[disclaimer: the following story is a whole lot funnier if, for every mention of the word "shrimp," the reader mentally substitutes in the word "scrimps." trust me, this is entirely scientific.]
Over drinks, an acquaintance of mine confessed that she finds shrimp delicious but lately, in addition to their natural shrimp-liciousness, she also finds them spine-chillingly creepy and, therefore, totally inedible. For years, she'd been happily accustomed to eating denuded shrimp boiled, fried, sauteed, or drowned in szechuan sauce at cookouts and moderately-priced restaurants across America.
However, a few weeks ago, she decided to order a shrimp entrée at a slightly more upscale restaurant – the kind of place that doesn't have a "Self-Serve Tartar Pump Station" or a teenager standing outside, dressed as a scallop, holding a sign that states, "Get Your Sweet Bass In Here!" – and when the shrimp arrived, arranged like a fishy wreath around the perimeter of her dinner plate, she was aghast.
"They had...eyes," she told me. "And antennae. It was like being served a plate of gigantic insects."
Apparently, she'd been long living under the delusion that shrimp exisited headless in nature, bobbing along happily in the ocean without any protection, just dreaming of the day a kind fisherman would troll them in with a giant net, and shovel them into a deep fryer so they could make a sports fan happy.
"Those eyes," she said, over and over, her disgust visibly increasing with each repetition. "God damn those shrimp eyes."
I've heard that argument made before. People will insist they can't eat whole fish, or look at anything on a plate that still resembles the living creature it was before it had a couple lemons squeezed on its head, or a branch of rosemary stuffed up its asshole. But it always comes back to the eyes. As if spooked by some Hopi Indian myth, a lot of people don't like to eat anything with eyeballs.
Eyes never bothered me. I'd eat an eye salad. I don't really care. For some reason, I've managed to operate under the delusion that most food-ready animals use their eyes only once, to stare into the barrel of a shotgun, or look up at some netting or the claw-end of a hammer, and that's pretty much it. I have never really associated the presence of eyeballs with having a rich inner-life. I just don't see one necessitating the other. A shrimp might have eyes, but so what? The average lifespan of a shrimp is about .004 seconds, just long enough to blink. Having eyes doesn't really increase your value as a creature; it's how you use those eyes. For instance, when is the last time a cow said, "look out for that meteor?" Answer: in the year Never B.C.
The shrimp-eyes conversation had me feeling very self-righteous about my dietary choices; so self-righteous, in fact, that I decided to have head-on prawns for dinner last night. When they arrived, all facing toward the center of the plate as if engaged in a deadlocked staring contest, I had a brief twinge of remorse. Fortunately, my guilt was quickly overwhelmed by the aroma of saffron, and I grabbed one of the little bug-eyed fuckers in my pincer and began applying pressure to snap off the head. That's when something caught my own, highly-functioning eye. What I had previously dismissed as a black peppercorn resting on the shrimp's head I realized now, up close, was actually a very small hat – the kind my grandfather often wore. And, though I had to squint to see it, there, around the shrimp's left foremost leg, was a tiny claddagh ring, with its crown turn outward.
Curious now, and a little nauseous, I started fishing around the plate with my fingers, upsetting the bed of wilted arugula, to see if there was any more evidence. I flipped over a roasted Yukon gold potato disc and, hiding beneath it, was a very tiny briefcase. I cleaned it off with my napkin and used the tips of my fingernails to open the latch. Judging by the papers contained within – most of them were crisped on the edges, or stained with chili oil, but a few were still slightly legible – this shrimp was a tax attorney. His briefcase was filled mostly with W-2 returns and envelopes filled with receipts for things like "algae" and "iodine stain remover." A pretty boring job, I decided, and felt justified in eating this shrimp. Then I found its poetry.
Hidden in the middle of a shrimp-sized legal pad, behind page after page of complex division and itemized expenditure categories, were five loose pages, each folded three times over. Each page was filled with some of most beautiful shrimp-oriented poems I'd ever read. Here's a sample:
The Deepest Blue
the tide rocks me, mocks me
twists me like ribbon
we bob unwittingly in an ocean of tears
i am a pair of ragged claws scuttling across ––
[here, the shrimp has crossed out a bunch of language and written "THIS SOUNDS LIKE MAUDLIN BULLSHIT!!" in the margin.]
i am a loudspeaker on mute
one in a million
one of a million
enmeshed in a sad destiny
[i think this is an allusion to the fishermen's nets - quite beautiful, really.]
shame on a nigga who tries to run game on a nigga WHO PUT GAME IN A NIG –
[i think this is where the shrimp lost its train of thought, because he never finished this sentence but, instead, drew a picture of a young couple dressed in formal wear, holding hands, and framed by a full moon. beneath the drawing was the caption, "We Had The Time Of Our Lives – Prom '88." maybe i should just skip ahead ot the end...]
my sunken atlantis,
stale and ghettoized.
better left undiscovered.
That shrimp had a beautiful inner-life. Which is why I felt horrible plucking his head off and eating him, and his twelve children. And a puppy on the way home. (Why can't shrimp be more filling?!)