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.

First published in the September 2013 issue

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