On a Wednesday afternoon in January, my phone lit up with a text message from Wes. I hadn’t heard from him in two days, and my creeping suspicions that he had forgotten about me, that I meant nothing to him, were relieved for the moment.
He had sent me a link to a video about a tiny shop in Brooklyn called the Octopus Garden, a shop that sold octopus to the five-star restaurants and tiny Italian grandmothers of New York. The video showed the process through which the Italian immigrants who opened the shop tenderized the octopus in a way no other shop in New York could. The seafood sold here would transport its eater to the shores of Puglia, of Bari. Another text came in.
We have to go. This place looks amazing.
I grew up on the coast of New England, but I never learned to like seafood. At summer cookouts I politely declined the cod, the lobster, the clams that were offered there. I’ve grown to appreciate the sweet earthiness of corn on the cob, the freshness of coleslaw. I had never tried octopus, and probably wouldn’t like it, but I didn’t care. I liked Wes.
Sure, I responded immediately. This weekend?
The next Saturday, I met him on a bench in the middle of Broadway. The city made an effort last spring to beautify the middle ground between the uptown and downtown lanes, to create tiny oases between traffic for people to catch their breath. It looked so nice for a few weeks, a new bench surrounded by flowering shrubs and mosaic depictions of the city skyline, but in the grey of January it had taken on a sad emptiness. The shrubs were nothing more than bundles of twigs shooting from frosted soil, and the mosaic was covered by ice and grime. Wes sat, nestling a worn copy of On The Road in mittened hands, not noticing my approach until I stood directly above him. The hair that swooped across his forehead shivered slightly. I hoped he wasn’t cold, that he hadn’t been waiting too long for me.
Hey, I said.
Hey, he said, grinning. Let’s go.
The Octopus Garden was farther away than we had initially thought. We took one subway to another, and then to another that took us above ground and through the rooftops of Brooklyn. We rattled, two stories up, past billboards in languages we couldn’t understand and golden McDonald’s arches and the occasional open window through which we could catch glimpses of another life. Gauzy pink curtains parted in the middle to reveal a flowered bedspread, denim draped over the back of a chair, a warm yellow lamp.
When we we finally reached our stop, the sun had begun to lower slightly, and the light stretched around the edges of everything and threatened evening in the way that 3pm in the winter can. We hopped down the subway steps, took a left and a right and another left, wound our way around corners and across curbs and through a parking lot to get to the Garden.
The air, as we got closer to the Garden, grew thick with the scent of fish. I was surprised to find that I didn’t dislike it. It wasn’t quite as pungent as the wet markets of Chinatown or low tide in Rhode Island. When I walk through them I hold my breath, take quick shallow gasps through my mouth when I absolutely have to, pray that the taste doesn’t creep through my sinuses and down my throat. The Garden smelled deeper, richer, like the mud I used to dig my toes through to find clams nestled in the ocean floor. It was safe.
At first we almost walked past the entrance to the Garden. I was expecting something grandiose—a neon octopus in a window display of neatly arranged tentacles, a line out the door to purchase the fish that was so renowned throughout New York. The door looked like the entrance to a house, unidentifiable except for a small sign printed on 8.5×11 paper. OCTOPUS GARDEN RETAIL. OPEN. I cast Wes a look—are we sure this is the right place?—but he didn’t stop to evaluate. A bell on the doorknob jingled as he opened it, he led me into a small room, and the scent of seawater magnified overwhelmingly. Maybe if I just breathe normally, I thought, I would grow to like it. Just try to breathe. I inhaled, let the smell linger in my nostrils, and exhaled.
As I entered the shop, I was blinded for a moment by the brightness of it. The Garden had fluorescent lights that glowed blue-white on the ceiling and bounced from the white tiled floors. It shone off the black of Wes’s hair. He looked so beautiful there, in a room of fish and of light so unflattering for everyone else. A slight figure of perfect darkness floating in a room of pure white. No one else could look like that. The light made my hands look cold. My veins were so blue.
