Michael and I were dating for a month when he offered to make me dinner. I was elated. Thirty-six and very single, this was the closest I’d come to a long-term relationship in five years. Yet, as an incredibly picky eater, I was terrified. What if I didn’t like his cooking? People can be sensitive about this sort of thing. Once, at a friend’s dinner party, I complained that one of her dishes was too spicy, and she threw me out of her house. I was concerned that my fussy palate might repel Michael, too.
The day before our dinner, Michael asked if I had “food hang-ups” he should know about.
I wanted to be honest and tell him that my diet consisted of hamburgers, plain pizza and Cheerios. Instead, I neglected to disclose anything that might scare him away, such as my eating habits, frequent nosebleeds and love of professional wrestling.
“Whatever you want to make is fine,” I told him, wondering how I’d fake my way through dinner without spitting something into my napkin.
Michael was far less stressed about the situation. A public health professor in his 40s, he always seemed relaxed. It was a nice balance to my overly anxious personality and a big reason I was attracted to him. When I arrived at Michael’s apartment, he casually poured us wine while I sniffed around to see if I could detect what he was cooking.
No strong spicy odors, that’s a good sign, I thought to myself. I met his poodle, Ruby, who sniffed my foot and returned to her chew stick. “That means she feels comfortable with you,” Michael explained. “I like having you here, too.”
Feeling more at ease, I hummed Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” and envisioned spending the night.
“Dinner should be ready soon,” Michael said. “I hope you like lobster.”
Suddenly, I felt nauseated. I loved lobster, but not to eat. As a kid, I briefly had a few as pets.
When I was 7, my father left home to work a two-week construction job in New England. He returned with a gift — a Styrofoam cooler containing three lobsters.
I’d been badgering my parents for a pet, so I assumed the pet store ran out of puppies and this was the best Dad could do. Although I really wanted a dog, there was something endearing about these lumps. I thought it was cute how they rested on one another. I planned activities for us, such as running under the sprinklers on the front lawn and sharing an ice cream cone. Excited, I raced to my room and scribbled their names — Red #1, Red #2 and Santa Claws. Then I returned to find Dad boiling my new friends.
“What are you doing?” I screamed.
“Making dinner,” he replied.
“But … why do you want to eat my pets?”
“Lobsters aren’t pets, they’re food,” interjected my sister, Michelle, who grabbed Red #2 and joined Dad at the stove. I was horrified, yet jealous. He never admitted it, but my father clearly favored her. It was hard not to — a 17-year-old beauty queen, Michelle looked like a young Farrah Fawcett, yet also loved to play baseball and help Dad fix our Chevy. I, on the other hand, was the kind of kid who ate glue, hated sports and had leukemia.
I was diagnosed with the blood cancer at age 5 and fought the disease for five years. The worst part about getting sick — aside from the weekly spinal taps, bad hospital food and losing my hair — was the change in the way my father treated me. Instead of pushing me on the swing or chasing me around the house, Dad acted as though I were a fragile piece of china.
As I watched Dad and Michelle bond yet again, I realized that this was my chance to prove that, cancer or not, I was a normal kid. I pushed my sister out of the way and took Santa Claws in my hands. “You can pinch me, I deserve it,” I thought, as I hurled him to his death. Dad smiled, proudly, and my family feasted on my lobsters. I abstained.
Now, more than 30 years later, these memories simmered inside me. I wanted to run to the stove and save the lobsters, but it was probably too late. And what could I have said to explain my actions: This lovely meal you prepared made me think about an awful childhood experience. And, by the way, I think I have daddy issues?
Michael picked up on my mood and asked if I was okay. I lied and told him I had a headache.
“I get those, too. And also nosebleeds,” he confessed.
I admired Michael for being honest and vulnerable, inspiring me to almost come clean.
“Michael, I can’t eat lobster,” I said, adding in a white lie, “because I’m allergic to shellfish.”
“Okay,” he replied, still amazingly calm. “Guess I better toss the lobster and cancel the shrimp soufflé I planned for dessert.”
Michael made me a grilled cheese sandwich, and the rest of the date went well. We finished the wine, watched a movie and, to my surprise, planned our next date. Yet I was disappointed that I couldn’t be completely forthcoming with him. On my way home, I called my father in search of a resolution.
“Is this important?” Dad asked. “I’m watching ‘NCIS.’ ”
“No, it’s okay,” I responded. “Enjoy the show.”
Now I was even more upset. I wanted to talk to my father openly about so many things, from the way he traumatized me with the lobsters to how he treated me while I was sick. But this kind of honesty wasn’t our relationship, and I wondered if it ever could be. Frustrated, I called him back.
“Sorry, Dad, but I really need to talk to you,” I said. “I don’t know how to say this, but there’s this guy and I really like him. But I’m afraid of screwing it up.”
“Mark, if you want this guy to like you, just be yourself,” he said — cliché advice but it did push me to go back to Michael’s apartment.
“I get nosebleeds, too,” I announced over his intercom. “It may have something to do with my childhood cancer,” I continued, hoping I hadn’t made a huge mistake.
Michael emerged from the building with Ruby trailing behind him.
“Let’s take Ruby for a walk and you can tell me more — if you want.”
“Well, I have a story about lobsters,” I almost added, but stopped myself.
I couldn’t give away all of my insecurities. I had to save some for our next meal.