I Don’t Relish Shellfish
Emily Hessney Lynch
“Traditions matter,” my mother explains to me on the phone as I tell her about my husband’s shellfish allergy two weeks before Thanksgiving.
“Please, can’t we just this once deviate from tradition?” I ask. It is our first year of marriage, and my husband has never spent Thanksgiving with my side of the family before.
My family has prepared the customary Thanksgiving squid every kind of way over the years: fried or grilled, fresh-caught by my father or frozen from the grocery store. If I had to pinpoint who in my family is the most ardent supporter of the squid tradition, I’m not sure I could. My sister puts a calamari ring on each finger, then sucks them into her mouth one by one. I sometimes find my mom in the kitchen gnawing leftovers right out of the Tupperware in the glow of the refrigerator light, a bottle of bourbon by her side. My father loves to lick the juices off the serving platter. They are squid loyalists, and my request is a tough sell.
“Mom?” I prod. She has been silent on the other end of the phone for too long.
“Why don’t we try turkey this year, like the Americans?”
She tut-tuts. “Everyone loves seeing my squid feast photos. What will I post on Facebook? People will laugh at a turkey. They are ridiculous birds.”
My mother loves to compete with her friends, but I suspect the competition is one-sided. I doubt they would miss her squid pics. Everyone always cares about your shit less than you think.
“Just think about it, okay? We can bring our own entrée if you want us to, but Kevin would feel more welcome if you at least try to be accommodating,” I plead.
She hmphs. “I’ll consider it.” I hear a click, and the line goes dead. She didn’t say goodbye.
On Thanksgiving, we show up on time. 4:30 p.m., arrival for cocktails and nibbles; 5:00 p.m., dinner on the table. It’s an ambitious timeline they rarely meet. I sip my gin and tonic and chat with my grandmother as she wiggles the shell from her shrimp and plunks it in the ice-cold cocktail sauce. I keep an eye on my husband.
Kevin maneuvers into the kitchen, carrying green beans and pie. He springs out of the way as the oven door crashes open. Smoke billows out.
“The fuck you doing?! Move! MOVE!” my father screams. Kevin isn’t in the way. We both wince.
At the island, my mom grates the zest of a grapefruit into her homemade relish.
“Where would you like these?” my husband asks, cowering.
“Set them on the counter,” my mother says without making eye contact.
Kevin scurries to the snack table. He greets my younger sister Sarah, who is seeing how many slices of cheese she can stack on a cracker and fit in her mouth. (The answer is seven.) She opens wide, crunches, and washes the cracker dust down with a slug of beer. My grandma looks around and laughs to herself. Kevin’s eyes are wide. He gulps.
The family corgi trots in, and I scratch behind his ears, then toss him a hunk of cheddar.
“Mom, have you been giving him his eye drops? His eyes look extra cloudy.”
“He’s just a dog, honey. He’s fine. Don’t worry about it.” My mother rolls her eyes as she peers into the refrigerator.
“Let’s go! LET’S GO! Everything’s almost ready!” my dad bellows. In sock-footed terror, we pad into the dining room.
A curving bonsai tree is at the center of the table, breathtakingly lovely amidst the chaos. My mother’s tablescaping is as eye-catching and illogical as always. I saw the bonsai in her Facebook post this morning before we came over, but I had no idea what she’d done for place cards. This year, she has opted for hermit crabs with painted shells, each one bearing a name.
“Oh, good Lord, that’s not where you’re supposed to sit, Mary,” she says to me. I start to point at the hermit crab in front of me that says “Mary” in teal paint, then notice that the crabs are slowly crawling all over the table. No one’s crab is at the correct spot anymore. Kevin and I exchange a look. I giggle into my fist, pretending it’s a cough. The “Mary” hermit crab stops abruptly, ducks inside her shell, and goes still. The other hermit crabs keep pacing.
“Jesus Christ,” my mom says, grabbing us one at a time by the shoulders and steering us to the proper seats. I get up almost immediately to refill my gin and tonic before we’re trapped at the table.
My dad stomps into the dining room with two plates overflowing with poultry. “Light meat! Dark meat!” he grunts, pointing at one, then the other.
