Boil Me Alive
I sometimes play this game with myself where I pretend to choose my own involuntary death. If I had the choice, which would I prefer? Cancer? Something slow and private, to savor the last bit of life clinging to my bones? Or something quick and bright? A car accident. A meteor dazzling the sky, a catastrophe, a selfish want to not die alone.
I play this game now, as I sit in the thick soup of Florida heat watching the man I am supposed to love washing live crawfish for a boil. After two years together, he decided it was time to introduce me to his childhood home, with cyprus kneed swamps and salt choked air. A crawfish boil is a southern rite of passage, he says. A Floridan ritual. Although I too bloomed from the mud of the Mississippi, I can’t help to feel like my absence of southern pride is another thing which separates us.
He explains to me how you must first soak the small crustaceans in a vat of water to purge their systems and kill their bacteria brimmed flesh. Crawfish are bottom feeders. Similarly, I am a vegetarian. He knows this, but I remind him anyway how it strikes me cruel to scare something literally shitless before declaring it ready for consumption. As if it weren’t already proving itself inedible by the definition of scavenger.
“You don’t have to eat em’ but you gotta look,” he says to me, his face proud as if there were something to be proud of.
Against my better judgment, I stand over the bucket brimmed with writhing creatures fighting leg over claw and think of Dante’s inferno. I spot a small one, half the size of the others and the same color as a healed scab struggling to break free. I take pity on it. I see in that crawfish what I imagine my own wavering hope embodies. The hope to escape a place I don’t belong. I pick it up by a claw, holding it far enough away from me as if to prove I am harmless.
“Can I keep it?” I ask.
“What would you want to do that for? It’ll die anyway. You don’t know how to care for it.”
I don’t know why I listen, but I place the creature back and watch him stir the brown water until I can no longer distinguish one from the other.
When it is time for the boil, he spices the pot with cayenne and onions. Salt and mushrooms. Green beans as long and thin as fingers. There are other flavors added in that I don’t have names for. The smell blurs my vision.
“This is the most important part,” he says, “you don’t want the flavor to be overwhelming. Otherwise you’ll make a mess of the whole thing.”
I decide that I would never choose to die via tear gas. I wipe my nose with my sleeve. It’s June and the flies swarm thick around us like great ash snowflakes. They sense the death in the air. I watch as he drains the bath and scoops the crawfish handful by handful into the pot of boiling water. I close my eyes and try to imagine what it would be like. I listen for the screams but hear only the buzz of flies circling my ears.
He lines the table with months-old newspapers, with headlines reading Florida Students Hid in Classrooms, Closets During Deadly School Shooting and Ready for Summer? Heat on the Rise! Would I prefer to get shot or baked alive? He explains the proper way is to pour the meal directly on the table and dig in. To eat like animals. To bring us back to our roots. I don’t bring up the point he has never gone camping or that just yesterday he asked me if the mushrooms growing in our garden could cause dysentery. I nod, which makes me feel like an accomplice.
The creatures stare back at me with small, dead, tar drop eyes. He shows me how to peel them by twisting the heads away from the bodies, listening for the snap before sucking the meat from the tails. He does this in such a fluid, practiced motion I can’t help but feel impressed. Crack, slurp. Crack, slurp. I break one myself for the experience, marveling at the ochre colored guts. The shell stings my fingers, a small punishment for holding onto something damaged.
He shows me his hands after the meal, his fingers seared red from microscopic slices filled with cayenne and salt. He has tears in his eyes, though he is trying to hide them. I smile, take his fingertips between my lips, spice the wounds with my tongue. I let him teach me this lesson on death, knowing soon enough, we too will be ready for boil. Our future together will be split, the tender flesh of our intimacy exposed for feast in poems or stories recited over drinks to new lovers in strange bars. The places I once kissed will be burnt raw. His absence as empty as the crawfish shells littering the table. This love, yet another delicious ritual of suffering.