Love on the Half Shell

They bonded over an affinity for oysters, but he wasn’t the better half she had hoped for. Ten years later, could they separate without shattering?

By Pacale Le Draoulec
oyster shell image
Photograph: Yasu+Junko

The night before Ty moved out of the house for good, we slurped down three dozen Quilcenes.

I had spent 10 years of my life with a man who shucked oysters for a living, and I’d be damned if I was going to let him walk out the door without teaching me how to shuck.

So, for one night, the last night our girls experienced us as a family in our home, he and I traded tears and barbs for chain mail gloves. Mina, then four, and Sabine, nearly three, couldn’t possibly feel the weight of that meal. From where they stood, on their tippy, tippy toes around the butcher block in our funky 1940s kitchen, we were simply having one of their favorite foods—oysters on the half shell—and they’d get to squeeze the lemons and bang the shells. They didn’t notice that I did not have the heart to set the table. It wasn’t that kind of dinner. He had bought the oysters from the chef at the seafood restaurant where he worked. He’d chosen Quilcenes, from Puget Sound, because, he said, they are easier to open than most oysters. That was a perfect choice: Quilcenes always start sweet on the tongue before taking a briny turn.

To demonstrate, he tucked his elbow into his rib cage and gripped the first oyster in his open-gloved palm, the way he had held our tiny, five-pound Mina, only seconds into her life, as he brought her to my breast. He pried the oyster knife into the hinge, popped it, then pushed the blade in about a half inch before sliding it completely around to the other side, ever so gently, making sure to detach the adductor muscle. “Careful not to lose any of that precious liquor,” he said of the ocean juices protecting the fleshy bivalve like an amniotic sac. He was smiling and boyishly enthusiastic about the task at hand, as though there were nothing more natural than closing the door on a 10-year relationship by opening oysters.

This capacity to live entirely in the moment was seductive at first, but it ultimately led to our undoing. He was a pleaser, and when he was with you, he listened so intently that it made you feel like the center of the universe. It was heady. It was also slightly terrifying. I had watched him connect with complete strangers in much the same way.

Our day-to-day life as a couple had a sweet rhythm. We loved to cook and bake pies together. It was the future that was fuzzy. We had no map. No security. Just interesting days strung together like Christmas lights. From the moment I met him, I wondered if long-term fidelity was something he even aspired to. When you’re born to please, how do you stop?

And so, that comforting image of the elderly couple walking hand in hand in the park? In all the years I tried to picture us as that couple, I just couldn’t.

Nor did I learn how to shuck. When you live with someone who can shuck 163 oysters in 10 minutes (his personal best at an industry Shuck & Swallow competition), you get used to preparing the mignonette sauce or pouring the Muscadet instead.

I was a food writer in San Francisco when we met. My French parents were big oyster lovers, so whenever I moved somewhere new, I sought out the nearest raw bar for my weekly fix. I had become a regular at the Elite Cafe on Fillmore Street when Ty was hired to tend the raw bar. He’d been working in the kitchen when the chef handed him a white double-breasted chef’s coat, some thick protective gloves and his first real “money” job.

A straight, handsome and charismatic bartender who could wax lyrical about oysters? He was a popular guy. He asked me out on a busy Friday night when the raw bar was heaving. A dozen strangers put their cocktails down on the zinc bar and turned to look at me.

“Yes,” I said. And just like that, I opened the door to the deepest pain and the deepest joy I’ve ever felt.

He was in a relationship, of course. So initially we would meet in city parks after his shift, just to talk, about food, mostly. We argued whether it was blasphemy to douse an oyster with hot sauce (of course it is). We pictured the Roman who first stumbled on an oyster on the shore and, as the story goes, had the crazy notion to crack it open and feast on its flesh. When he wasn’t talking food, he would quote entire passages from Borges and Peter Pan.

He moved out of his girlfriend’s apartment so that we could pursue “us.”

My earlier relationships had been with an older Frenchman working for the department of foreign affairs, a CEO and an art director—all successful men going places. An oyster shucker? My friends didn’t see it.

One night he biked over to my apartment with a roll of butcher paper and suggested we map out our life goals by decade. Mine felt so pedestrian, sprawled out on the kitchen table: travel, work at a larger newspaper, write books, have children. His were all about human connections. At the end of his life, he wanted only to know that he had been beloved.

