The Digressions of dr sanscravat
(e-pistle: 30 August 01)
This is, I suppose, a kind of first date story—even if it wasn't literally a first date...
I was in high school and had been dating my girl (this was back in the early sixties, when young women were still called "girls") for a few weeks. It was clear that we were about to take our relationship to a new, more adult, level. After some hesitation—this meant, after all, heading into unfamiliar territory—we decided that we were ready.
We would go out on a dinner date.
When the big night arrived, I was—indeed—ready. I wore a sport jacket and favorite turtleneck sweater—very suave, sophisticated, yet with a casually debonair flair that suggested that I dined out with beautiful women all the time. There might have been a suggestion—perhaps even more than a suggestion—of Old Spice, or possibly Canoe, about me. I've never been a smoker—but if I had been, there would have been a pipe stuck jauntily in place of a handkerchief in the jacket's breast pocket.
No ordinary restaurant would do for such an occasion. It had to reflect my worldliness, my impeccable taste—and yet conform to the fiscal strictures imposed by my allowance. There was only one choice: the local Chinese place.
We arrived and were seated in the middle of a crowded dining room. Not one couple in the room was as young or as elegantly dressed as we were—which probably explained why the hoi polloi glanced at us covertly, allowing evanescent smiles to cross their faces.
When we were handed the menus, I realized that the time had come to flash some of that famous savoir faire. Not one to dally in the "one-from-column-A-one-from-column-B" section of the menu, I went boldly into the "specials" menu. Without the slightest quaver in my voice, I ordered the Lobster Cantonese.
We gazed deeply into each other's eyes, while chatting of this and that—as young sophisticates are wont to do—over our Won Ton Soups. The waiter arrived, and with a flourish befitting the extravagance of the occasion, swept the stainless steel cloche from the dish before us.
While I had been in Chinese restaurants many times before, with my parents, never had I ordered anything as exalted as Lobster Cantonese. I fully expected to see something exotic and miraculously unexpected. Those expectations were more than fulfilled. There it was: an entire lobster, in its shell, bright red—a color signifying good fortune to the Chinese—gleaming in a transparent cornstarch-thickened sauce.
We had recently seen the film Tom Jones, and the sheer lasciviousness of the eating scene fired our adolescent passions—at the same time as we realized we could not simply tear into the crustacean à la Tom and Mrs. Waters. Propriety required us to use utensils of some kind. I had eaten lobster before, but had always had the help of a veritable toolbox full of nut-crackers, picks and similar implements.
I had never before faced such a task, armed only with knife and fork, or worse: chopsticks.
Appetites, of various kinds, were urging me to get on with the task before me—and I imagined that the envious people sitting at nearby tables were watching in awe. I could not let them—or my date—down. "With bold knife and fork," I approached the shining feast.
When I touched the red shell with the only tools at hand, I noticed something I hadn't considered before. The sauce was unbelievably slippery. I was going to have to be firm—but I was a man, and I was ready for anything life could throw at me.
When I pressed down on the lobster's shell, with a masculine confidence and strength that belied my years, the crustacean leapt from the plate. It sailed—slowly, with a kind of remorseless grandeur—through the air, as it has, far too often, in my memory—and landed in the exact center of my turtle-neck-sweatered chest.
There was no sound, not even a gasp. Every eye in the dining room, including my date's, and—indeed—my own, were on the spiny thing affixed to my sternum. It just clung there for a moment, before slipping, first to my lap, then down to the floor.