UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
The Third Date Stir-Fry
She is fumbling with her keys while I fumble to keep the conversation going. Damp palms choking the necks of a red and a white. I hate hallways, so suspicious, closed doors like shy glances; hurry up please.
She throws her keys to a side table and slips out of her coat.
"Should I take my shoes off?"
"What? Oh yeah, sure, go ahead, if you want to."
But I don’t want to, but I do anyways; it's her call. I stand the bottles on the empty counter and rub my hands together to signify that I am prepared to begin doing something.
"So, what'll it be?"
"I thought maybe a stir-fry or something. I'll start chopping vegetables, and why don’t you choose something from the freezer for the meat."
"If you say so." She's in the sunny garden and I'm stuck in the cold hall of hanging carcasses; I hope she isn't so literary. And already she's out with the big blades and bendable cutting boards and shiny plump vegetables . Let's have a glance in the freezer. Absolutely packed, crowded with bricks of wax paper and plastic and foil and foam.
"Anything you want," she says, wonderful, "we'll choose the wine to go with the meat, or fish, if you like."
"Hey, do you have shrimp? I could really go for shrimp."
"You know, I bought some shrimp the other day, they were on special."
"Mmm, discount shrimp."
"Well, I never saw the brand before, but the price was right. They're pre-cleaned and everything, should be just…" And she moves in next to me to rummage deep in the cold box and I could step aside to give her more room but I don't.
But then I do anyways. "I'll open the white." Bottle between the knees, a quick screw and a pop, "where are the glasses? Oh I got them, never mind," and one third up the delicate discount glassware. "Cheers!"
"Here they are… Ya, strange, a new brand, pretty cheap, check 'em out." Hmm, very sizeable shrimps, bluish black stripped shell, translucent off-white flesh, frozen in the typical crescent curl of a crustacean death throe.
She's back at the crispy greens and juicy reds of her market fresh produce. Then I notice the label on the bag of frozen shrimp.
"I know, isn't it?"
"These are Frozen Zombie Shrimp."
"I know, I hope they're good."
"Do you suppose that's why they were on special?"
"You mean, cheaper than frozen non-zombie shrimp?"
"I figure, I mean, if they are in fact zombie shrimp, then they can't be as fresh as non-zombie shrimp, right? Probably taste similar enough but you've got to mark down the price."
"So you think they'll taste different from regular shrimp?"
"Well, probably, I mean, zombie humans are different from regular humans, aren't they?"
"I don't know, have you ever tasted a zombie human?"
She giggles a little and covers her mouth with her sleeve.
"C'mon, humans don’t eat zombies."
"Well, apparently we eat zombie shrimp. Otherwise, why would the supermarket carry them?"
"What? I don't know, profit? That's their business."
I'm holding the bag up to the light and maneuvering the shrimp around for closer inspection. "Do you think farming and packaging zombie shrimp is so much cheaper than regular shrimp that profits would outweigh any concern for basic nutrition and overall quality of taste?" But as soon as I ask this I drop the bag onto the counter and turn away from its contents.
"They can't be all bad if the supermarket sells them. I mean, if companies exist that farm them."
"If it's there, eat it, right?"
"Exactly." She's nibbling stray ends of produce while she chops.
"The, do you think there's any danger in farming zombie shrimp, like, for the workers?"
She throws her head back and beams me a 'you're so cute' smile.
"They're shrimp, Michael, what danger could they possibly pose? Now, stop over-analyzing and get those little devils out of the bag and into a hot pan so we could fry their cute little asses." She's waving a hot red pepper in my face, I can't help feeling the blood rush in my pants. Still, something continues to worry me, something about sea food and freshness and whether she's going to properly wash her hands after handling that hot pepper before using her fingers in a non-culinary fashion.
And into the pan goes the oil. And into the oil goes the hot pepper, green pepper, mushrooms, garlic and onion. Her little studio is heating up and the white wine is going down. She's swaying and humming a tune and I'm leaning in close to hear it over the sound of the sizzle. Have to hold back the urge to drink too quickly. She bumps my hip with hers and nods, "we're waiting for our little shrimpies in here." This is gong well, I guess.
