In early December, I was at dinner with three friends, all of us going through different challenges having to do with illnesses, empty nests, and husbands wrestling with identity and hypochondria. We were looking at the menu and talking about fish when one of them started to relay a recent discovery about flounder. “Apparently,” my friend began, leaning over the table, as if sharing a military secret, “There’s something going on with flounder.” Another friend knew exactly what she was talking about. “Oh right,” she agreed, ripping off the end of a baguette, “I read about that. They are in a state of evolutionary change.” The first friend nodded. “They are turning into something else, that’s for sure.” Baguette looked excited. “And we get to witness it.”
Evolution in real time? What on earth were they talking about? I wanted to learn more but they quickly moved onto more pressing matters like dead family members.
As I tossed my purse on the couch later that night, I asked my husband, “What’s happening with flounder?” In my experience, he usually knows things, or, more accurately, has gotten wind of science things. But he knew nothing and was eager to complain about one of our kids leaving a messy kitchen.
I had never given flounder much thought. I have probably spoken the word flounder just a handful of times in my life.
I spent a few minutes googling the issue but didn’t find anything, so I watched a video featuring tiny, crocheted farm animals in stop-motion.
A few weeks later, I was in Perth, Australia, on South Cottesloe Beach. Our family had finally returned to visit our old home. It was summer in the southern hemisphere and my pale body was happily marinating in sunscreen. I watched two older men in snorkel attire approach the ocean, and after a minute of floating around, scurry out. They then stood on the shoreline, pointing excitedly at something.
It was not a flounder.
I grabbed my sunhat and approached the tan men to ask what all the commotion was about. “It’s a cobbler,” the taller one said, pointing. I must have shrugged because he added, “Like a catfish, with spikes in the front and the back.” The other one laughed, “You don’t want to step on one of those.” Looking at the long, brown fish half-buried in the sand, I asked if it was poisonous. The tall man answered in customary Australian no-worries-but-also-worry fashion, “It’s not so much the toxins, it’s the three hours of throbbing pain.” He then excitedly shared all the gory details of the time he stepped on a cobbler. “I mean I howled, really cried out, for three straight hours. Throbbing pain I tell you. Hideous.”
I walked back to my towel and told my husband about the three straight hours of throbbing pain. We left for a different beach down the road.
A few days ago, back in San Francisco, I found myself thinking about the flounder situation, and that ominous cobbler. I was alone in a pre-op room, my chest decorated with black pen. I was about to go back under general anesthesia to adjust one of the breast implants I acquired after my cancer ordeal, as my niece called it in a school assignment. The flounder thing was a mystery I’d left unsolved, and what if I didn’t wake up? And the terrifying cobbler rushed back to me when the anesthesiologist missed the vein in my foot, while trying to insert the IV. “Someone hold my hand!” I had yelled out. “That was sharp!” By the time they moved me to the OR, and I positioned myself on the operating table, I felt calm again. I closed my eyes and imagined swimming in the ocean, a trick I learned during the ordeal. I pictured my arms pulling through the water and listened for the seagulls. This time, I also tried to picture large, flat, happy flounder, and knew that as long as I stayed afloat, I wouldn’t step on anything sharp.