“Fucking festival season! It’s bad enough we have to grow seaweed—why do we have to celebrate it?”
From the next room, Grandpa Martem heard me and came stomping in. “But it’s the seaweed that saved me and my brothers!” Although he was only 15 years old when his family moved from Portugal to the USA in 2022, somehow after 70 years he still had a Portuguese accent. Likely someone told him it sounded sexy and he kept laying it on thick.
His eyebrows bobbed up and down as he pointed his finger at me. “We nearly gave up on Stonington, what with the storms and folks with the fancy houses hightailing it out of here. It was a ghost town. No good fishing no more. The tourists headed up to Maine and Nova Scotia.” He had said the same thing to me a hundred times since I was a little boy. He’d get this whacked-out glazed look in his eyes and start talking like he was quoting the Bible. There was no answering back. No saying, “Avô, there is more to life than seaweed.”
Nothing changed. You had to sit and listen. No matter that I was 22 years old, already a man, already working my own kelp forests. I just had to wait until he got it all out of his system. I knew he was done with his rant when he said something like, “If it wasn’t for this seaweed….” This was the only part of his litany he always switched up. I never knew what sort of miserable existence he was going to say seaweed had spared me from enduring. “If it wasn’t for this seaweed, you’d be living in the woods hunting squirrels and fighting off ticks.” Or, “If it wasn’t for this seaweed, you’d be a drone in a factory somewhere in the middle of the country surrounded by cows.” My favorite was, “If it wasn’t for this seaweed, you’d be working the streets in Cincinnati with no teeth.” I am not sure what sort of traveling Grandpa Martem ever did, but anywhere other than the coastal village of Stonington, Connecticut, must have been hell on earth.
This time he said, “If it wasn’t for this seaweed, we all would be dead!”
Martem Costa was a giant in the kelp-farming world, one of the first small-time fishermen in the American Northeast to become a big deal growing and harvesting seaweed. He got in early before the boom. Very soon you saw kelp everywhere. Seaweed to feed cows. Seaweed for alternatives to plastic. Seaweed in every possible food Americans ate. It soon eclipsed corn and soy. The demand grew so quickly that some families became seaweed millionaires overnight. Both Grandpa Martem and my dad are so tight with their money, though, you’d think we were living through the Great Recession. But I got it, seaweed farming gave them work in the place they love. They are sea people. Their blood is saltier than most.
But I hated it here. The sand was always everywhere, even in my bed, even when I never went to the beach any more. The smell of seaweed when it was fresh from the sea or rotting in bins because we grew too much too fast. The chaos of harvesting when workers came from all over the country to make a fast buck, then enjoyed a long, messy beach holiday. But the very worst was the annual Stonington Seaweed Festival. The streets were literally strewn with seaweed! We had the big parade with the sea prince, the sea princess, and the non-binary sea royal. There was the annual algae fashion show, where people gawked at scantily clad people draped in the slimy stuff. They served foods of all kinds with seaweed in it: seaweed salad, seaweed coleslaw, and even seaweed ice cream.
I must have taken after my mother, Teresa Carvalho. Her family were inland people, closer to Spain than to the sea. In our kitchen, where she spent most of her time, she taught me how to make porco preto (Iberian black pork) or a prego steak sandwich. My father didn’t trust her with the seafood dishes, joking that other than arroz de pato (duck rice), she had no business cooking anything that came out of the water.
As a teenager, I dreamed of the mountains, the plains, really anywhere far from the coast and the stench of seaweed. The last thing I wanted to do was join the family business.
I wanted to get as far inland as possible, to a place so landlocked the only way they would encounter seaweed was through freeze-dried cow pellets. Dad had this idea that I was going to take over the family business one day. He couldn’t understand why, when I was in college, I took a summer job at the fruit mart when I could have made more money working for him. What he didn’t know at the time was that something else kept me selling fruit. What started out as an escape from the seaweed business soon became adoration for the most beautiful, sweetest man in the world. Ravi was one year older than me. He was in business school in Rhode Island, and came home in the summers to make money managing the fruit mart his uncle had started when Ravi was just a kid.
Ravi’s parents lived in Mumbai, and they sent him to the USA to study and to escape the floods that were taking more and more of the city. They had dreams he would become an entrepreneur, a bigshot in industry or real estate. Ravi had other dreams he didn’t tell them about. Turned out he also had his eye on me.
