Oysters and Wine
“Then love was the pearl of his oyster, and Venus rose red out of wine.”
Dolores, C. A. Swinburne
Oysters and wine on a night alone made me long for many things, inducing memory and melancholy and a desire for absolution, to escape the passage of time, to be young again, to not think of anything but a kiss. And since I've had such a kiss, what now? The wine glass says, what now?
The wine glass softens my mind and I begin to feel as though everything is all right in the world. No wonder artists and poets throughout history lose themselves into a glass, or two or three. The wine makes me feel warm and soft. It infuses my veins with the desire for pleasure. Like a cozy blanket by the fire, wine in my blood comforts me at one glass. The second glass becomes temptation. The third glass is a mirage to which I am drawn, and like Tantalus, I am stretching out my hand for the fruit on the branch, the drink from the lake, caught in the ever elusive dance of desiring more. The third glass becomes a grail of illusion, and I am lost as I sink into reverie.
The idea of oysters provoked in me a sneaking apprehension, but I tried them with curiosity. I expected them to taste less than how they feel, imagining the sensation of a lover’s kiss.
So it was that I delighted in that bittersweet moment of dining alone. At the bar of my local café, it is not an unusual thing for a woman to sit by herself and write. Of course, Anais Nin would be writing with a beautiful fountain pen in her diary rather than a Mac laptop, and Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher would simply enjoy the moment, waiting to write about it later perhaps. And I was writing about food and love.
"Oyster dear to the gourmet, beneficent Oyster, exciting rather than sating, all stomachs digest you, all stomachs bless you." ~ Seneca
Marc, the waiter, leaned close and whispered, “You will love this; we have something special for you. On the house.” He had emphasized, in his French accent, the words ‘some-zing spe-zial’ with such flourish. I had already guessed that it was a small plate of oysters, with a feeling of delight and dread. It was because that particular night the master écailler was preparing an array of oysters for the evening. When the two oysters arrived with a glass of Sancerre, I knew I was in for it. I had already ordered a glass of Chardonnay, which was still full on the counter before me, and the Quiche Lorraine in its crusty warmth, served with a side of salad dressed in mustard vinaigrette.
I had come to enjoy this place and frequent it nearly every day. In the morning, freshly baked pain au chocolat, croissants, breakfast sandwiches saturated and abundant with melted Gruyère, a large fragrant leaf of basil, and a plump, perfectly poached egg within the English muffin. When I come in during the morning hours, Eric knows I want French breakfast tea with steamed milk and goes about making it right away. He also knows I will ask for a breakfast sandwich, no prosciutto, and sometimes, but not always, the yogurt with granola and fresh assorted berries. It is fairly expensive although worth it, and some days I can only order tea in a to-go cup. Other days, I stay and write, which is a pleasure and an indulgence, savoring the tea served in a bowl with its froth of steamed milk fluffed like a cumulus cloud after a good rain.
That night I was wearing a sheer black lace blouse with a pretty skirt, and the highest black heels that I own. It was with hope that my darling might surprise me with a visit, as he knew I was there at the café, and he also knew I was alone for the evening. I had dressed for him, and just a little bit for myself. Mommy attire and sweaty yoga spandex cast aside for lace and high heels. My three children were all cared for and I had time, for once, on my hands. What better than a keyboard to use them with?
"All I need is an onion, a bit of bread, and a bottle of red."
Kiki de Montparnasse
Men were buzzing around me like I was some kind of honey pot. Attraction. The nature of human beings in its primal state. Being a woman one begins to notice this sort of dance around the age of twelve. For me, I was a young girl of barely thirteen. The hungry eyes of men feasted upon my bare arms, the length of my neck, my suntanned legs from California summers. Sprinklers, slip and slides, swimming pools, the ocean. Years later, here I am, pale, scarred, my body a landscape of experience, a timeline of memories in each stretch mark and curve. I want to transform into black and white daguerreotype, become a muse of Man Ray and Picasso, write erotic poems about the man I love, drink wine and melt into his arms. I want to feel bohemian again, forget troubles, be free and forget the years past and what could have been. My cousin once said I was a “man magnet” and I laughed. When I look in the mirror now, I am like one of those fragments of sea glass, worn by water and sand, and years. My face reflects the tears I’ve cried, the sorrows, the fatigue, some happinesses, with maternal tenderness in the creases of my eyes and sleep-deprived wrinkles from having three babies. Like most things that are worn by time, it still shines through, the laughter of the five year old girl I once was, the hopeful child, the daydreamer.
Sitting in the midst of a crowded wine bar, I felt men’s eyes upon me, candles sparkling in that ancient light of desire. Marc was a harmless flirt, and being French, it was expected of him. Naturally, a independent American woman like me assumes all Frenchmen to be flirtatious, and given that assumption, I went along with it. I played the coquette, giggling when he said something charming, going along with the innuendoes of cooking together, sometime, he said, as we discussed recipes. I feigned girlish responses of interest, making him feel as proud as a peacock. Fanning a man’s ego is necessary in this day in age, as flirtation for the sake of it isn’t part of American behavior. We don’t do this old-fashioned sort of thing anymore. I had spent a great amount of time with my former Parisian mother-in-law and her girlfriends to know and understand this to be true. French women, at least the blonde and buxom 50-somethings I knew, flirted like breathing. It was natural and part of their mannerisms. So when Marc served me the oysters, and gave me eyes that said here is some-zing spe-zial for you, with a sideways glance, his mouth upturned into a sly smile to mean, it’s an aphrodisiac, it was not possible for me to refuse his offering.
