On Valentines Day, 1994, my dad called us from work to tell us he got a job promotion.
“Hell yeah, we’re going to celebrate tonight!” shouted my mom, as she hung up the phone. My sister and I cheered, because we knew what “celebrate” probably meant: A Fancy Seafood Dinner
My family was a low-budget household. We ate lots of hamburger helper. Tuna toast. Things from boxes, spruced up with canned vegetables (fresh produce was both costly, and not terribly abundant during icy Minnesota winters). Aside from fish sticks, seafood was a rare luxury, and reserved for straight-A report cards, birthdays, and the occasional harrowing doctor’s visit.
We all assumed we’d be going to Red Lobster that night to celebrate the big promotion, but my dad surprised us by coming home with an armful of Alaskan king crab legs instead.
“These were on sale at Rainbow!” said my dad. “We’ll eat like Alaskan kings tonight!”
After swallowing our collective disappointment knowing that Red Lobster was no longer a possibility, my mom brought out a giant kettle, filled it with water, and snapped open a tube of Pillsbury biscuits. My dad popped some champagne, lit some candles for atmosphere, and put on his favorite Moody Blues CD. It was party time.
In the midst of the meal production, the phone rang.
“Skjerly residence, this is big bad Randy speaking.” said my dad. By this time, he was about three glasses of champagne into the evening’s festivities. “Greetings Gregg. Why yes, my eldest daughter is here. Do you wish to speak with her? Hold please.”
My dad looked at me, and flicked his tongue twice. This was The Signal to indicate my boyfriend Gregg* (name changed to protect privacy) was calling. Why did he do this? Because he was certain that Gregg was some sort of lizard creature.
“His teeth are too small, and his gums are too big” my dad said, after meeting Gregg for the first time. “And his eyes are too far apart. Never trust anyone with their eyes too far apart because they’re criminals.”
I took the phone. Gregg informed me he was getting off work early and wanted to hang out. Though I’d been excited to finally celebrate Valentine’s day proper-style with an actual boyfriend (my first one!) Gregg had already given me a long speech about how stupid and commercial Valentine’s day is and how he doesn’t recognize it as a holiday. (Note: This didn’t stop me from writing him a sappy poem for him that I planned to share as soon as I saw him again.)
I told Gregg we were celebrating my dad’s job promotion, and that he was welcome to join us for crab dinner if he wanted. Though Gregg was a vegetarian, he accepted the invitation, and said he’d just eat the side dishes. Cool.
So, there we all were, sitting around the table: Me, my mom, my little sister Laura, my dad, and Gregg. Laura, who wasn’t a fan of crab, took the job of cracking the crab legs for us. She’d grab some crab, crush it with a nutcracker, and throw it to whoever was next up for a bite. Sometimes she’d make the crab legs dance first. Sometimes she’d open and close the claws menacingly.
“Isn’t it kind of weird that crabs are sea spiders and we eat them?” I said, dipping my crab leg into a bowl of hot garlic butter, and sucking down the sweet meat inside.
“Ooooh, I’m a big sea spidah! Don’t eat me madam!” my sister shouted, in the voice of Sebastian the Crab from the movie Little Mermaid.
Everyone was having such a festive time that nobody noticed Gregg was no longer nibbling at his biscuits, and his skin was starting to turn gray. When my sister accidentally hit him in the face with a crab claw while pitching to my dad, Gregg cleared his throat and asked, in a small creaky voice, if he might be excused.
We all stared at him, baffled. Nobody in the history of our family dinners had ever formally asked to be excused from the table. We always just roll up, plow our plates, and leave the table belching whenever we’re done.
“Suuuure,” said my dad.
Gregg disappeared, presumably to the bathroom. My dad flicked his tongue twice at me.
“Daaaaad!” I shouted through clenched teeth. “Stop it!”
After about 10 minutes, Gregg had not returned to the table.
“Do you think he’s dead?” asked my Dad, with the a hint of a hopeful look.
“Err….Maybe I should go look for him,” I said.
I searched around for Gregg. He wasn’t in the bathroom. He wasn’t in the backyard. Had he gone home? Then I heard it. A strange noise in the basement. It sounded almost like someone was rolling something. A wagon? A rolling pin? Marbles?
I ventured southward, and there I found Gregg in the vegetable bin, rocking back and forth on his skateboard and groaning.
“What’s wrong Gregg, are you sick?” I asked, reaching out my hand to him.
At first he said nothing, just kept rocking. Finally, he said. “The crab….The cracking…It…reminded me of…of…oohhhhhhhh….so….awful….”
I thought perhaps he had a traumatic childhood crab memory that had surfaced over dinner. Was he attacked by a crab on a trip to Florida perhaps? Did he eat some bad seafood once and get food poisoning? Or, was it the noise itself…”The cracking.” Lighting? Baseball bats? So many things can make a cracking sound.
“It’s okay, you can tell me,” I said, stroking his damp hair.
“Oh god. The cracking reminded me of….of the Jews in Schindler’s List”
A week earlier, we had seen the movie Schindler’s List. Like most people in the theater that evening, were both moved to tears. Gregg, in particular, was so moved by the film that he fell into a 48 hour funk, which included sour naps and rumination about the evils of humanity. However, it seemed we’d moved on with our lives since then.
But….how?” I asked. I was genuinely perplexed at the connection between crab legs and Jews. No doubt, the Nazis inflicted terrible atrocities on Jews, and many other people during the holocaust. Unspeakable horrors, each one worse than the next. But, to my knowledge, there weren’t any Nazis who boiled the legs of Jews, and ate them with garlic butter. I mean, the Nazis were a sick bunch, but….cannibalism?
“You don’t…..get it,” he said, shooting me a patronizing look.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and continued to stroke his head. And then, I remembered something! The Valentines Poem I had written for him, folded up in my pocket. I figured this would surely cheer him up.
“Hey, I know you don’t like Valentine’s day, but I wrote you a little poem anyway,” I said, fishing out the piece of paper from my jeans. It was decorated with vampire hearts because we were goths. I handed it to him.
“My love for you is a midnight sun.
A hot thing, shining through darkness.
I was lost, but you’ll find me all the time,
I was scattered, but you brang me home.
Now I’m not so totally alone,
And now, I must bid adieu.
All I have to say is Gregg I love you.”
He looked at it for a long long time. My face got hot. Why was he so quiet?
“Well….?” I asked, expecting him to leap into my arms.
“Please……don’t ever do anything like this again,” he said, frowning at me.
“Oh,” I said, “Sorry.”
“It’s fine, whatever, it’s just…it’s embarrassing….”
I felt like I wanted to die. The pound of crab meat in my belly started churning. I put the poem on top of some canned peas, and fought back tears.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
I can’t remember what happened right after that. Probably we kissed and made up. What I do remember is coming home from school the next day and finding the Valentines’ poem on my bed. From 20 feet away, I could see that there was a note attached to it, in my dad’s loopy wild red-pen scrawl. (Note: my dad is a writer, and former English teacher)
“Bean. Nice poem you wrote there! Lovely images with the midnight sun. But be careful of mixing verb tenses.”
It didn’t take the sting away from Gregg’s episode at the crab leg dinner, but I felt validated by my dad’s note–especially because I was a wannabe writer, and emulated him in every way. Though Valentine’s Day is sorta ruined for since that incident, I would still sit down and crack some crab with my dad any day, because he makes everything fun.
Happy Father’s day, Dad!