by Jazmine Hughes
When I became a teenager, I started hating everything, because that’s what teenagers do. Shows I loved were passé, friends I adored dead weight. I hated fiercely. And most of all, I hated fish, for reasons I can’t explain here because those reasons didn’t really exist because I was a teen, remember?
The shaky facts of this hatred aside — I’d literally never eaten fish — my distaste was easy to maintain. My family, which consisted of “tired parents” and “sisters who were pickier than me,” only ate chicken, the occasional bit of beef, and lots of cereal. The closest I ever came to even seeing fish was when they were splayed out at the seafood counter at Stop ’n’ Shop, eyes wide, mouths gaping, proof of recent life hanging like a stench above the ice.
My anti-fish sentiment covered all forms of seafood: Fish sticks were vile; clam strips were repulsive. “Anything that came out of the sea is not for me!” is something I would’ve said if my brain had been trained to think in pithy tweets at the time.
When I went to college, I only ate hamburgers and gained twenty pounds before sophomore year. In between helpings, I gave tours to prospective students. I was energetic and ethnic — the two most salient traits in a college representative — and my speeches were honed to the point where I could enchant any Westchester mom or stockbroker dad or petulant high school senior. (Well, mostly: I told one tour group about the weight I had gained, and a Southern mother looked me up and down, then said, “Looks like you needed it.”) My tours were basically an hour of aerobic stand-up, where I’d work out new material while walking backwards in ripped up Converse. I loved every fucking minute of it: I learned to read a crowd, who I could joke with and who I could give it to straight, who would ask me questions about post-graduation employment rates and who would freak out upon discovering that the bathrooms were co-ed. I had material tailored for every situation, a Rolodex of jokes for every person. And my calves looked really, really great.
The crown jewel of my tour was discussing my first aha moment. Your aha moment, as described by the admission office, was a mental unveiling that every student endured before graduation: The fog of the future was lifted, the answer to a question you didn’t even know you were asking was now as clear as a bottle of Smirnoff. It was important, even as a student, to not seem like a shill; my tours filled to the brim with wry institutional deprecation. But my aha moment was where I got heartfelt and serious: It really the point at which everything clicked, and, while partaking in the rich and various extracurricular activities that one of U.S. News & World Report’s top liberal arts colleges provided to each and every student, I finally decided my career path, which, lol. My moment, naturally, was the first time I saw my byline in the student newspaper.
It predated “Started from the Bottom,” but I was there, then a smiling college senior and the editor-in-chief of the paper, a girl who had followed her aha. I relayed the memory with élan: I roped in school spirit (“The college paper was always a lynchpin to the community, but it was CRITICALLY UNDERSTAFFED”), personal angst (“But was I GOOD ENOUGH TO PUT A PEN TO THE PAGE?”) and professional triumph by way of campus direction (“And my time at the newspaper led to a PAID JOURNALISM INTERNSHIP at a GLOSSY MAGAZINE in NEW YORK CITY, all thanks to our AMAZING career service center, located across the highway, near the rosebushes and just past the fawns!”).
My spiel was superficial, a meaningful breakthrough pumped with cloying significance until it overflowed, but I held on to the idea of an aha moment, even after graduation. The fog in my life had gotten denser, even as I progressed past early-teen angst and opened myself up to liking things again: I just didn’t know what I liked besides writing. (The only thing worse than being a teenager is being a burgeoning adult: the certitude decreases, but the pimples don’t.) But aha moments always come when you least expect them: I wasn’t even looking for the newspaper meeting on the first night I attended one, but a hot guy was talking, so I stayed.
This January, I got brunch with my friend Katie. We went to Mayfield on a Sunday morning, and I remember it clearly. We talked about my boyfriend, who was sick and needed tissues; Harvard; Yale; Abraham Riesman; and “this weird email I’d just gotten from a hiring editor at the New York Times.” We ordered and kept talking — Passover Seder, Brighton Beach, our younger sisters, drug dealers — and our plates arrived. The only thing I don’t remember is what I ordered, but luckily, I remember hers: a toothsome-looking kingdom of bagel and lox. My eyes looked like cartoon characters’ when they fall in love.
I was confused: Why now? Why this fish? My “I don’t like fish” credo rattled in my head — this was my truth, which I’d been repeating to myself for a decade. Since I turning thirteen, I’d changed my hair and clothes and address, added and subtracted from my personality, crumpled and smoothed out my original self over more times than I could count. All I had left were my beliefs, which made me the beautiful, broken person who I am today, and if I altered the core of my inner being then I would destroy the sanctity of the time in my life where I was able to make a choice without totally seeing it thro
“Can I have some of that?” I asked Katie. She obliged.
I took a generous bite with my front incisors. Before I describe it to you, know this: I am not poetic and I am not a liar. The world did not slip away, a chill didn’t come over my body, my life didn’t change forever. But mmomigod: The bite was harmonious and savory, a symphony of flavors. Aha. Maybe fish is… good.
Katie was still talking, so I took a second bite; chunks of bagel and brined salmon flesh stubbornly wedged themselves between my teeth. Mmm, I thought to myself. Seconds.
I don’t know if I believe in God, but I do believe in perfection, in a pre-ordained arrangement of a thick helping of cream cheese (plain, don’t be a monster), generous folds of salmon belly, and hollow, crunchy red onions atop a chewy, pillowy bagel, lightly toasted, all of which are fine on their own but are ultimately made to be consumed together and definitely not with tomatoes. (Capers are a luxury but unnecessary; buying an entire jar of capers is a commitment one should seriously consider before embarking. How often do you buy things that you know will still be in your refrigerator when you are dead?)
I don’t regret a lot from my adolescence, because I really do believe that every single text or locker note or pepperoni bit stuck in my braces coalesced into the mess you see today, a stance that only comes from years of psychotherapy or glancing at Tumblr. But I fucking rue the day that I decided to eschew fish. In 2016, maybe I’ll try cod.
I avoided bagels and lox for 23 years because I “didn’t like fish” but now I want to go back and punch age 1–22 year olds me in the FACE
— Jazmine Hughes (@jazzedloon) February 6, 2015
Photo by Russ and Daughters
Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.