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I always stop whenever I see “Lobster Bisque” on the soup menu, and I smile. That isn’t because lobster bisque is a particular favorite of mine. I never had much interest in “lobster anything,” unlike the people who rave about lobsters and have to order them whatever the cost, even though the menu may warn, “Lobsters are priced according to season and availability.” Like shrimp, their baby cousins, they remind me of insects. Lobsters are alien crustaceans, creatures from another planet, subjects fit more for a science fiction film than for lunch, drawn butter or not. I never ate a lobster or wanted to. But besides that, I never particularly cared for any kind of soup, which my father referred to as “belly wash” when I was growing up, even when he was talking about the thick homemade stuff my mother made on special occasions, with orzo or noodles and vegetables and little hand rolled meatballs.
“Jo–seph, why don’t you just try the soup?” my mother nagged and begged, never giving up hope of getting me to expand my food horizons. “Just try it once. You like my meatballs, the little ones I rolled by hand.” My mother wasn’t above laying on the guilt when pleading didn’t work. “I made this soup especially for you.”
In my youth I had an acute gag reflex with a hair trigger that I could turn on and off. It was very helpful whenever I wanted to get sent home from school, but it was a handicap whenever I ate something I didn’t like. All that goodness in my mother’s soup, like the lumps in her farina, only made me retch, like a cat passing a hairball. So I grew up trying to avoid soup all together, but on those rare occasions that I ate any soup, I preferred the Campbell’s condensed variety, and then only tomato soup, pureed and congealed into a thick paste loaded with salt that was reconstituted into “soup semblance” when my mother mixed it with water, or maybe some milk when I wasn’t looking, to make it creamier. No, my relationship with lobster bisque began a long time before, on that glorious early autumn afternoon I took my ex-wife, then my pre-wife, for a walking tour of City Island in The Bronx.
In those simpler days, before the disaster that became our marriage, I was still trying to impress her, and Olivia was still in love with me. Insatiable, we made love every opportunity we had. “Plan B” we called it, and we reverted to the plan whenever we could, whenever her parents were out of the house and instead of going to the movies or visiting relatives on rainy Sunday afternoons. Then her pet name for me was “Oh Babe,” and I lovingly called her “Oh Labia,” long before the divorce attorneys “stirred the soup pot,” and I became “Fucking Asshole,” and used a “C” word to replace not only O’s labia, but the rest of her as well.
By the time the afternoon sun was slanting over the City Island yardarm, the two of us were hungry enough to drift, arm in arm, into one of the many restaurants with nautical sounding names that lined City Island Avenue.
Inside the restaurant, festooned with nets and lobster traps and plastic crabs, was dark and empty, with a slight smell of fish, which I took to be not a good sign of things to come. The waiter, who was counting his tips in a corner, seemed surprised to see us appear out of the afternoon sunlight, too late for the lunch crowd and much too early for the dinner rush.
“Two?” he asked in a practiced tone and showed us to a table at the back, close to the noise and the smells of kitchen, so he wouldn’t have far to walk, I assumed. “You’re too late for the buffet.” He pointed to a bored looking busboy removing the last remains of food from the long table where the buffet had been set up. “But if you hurry up and order,” he looked at his wristwatch, “you can still get the lunch special.” He handed over two menus before we could respond and he disappeared into the kitchen behind the busboy, probably, I thought, to dump into containers the last of the buffet that would become our late lunch entries. “What do you think?” I asked Olivia. I pulled the paper wrapper off a skinny breadstick chewed on it. “Are you in the mood for ‘see food’?” I stuck out my tongue and showed her.
“You are so funny.” She laughed and touched my arm. “But it can’t be anything strange or exotic. I’m just starting to eat fish.”
Olivia was a “selective vegetarian” then, which meant she didn’t eat red meat, but allowed herself chicken and turkey, if when it was served it bore no resemblance to the beast. And only recently she began to tolerate the mildest of fish, but only if it was square, white, flakey and fried in batter, flour or breadcrumbs. My tolerance for seafood was less than that for soup, and the only fish that ever passed over my lips and teeth came from McDonalds, Mrs. Paul or the Gorton’s of Gloucester man and slathered in tartar sauce to disguise the fact that it was fish of any kind.
I looked over the menu that was divided into sections and written in Italian – Insalata Soupa, Pesce, Carne, Pollo – with the descriptions of each in English. My eye stopped when I saw Lobster Bisque. For some reason I was intrigued. Perhaps it was the crisp sea air that led me to go against everything I ever stood for and I announced with a flourish, “I think I’m going to live dangerously and try the lobster bisque. I never had lobster before, and I don’t have a clue what ‘bisque’ is, but it looks like it might be good. And if you want you can try it.”
“Not me. Lobsters are like cockroaches,” she said, and I could feel my stomach lurch as my gag reflex tried to kick in. “But you go ahead and enjoy it.”
When the waiter returned from the kitchen smelling of cigarette smoke I placed the order for both of us, everything from salad to dessert, including the bisque, and we sat back playing footsies until the same busboy brought out two crystal glasses that he filled with water from a pitcher with lemons floating in it, and another brought the silverware that he laid carefully in front of us. Then the waiter came with a basket of fresh bread covered in a cloth napkin to keep it warm. And on the next trip he laid a delicate bowl of pink soup on a doilied plate next to me. I sniffed it. “It doesn’t smell bad,” I said, isolating the soupspoon from the rest of the silverware and dipping it into the bowl. “Here goes nothing.” I steeled myself, but I wasn’t prepared for the taste, which was surprisingly pleasant. “This is pretty good. I had no idea that bisque is a cold soup. Do you want to taste it?”
She shook her head. “Enjoy it,” and she and watched me eat. I dropped my spoon into the mix and savored the flavor. “I really think you ought to try it,” I said, sounding like my mother. “I think you would really like it. It’s very rich. And the lobster has an almost sweet taste. Come on, have a little.”
She grimaced and shook her head. “No thanks. You finish it.” In a matter of minutes I was scraping the bottom of the bowl with my spoon, tempted to pick up the bowl and lick it clean, it was that good. “Delicious,” I said. “I think that lobster bisque is going to be my new all-time favorite, even better than tomato soup.” I broke off a piece of crusty Italian bread to sop up what soup was left.
The waiter came back just as I finished my soup and pushed the empty bowl across the table. Carefully he set another one in front of me. “What’s this?” I asked.
“The lobster bisque you ordered, sir.”
I looked at the pink and steaming bowl. “Then what was that?” I pointed to the empty one.
“Russian dressing,” he said in an even tone with a straight face. “I’m glad to see you really liked it.”
Olivia left the table in a rush and headed to the ladies room. She didn’t come back for twenty minutes, and was not the same when she did. The waiter disappeared, too, into the kitchen in the other direction. The entire time Olivia and I were trying to eat our meals in silence, I heard sounds coming from behind the swinging kitchen door and I watched as the busboys and then the chef took turns sticking their heads through into the dining room for a closer look and an occasional nod.
Olivia and I were doomed even before we started. I don’t think that afternoon on City Island had anything to do with it. Maybe that was when the handwriting first appeared on the walls, but I was too full of lobster bisque and Russian dressing to notice it. To this day, whenever I see lobster bisque on a menu I have to order it. And sometimes I even use it to dress my salad.