Racks of octopuses on ice lined the walls, arranged in increasing size as they wrapped around the room, completely surrounding us with seafood. No one seemed to be working there. I was alone with Wes and thousands of octopuses and I was happy. I made my way around the room, passing my eyes over the creatures, and lingered at the tiniest ones in the corner as an employee jingled through the door. He was no older than 25, wore gloves and a stained apron, and regarded Wes and me with suspicion.
Can I help you with something?
Wes jumped into conversation with him, learned his name (Nicholas) and his background (his father owned the shop) and his opinion on the best octopus for beginners to cook. Wes spoke to complete strangers with an ease I could never recreate. I listened with my back to them, my face close to the tiny curls of tentacles that belonged to the octopuses no larger than a golf ball. I couldn’t make out if they were just small or young. Maybe both. Thousands of perfectly arranged suckers curled around each other. I was completely overwhelmed. They were so perfect.
Somewhere behind me Wes had charmed Nicholas, who was beginning to take pity on us for traveling all this way to buy the octopus his family worked so hard to provide. Nicholas was approaching, saying something about a free sample, and he snatched one of my tiny creatures from its resting place. I snapped to attention.
Try one of the babies, on the house. Sautee it with garlic, some salt and pepper and olive oil, it’s beautiful.
He tossed the little octopus into a plastic bag, tied it in a knot.
For the main course, you need something bigger. One of these ones, yes, these would be good.
He reached over to a rack of some of the largest octopuses in the store. He lifted one of them and cradled it in two hands as if it were alive, in danger of slipping to the ground and scuttling away. Even as he held it in his two massive palms some of the tentacles swung down between his fingers. Its suckers stuck themselves to his thumbs.
I held out an empty plastic bag, translucent white with a yellow smile on it (thank you!) and Nicholas slid the octopus in. It fell to the bottom with a rustle and a soft thud, the plastic stretching gently to accommodate its weight. It was heavier than I expected. Its body settled in the bottom of the bag, moving over itself as it found the most natural position, and Nicholas tossed the tiny octopus in as well.
The big one, you need to boil it to cook it all the way through. A long time, longer than you might think. Add some spices, make a broth, boil it for, I don’t know, an hour? Do you have a recipe?
Wes assured him that yes, we did have a recipe. He had found an old Italian cookbook in an antique bookstore, it had a peeling binding and yellowed pages and a recipe for boiled octopus with potatoes. He knew what he was doing. Nicholas bid us farewell, handed me the bag with the octopus, and the door jingled shut behind us.
As the Garden slipped behind us, the smell of the ocean faded from the air but lingered in my hair and on my jacket. Our breath puffed before us in tiny clouds as we walked, arm in arm, hands shoved into pockets. The octopus, in its thin plastic bag, swung from my wrist in rhythm with our steps. Wes was explaining what he had learned in his conversation with Nicholas.
It’s incredible, truly, the way they’ve created an almost exactly parallel environment to the coast of Italy. It’s ingenious. It’s so innovative. In Italy, where their family is from, the fishermen would catch the octopus out at sea, bring it in to shore, and immediately tenderize it by throwing it against the rocks on the shore over and over and over….
With each step I took, the yellow smile on the bag would bounce lightly off my knee. The plastic would compress a bit, and the bag would exhale and send a puff of air and the smell of the ocean up towards my face. Puff puff puff. I don’t think Wes could smell it. It was the octopus reminding me, just me, that it was there.
…and so they would slam them against the rocks in the salt water until the tentacles curl up and look nice and then they would cook it only an hour later. The octopus garden created these giant tumblers that mimic that slamming, and they tumble them in salt water that mimics the ocean until the tentacles curl…
I glanced down at the bag. Rows of suckers pressed against the translucent white of the plastic, gripping the sides. They moved across it slightly each time the bag bounced off my knee. They were clinging on for comfort, maybe. Holding on to something, anything, as they were transported through the cold streets of Brooklyn. So different from their watery home.
…and the head chef at Le Bernardin is one of their customers. Three Michelin Stars. Three! This is absolutely the best octopus in New York City. There is nothing like it. We are going to be cooking the very same octopus as some of the best chefs in the world, and not very many people can say that.
