She stood at the counter in her tiny kitchen, frozen in the act of skinning ocean perch fillets for Brazilian fish stew, frozen by memory sharp as the boning knife sliding between skin and flesh, memory slicing clean through her, sweeping her into a past so distant she’d nearly forgotten it altogether, depositing her right on the filleting line at the fish plant, where she had her first nervous breakdown.
Actually, the trimming line, not the filleting line. And the breakdown was later, at the end of the six weeks she’d managed to work at the plant, after her promotion from trimming, where she’d started out. The breakdown was later, long after her friend Madeline had already flamed out, lasting a mere few days before one day she just tossed her knife onto the counter, took off her apron, and strode right out of the plant, right in the middle of a shift, everyone too surprised to move after her until Maddy was already squealing out of the parking lot in her old VW minibus.
The perch-skinning was early on, right after learning how to trim the extra little bit of fish flesh hanging off of each cod fillet so the fillets would be tidy and uniform for flash freezing, right after learning how to keep her knife sharp enough to glide right through the flesh, no sawing, just one swift movement, fillet goes one way, trimmings, the other. Right after learning how to pick the tiny worms out of the cod flesh with the very tip of her knife, flicking them into the trough at the back of her little square foot of stainless steel countertop, right where the backsplash would be in your kitchen, a trough that purportedly fed directly into machines on the floor below that ground up all the trimmings, bones, and yes, worms, into fishcakes. She never saw the first floor, never saw those machines, but had no reason to disbelieve the stories. She never ate fishcakes again.
To skin a perch fillet: You slap the fillet down in front of you, skin side down, tail end towards you. You grab the tail as close to the end as you can. Then you take your knife — sharpened daily by the foreman on a stone, and almost constantly by each trimmer on her steel (you don’t get your own sharpening stone you’re a “cutter,” the ones who actually do the filleting; and yes, all the trimmers were women, and maybe half the cutters) — and lay it flat, right in front of your fingers, blade facing away from you, parallel to the floor. If your knife is properly sharpened, it takes no effort at all to slip it in there so close to the skin that no flesh gets left behind, and you get a perfect little skinless fillet. Fillet goes one way, skin, the other.
Memory. Yes, memory, sliding slipping right back to that trimming counter, and from there, from picking out cod worms and flensing perch, right over to the day of the breakdown, when Maddy’s dad, visiting for the summer from Montreal, had to come and get her and take her home to his daughter, beautiful Maddy, who made her a pot of mint tea from the garden, the only thing the goats wouldn’t eat, who put her to bed and stayed with her till she eventually stopped sobbing and fell into an exhausted but restive sleep, who kept her safe and kept her now-ex away from her, who let her just sit and sit and sit for as long as it took, never once expressing alarm or making a single demand.
Memory. Rewinding to the day itself. What was it that made her snap that day? She remembers it as a day like any other day, remembers nothing specific, no particular trigger, just a quiet accumulation of minor hurts and insults, a midden heap of the mess that had become her life and that day, it just got too big or something, and my god how had she ever ended up at this plant?
But it wasn’t the work that made her lose it, not really. The work sucked, no doubt about that, and if she hadn’t been so desperate she’d have been right behind Maddy that day, leaving the plant in a cloud of dust and blackflies, shedding layers of fishy-smelling overalls and gumboots on the way to the beach where they would drink beers since Maddy wasn’t pregnant anymore and spend a lazy afternoon getting slightly sunburned on the parts of their bodies not normally exposed to the sun, which was like, everywhere except their faces, necks and arms, since they were farmers. But that’s not what happened. Maddy had stormed out in a fit of pique because the foreman had made a pass at her again, and had gone home screaming to her husband that she was never going back there again, ever, and he would just have to deal with it and find some other way to make ends meet. That fall, Maddy started teachers’ college and eventually became a middle-school teacher of History and English. But that’s Maddy’s story, and this is hers.
