Crab Cake

July 11, 2006 at 11:42 am (Uncategorized)

Tap, tap, tap. Hear that? It’s the sound of me tapping on the underside of the shell I’ve been hiding in.

A dear friend once told me that he could tell when I was going through a difficult patch because he’d never hear from me. “Whoosh. Rebecca falls off the face of the planet,” he told me. “She becomes a hermit.” There’s a lot of truth in what Eric accused me of. When the going gets tough, I tend to seek out solitude and shun my friends. Although I like the image of hermit-ude – with its connotations of mystical contemplation, incense, and a cave of my own – it’s not quite accurate. I am less of a monk and more of a crustacean – a hermit crab, to be specific.

The hermit crab is an odd creature. For one, it’s not a “true crab,” according to a quick perusal of several Internet sites for hermit crab devotees. (I’m not using that term loosely. Apparently, the Hermit Crab Association holds annual Crab Conventions, complete with the crowning of each year’s Miss Crustacean, for hermit crab owners and enthusiasts.) Rather, the hermit crab (a catch-all nickname that does not distinguish between several unique species, the most common of which are Coenobita clypeatus and Coenobita compressus) doesn’t have a hard shell. It has to use other animal’s old shells for protection; as it grows, the hermit crab discards its borrowed digs of a shell and hunts for a newer, larger one.

I’ve always had a soft spot for hermit crabs, so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that I now identify with them. My family spent nearly ten Christmases, along with several summer vacations, on the Gulf Coast of Alabama. While people have been known to sneer at this “Red-Neck Riviera,” the sea warm, the sand soft and white, and the stretch of beach we stayed at adjoined a wildlife refuge and a state park, which meant that the dunes were mostly undeveloped with plenty of room forspawning turtles, mice, sea birds, foxes, and hermit crabs. (Sadly, the revenue-hungry local government has since changed its zoning laws so high-rise condos have sprouted over the past several years.)

Since I am red-haired and white skinned and even thinking about the sun gives me a burn, I liked to walk for miles on the beach rather than roast myself in the sun. (To be truthful, this is only partially accurate. When I was in high school, I was still convinced that I could tan if I just tried hard enough. So I’d plop myself next to my sister in the sand and end up inflicting second-degree burns on myself. Apparently I was a slow learner, though. It took nearly four years of burning through three and four layers of skin at a time to figure out that perhaps my problem wasn’t persistence but lack of melanin.) Part of strolling on a beach means beach-combing, and Gulf Shores had tons of washed-up shells. I loved picking up a shell to see if it was intact enough to keep, only to see an angry little head pop out with two antennae and two tiny little claws – a hermit crab.

Admit it – hermit crabs are darn cute. Part of their allure is how indignant they become when you disturb them. They never skulk in the back reaches of their borrowed shells and hide; instead, like grouchy old men, they stick their heads out and wave their claws around as if to say, “Put me down, you nincompoop.” I never tried to intentionally bother them, but I was never upset to find a hermit crab occupying what seemed to be a discarded shell.

This justifiable outrage is perhaps the main difference between me and Coenobita clypeatus or Coenobita compressus. I keep several shells (and we’re talking metaphors here, people!) in the dark depths of my closet. I pull them out and withdraw into them when the world and my place in it start to feel overwhelming. Usually, it takes a combination of Really Bad Things – like, say, a major car accident on top of pneumonia on top of having a chronic illness – to send me scuttling for my shell. A therapist would say that I’m depressed. And perhaps I am. I shun contact with others, want to sleep all day long, indulge in literature that I would normally sneer at, subsist on fat-laden carbohydrates (like, oh, cookies of the buttery, chocolate variety), snap at Jay when he even looks at me sideways, feel morose, have no energy, and don’t enjoy anything. Well, if that doesn’t read like a DSM IV checklist for depression, I don’t know what does. But I’ve been depressed before. Really, really depressed – like the crazy kind of depressed, and this feels different. This feels like a survival strategy. And I don’t holler at people when they tap on my shell. I just screen my calls and take a few days getting back to people.

The truth is that I am indeed struggling right now. I don’t feel well, and sometimes I get tired of lousy things happening to me and the people I love. I feel exhausted just thinking about having to get re-tested and re-examined by the doctors in Philadelphia in September (my quarterly sarcoidosis check-up). I feel overwhelmed at having a locked up neck and back from the car accident, sixty extra prednisone pounds on my body that need losing, a son with more energy than I can contemplate at this point, a husband who is stressed from trying to do everything, an immune system that doesn’t just throw open the gates for disease but lays down a red carpet and tosses rose petals at the viral intruders, a heart that doesn’t tick quite properly…and no idea where any of this is going. Just writing about this makes me tired, tired, tired. For days (and weeks) like these, I take to my shell. And I think this is OK, as long as I remember to emerge.

The fact that I am writing today, that I am mulling over an essay in the works, fretting about Andrew’s behavior, feeling grumpy that my neck won’t allow me to exercise, and planning to call a few people back means that I’m tapping on the shell, testing its parameters and thickness. Tap, tap, tap. I’ll be coming out soon. But not quite yet. There’s still the crowning of Miss Crustacean. And this time, I think I’m a real contender.

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