by H D Thompson
I have a near crippling neurosis of eating out. Not in a sex way, I do that fine, but in a going to a restaurant and sitting down by myself and dining kind of way. It’s fine if I’m with another person/s but for some reason by myself I go through a struggle akin to devil possession. Finally, at 25 and with the chances marginally high that I will be alone forever, I decide I must break this mould, as a matter of survival.
The entire situation reads like a badly written Woody Allen skit. One that he wrote when he was younger and realised it was moronic, and scrapped it. The play by play is usually something like this:
– Does pump up exercises in mirror akin to this.
– Walks around looking for an appropriate restaurant.
– Sees an appropriate restaurant but it looks too empty.
– Sees an appropriate restaurant but it looks too full.
– Sees an appropriate restaurant but don’t like that they don’t have the menu visible outside and I don’t want to go in and decide I don’t like the food.
– See appropriate restaurant but don’t like the colour scheme and make a mental connection of their décor taste to food quality.
– See appropriate restaurant with a menu which has a font I find aesthetically pleasing, approach and attempt to read but feel like all the waiters are watching, anticipating, the diners watching, judging, and pretend to receive a phone call and walk briskly away.
– Finally settle on one, suffering from equal measures of dire hunger and shame. Walk past a few times to prepare myself for going in, trying to surreptitiously wipe away the nervous sweat, and make sure to walk differently each time so that the people watching don’t recognise me as that weird walking guy.
– Psyche myself up in the alley next door then walk in quickly before my neurosis take over.
– Try not to talk too fast or appear too jittery and sweaty, so as not to be mistaken for a junked up crazyface.
– Give up and run away, get take away and go home and watch Buffy. Being among people is overrated anyway.
The last time I succeeded in taking myself out to dinner, I decided to use a book as my buffer. The waiters hung about me like a child and kept re-filling my bread basket as if that were their birth task. I didn’t want to offend them so I kept eating bread. By the time my meal arrived I was no longer hungry and had to suffer it down, pleading at the staff with my eyes not to refill my bread basket any more. I couldn’t read and eat at the same time because my book wouldn’t stay open and I tried to lodge it under my plate but it sprung out and flicked pasta sauce all over me. Too embarrassed to ask for a take away container, I left my half-full plate in shame and left a way too generous tip. All that prep work to finally find a restaurant I could go to, now I could never go back because I would forever be known as that loser guy who goes to restaurants for his intense bread hit.
I realise that the reason I struggle with this is because I’m afraid of how I look, how I seem to others. I don’t want to be perceived as a lonely loser. I don’t want people to judge me in any way, and I think it stems from the fact that I totally judge the hell out of everyone and so I assume that everyone else is too. What my mind doesn’t tell itself is that not everyone is as big of an asshole as I am. I try to push everyone else out of my mind, pretend that it’s just me, no one will even notice me until I am seated and ready to dine. It’s pretty narcissistic to think that anyone cares at all. If I were out eating, I would be way more into my food than the weird sweaty, shaky guy at table 4.
I find a place to go – chosen almost at random. I can see through the window that the wait-staff is made up of mostly old ladies and overly gay men. Perfect. These particular groups of people, for some reason, seriously appreciate my eyelashes and seem to treat me better for it. I don’t stutter out front, I use my acting skills to toughen the fuck up and just walk in and attempt to get seated. I pretend I am playing a strong independent character. Probably played by Meryl Streep or Bette Davis. I use calming mantras and breathing exercises but of course they don’t work, I sweat up a storm and my smile is more of a creepy, uncomfortable grimace. Like a marionette being forced to do something it doesn’t want to, I enter the battlefield.
I want to run, but I tell myself to follow through, asking for a table for one. The guy asks if I am waiting for a friend, normally I would say yes, so that when my friend doesn’t turn up I might get pity goods, but I say no, because this is my day. He sits me next to a window, which is a nice position, but way too lit and a focus of attention I don’t want to be in. I want to ask to be seated somewhere else, but not wanting to make a fuss I obey his commands and sit. I ask for wine, quicker than I should have and he gives me an, I hear ya wink and walks away to acquiesce my obvious dependence on alcohol.
I quickly get out my phone and furiously pretend to compose a text (another appropriate gif). This is my only skill, I break it out when I am meeting a friend somewhere and I am the first to arrive, or if I am waiting in line for the bathroom and people start talking to me, or waiting for a tram, or at the fruit store – it really is a versatile skill.
I look at the people around me. They all seem so happy. There are people around me dining by themselves who are at such ease, at such comfort, I feel like asking them the secrets of life. Surely they must know all the things. I want to bottle what they have, heat it up on a spoon and shoot it into my veins.
I look around again at the few people in the restaurant. Two young women, who are noshing down on their bowls of kale like kids to Halloween candy and an old, old couple who smell heavily of moth balls sipping their soup so loud I think it might actually be their mode of communication. There are two young people having a loud political conversation, to which I feel like saying “I get it, we all get it – you follow politics, you read the news. We don’t care. Shut up.”
The waiter brings my wine over and tells me this is his favourite spot because he can look out the window and judge all of Chelsea from this spot. I laugh, and then realise that I was calm. I was no longer stressing about every little thing. This is my calm spot – judgement. The fear of judgement that keeps me so paralysed is in fact my trigger to calm my shaky nerves. It could also be the wine, who knows.
I down the wine and order another and settle into my position as judge of the people. I’m not that hungry, so I just get some snacks, but I tell him to keep the Grigio coming. I overhear the loud political kids say something like “there was once a time for Spanish revolution” and roll my eyes at whatever that meant. The salad girls are talking about how their friend is going for her stripper licence and I try to hear the rest but my attention is wavering as I hear the opening strums of Sophie B. Hawkins’ As I Lay Me Down fill the room. I turn to the waiter and nod my appreciation of the classic 90s jam. I attempt to also tell him in my gaze that I always preferred Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover, but I don’t think it came across as clearly.
A middle aged couple walks into the joint, clutching bags of sales they obviously just survived from. They’re sweating lakes beneath their arms and when they sit down they do so with the relief I am sure is mostly reserved for that point when their yearly sex act is finally over. Adorned in pastels that were out of date even when the Golden Girls made them trendy, they clutch their chests and rub their sweat into their hair, which is already gross and unseemly. They look like they just stumbled out of a horrid watercolour painting; one of the ones that junked up buskers might draw on side walks for drug money. I mean, why would anyone dress so unflatteringly? I’m dirt poor, but at least I tried.
The man clicks at the waiter, and I see the poor guy’s back stiffen with disgust at being treated like a desk lamp.
“Do you have any diet coke?”
“Afraid not, sorry.”
The pastel man lets out an overly dramatic sigh of disappointment, as if Russia again refused to sign the treaty, “fine, I’ll just have water. Bottled, not tap. Glass of ice on the side.”
These people are deliciously awful. I finish my (probably eighth) glass of wine while observing them out of my peripheral like the Attenborough I was born to be. I sit there judging them until it gets weird after a while and I decide to call it a day. I succeeded in making it through a solo dining out experience without any mild panic attacks of any kind, and it was also kind of fun. Now I have my trigger, I kind of can’t wait to do it again. But not for a while. Like, next month. Or maybe Spring sometime.