So it wasn’t the work, though the work did suck, and by the way, she thought she’d seen it all until the day the cutters’ supervisor showed her how to fillet a cod. She remembers thinking, wow, you really haven’t lived till you’ve learned how to fillet a cod. It started with, “Okay, so ya takes yer t’umb and ya stick it in the fish’s high, to keep it steady, k? Yup, and then ya takes yer knife – no, keep it real steady, ya don’t wanna end up like Pegeen over there, fish slipped, knife slipped, and she cut ‘er arm near right off, bled like a stuck pig, right? Tell ‘er, Peg.” And it went downhill from there.
No, it wasn’t the work itself, though the work did suck – not the eight hours a day on your feet in nasty cold gumboots that never lost the stink of fish guts, not the eight hours a day in the cold and the damp, not the eight mind-numbing hours of sticking her thumb in a fish’s eye before slashing along the spine with a much bigger, deadlier knife that could take her arm off in a hearbeat, first one side, then the other, fillets go one way, everything else goes down the drain.
It wasn’t really the work. It wasn’t even the subtle harassment, the constant muttered insults from the other women when they knew she could hear them as she walked by, about the city kid “from away” who got promoted to the cutting line after less than a month when poor Ethel there had six kids at home and could have used the extra 15 cents a hour but no, she was stuck on the trimming line for eight years because Ed the foreman didn’t like her, because she didn’t suck up to him like some people we know.
Mind you, that did make break-time even more uncomfortable than it already was, which you wouldn’t have thought possible. They each got seven minutes, twice a day, seven minutes to have a smoke and take care of business in the tiny crowded bathroom with two stalls and five other women at a time, and god help you if you had to pee anytime other than when it was your turn. She felt guilty at taking the extra 15 cents an hour, but honestly, was it her fault that she was young and sorta pretty maybe? And that she still had these perky little boobs and hadn’t had any kids and wasn’t totally ground down by life yet? Was it her fault that people liked her? Where she came from, that was actually a good thing. But while it baffled her, it didn’t depress her.
It wasn’t even the casual sexual harassment, the not-so-subtle remarks the men would make, as she walked by and they knew she could hear them, but never to her face, about her various body parts and what they might look like without the overalls and the gumboots, and what the men would like to do with them if they ever got her alone in a dark alley or whatever. She was so used to that, growing up in a big city during a construction boom, and having to walk by half a dozen construction sites every day on her way to school. She had it down to a fine art, the holding herself straight and tall, gaze straight ahead and directed slightly downward, facial expression never changing, pace never faltering no matter what they said or how loud, selective deafness 101 to run the gauntlet. These guys at the plant were rank amateurs compared to all of that. Still, they didn’t actually like her. She ignored them in a way that they felt was stuck-up and contemptuous. She never could figure out how to give as good as she got like some of the other women, who still got harassed but made a big joke out of it, insulting their manhood and their provenance, and willing to follow up with a slap or a fist if necessary. Not that she ever saw that happen, but she knew they would, she just knew it.
It wasn’t the work, or the other women, or the men. The nervous breakdown just happened to happen at work, the repetitive mind-numbing eight hours of it giving her time to think and ruminate until it became suddenly unbearable, the balance of the day stretching out ahead of her forever, no end in sight, no end of any of it, no end to the being barely 21, completely out of her depth in every way you could think of, no end to the consequences of having parachuted into this rural backwater from one of the biggest cities in the world, completely unprepared for any of it: The isolation on the one hand and the complex, incomprehensible social life that was the tiny community she was now somehow part of. The poverty, the ridiculously hard physical work she was doing for the first time in her life. The relationship with her now-ex. They were quite possibly the most ill-matched couple in the history of couples. Their relationship had always been … turbulent, right from the start, right to the end. Part of her blamed him, for everything. Part of her blamed herself, also for everything.
So, all of that. All of that was going through her mind as she mindlessly stuck her thumb in a cod’s eye, traced the first cut lightly over the skin by the spine, and suddenly found herself quite incapable of doing anything more, tears blurring her vision so she couldn’t even see the damn fish and suddenly there was this profound sobbing and my god it was her, she was the one sobbing and shaking, and she just couldn’t stop.
And all of that was going through her mind as she sat and sat and sat at Maddy’s house for days, before Maddy finally packed her onto a flight home, and her life fell apart again.
Memory, flooding back, a tide of memory leaving her on the shore gasping as it receded, leaving her gasping.