by Janet Gilmore
I went to a fish store last Friday even though I don’t like fish. Fish made me sick three times in one year when I was young, and I thought, “Why do I eat this stuff?”
But my husband, Hugh, likes fish, and he likes a shop I’ll call Kreel’s. He says it is the only fish store in Philadelphia that doesn’t smell like a fish store. He says that means everything is fresh. But to me it smells exactly like a fish store.
While I waited for a sales clerk, I looked at the fish lying in the case on ice, separated by species. I noticed that one particular fish had pink lips. Not bright pink, but human-colored, with a sort of purplish tinge. It was lying on its side and looked for all the world like my old boyfriend, Sneezy’s, best friend, whom I’ll call Portnoy.
I met this guy and his wife, Peekie, when they told Sneezy they wanted to meet me. Portnoy quickly established himself as a self-styled body language expert. He talked about sex all the time. He said things like, “I can tell you all about a couple’s sex life from the shape of their driveway.”
I wondered how he and Sneezy could be close friends. Neverthetheless, they were friends, and I was subjected to Portnoy’s company (and complaints) too many times. The subject was always how he could tell about a woman’s sex life without her knowing she was revealing herself. He told us he wanted this information so he would know which women he might have a good chance of seducing. In my mind, he was a puerile loony who was not to be trusted.
It’s time to say a word or two about Peekie. She was a hideous woman of only two modes; fawning up and sneering down; she didn’t do human-to-human.
Fawning up = Picasso and/or Riccardo Muti.
Sneering down = everyone else. I became, by default, an illiterate, pop-culture-loving lout. Things were not going well.
Dinner that particular night was fish, of course, accompanied by everything I hated. Cream of cucumber soup. Salad with anchovies and raw onions. And some coconut stuff for dessert. I couldn’t eat any of it, and I couldn’t wait for the evening to end.
After that night, I insisted that if Sneezy and I saw Portnoy again, it had to be without his wife. Sneezy gave in, for once.
The first time we saw Portnoy sans Peekie, he confided to us, “I don’t just TALK about sex, you know. I’ve had affairs.”
“Does Peekie know?”
“Yeah, but it’s alright with her because she’s European, and they all have affairs. In fact, she’s sleeping with the best selling writer of the 20th century!” he bragged and named a well-known male author.
Portnoy and I disliked each other and loved Sneezy. We were to wrestle with that conundrum for a long time. Later, when I wasn’t there, Portnoy told Sneezy, “You know, I like Jan, but I’m not getting any sexual signals from her,” and for some reason Sneezy thought that was a normal thing for his dear friend to say.
Which brings us back to Kreel’s fish store last week. While I stood there looking in the case at the fish with the pink lips, I flashed on Portnoy. I was so taken aback that I swear I saw those fishy purply-pink lips open and say to me, “Can I help you?”
I didn’t know what to say. I looked up and noticed Mr. Kreel himself leaning over the case saying, “Can I help you, ma’am?”
“You sure can!” I said, pointing. “Did you notice that this fish has pink lips?”
He looked into the case.
“All the other fish have gray lips. Doesn’t it look like it can talk? Is it a male or a female? What kind of fish is it, anyway?”
“Porgy,” he said.
I stood there motionless, hypnotized by a fish that looked like someone from my past whom I still couldn’t stand. Even dead on ice with a thick glass case between us.
And then, in a flash, I saw myself as others might see me — a woman in a busy fish store, keeping the owner waiting while I stared at one particular fish in a large case, taking forever to choose dinner, leaning in close, leaning sideways to look at its face, which had pink lips.
I bought scallops and went home.