“They actually did a turkey! That’s really sweet,” I whisper to Kevin, clapping my hands in a brief moment of joy.
We start loading up our plates. “Pass the stuffing,” I say, craving my favorite dish. I stack my plate high with light meat, stuffing, those sweet potatoes with the peculiar marshmallow topping, our green bean dish, and a splash of my mom’s relish, just enough so that she won’t accuse me of not liking her prized recipe.
“Thanks for trying a turkey this year, Mr. and Mrs.—” my husband starts to say.
“Shh! It’s time to say grace,” my mom says, shooting him a glare. “John, do the honors.” It is not a request.
My father sucks gravy off his thumb and begins.
“Our heavenly father, we thank you so much for the blessings you have bestowed on us this year. We are grateful for our health, especially Grandma’s, and that we got to celebrate her ninetieth birthday together last month. We are thankful that Mary actually chose to spend a holiday with us for once, instead of with her in-laws. And we hope that you will watch over Sarah in the new year and help her lose some weight. Anyways, bless this food and the hands that prepared it—that’s me!” he smirks. “Amen.”
“Amen,” we drone, picking up our forks in unison.
I spare a glance at my husband. His mouth is hanging open. I pat his knee sweetly, hoping he can read my mind. It will all be over soon. Let’s just get through this.
He chews slowly on a big bite of stuffing, then forks in another. I take a long sip of my G&T. I have no appetite after that prayer.
“Mary, have you tried the relish? Turned out good this year, didn’t it?”
I swallow a spoonful and fake an appreciative, “Mmm! Mhmm!”
To my left, Kevin’s face is red as a sunburn. His lips and cheeks look plumper than usual, and he keeps scratching behind his ears.
“Lovey, you okay?” I ask. He starts to wheeze and hack. I look him in the eye and realize it’s happening. I’ve never seen Kevin in anaphylactic shock before, but the doom in his eyes is contagious. He massages his flushed neck, gasping for air. He is mouthing something to us.
Everyone lifts forks to lips like nothing is wrong. Only Grandma pauses, her leathery hand tapping my wrist.
“Is he all right?” she asks.
I throw my chair back from the table. “What have you done?”
My parents won’t meet my eyes.
I race into the kitchen and dig through the bottomless pit of my purse until I find Kevin’s EpiPen. Then I fly into the dining room, crash to my knees by his side, and sink the EpiPen into his thigh. I have never had to do this before. People are usually careful when you mention a deadly food allergy.
“The stuffing is so good this year! What did you put in it?” Sarah asks, unfazed.
“Ooh, it’s a calamari stuffing! New recipe. You just chop up the little rings and mix it all in with the bread. Cook it right in the bird.”
Kevin’s breathing seems to be stabilizing. I hold his hand.
“You almost killed my husband!” I thunder.
“What?” says my mom. “He seems fine. You’re overreacting.”
His skin is pink, and his chest heaves. He still can’t speak.
“I thought it was one of those fake allergies. You know, like your lentil allergy, Mary.”
“Mom, my lentil allergy is real!”
“If that’s what you think, sweetheart.”
I feel dizzy, and my stomach is sloshing. All I’ve ingested today is cheese, gin, and a bite of her nasty relish. I lurch to a standing position, pulling Kevin up too. “We’ll be leaving now,” I say with as much ice as I can.
Before I know what’s happening, a clear, runny vomit erupts from me. It douses a hermit crab, causing its paint to run. I wipe a corner of my mouth with a festive napkin, moan, and stagger away.
“And we’re taking the pie!” Kevin manages, before his wheezing starts up again. Relief courses through me at the sound of his voice. As we stumble out of the house, I snatch the corgi. They don’t deserve that dog. The three of us pile into the car, roll the windows down, and coast down the driveway. We’ve barely made it down the block when the hysterical laughter hits. I pull over and let it take me, shaking and laughing until fat tears roll down my cheeks.
Emily Hessney Lynch is a short story writer. She lives in Rochester with her husband and their three rescue dogs. Follow her at @EHL_writes.