I grab the bag, tear open a corner and shake them out one by one into the hot mix. Dangerous oil pellets are thrown up upon impact. The sounds of sizzling and popping are loud and uncomfortable. She's got her back turned and is singing over the sink. I grab a wooden spoon with the good and simple intention of stirring. It's all about good intentions.
Waiting to watch the colour of the shrimp change from bluish to reddish. Waiting to see the completion of their curve from crescent to spiral. Waiting to see. Waiting. Wondering. Is this what I've been waiting for?
They twitch. There is a definite twitching. Or is it a jerking? Or is it a convulsing? What is that sound? Keep stirring. "Um, Sarah, you want to come here and have a look for a second?"
"Hang on, I'm going to pop that second bottle. Should I open it? I mean shrimp and white wine normally, right? But who cares, I'm going to open the red." If we bought, we drink it, isn't that how it goes?
Sure, I'll just keep everything moving, keep flinging them back and forth against the walls of the pan, stirring, not thinking. This is the third date after all, the 'lets stay in and cook together' date; just be yourself and relax. The well-made bed just waiting over my shoulder a couple of steps away from her kitchenette. The front door just as close in the other direction. A quick screw and a pop and lets start in on the red now, shall we? "Cheers!" First zip and the wine goes down the wrong pipe, cough, cough, she gives a sweet pat on my back, and I'm struggling to stay cool. Still…
"Do you think zombie shrimp just eat other normal shrimp the way zombie humans eat normal humans?"
"Michael, Michael, you analyze things way too much."
"They just don’t look happy in there."
"Of course they're not happy. They're shrimps, what reason does a shrimp have to be happy? They walk around on the bottom of the ocean floor while all the real fish get to swim around. It’s so degrading. And do you know what they eat?"
"But… Do you not think that being zombies have anything to do with their unhappiness?"
"Come on, zombies having feelings? Don’t you watch movies?"
"Well, ok. Maybe they look so pissed off…" they do actually look genuinely vicious, "…because they're being fried in hot oil, then?"
She leans over the pan and raises an eyebrow. "OK, ya, I see what you mean, a little different. But seriously, pissed off? They've been cleaned, they don’t have faces. Without a face, you can’t even express anger." She scowls at me in mock anger.
I gulp down my glass of wine and hold back the face motivated by my choice in bottle, which in turn was motivated by thrift. "Listen, Sarah, the question is, is it right to eat zombie shrimp?"
"You mean, morally? Oh god, Michael."
"I don't mean to get philosophical, but…"
"Listen. The supermarket carries them. And if the price is right, we buy them. It's as simple as that. Now…" She moves in close, presses me against the counter with her waist, we kiss, finally, finally we kiss, I am close to being into this, and she keeps her hands to her sides "…go set the table, these little zombie shrimp fuckers are just about ready." Wonderful.
The half empty bottle of red and I are at the table having a staring contest. He wins and I drain his contents. She's still doing her little dance and singing her little song; there's absolutely nothing wrong. This date is going so well, couldn't ask for more: maybe more wine, maybe a longer hallway leading off to the bathroom, maybe an emergency escape plan, maybe a flame thrower. Here she comes with a steaming dish, "Bon appétit!"
The zombie shrimp are definitely writhing, arching their chewy torsos round and round, squirming through the yellowish sauce and bits of vegetables, making horrible screeching sounds over a maggoty seethe, a curried ballet of fishy anguish.
"Hey, you finished the wine!"
"What? Oh, I'll pop out and get more." Without hesitation I'm tossing my napkin from my lap to the table but she's having none of it and letting me know that I'm not going anywhere because she has a plan, and it's all going so well, and aren't I lucky to be allowed to play this role tonight, and for this one night only.
"You're not going anywhere." More mocking, playing the sexy fascist prison guard, the deranged macabre master chef, and what oh what could possible be for dessert?
"Listen Sarah, I like you, I really do," she's ladling them onto the plate, "I've been looking forward to this…" directly in front of me, "…date for a while," not two inches from my lap.
"So have I, calm down Michael. It's just dinner, you know, afterwards well…" pausing, with a vibrating ladleful in the air, tight eyes fixed only on me, "whatever happens, happens."
