Gut Instinct: Something Fishy

I clasp the spicy Mexican between my chopsticks and mutter a prayer: Please don’t let me vomit. Please don’t let me vomit. If I vomit, let me do it quietly and into a napkin.

Eyes shut, mouth open, I plop that union of tuna, rice, cucumber and tempura flakes onto my tongue and grind it between my molars. The firm fish dissolves into the crisp cucumber and crunchy flakes, while a squiggle of fired-up mayo unscrews my sinuses. I grab a napkin. With haste.

“Are you going to puke?” asks my dining partner Emily, her brown eyes wide. She scoots back. Around us at cartoon-decorated sushi emporium Geido (331 Flatbush Ave. betw. Park & Prospect Pls., B’klyn; 718-638-8866), lively seafood lovers munch crabby California rolls and recently alive eel.

“No, no,” I say, audibly emptying my mucous membrane into a napkin. A lesbian couple to my left looks up, aghast. “I’m aces. That was actually…good.”

I pat my belly like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Emily is flabbergasted, as if I insisted pigs could fly or Sarah Palin isn’t the antichrist. At 30 years and 29 days, I’d finally eaten sushi.

Ever since I stopped weaning, I’ve despised seafood. Fluke, flounder, salmon, haddock, what have you: If it lived underwater, it wouldn’t cross my lips. The aversion was strong, absolute and utterly idiotic. And I blame my mother.

My mom is a strong woman whose compassion and sharp smarts have led her to her profession’s pinnacle, as a nursing-home administrator. More impressively, she loves me unconditionally, despite my porno-editor past, the brain-shocking medical experiments—and most damning, recently writing about how she blasted me with breast milk.

“I read your story,” she said on the phone. I squirmed in my seat, caught red-handed at committing family-secret treason. The woman was first-rate at doling out guilt.

Her skills stem from being raised Catholic in then-rough Washington Heights. That meant loads of church and fish Fridays. Hers was a strict household, and she was forced to eat every oily, odorous morsel before bedtime. Strong-arming someone into an activity—be it eating flounder, playing the piano or performing oral sex—often conditions a Pavlovian aversion. Fittingly, my mother grew to abhor water-born cuisine—save for, inexplicably, clam chowder and the sporadic tuna-fish sandwich.

“I just don’t like other fish, Josh,” my mother explained to me at an early, impressionable age. Those words were cattle-branded into my gray matter, forming an indelible dining code. I love my mom. My mom hates fish, and so do I. My brother and sister followed in seafood-loathing concert. My omnivorous father was crestfallen.

“Our kids are corrupted,” he’d half-joke, as our family dined on medium-rare flank steak or perhaps stir-fried ginger chicken. Dad only consumed seafood at restaurants, devouring shrimp or scallops like Eve’s forbidden fruit.

Puberty brought changes to both my siblings’ bodies and taste buds. My younger, taller brother started willfully, even eagerly ingesting fish and shrimp. So did my curly-tressed sis. Even my mother experimented with salmon. As they drifted from the fish-hating ranks, I remained a clueless insurgent, fighting a war against seafood I was unsure I supported.

Like a college freshman experimenting with lesbianism, how could I be certain of my seafood odium unless I dined on Nemo and his kin? Two years ago, I tweaked my dining DNA by moving to Portland, Maine. For a month, I subsisted on buttery lobster rolls and creamy clam chowder, deep-fried cod planks and golden commas of shrimp. They were delectable, though you could probably deep-fry dirt or coat earthworms in garlic butter and I’d find them appetizing.

I returned to New York with expanded horizons and a new girlfriend. Fittingly, she was a New England–reared pescetarian. She accelerated my sea change—with mockery. “I can’t believe you never ate seafood,” she said, shaking her head slow and steady, in that special way that women reduce men to sniveling, insecure hairballs. “You need more.”

Over the coming months we traveled to New England, dining on gritty clam bellies at Kittery, Maine’s Bob’s Clam Hut. At Old Saybrook, Connecticut’s Johnny Ad’s Drive-In, I gobbled scallops topped with thick tartar sauce. Rochester, New Hampshire’s Windjammers saw me clean my plate of crunchy haddock and a side of clam strips.

“Good job,” my girlfriend said, like I was a canine that finally stopped wetting the carpet and peed outside. I beamed. Mommy, I’m a big boy! Red Hook soccer-field ceviche, Kefi calamari and that Geido sushi loomed, raw and wondrously weird, just like my other idiosyncrasies.

“Now that seafood’s conquered,” my girlfriend said, “perhaps we can do something about the oral sex.”