An open letter to the people at the Times Square Red Lobster:
Last night I entered your establishment a man. This morning, I am something else.
It all began a few weeks ago, when I saw an advertisement for Red Lobster. This had its intended effect, and made me desire seafood, and specifically, the seafood available for purchase at your establishment. I stated my desire on my social network of choice, where many of my friends commented. Some agreed that, yes, visiting Red Lobster would be an excellent use of my money and time. Others warned me.
One comrade by the name of Ciaran emailed me, at 6:45 a.m. the following morning. “I’ll go,” he wrote. “Any. Time.” He proceeded to tell me that he loved Red Lobster, that its founders were “innovators of restaurant concepts (flash frozen mass distribution), flavor combos, food science, you name it.” He went on to rave about the “coconut skramp” and the “Lotta Collata.”
He CC’d a friend of his, Darius, who I was not acquainted with, but who shared a love for Red Lobster, and would similarly attend. Any. Time. “Set a date,” Ciaran concluded, rather aggressively.
And so we did. After some rescheduling, the three of us, plus my friend Felix, a last minute addition, strolled last night into the Times Square Red Lobster, which was the only Red Lobster available to us as citizens of the New York City metropolitan area. We were welcomed cheerily, escorted to our table with grace, and found our waiter, Luc, to be exceptionally friendly and ready to cater to our every whim.
At the time, this seemed a blessing. Now I am not certain.
Now, I have previously attended various Red Lobsters in the great state of Pennsylvania. In fact, when I was a child, Red Lobster was my chosen destination for every birthday meal. I have many fond memories of big-haired Allentown waitresses serving me shrimp poppers, and watching my seafood-despising father squirm. The last time I had visited one had been as a young man of 21, and I am now a gentleman in my mid-30s. I fully anticipated, based on prior experience, that I would consume a large amount of food and drink. To prime my body, I ate nothing all day except a cup of yogurt and some pistachio nuts. Then, before dinner, Felix and I went out and downed a few beers on an empty stomach.
So, when I entered Red Lobster, I was extremely hungry, but also a tiny bit buzzed. Perhaps these two factors worked in tandem to eclipse my wisdom and ignite my hubris, for soon I found myself confidently ordering the Lobster Pizza, a big bowl of New England clam chowder, extra cheesy biscuits, and a “Top Shelf Margarita”. This was merely to be my prologue. For my entrée, I selected the flagship meal of the Red Lobster fleet… the Admiral’s Feast. Shrimp, bay scallops, clam strips and flounder fried to a golden brown, with a ration of broccoli on the side. This was the favored meal of my youth. In college, for a brief time, my compatriots referred to me as ‘The Admiral’, because of my acceptance of a dare to eat two of said Feasts in one sitting. A dare, I might add, that was successfully accomplished.
The food arrived quickly. Almost too quickly, in retrospect. The Lobster Pizza was delightfully malleable. The New England Clam Chowder was tepid, but served the purpose that a Chowder should serve. The cheesy biscuits were a carbohydrate delight. The Top Shelf Margarita turned out to be accompanied by a tiny little pitcher of Grand Marnier. Meanwhile, Felix, Ciaran and Darius feasted on two plates of Coconut Shrimp, while discussing Red Lobster’s innovative use of flash freezing technology.
When my Admiral’s Feast came, I was thrilled. It was just as I remembered it: an enormous amount of fried seafood on an oblong plate. A tiny forest of broccoli hid in the corner, as if to separate itself from the seafood and say “Whatever happens, we were not responsible.” I ordered another drink. This time I went with Ciaran’s recommendation and got the Alotta Colada, a 700 calorie concoction that turned out to be an enormous tsunami of ice cream and alcohol. I asked for double rum, and Luc obliged with a shrug.
About halfway through the Feast, I started to sense that I had, perhaps, eaten enough. Felix had already quit, having eaten only a fourth of his Admiral’s Feast. Ciaran hadn’t quite finished his wood-burned shrimp, lobster and scallops, while Darius was profoundly dominating his immense kettle of crab-type objects. I decided that I must power through. I would not eat my shrimp, as I am now deathly allergic, but the scallops, flounder and clams must be eliminated. This I accomplished. I took solace in the Clean Plate Club award I might receive from my imaginary parents. While we waited for Darius to finish, I took a couple more bites off of errant cheesy biscuits that had escaped their trough.
I knew something was wrong the minute Luc asked if we wanted dessert. “No,” I found myself saying. Despite the perceived deliciousness of the Warm Chocolate Chip Lava Cookie (1070 calories), I refused. But surely, I found myself saying to myself, surely you are mistaken. You love dessert. You need dessert. Yet this night, I did not desire it. Oh no, I realized. Oh no, I have consumed far too much.
Around that time, the mother of my children sent me a text message, asking me if I would run her a small errand. ‘Oh jesus’ was my reply. It was not, in fact, a response to her request, but rather a groan of realization that I had done something terribly, terribly wrong. It was a final pathetic whimper before succumbing to a coma. It was the broken cry of a man begging for forgiveness, or failing that, the sweet release of death.