My parents flew up from L.A. to meet Ty a few weeks after we started dating. I took them straight from the airport to the restaurant. I’ll never forget the look on my father’s face when they shook hands across the raw bar for the first time. My father had worked in fancy restaurants his whole life, worn a tuxedo for the better part of 50 years. And as he took in the familiar crisp of Ty’s starched uniform and his beguiling way with customers, I watched a thousand thoughts cross my father’s clenched face. He knew the business too well. And wasn’t the reason he had worked so hard—sometimes three shifts a day in three different restaurants—so that I wouldn’t end up with a waiter? But my parents soon softened, and once Mina and Sabine arrived, it became obvious, to them more than anyone else, why we were together, despite the hardships that followed. Ty was a devoted, thoughtful father who was happy to let me pursue my career while he stayed home to puree carrots and read Dr. Seuss.

I botched the first three oysters, breaking their delicate, nacreous shells. But by the fourth I’d gotten the hang of it. It helped that he, too, was a lefty. The girls waited patiently with mouths agape, baby sparrows in the nest.

The plan was for him to drive the next morning to Colorado, where he would spend the summer with his mother. He’d return in September and find a new place to live. By then, the girls would have grown accustomed to his absence, and it would be easier, I reasoned, to tell them Daddy would be living in a separate house.

For the record, nothing makes that conversation easier.

It was not the first time we had separated. Years earlier, when I was growing increasingly uncomfortable with the flirtatious nature of his job, I decided to cut the adductor muscle and accepted a job as a food columnist in New York. Within days of my arrival there, the love letters started pouring in. Not your typical letters on paper, but love poems or Joni Mitchell lyrics scrawled on a giant cardboard fish, or on a rolling pin or the laminated label of a mayonnaise jar. One morning I looked out the window of my attic apartment, and there was Ty, newly arrived from the West Coast in a U-Haul truck. I took him back.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am not a weak person. I consider the years that were spent agonizing over this man, and I don’t recognize myself. I’m not the kind of person who gets involved with someone who’s already in a relationship. Who was I? Where was I? I look into our children’s eyes, and the questioning stops.

It had been a passionate, volatile relationship from the start, and the end was no different. I call it a marriage, but we never made it official, though he proposed on bended knee and with a ring—you guessed it—tucked inside an oyster shell. It was in Union Square Park, on the first day of spring. Abraham Lincoln and a homeless man wrapped in an army blanket looked on as I stammered a response.

The proposal caught me off guard. We had just started couples counseling.

I was 38, and my window for having children was closing. If I didn’t have kids with Ty, would I ever be a mother? He was an unconventional choice as a mate, but perhaps starting a family would change that, change him. I knew that he would shine as a father, if not as a provider.

I nodded yes.

My doubts and fears put the wedding on the back burner, but I got pregnant almost immediately, then went on an extended book tour. When Mina arrived, we called her our Buddha baby because she did nothing but beam and sleep. At first, Ty seemed to have a sense of purpose. And for a little while, “we” made sense and were genuinely happy. At 40, I was lucky enough to get pregnant again, this time with Sabine. Then the mistrust resurfaced.

I was desperate to spend more time at home with my girls. But how? When? I was the one with the “real” job, so I couldn’t quit. Resentment crept in. Ty was working at a local raw bar on weekends. He was making lots of new friends—all of them women. And one in particular. He’d come home later and later.

No doubt Borges played a part.

Knowing he’d be gone before sunup and pancakes, Ty put the girls to bed with a singsong reading of The Lorax, a family favorite. I stayed downstairs to clean up. Methodically, I collected the chipped and broken shells onto a plate, then scraped them into the trash.

Something made me reach inside and retrieve two of the shells. So white. So pure.

I laid them on the windowsill, and in the morning, after he’d left and before the happy sounds of the girls waking up, I took the shells into the garden and buried them near the butterfly bush. He always said they made great fertilizer.

Instinctively, I put the two shells together before laying them in the dirt. There was a top. There was a bottom. But there was no match.  

Pascale Le Draoulec is the author of American Pie: Slices of Life (and Pie) from America’s Back Roads.

Next: 9 Ways to Be Married

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First Published Tue, 2013-08-06 10:06

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