaining about the entertainment Daddy chose – airshows, often. Dams. But this trip was transporting me – yesterday with my first plane ride, tomorrow with my first ferry to Washington to visit my brother, Gary. My familiar context had vanished: no Oldsmobile backseat, no cookie-cutter Best Western motels, no hamburgers “with mayonaise only, please” in roadside cafes.
The fish is still staring up at me, waiting, with all the others, for me to decide what to do about it. Perhaps in the next moment I’ll convert to vegetarianism and henceforth eat only canned peas and Wonder Bread. Perhaps I’ll admit defeat and order that hamburger. Or perhaps I’ll make the choice that, 47 years later, will mean I devour Lynn Rosetto Casper cookbooks, squander money on mise en place bowl sets from Sur La Table, and love nothing so much as dinner out, savoring something I’ve never eaten before.
But back to 1966. I push aside the parsley sprig and lift the lemon slice between my thumb and forefinger. I place it covering the trout’s sad, clouded eye. I smile at my parents and the condescending waiter and brandish my fork.
Reader, I ate it.