I nodded, but I didn’t want to think about cooking our octopus. It was so soft and helpless. I wanted to keep it like this forever.
On the train, I held the octopus in my lap. It had the weight and limpness of a newborn child. Wes held one of my hands, passing his thumb over my knuckles. I passed my own thumb over the suckers that had attached themselves to the bag. They held firmly to the plastic, their wetness making it completely transparent, clearly visible rows of perfect circles. Soft white ringed with grey. The tip of my thumb fit into the larger ones perfectly. We rode like that in silence for a while, the three of us.
As our train crept through the center on Manhattan, Wes sat up abruptly.
I have an idea. We absolutely have to do this.
What? I looked at him, narrowed my eyes. What is it?
We got off at the next stop, on 59th Street and 5th Avenue. He pulled me through crowds of shoppers and nannies and men with shiny hair in navy suits. I didn’t come to this part of the city much—the women in sleek black jackets and fur collars made me painfully aware of the clumsiness of my blue puffy coat, dirty sneakers, thrift store jeans. I didn’t belong there. We slipped through a group of women with crisp bags from Bergdorf Goodman, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and the thin plastic of my own bag swung dangerously with the beat of my step. Everything I saw was a sharp corner, waiting to penetrate it and spill its precious contents into the street. I pulled my octopus into my chest and clutched it there instead.
Wes pulled me by the hand across Fifth Avenue and towards the Tiffany’s store. He stopped at a window display next to the main entrance, smoothed back his hair and straightened his collar. He always dressed more nicely than I did—like he was ready for someone to take his photograph and write a column about his life in the New York Times. He was neat and academic and interesting. He wore layers.
I’ve always wanted to do this. Just follow my lead.
Wait. I grabbed his hand. I’m not dressed for this, I look bad. I look scrappy. And the octopus. I don’t want anything to happen to him.
You don’t look scrappy, you look great. Wes started towards the revolving door, twenty feet tall, framed with gold trim. The octopus will be fine, I promise. Just trust me. He pushed against the door, spun away from me, and I followed him inside.
In Tiffany’s I saw myself everywhere. The underside of my chin shone from the floor, polished silver platters magnified the purple under my eyes, the shapelessness of my body screamed from the glass of the display cases. I was small and soft and couldn’t stand it so I looked through myself to the jewelry beneath the glass. Delicate silver chains that rested on cushions, tiny shards of silver interlocking with a synchronicity I could never replicate. Wes did not stop to look at them with me. He moved through the store with the purpose of a man who was owed something, shoes clipping across the marble floors, hard leather against cool stone and brow furrowed with purpose. I followed, lagging behind, cradling my octopus in my hands. Its suckers reached out for me through the plastic. We both needed something soft to hold.
Wes strode through a crowd of women and pressed his palms against the cool glass covering a case of engagement rings. I nodded to the women in silent apology, which they received and returned as they parted for me. I joined him at the counter.
You see, he was saying to a man working at the counter, I would like to buy a gift for this lovely girl here, but I am not quite sure if anything that I’ve seen in these cases would be quite right.
My stomach dropped. I didn’t want anything here. It was so expensive.
Your rings and bracelets are beautiful, but a bit… I don’t mean to offend you, but… tacky, perhaps? They just aren’t quite as unique as I would like. Is there anything else you can show me, something a bit different?
The man told us that of course, they had some more unique items, he would be glad to show us but he needed to know what our price range was.
Ah, that’s the other thing, you see. We have a bit of a financial limit. I understand that Tiffany’s tends to be a bit more expensive than other places, but your things are just incredible. Would you have anything that runs for, perhaps, twenty dollars?
The man cast us a tired look. It took all of my strength to keep from whispering that I was sorry, that I knew I did not belong there, that this was not my idea. I sent him an apology with my eyes and looked at the ground. I hugged my octopus a bit tighter. He did not want this either.
There are very few things in our store that run for less than one hundred dollars, sir. I’m sorry to disappoint but I do not believe I will be able to accommodate you within that price range.