We paid, bid our hosts goodbye, and exited to a balmy Times Square night. Outside, Ciaran and Darius spoke of going to Dave & Buster’s, but I found myself unable to even conceive of doing that, or indeed of taking any action that wasn’t collapsing on the couch of my apartment, or failing that, the floor. I said farewell to my compatriots, knowing that after the ordeal we just went through, we were more than compatriots. Now, we were brothers. I made my way swiftly home. I was asleep within minutes.
I was visited by a great deal of dreams, none of which made any sort of mortal logic. There was the dream of digging a great muddy hole in my backyard. There was the dream of chasing a golden butterfly across a sea of blood. There was the laughing old grey-bearded man, massive in his scale and limitless in his depravity. O, I dreamt of vipers, wriggling up my body. Goblins and hodags and Jersey devils flittered across my mindscape, waving their claw-like appendages and beckoning me to come dance. Come dance with us, forever.
I woke at 4 a.m. with a burning sensation in my stomach. A loud gurgling had commenced, a great cataclysm of internal oceans. A profound fatness had crept over my entirety. From my abdomen to my throat to my third eye, all were covered with a layer of intangible mind-grease. I felt a great welling up within me, as if a thousand honeybees had taken up residence and commenced to breed. I commanded myself: get thee to a bathroom.
Then the diarrhea started.
I won’t go into detail on this matter, except to say that at a certain point, the boundary between ‘diarrhea’ and ‘not diarrhea’ became blurred, and then nonexistent. Soon, I could not imagine a time in which I did not have diarrhea. I have always had diarrhea, my mind whispered. I am diarrhea.
In this state, my soul went on a journey. Why had I done this? Why had I willingly put myself in a position that I knew would give me such pain? I had multiple opportunities to correct my path. I could have skipped the appetizers. I could have skipped the Alotta Colada. I could have substituted the Admiral’s Feast with something smaller, say, a nice salad. Or, I could have skipped the Red Lobster experience together, relegating it to the part of my brain where dwell the likes of He-Man, high school drama club, and the Police Academy films – things that truly were better once upon a time. Any of those choices would have spared me.
But then, would they have? Was this even a choice? Or was I directed inexorably to this event, and thus to its outcome? Had I free will? Was my visit, and its concomitant consequences, preordained? Had I followed a path of my own volition, or had I been the victim of the machinations of some demonic puppeteer? Do any of us have free will? Are all of our actions scratched into the Akashic records of our existence from time immemorial, and we do naught but follow its groove til its inescapable conclusion?
And who actually was The Admiral, of whose feast I had so willingly partaken? What sort of man was he, that he could so easily devour so much flounder, scallops, clams, shrimp, and broccoli, and so often that they would name the feast after him? What girth had he? From which Navy sprang his titanic form? Was he, in fact, a man at all? His meal was of Herculean proportions; was The Admiral a demigod, or a giant, or perhaps great Poseidon himself? Or was He the Great Admiral, the Admiral over us all, to whom we are but loyal little dinghies in a great fleet? Had I, in fact, supped at God’s table? Was this flounder which I did so heartily gorge upon that which the Son of God multiplied for the masses? Did last night occur in real time, in real space, or was it an event taking place in the ethereal realm?
Was anything, anyone, anywhere real? Was existence real? Or was it all the fever dream of some wayward demiurge who had eaten too many celestial cheesy biscuits?
My young son, awakened by my all too audible dilemma, knocked on the door and asked in his sweet voice if he could “use the potty”. “NO,” I replied sharply. “Daddy is using the potty.” Daddy is using the potty, forever.
I could not tell how long I was in that bathroom. Was it an hour? A few minutes? Multiple reincarnative lifetimes? When I emerged, I went back to bed. When I finally awoke, and found it time to go to work, I immediately went into the shower, but the hot water could not wash away the inner stain of what I had done. I tried to dress, but my body rejected any and all accoutrements. I want to be by myself, it shouted. I felt as if any exercise I had taken in the last decade had been undone in one night. It took another hour to pry myself from my bed, into my clothing, and out the door.
When I complained to the mother of my children about the agony I was feeling, she simply looked at me with clear disapproval and said, “well, you’re getting old.”
Ultimately, I made it into work, where now I sit. I have successfully eaten an apple and I suspect it might be the only food I consume today. My body is on the mend. My soul, I cannot speak for.
I want you to know, Red Lobster, that while you were responsible for supplying me the food that ultimately sparked turmoil both existential and abdominal, I do not hold you culpable. You were only behaving as a Red Lobster should behave. You advertised copious quantities of seafood of dubious quality, and that is what I received. You admitted the calorie count on your menu, and I looked squarely at that 1200-calorie Admiral’s Feast and invited it in. You warned me, through your avatar the waiter Luc, that the Alotta Colada was a profound undertaking, especially with double rum. In short, you did everything inherent to your existence, and for this I cannot blame you. Would you blame the tiger for hunting the elk? Or the volcano for spewing its ash into the air? Nay, and neither can you blame the Red Lobster for populating its booths with endless supplies of doughy, cheese-covered deep fried biscuits that cannot remain uneaten.
In a way, I might thank you. While I suspect I shan’t be gracing your doorway in the foreseeable future, the experience has taught me a good deal about myself, my limits, and how I love to ignore them. I am but a man, Red Lobster – and you have reminded me of this.
You told me I would ‘sea food differently’. I do now. I sea food differently. I sea a lot of things differently.