“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
These two glistening oysters were larger than the petite Kumamoto oyster I had first experienced. My first oyster looked like a tiny jewel decorated with a puff of lemon cream. It was served as an amuse-bouche during dinner with my darling. These oysters, on the contrary, wore the scent of ocean brine, a little sauce, with a wedge of lemon accompanying them on the plate. They were intimidating, challenging my bravery. I knew I was going to eat them, and they were much larger than I’d like them to be. I ate some quiche and salad to postpone the oysters, took several large mouthfuls of Chardonnay, and decidedly picked up the first oyster in its shell. The cold ice on my fingertips, the sharp jagged edge of the shell, I inhaled the slippery creature, then tilted the shell to my lips. Once it was well into my mouth I wasn’t sure what to do. To bite into it or swallow it whole was the question, and as it was large, I used the right side of my teeth to sink into the flesh of the mollusk, and the odor of the sea came through my palate. Soon my entire sensory awareness was tingling with a multitude of reactions. It was repulsive yet intriguing. I wasn’t sure whether I liked oysters or not.
I let the oyster slide down into my throat and felt oddly euphoric. The quivers of revolt and pleasure fluctuated in my stomach like a young girl experiencing her first kiss with a boy.
A swig of the Sancerre began to wash away the briny tang on my tongue. I knew there was another oyster to take on, so I weighed out the amount of wine I had left in both glasses with a pleading eye. With a fair amount of daring I continued to eat the next oyster, deciding that it was good and I did like it. Then the same wave of nausea and euphoria came over me again, but this time it was mingled with a growing curiosity. I wanted to understand the mystery of oysters. I paused with the mollusk on the flat on my tongue, holding it still, feeling it like a lover’s kiss. I held my head up as if I was being kissed, closing my eyes and surrendering to the oyster completely. No one was paying any attention that I was aware of, and in the dim light of the bar, I imagined my darling’s mouth, the warmth of his tongue, and the irresistible scent of his skin, making me feel soft and feminine and entirely female. Perhaps oysters induce a slight dream-like effect when had with wine, so the pairing goes hand in hand. The wine was elixir in my blood.
“It was like drinking life itself: new-turned earth, sun, wind scented with sea, blossoms opening at first light, the ripe perfection of fruit—the elements gathered on our tongues, lingering on our breath. It was like drinking love itself.”
I craved my darling's arms around me, to nuzzle into his chest, to feel safe, at home. I longed for the clamor of my children, a pot of tea by my side as I wrote. I wished for all of the passionate kisses to be concentrated into one sip of wine so I could disappear into it.
Two glasses of wine, another glass of Sancerre, as the bartender poured more from the bottle into my glass, giving me a syrupy glance. Oh, I was near drunk and wondering if all other writers from history had such evenings, trying to write something meaningful about love, while dumbstruck in finding the words for it.
The wine glass shimmers in the candlelight, and within it I remember the sparkle of tears glittering down the cheek of my youngest daughter, standing in the bright sun, not wanting to leave the park, refusing to hurry back to the car. I feel like her most days, forced to go places when I am quite happy where I am. I want to dissolve into the bliss of wine, and even the oysters with their mysterious essences of brackish seduction. I want to be embraced, adored, loved. I want to be cuddled up in a warm blanket in bed, held in my lover's arms, and only that. Was drinking wine and eating oysters something a woman deeply in love should do alone? The effect of wine swimming through my veins, I could only think of him. Fragments of time, of moments that are tender, shared and intimate, moments imprinted upon my memory, layer upon layer, like oil paint upon canvas. I am immensely happy with him, and I'm not used to being happy with anyone. It's like the happiest day at the beach in my childhood memory, the sun shining, the glittering ocean, warm breezes, and then wondering if it will last forever. I know and expect there to be times of rain, storms, cold weather, clouds and fog. But with him, he is the sunshine, the blue sky, the happy-at-last in my heart.
“When the cup is full it runs over. But when the cup and that which it contains are one substance, what then? There are moments when the elixir of life rises to such over brimming splendor that the soul spills over. In the seraphic smile of the Madonna the soul is seen to flood the psyche. The moon of the face becomes full; the equation is perfect. A minute, a half minute, a second later, the miracle has passed. Something intangible, something inexplicable was given out—and received.”
My wine glasses, two of them, empty. The plate of quiche was scattered with crumbs.
It was almost midnight.
My darling did not arrive or surprise me. He left work late and went home. I didn't want to bother him about joining me there as I had hoped to write more and spend the time alone. Yet half of my hopes were with the page, and the other half wanted his embrace. A man came up to me suddenly, inquiring about my writing alone at a bar. He was just creating a reason to talk to me, and asked if he was interrupting. I didn’t want to say that he was, and I wasn’t in the mood for his elementary conversation. With a smile I said nothing, and prepared to leave for the night.
I wanted love and certainty. Eating oysters and drinking wine alone filled my heart with longing, as if the shadows of my mind were painted by a surrealist. I wasn't lonely but my natural state of contemplative blue came over me. I dreamt of strange things, in a setting by de Chirico or Dali. I woke early, felt nauseous. I longed to curl the arc of my back against the hollow of his chest and fall into a deep fuzz of sleep. Too much wine. I leaned over to reach the glass of water by the bed, and missed his body there next to mine. His side of the bed is where the table is, and I'm used to reaching over him for the water glass. I regretted the many glasses of wine, and the oysters that caused stirring in my soul for the vows of love that cannot be captured in my hands. The taste of love is on my tongue, like moonlight, so beautiful, you can only experience it. There are no words for beautiful things like that. Water in the morning, metallic, my mouth seeking something like sea. The shells of oysters are cradles for such mystery. What my tongue has tasted, it cannot explain. A kiss is the only drink to wash away the saline and enigmatic flavor of oysters. Wanting his kiss, again and again, desire set free.