Wes’s face cracked a bit, just for a moment. This was not how it was supposed to go. He paused for only a split second, almost undetectably, but I noticed. His vision was not playing out. He was trying so hard. He gathered himself together, pulled his shoulders back, and lifted his chin.
Well that is a bit disappointing, yes, but I understand. Would you be able to tell me, then, what the most inexpensive item in your store is?
The man sighed and stepped to his computer. He clicked a few times, scrolled down, and looked back up at us.
The most inexpensive item is in our home department, on the second floor. We have a sterling silver soup spoon on sale for thirty-five dollars. Would this be suitable for you?
We climbed a spiraling staircase to the second floor, found a salesperson willing to wrap up the spoon for us, and sat on two light blue chairs in the home department for an impossibly long time. We were surrounded by things that were too beautiful to use: an engraved platinum mug, a set of porcelain plates with gilded initials on them, a vase that held delicate silver flowers with gemstones in their centers. Wes gazed, entranced, at a photograph of Audrey Hepburn, framed in gold and hanging on the wall. My mother used to tell me I looked like her when I was young, but I’ve grown out of the resemblance. Now we just have the same nose.
I held the octopus in my lap. It was beginning to smell, and I was growing self-conscious; we really did need to get home and cook it. We couldn’t leave, though, until we got the spoon. We were in a tiny oceanic oasis, surrounded by an unnatural blue, confusing and vaguely disgusting the passersby with our faint odor of fish. A woman in a suit eventually handed me a light blue bag which I hooked around my little finger. I thanked her, Wes paid for the spoon, and we swiveled back out through the revolving door.
On our walk home, Wes held my hand in his pocket. It was too cold for our fingers to warm each other against the air. The blue bag rested against the plastic surrounding my octopus, which I hoped wasn’t developing frostbite or cold shock or whatever it is that could happen to an octopus at freezing temperatures. The spoon added to the weight on my now-tired fingers. I didn’t want it, I thought it was a silly thing to pay for, but I didn’t have the heart to tell him. It was mine now. At least I had something from him that I could hold in my hands, something to prove to myself he was real.
My cheeks were flushed the whole way home, partially from the way the wind was hitting them, and partially from my embarrassment in remembering the way everyone had looked at me and at Wes and at the octopus. Wes hadn’t seemed to notice, though. He had moved through Tiffany’s with an ease that I could never imagine for myself. Even if he had noticed the looks, he wouldn’t have minded. He might have liked the attention. I was frustrated and confused but he held my hand in his pocket and it was warm and I decided to forget about the store entirely.
We got back to Wes’s apartment at around 7pm. I remembered that I still hadn’t eaten that day. My stomach had been in knots before seeing him, and while we were together I had forgotten about my bodily needs entirely, so I drank a glass of water and we began to prepare the food.
He had gone grocery shopping that morning to buy ingredients. An onion, two cloves of garlic, three potatoes, leeks, parsley (fresh), a carrot. A lemon for squeezing. White wine. We used a bit for the recipe and drank the rest.
The first part of the recipe was easy. We peeled and diced potatoes into one-inch cubes, boiled them, chopped the onion, and and minced the garlic. I minced mine the way my dad had taught me when I was young and would help him cook linguini with clam sauce. He would make me a separate batch with no clams, so their grittiness wouldn’t infiltrate my simple sauce of white wine and oil and garlic. We always minced it in the same way. We would lay the garlic under the blade of a heavy knife, push down with the heel of our palms until we felt it crunch, and chop up whatever bits resisted breaking. Wes did it differently. He cut it in half lengthwise, slowly and carefully and right down the center line, then peeled the two halves away from each other.
You see this green line that runs down the middle? I watched a documentary about Italian cooking where the head chef at one of the best restaurants in Italy said that you should always remove it. It’s what makes garlic taste bitter, and without it it can almost taste sweet. You absolutely have to start doing it this way. He peeled away the sliver of green, unzipping it from its home, and then carefully chopped the remainder of the clove. I liked my way better—the crunch was so purposeful, even if maybe it made the garlic bitter. I didn’t cut any more in front of him.