I bear my fork to test out the resistance heaving up against the edge of my plate. "I just don’t know what's going to happen."
One's escaped; there's a scramble on the table. She sets herself up straight and keeps looking at me, just keeps looking at me. And I'm changing the grip on my fork from spear to stab and begin a frantic attack on the squirming undead bottom dweller.
"Michael," I hear a hint of crushed expectations while I struggle with the slippery the beast humping his way across the table. "Why are you getting so worked up?"
"They're Fucking Zombie Shrimp, Sarah, Fucking Zombies, in our stir fry! Can't you see they're moving?!" My voice cracking. It's on the floor and I'm up and the others breach my plate and I'm feeling surrounded and vulnerable and somewhere in my mad dance I see her, still seated, still completely unaware of how utterly terrified I am right now.
The ladle falls from her hand. She eyes me, using those same big eyes that have held up a constant play of smiling and flirting, eyes that were girly and warm. Those eyes are now framed by nervous twitching brows, those eyes are now laminated by a moist sparkle.
I surrender to those eyes. There is a moment of near silence; the seething is nothing but a far away muffle. My childish fear and panic retreat shamefully. It no longer matters that there is a blitzkrieg of angry zombie shrimp racing towards the bottom edge of my vision, threatening to disappear. I am locked in her gaze, feeling something like a sad peace as the city walls begin falling to the siege. I want to say that I'm sorry, but I hesitate and she lowers her eyes.
But then I decide to say it anyways, "Sarah, I'm- OW Fuck!" And she's up and begins clearing the table and Where The Hell Did They Get Teeth? There's warm wet gnawing around my ankle and I'm jerking my leg out and back as I try to walk over to her, trying to remain calm, all the while flinging my leg and holding back a scream and holding back the face that tries to hold back the scream and trying to reach her before she dumps our whole dish down the sink and with it our chances of having a lovely home cooked dinner together and who knows what else.
She turns, the cooling stir fry dish is shaking in her hands. I pause, one pained leg suspended in mid air, arms waving around for balance. "It's not about the food, is it Michael? I mean, look at you." She nods toward the mirror on the wall. Glancing at myself, I almost fall but I don’t, must compose myself, take a breath and- RRRgh! It's halfway up my leg, a sick sucking on the inside of my thigh, keep cool, Fuck, Fuck, Fuck, more of them on my ankles now, keep going forward, go to her, I'm losing blood, my leg is warm and wet and halfway numb. Just go to her.
"Maybe you should go." She's just standing there, frozen eyes pointlessly surveying the ground around her feet. A dizziness sets in, how much damage can shrimp do? Even if they are Zombies, they are still Shrimp. I Am Bigger, I think, as I swoon and lunge forward to keep from falling and to reach her NOW before it's too late.
She catches me. I take her hands to steady our dinner, my palms are wet with cold sweat, and I bring her retreating attention back up from nothingness. It takes heaps of strength I never knew I had to hold her gaze, and to speak without a hint of this absurdly awkward torment.
"I want to stay." And I want to tell her all about myself, reluctance to commit, fear of getting older, addiction to upper middle class luxury, that I am not a nice boy, that I am petty, irritable, and selfish, and I want to tell her but the shellfish are tearing away at my flesh and burrowing towards my bones and no matter what, I just want to lie beside her and wake up next to her in her girly little apartment under the warm gaze of her smiling eyes and my own eyes can't bear all this pain and out comes the tears and I try to say something more but all that comes out is a whimper.
She lets the dish drop. "We'll clean it later." We will, and she takes me in her arms and I let just the slightest sob slip out onto her shoulder. She holds my face and smiles through her misunderstood joy. Her smiling eyes say, 'What a silly boy, what'll I ever do with you?' I'm tearing and she goes to wipe them from my eyes and outside this gesture I feel absolutely nothing, not for the living nor the dead, nor the undead. Nothing, and it's wonderful.
And then I feel the burning sting in my eyes from the hot pepper residue still lingering on her fingertips.Michael Zunenshine lives in Montreal. His various jobs include English language teacher and pornography screenwriter. Other material of his can be found at thenormalmachine.com.
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