I wonder if I can run some water over it, I said, as I held the fish in my hand.
Then I realized what I’d said.
And truthfully, I can’t say for certain whether I said this or thought this, since, living alone, one develops a lingual fluidity. Since there’s no one there to hear what you say except yourself, the words you say aloud and the words that stay inside your head reach exactly the same audience. Which means, you may quietly slip into insanity without noticing that it’s happened.
I often find myself speaking out loud as I’m unchaining my bike in my building’s courtyard. The courtyard is a gray space between my apartment, where it’s ok to talk to myself, and the outside world – where it’s not. There, in that small patch of stone and weeds and rows of bikes which in winter always look a bit brittle, it’s as though a switch flips in my mind, one that says, hey, it’s not ok to talk to yourself out loud anymore. Of course, I usually say that sentence out loud. It’s followed by: Um, you just said that out loud. Then: Wait, you just said that out loud too. Followed by: Ok, you really need to stop talking to yourself out loud. Ad infinitum.
I’m hoping to curb this habit now that I’m a working woman once again (isn’t that a lovely phrase?). Every day, from 9-6, I sit inside a neo-industrial building near Checkpoint Charlie and write advertisements for a company’s online marketing department. Then I bike home and write more. (Perhaps the slip into insanity has already occurred?)
What’s nice about actually going to work – versus schlepping myself to a coffee shop for five hours where I pretend to write – is that it forces me to interact with people for a large portion of my day, where I apparently fulfill an unmeasured daily public communication quota which prevents me from talking to myself. Bonus.
What’s also nice about work is that cooking once again becomes a way to unwind, instead of just something to do to fill my long and empty days. (This is a melodramatic – I’ve actually slipped into a comfortable Berlin lifestyle. I guess what I really mean is, when I don’t work, I waste a lot of time. Which is, I think, a euphemism for I play a lot of spider solitaire.)
I ran my fish under cold water. I don’t know what kind of fish it was – fish species never made it to my German vocabulary list – but it was smaller, silvery-brown with black speckles and a soft, white underbelly.
It had little fish eyes and a little fish mouth which reminded me of my elementary school cafeteria lady. Like the Gestapo, she’d patrol up and down our neat, seated child-rows on the cafeteria floor and every so often would point to her sour mouth and say, It takes twice as many muscles to frown as to smile. Look what you kids have done to me.
I roasted the fish simply, with tomatoes, lemon, garlic, and fennel, lots of olive oil and cracked black pepper. While it roasted, I thought quietly to myself, like most sane people do, read a bit, wrote a bit, did the dishes. And it was nice to know that the things I did were done because they had to be done in the two hours I had between the end of my work day and going out to meet someone in the evening. Schedules. I love them.
Though really, I’m not sure how long I’ll love this being busy thing. When I’m not, I say I miss it. When I am, I only want a break. It’s all that green grass. Yet, somehow I manage to make it work – there is only one of me and what I have done is what I have done and what I didn’t do mostly doesn’t matter since it wasn’t what I chose to do.
For now, I’ll be content with the productive bursts I feel in my few free hours, enjoy the experience of sitting in front of the oven, watching a fish roast, watching tomatoes and lemons leech juice. And of course, taking my leftovers to work and knowing my lunch is by far the best.
Roast Fish with Tomatoes, Lemon, and Fennel
3-4 tomatoes (depending on size)
1/2 yellow onion
2 cloves garlic
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 whole white fish
1 fennel bulb plus fronds, coarsely chopped
1/2 lemon with peel, sliced into wheels
Finely chop tomatoes, onion, and garlic. Add a healthy splash of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine. I made this faux-bruschetta the day before, which I think really allowed the flavors to intensify. But I don’t think you have to do that if you don’t have time. Preheat the oven to 410F. Place scaled and gutted fish in the center of a baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and rub with salt and cracked black pepper. Stuff the fish’s cavity with the tomato mixture and spoon the remaining mix on top of the fish. Nestle some coarsely chopped fennel around the fish and garnish with fennel fronds and lemon slices. Roast for about 30 minutes total, flipping at the 20-minute mark, until the flesh is white and the tomatoes have sunk into little, shriveled knobs.