Tuesday, October 14, 2008


Fifteen years ago, i was dirt-poor by vocation. Despite belonging to the lowest rung of the economic ladder, i still had this penchant for eating, and i meant eating healthy. Because i was lactose-intolerant (by choice) i had to make sure i had calcium in my diet not necessarily dairy-based. I lived in a small bungalow with three housemates. We chipped in for food and other bills. I did the budgeting and so i had the prerogative to decide our daily menu.

Fifteen years ago, my part of the country was hit by El Nino phenomenon which made it very hot and dry, Pacific Ocean warmed up which caused phytoplanktons to flourish and contaminated several species of fish and other sea creatures I loved so much to gorge on. We got regular red tide updates to make sure people stayed away from eating shrimps, crabs and shellfish caught in specific bays. I particularly liked mussels; unfortunately mussels was regularly in the list of inedible shellfish. Red tide can be fatally toxic if ingested in large amount by eating contaminated creatures from the sea. So if you ate one, two or three shrimp, for example, you'd still be okay.

Anyways, i love mussels, not only because mussels are rich in calcium but because they're cheap. One evening, 15 years ago, i bought a kilo of that shellfish for dinner. A kilo of medium-sized mussels would get you more than 40 pieces. There were 4 of us in the house, so there was enough for everyone. When i served it on dinnertime E, a small guy with a big appetite and would eat anything served on the table commented when he saw what we were having that night, "isn't there red tide?". I quickly replied, "no, i checked the papers. Red tide alert has been lifted." He wasn't convinced at all. He said that two weeks ago there was still a ban on shellfish. That made the two other housemates hesitate to start eating. Sensing that, i said with feigned doubt, "if you don't want to eat, then don't. I will"

I put steamed rice on my plate and ladled a soup using the shell itself (trust me, that's the way to do it), then started munching the flesh. I have perfected my mussel dish and i knew that every time i cooked it, it was always a gastronomic experience for all of us. They began to follow my lead and soon enough empty shells were piling up in a spare bowl. We exchanged banters as we stuffed our stomachs with rice and mussels, sipping soup with the shells.

When we finished H, whose weight was assymetric to her height, brought out her cigarette to smoke. E started picking anything that stuck between his teeth. M drank coffee while ranting about his day. I was, however, not as jolly as i normally would be. I felt different that night. I was a little giddy. I thought my lips were swelling. I surreptitiously led my hand to my lips, touched to verify for myself if they were really puffing up. I felt tiny stabbing pains around my lips. "Uh-oh," i told myself while concealing every attempt to flinch, "could this be red tide poisoning?." No one noticed that i wasn't in my usual self. I looked at everyone, i tried so hard to discern if they like me, were experiencing secreted terror that maybe, just maybe, the mussels we ate were toxic.

After a while everyone stood up and did the nightly routine, M cleaned the table, H washed the dishes, E swept the floor. Because we have a policy that cooks never wash, I had the privilege to laze around while they all got busy. But I couldn’t get myself to relax with the guilt and terror in me combined. I was guilty that perhaps the ban on shellfish hasn’t really been lifted yet and I made them eat. Terror that we would not reach dawn and we’d all be stiff dead by the morning.

I wasn’t really certain of anything then, it could be that I was just scaring myself; what I was feeling might only be psychosomatic. I opted to keep mum that night so as not to start panic situation right there and then which might prove unfounded afterall. But I figured, that should there really be poisoning, somebody had to rush us to the hospital to get treatment just in case.

To arrest any appaling scenario sooner or later I went to the john. I genuflected in front of the toilet bowl, quietly I reached deep for my throat (it sounds dirty but it’s really not), depressed the inner end of my tongue to induce vomiting. Instantly I began to throw up, I let everything out till I could retch no more and could only taste repugnantly bitter bile. I washed up and went out of the john, saw my housemates ready to retire that night. We all went to bed, but before I finally allowed myself to drift to sleep I took a good loving look at each one of them. I reproached myself in advance. It was the most troubled sleep I had in all the years of my existence.

The morning after, barely awake I heard bustlings around the house. I peeked with one eye, unsure of what i might discover, I saw E whistling while he tinkered with the radio. H was outside yelling at him to get his dirty clothes so she could wash them. I rose and walked out of the room, found M reading the newspaper while sipping coffee with his feet propped on the center table. There they were, alive and energetic. I, with everything I ate thrown up the night before, however, was starving. E saw me and said, “oh you're awake, let’s have breakfast.” Our breakfast? leftover mussels.

Months later i confessed to E. "Shame on you, you would have let us killed" he said. I defended myself, "I didn't. I puked to no end to make sure one of us could act on an emergnecy. Besides, i starved the following morning." E laughed maniacally, ' We couldn't die. I knew there was no red tide."

Years later, i realized i am actually allergic to mussels.

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