I'm at a Thai restaurant in Larchmont Village. The lighting is good and I'm halfway through a cocktail. Without warning, I'm face to gills with the restaurant's special, an enormous whole catfish staring up at me with roasted eyeballs from my date's plate.
This thing isn't dinner; it's something pulled out of a boat on ESPN2.
It looks like it should come with a couple of side dishes, a worn down tire and a salty old boot. In my 20 years as a vegetarian, I have never seen the likes of this. Eat veal, push your fork into a rare steak, gnaw on a turkey leg for all I care, I'm the easiest going vegetarian around. But this?
I was looking for love and ended up "Finding Nemo."
Can a mixed relationship work? That is to say, can a carnivore and a vegetarian get along? Can a man find a woman sexy who has to ask, "Is this risotto made with chicken stock?" Can a vegetarian deal with the sizzle of raw cow coming from his George Foreman grill? Can a male vegetarian retain his appeal while defrosting an Amy's Broccoli Pot Pie?
For me, the answer is yes. It's all about tolerance and worrying about what's on your own plate. except when your eyes are on the eyes of a bottom-dwelling dinner special, but I'll get to that.
If you are a vegetarian, people always want to know why. They want to know if it's some political thing, so they can know how much you are silently judging them while picking the splinters out of your forearms from all that tree-hugging. My answer is simple. I blame Wilbur, the pig in "Charlotte's Web." When I was little, my brother decided he wanted my breakfast. "You know that bacon on your plate," he said with a sinister whisper. "That's Wilbur." I pushed the plate toward him and that's the day I broke up with meat, because of my love for Wilbur. I wish I had a deeper reason, but it just grosses me out. I'm not eating Wilbur with lettuce and tomato on a sandwich, but I don't care what anyone else does.
Still, there is the catfish, whiskered and haunting. I sip my drink. I try to make conversation. Don't look down, a giant dead fish is about to be ripped from its fishy little skeleton. Charm is hard enough for me to muster without the personality stifling effects of nausea. I put down my fork and ponder my options.
Sometimes I don't want to admit I can't hack a hamburger. I worry a guy will feel self-conscious eating around me, like he's unpacking a ham and cheese sandwich at Hebrew school and I'm the rabbi. So, I pride myself on being the "cool" vegetarian. I neutralize the high-maintenance factor by enjoying heavyweight boxing and Bourbon and not wincing at anything tartar. I'm not going to drag a guy to some veggie restaurant in Calabasas chasing down Lentil Delight. I'm easy like a Sunday morning (without the Eggs Benedict).
But this fish is putting my open-mindedness to the test. Stuff the disgust in your emotional tackle box and lock it.
"I am so sorry, " I say. "I can't deal with your dinner... I know it must be good... but, I..." And before I can finish, he has called over the waitress. She has seen this before. She returns moments later with chunks of fish, no tail, no skeleton, no head. No problem. Tolerance and compromise, two great tastes that taste great together.
I look at him and think, good catch.