I went to the bathroom to try to wash some of the garlic oil off of my fingertips, but soap did nothing to remove the scent and only added a floral perfume. When I came back, the smaller octopus was already sautéing in the pan with the garlic and some oil. Wes took the big octopus out of the fridge and grabbed a knife.
Wait, I told Wes. I just want to look at him. Give me a second. I peeled the plastic bag away from him and cradled him in both of my hands. His tentacles spilled between my fingers but he was secure; his suckers gripped my thumbs and the heels of my palms, and he wasn’t going anywhere. I held him up to my face. I never realized that octopuses had eyes, but there they were, two of them closed tightly. Why had I never considered the fact that octopuses had eyes? His skin was mottled with grey and brown and white and it was the most organic and beautiful thing I had ever seen. I didn’t want to ruin him.
We need to remove the beak to boil it whole, Wes was saying. And the eyes. I watched a video so I know how to do it. Do you want me to?
No, I said. I should do it.
He handed me the knife. It rested heavy in my palm. I took a deep breath, held it up to my octopus, and made a slice above and below his eyes. I was so sorry. I apologized through my cuts. I’m so sorry.
I removed the wedge of flesh with his eyes and placed it on the counter facing the wall so he didn’t have to see what I was doing. I took out the beak with a paring knife, sawing a tiny circle through his middle and pulling out the black shard of bone that had allowed him to eat. When the job was done I placed him into a giant pot of water, surrounded him with the onion and garlic and leeks and carrot, doused him in some white wine and arranged him with his vegetables beautifully and replaced the cover. Wes turned on the stove and we waited.
An hour later, it was finished. We removed the lid and saw that he had transformed entirely. The grey of his skin had become a rusty pink, mottled and flushed and vibrant. He had none of the toughness that he had when he was cold. The flesh that had once pushed back against my fingers was now soft. Wes pierced one of his legs easily with a fork. It’s done.
He cut the tentacles into careful cubes. His fingers were long and gentle and he worked with a slow diligence that I admired through my frustration with his speed. I could wait. These cubes of octopus would be some of the finest in New York City. Wes could cook this octopus just as well as the chef at Le Bernardin. He combined the tentacles with the potatoes and some of the broth, squeezed the lemon over it, and tossed them together. The smell of fish was completely gone, removed by the heat, and its absence was filled with garlic and herbs that muddied my sinuses.
Wes took a photograph of the meal with a polaroid camera and wrote a caption in permanent marker in the margin: The best octopus in NYC. January 25th. I liked the photo, but I was sad that we had forgotten to take one before we cooked the octopus. All I had to remember him by was this meal and the smell of garlic on my hands and the spoon that I would place on my windowsill and never use.
Wes took a bite with his eyes closed. He pressed his palms together at the center of his chest in mock euphoria, swallowed, opened his eyes and looked at me. It’s incredible. It’s so good. Try it. He watched me stab a piece of tentacle with my fork, bring it to my mouth and gingerly chew. It was softer than I expected. Wes was watching me, nervous. What do you think? Do you like it? His eyes were sad and eager and full of longing.
I love it. It’s amazing. Wes’s shoulders fell with relief and he continued his meal, but I chewed the same piece until I was left with only stringy filaments that refused to break down. I didn’t like it. I couldn’t tell him, though. I could never tell someone something like that. He could never know, and he never did.
The octopus tasted mostly like potato and onion and salt, but a hint of the ocean came through. Through the smoothness of his flesh, I could taste the deep salt water in which he had lived, deeper than the scent of the Octopus Garden. Even after he had been brought off a ship, tumbled and tenderized, bagged and toted through New York, he could not shake his home. I was proud of him, proud of his strength, and I loved him but I didn’t finish the meal. I’ve never liked that flavor. I’ve never even liked seafood.
“Seafood” by Sophie Ohrn is a Fiction Finalist in Columbia Journal’s 2019 Spring Contest, judged by Alexandra Kleeman.