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The Nasty Bits: Sea Urchin

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"You'll kill a living thing," said the man behind me. "You're not allowed to do that. It's against NAFTA regulations!"

In my hands was a sea urchin plucked from the Caribbean not ten minutes before. The thing lay alive and quivering, its needles oscillating slowly wherever it was prodded. My plan was to go the hotel kitchen to procure a real knife and the company of cooks more sympathetic to my hunger for sea urchin roe.

But there was no time. I had to get back to the airport in Montego Bay.

I stood in the foyer where, under the confused stares of a bartender and bellhop, I plunged a butter knife into the orifice on the underside of the sea urchin. The knife made a crunching sound against the shell of the animal. Then it went no further.

I was at the Iberostar resort in Jamaica on a press trip. I had never actually been to a resort before, but from the pitying glances I drew from couples while dining by myself at the restaurants, I got the sense that resorts are generally not places you go by yourself.

No matter! Outside my balcony, there was a hut where, for a pittance, you could hire somebody to take you out sailing. So I'd made a friend, a lanky 22-year-old who assured me that I was in safe hands, no need to worry with him at the helm.

It was a cloudy and cool day. There were two girls in line before me but they backed out due to the weather. My guide ran over to my balcony, motioning for me to come before the storm got so bad that his boss would have to close down the hut for the day. Naturally, I gave no more thought to the matter and hopped over the railing.

I'd never been sailing before. Our vessel was a tiny catamaran no larger than a kayak. The boat was skidding along choppy waters when it began to rain. With one hand gripping the wire and the other wiping away the sea water that kept pummeling my face, I watched as the island grew smaller and smaller.

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My sailing instructor asked if I wanted to go fast. I said yes.

Every few minutes, he'd holler at me to scramble to the other side of the boat to take advantage of the winds. When we were a good distance away from shore, the storm seemed to die down and we sailed to some shallow banks of sand and jumped off the boat for a swim. Then we got back on the boat and started back towards land.

The sun came out. The waters were turquoise and warm. Without warning, my guide dove back in to fetch a starfish and emerged a good distance away with a large specimen in his hand.

He told me to sail towards him, but I didn't know how. He said to turn the rudder but just as I was fidgeting with it, the winds picked back up again and blew the boat farther and farther away.

Then the winds grew even stronger. By now I'd figured out how to work the rudder but the catamaran seemed such a sensitive thing. The boat flitted around and around in the water with a mind of its own. Now my guide was just a dot in the ocean, and so was I. Off in the distance, lightening flashed under grey skies.

Panic is not an emotion to which any of us wants to succumb. It leaves you dazed and the irrational part of you, which seems to be the only functioning part in those moments, does not want to admit to what's happening. That was how I felt, anyway. That, and the loneliness of bobbing out in the ocean on a vessel I could not handle.

I sat there for a minute and tried to think deep thoughts. Had I led a good life, and had I been good to my loved ones? Had I eaten my share of things, and then some? It occurred to me that sea urchins would probably be down in those waters. Why hadn't the guy dived into the waters for something we could eat? And what else was down in those murky depths? Sting ray? Barracuda?

Just when my musings were about to give way to general hysteria, the winds blew me back to where he was and he climbed back onto the boat, clutching his sides, laughing at my stupidity. That was how we came to know something of each other, and why, the next day, an hour before I was due to leave the resort, my new friend dove into the waters again, this time to fetch me a sea urchin.

I felt a little bad about killing the soul right there in the hotel lobby. Truly, I did.

But by the time things had progressed in such a way, I felt cosmically tied to this particular sea urchin. Or as bound by fate as you can be, I suppose, to an enchinoderm.

But the butter knife would not go any further. The bartender saw my distress and decided to take matters into his own hands. Using the knife not so much as an instrument of precision as a lever, he pushed down onto the sea urchin and cracked it cleanly in two. Unappealing brown water rushed out, and with it my heart seemed to wilt too.

The sea urchins spines were by now trembling madly, and for what?

With breath bated I peeled back the two halves, and found to my delight the silvers of orange roe, really its gonads, which lay nestled inside. They were small, but bright and intact.

I took the dirtied butter knife and wiped it on my pants. I asked the bartender and the bellhop if they wanted a taste and that said no, go right ahead. It was sweet, briny, and gone in an instant.

Such was the ending to what is probably the only time I will ever have occasion to stay at a fancy resort. Once the roe was gone I was hustled out of the resort, politely and expeditiously, and put into the car that would take me away. I sat in the backseat satiated, and shook the sand from my hair and toes.

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