To my dad at sea: I don't like crab

I watch you from the other side of the table as you pick up a whole crab. Coral crimson, the angry end product of a wok-steamed demise.

My aunt and uncle are over for dinner, but they’re familiar so you’re in your worn after-work sweat pants, T-shirt over your round belly. You tear off the carapace with a crunch — conclusively hollow, a knuckle cracked right next to my ear. You would’ve eaten the olive-green paste under the shell a few years ago, but you’ve started watching your cholesterol.

You decide on a leg. Another snap, firecrackers popping as you crush it open against your back teeth. Late October wafts cool, dry air in through the window, foreboding, the tail end of your fishing season nearly gone and taking my appetite with it.

I look down at the severed crab limb on my plate. Mom’s put it there — she’s telling me to eat more, as moms do. I glance over and catch your hard eyes. I’ve never liked crab, not when I was a child, not now. Not like you do.

The crab is one of the many you harvested earlier that day from the Georgia Strait. You and your brother hauling up each cage, letting out the crustacean gems within before discarding the trap back overboard. A museum display empty, new exhibit coming soon. Filled anew in a day or two, or as new as can be for your jaded eyes.

You started after you finished high school here in Vancouver, I think. Catching crab has been your task from late summer to early autumn, seven days weekly, pre-sunup to sundown, for as long as you’ve been Dad and I, your son.

When you came to Canada, even before you moved to the west coast from that farm in Alberta, did you know that you would become a crab fisherman? We all have dreams, what were yours? Who were you in high school with your English tinted with Cantonese and a stain of Quảng Ninh, 'yellow' turned 'zellow' on your tongue? Before you were Dad, when you were just Phuong?

Dungeness crabs are popular in the Pacific Northwest, but their domain extends as far north as Alaska, following the coast just up to the wispy Aleutian Islands arcing into the ocean. What protects their mild, sweet flesh is a palette of a shell, brown soil tinged with purple and flecked white like a freshly fertilized garden. But their undersides, like a human palm, are a soft mirror that reflects the shallow beige sands they inhabit.

To me, Dungeness crabs are lonely creatures. They live in solitude since they leave their mother’s egg pouch as larva. While their claws clack toughness in morse code, they’re homebodies hiding in eelgrass so they won’t have to rely on their exoskeletons to fend off the sea. They bury themselves in the seafloor when frightened. I wonder how a crab feels when it’s never been cosier with the sand grains, where the ocean above only continues on in imagination.

It was early one summer in elementary school when you drove us to the marina in your pine green Ford pickup. The one that smelled of tobacco and exertion — I remember the ache in my arm as I cranked down the window. I settled in the cabin of your ship that day while you worked out on the deck. I emerged only to relieve my bladder, as you’d told me, against the side of the neighbouring boat. I was sheepish even though no one was around, but you grinned at me from your own makeshift toilet next to mine.

Back in the cabin, the sun laid a golden blanket against the breeze nipping outside. The air was close, warm. Me in the sand. The bench along the back wall that you’d reupholstered with squeaky grey leather, faux I knew because with none of a cow’s wrinkles, it glinted smooth. I’d expected a pirate’s wooden spoked wheel — it was my first time ever on a boat — but it was polished steel, it could’ve belonged on a bus. I sat with my knees up to my chin behind the wheel. It didn’t occur to me that I would ever need to use a steering wheel because you were the one to drive me those days, from school to piano lessons, to Chinese school early Saturday mornings.

I fell asleep with sun through the windshield on my cheek. You were braving the chilly air outside, but Chairman Mao looked after me, his card-sized photo hanging from a string braided royal red in the corner of the cabin.

At dinner, your plate is a graveyard of discarded shells. Your wine glass is on its second or third empty, at first I can’t tell which. But you’ve been blessed with blush, it’s in our blood, and your flushed skin spells out glass three for me. “He said that Mao was a dictator,” you tell my uncle, voice poised. “He doesn’t understand what Mao has done.”

It’s true. It’s come up before, when I was flippant enough to challenge your undying loyalty to the homeland, my zeal rising up again with Hong Kong protesters on TV the previous night.

The sharp tip of the crab leg on my plate points back up at me, accusatory, upset with me for not picking it up. Mom glances down as I place it back on her plate, and I take my dishes to the sink. Goosebumps cover my bare arms — I’ve yet to relearn how to dress for the undecided October weather.

You can’t catch crabs when it’s too cold. Not only does the government forbid it, but the creatures are simply less active. The summer warmth draws them out for mating season, but their passion wanes with the sun until the crabs revert to cold loneliness.

With winter comes isolation.

Dungeon, Dungeness, the adjective form of prison. The crabs are named for a small fishing community on the coast of Washington state, something I only learned recently. When I was younger, I thought the two words were connected, but I didn’t think much of it then.

There are bars between us, Dad, but which of us is trapped in the cell while the other roams free?

As I pull my sweater from the back of my chair, egress underway, Mom asks me why I didn’t eat any crab. After 19 years of me, both of you still try. You two try your best, as all parents do. “Maybe later,” I say, slipping out of the kitchen draft and into wooly warmth. Crab will likely never be for me, but maybe later, I hope that we’ll meet again safely ashore.