Last Breath

It was almost like any ordinary restaurant experience. Really, it is—or so Serena kept insisting to herself while trying to enjoy this ristorante al mare. A place she had been taken to by her Italian relatives for yet another taste of la dolce vita. Authentic la dolce vita, not just some dumb-ass American’s misguided notion of what that “should” mean (usually, red and white checkered tablecloths adorned with Chianti bottles). And, although Serena had been coming to the stivalo for many years now, she had never quite gotten used to certain authenticities. Such as shrimp being served with their heads still on, or, as was the case tonight, the dead fish that diners were about to consume being displayed right behind them. Not even in a tank, mind you. Just laid out on a bed of ice. Anyone passing could touch the fish’s scales if they wanted to—but then, why would they want to? At the same time, Serena had to assume that a lust for tactility with food wasn’t out of the question in this country either.

Serena had the misfortune of being seated at the head of the table, where the non-tank was directly in view. In fact, she was just mere inches away from it. And, even though she tried not to look too closely, she couldn’t help but become transfixed by one helpless gray fish in particular. It didn’t require much careful staring to discern that the fish was very “fresh” indeed, for it was still visibly breathing. The body moved up and down (or is it in and out?), up and down, doing so more slowly with each increasingly strained breath. The sight was starting to weigh on Serena’s conscience, making her want to vomit. Of course, she couldn’t mention her disgust to the tableful of family members she was currently surrounded by, for they had taken great pains to drive her all this way—wanting her to experience this restaurant specifically. Offering the best seafood in all of Campania. She didn’t bother telling them that seafood wasn’t exactly her favorite cuisine. That would have been something akin to sacrilege. And the last thing she wanted was for them to think of her as being even more American than they already did. American was a dirty word, and it had been long before a particular Oompa Loompa managed to secure the U.S. presidency. Thus, Serena wanted to do everything in her power to seem as “un-American” as possible (much to Senator McCarthy’s disappointment).

In her estimation, that meant going along with this charade of being passionate about fish. Even though seeing it expire before her very eyes was causing a combination of anxiety and the desire to retch. After about five minutes of trying not to make eye contact with the poor pesce, who she had decided to name simply “Gray,” Serena excused herself to go to the bathroom. Maybe then she could get some respite from imagining Gray calling out to her, “How could you do this to me? What have I ever done to you?” and “Save me, you callous bitch! Don’t just watch me die!” Standing in the cramped stall (she didn’t actually have to use the toilet, as one might have guessed), it occurred to her that, with her luck, Gray was going to be the fish she was served. Worse still, he would be presented in his “whole” state. That was the other thing about “authenticity”—heads still on shrimps also meant fish “un-filleted” (or “bones and scales and all,” if you will). So Serena would be made to stare even closer into the face of the creature whose death she had essentially invoked by being a human being. All humans (especially in Italy) assumed to eat fish, meat and anything else with a face. But no, Serena thought, I can fight back. I can take a stand. Prove to this place and these people that stamping out another sentient life to enrich your own is morally reprehensible. A sharp knock at the door interrupted her stream of consciousness. “Scusa, ma hai finito là dentro?”

She most definitely was not “finito là dentro.” Alas, what choice did she have but to submit to the rules of the public space by surrendering her stall to the impatient person waiting? When Serena opened the door, she saw the rotund woman with a huge mole on her face and a visible mustache glaring at her. She then derisively asked, “Stavi scavando una buca per andare in Cina?” Ignoring her comment about taking too much time, Serena merely smiled sweetly and proceeded to wash her hands without saying a word. The mustachioed woman muttered more offensive comments beneath her breath as she grandiloquently entered the stall and slammed the door shut. Moments later, she was shitting with the sounds of bombast a foley artist might make. If that wasn’t enough to put Serena off her appetite, returning to the table was. For, upon sitting down, Gray appeared to have moved even closer to her so as to parade his slow, labored breaths with more clarity. For an instant, she imagined his face being smashed against the window and his mouth moving to say, “Hurry up, it’s not too late to rescue me!”

Her Aunt Emelda’s voice shook her out of her waking nightmare to ask, “Serena, che tipo di pesce vuoi?” Serena would have loved to respond honestly and earnestly, “None. I want no kind of fish—other than to see a live one swimming freely in the sea.” Instead, she said, “Oh… you choose.” The minutes ticking by felt like hours, with the cameriere finally arriving to take everyone’s order. Serena kept bracing herself to see Gray being taken off the ice to be served to her, but it never happened. In lieu of that, the table of ten was brought an assortment of fritti misti before their main dishes of, as expected, whole-bodied fish were brought out. During what felt like this interminable period, Serena continued to glance at Gray while also trying not to notice him at all.

She kept making silent deals with herself, like, “If I look over at him in another minute and he’s still breathing, I’ll grab him and run to the ocean to throw him back in.” But she knew such internal assurances were unrealistic. It would take her forever to run down to the beach from the hill they were perched upon. Unless of course she actually tried or something. That’s when it dawned on Serena that she had never really tried at anything, had constantly just “gone with the flow.” It was then she remembered the adage, “Only dead fish swim with the stream.” She had become a dead fish, just as Gray was about to if she didn’t do something immediately, right this instant.

Rising from her chair with the flourish of knocking it over as she did so, she started to feel a battle cry rise from within her when, precisely at that second, the cameriere stuck his hand into the non-tank and violently grabbed Gray, squeezing the last breath out of him. And with it, Serena’s will to attempt something like altruism. Before anyone in her family could inquire about what the hell she was doing, she picked up her chair, sat back down and proceeded to solemnly eat the rest of the fish body on her plate.

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