That first summer we worked together in the fruit mart was a string of good times. First flirting and teasing, which led to a marathon make-out session one late night in the storeroom surrounded by melons, oranges, and mangos. I figured it was just going to be a summer fling, and then we would get back to our real lives in college. I was not looking for any kind of serious relationship, especially a long-distance one. But we kept texting and Zooming and would meet up for weekend road trips. We couldn’t get enough of each other, and during the long summers, we worked in the fruit mart. Being together was better than any money we could earn.
After graduation, we decided we would work one last summer together before we moved on to internships. Ravi was fuzzy about his future plans, and whenever I asked him, he said he still needed to decide what internship to take. I knew what I wanted—large animal management in Montana. I wanted mountains and fresh air, as far away from the stench of seaweed as possible. And I wanted Ravi. As my Grandpa Martem would say when he was certain good seaweed harvest weather was coming, “I feel it in my nets.” It must have been some old Portuguese fisherman saying that didn’t fit with the seaweed farming life, but it still made sense.
It was a rainy day in late July. In fact, it had been raining for days in a way that reminded Ravi of the monsoon season in Mumbai. Relentlessly the rain fell, and most people hid away in their homes, waiting for it to pass. The fruit mart was quiet, so Ravi’s uncle gave us the day off. Soaked all the way through, we ran into one of my grandfather’s seaweed barns in hopes the rain would give us a chance to get home. Inside was dark and empty; all the work stopped because of the rain. We sat on a platform overlooking a large pile of seaweed, a mound as big as a house. We looked down on it from the platform as we huddled and cuddled and stripped out of our wet clothes to our underwear. The wood beneath us felt warm and the air was thick with humidity. Maybe it was because of the rain and the breeze blowing through the barn, but the seaweed had almost a sweet odor to it, like fresh grass in a meadow.
Ravi grabbed my hand. “I made my decision,” he said, “about my internship.” I wasn’t ready to have this conversation. We had been ignoring reality, and the fact that we would likely go in two different directions. I tried to hush him with a kiss. He sat up and looked down at me with a serious look. He was so handsome in that half-light, and I could tell he really needed to talk.
“I’ve been afraid to tell you, but I actually have known from day one what I wanted to do. In fact, I’ve known for a long time, but I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want to lose you.” He had my full attention. He leaned in close and stroked my cheek. “Don’t hate me, but I took an internship as a harvest manager in your grandfather’s kelp farm.” I knew he and Grandpa Martem got along well and would even go for walks together, but I just thought it was because Ravi was being nice to the old man. He really buttered up Grandpa, who more than once said, “You better let that one pull you in before you wiggle out of the net.”
I blurted out, “What the hell, Ravi?” I felt cheated on way worse than if he had actually hooked up with another guy. He knew how much I hated that business, how I wanted to get as far away as possible. How could he embrace the very thing I was rejecting?
“Hey, Tomás, please listen for a moment.” He pronounced my name the Portuguese way, like my mom did. “I didn’t say anything to you because I know how strongly you feel about the seaweed-farming business. I couldn’t tell you how fascinated I have been with it ever since I moved to Stonington. In Mumbai we retreated from the sea, but here your family is harnessing it. First I want the chance to learn how to manage a business in an industry I love. But I also want to be with you for the rest of my life, if you will have me. So after the internship, I will go into whatever business, wherever, as long as it’s near to you. But I love this place so much. It’s where I met you. All of my very best memories are here. You’re going to hate this, but I smell seaweed and I think of you.”
It was all so unexpected, so ridiculous, I started laughing. “What’s so funny?” Ravi asked as he began to tickle me. I tickled him back and we play-wrestled, feeling the strength of our bodies wrapping around each other. We got carried away with this, though, and when he attempted to roll on top of me, we moved too close to the edge and fell right into the middle of the seaweed mound.
It was soft and warm and springy. We howled with laughter for well over half an hour. Exhausted, we finally lay still, holding each other, cushioned by seaweed all around us. I knew then that I would be happy anywhere with Ravi, even right here in stinky old Stonington. Suddenly the smell of seaweed wasn’t so bad after all.
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