“I’m not hungry!” I said to my mother as we pushed through the door. The man in the white shirt ushered us in and I rammed my shoulder into my mother’s back as she stepped in front of me. “This way, ladies,” said the man. My mother feigned a smile and shot me a look that said, ‘don’t you dare do this to me now. It is not okay!’ and I retaliated with a deadpan face as if to say, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ “This is your table, ladies,” he said, pulling the chair back for my mother. “I do hope you enjoy your dinner.”
It was going to be a special occasion. It was one of the few times a year that my family came together to celebrate. It was the only time of year that I would agree to go to a restaurant. My grandparents sat next to each other. My mother sat opposite them. I grabbed the seat next to my granny, sat down and lowered my head to avoid my mother’s loaded eyes. My sister sat next to me and placed her hand on mine. My uncle and his wife sat next to my mother. It was going to be a special occasion and the only reason I was there that night was because it would have broken my grandparents’ hearts had I refused to go. It would have hurt them to know that I would rather have been home alone, with my blanket, on the couch, in the company of American sitcom reruns with the sounds of forced laughter and pretend applause.
Instead, I sat with strangers in a strange room and overheard droppings of conversations that didn’t belong to me. Knives and forks scraped plates. Forks attacked food. Knives fenced forks. I watched as mounds of food poured out of the kitchen on a conveyer belt of hunger and greed. People chatted and chewed and smiled and threw their heads back in laughter. We sat at a round table laid with its paper napkins folded into little peacock-tail fans and stuffed into glasses. My knife made that serrated sound when I scraped it on my plastic place mat and my finger stuck to the grease of the embossed lamination bound in a greasy leather folder with the word “Menu” written across in cursive. A dim candlelight was the centrepiece of our small world.
The adults ordered a bottle of red wine. A merlot. For starters my grandparents shared the soup of the day, my mother ordered the mussels in white wine, my sister the grilled calamari and my uncle and aunt each had carpaccio. And me, I’m not hungry.
“Why don’t you sit properly, lovey,” my granny said, “and take your fingers out your mouth. Are you still biting your nails?”
I squirmed around on my seat but didn’t change my position. My feet were off the floor. Bunched up on my chair. My shoulders were rounded. Both elbows were on the table like I’d claimed my ground and set up my guard. I bit my thumbnail. I can’t stop. My leg quivered uncontrollably, vibrating the table. My sister put her hand on my knee to stop the shaking. I can’t stop.
“Good evening, everyone,” said a man whose face I didn’t care to see. “I’m so and so and I’ll be your waiter for this evening.” He placed a basket full of thick wedges of warm white bread with crisp crust in front of me and laid a porcelain bowl with scoops of round butter balls beside it. He proceeded to tell us what the specials of the day were but I didn’t hear a word he said because I knew that soon he would be going around the table taking my family’s orders. One by one he would write down everyone’s appetizers and once my turn arrived, I would still have no idea what I felt like. What I feel like.
I feel like running back to the car and curling up in the backseat and crying myself to sleep. I feel like screaming at the top of my voice that I am here against my will and that I don’t belong. I feel like drinking the entire bottle of wine that is set before me. I feel like curling up on my chair and placing my head in my granny’s lap while she strokes my hair. I feel like sobbing in my daddy’s arms while he holds me tight to stop me from exploding. Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. Shhhhhhhhhhhh. Shhhhhh.
“Excuse me, Miss, what would you like to eat?” said the waiter, turning to taunt me with his gaze that warned me my procrastination would push me over the edge. But he didn’t know that I was already falling.
“Um… I’m thinking,” I said.
“Um… I’ll have… no… I’ll have… Um…”
All eyes were on me but it was never my intention to steal the moment. My grandfather leaned forward to try to help me decide but I heard the waiter’s clicking pen as he jammed it into his notepad.
“Why don’t I just go ahead and put through the other orders and let you decide,” he said. Decide.
I have lost the ability to decide. It’s a strange thing, that. It’s not just that I don’t know what I want. It’s that I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I feel. I don’t know why. I don’t know anything except that my mind is racing and I don’t want to be running this fast. But I can’t stop.
“Just make up your mind because everyone is waiting,” said my mother. “It’s just one meal in your life. Please stop making such a huge drama out of this!”
She turned to my granny.
“This is what I deal with every single day at home! It’s exhausting. I can’t do it anymore,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest and leaning back hard.
“We didn’t mind waiting a couple of minutes for you to make up your mind but I think it’s been long enough now,” said my granny, who looked as though she were about to cry.
“Just leave her,” said my sister, “she doesn’t have to eat tonight if she doesn’t want to.”
“That’s a good idea, let’s just ignore her,” said my mother. “She knows she is ruining it for everybody with that miserable face of hers and of course I’ll be the one she blames for all of this when we get home.”
My mother had a way of shutting everybody up while turning the attention on me and away from me at the same time.
The wolves backed off and appetizers arrived. My grandfather opened the bottle of wine and poured an equal amount for every adult as they raised their glasses for a toast. My sister poured her soda into a wine glass. I held up a regular glass with water, my third since we arrived, and chewed on ice.
“L’chaim! To life!” said my mother. She clinked her glass hard and had a couple of sips before the toast was over.
“Happy 40th anniversary, Mom and Dad!” said my uncle. “May you have many more. I wish you long life for the next forty years!”
“Happy anniversary!” my sister said, getting up to hug both of my grandparents. I stood up to do the same.
“You are skin and bone,” my granny said, hugging me. “Aren’t you eating?”
I saw the confusion in her eyes as she leaned back from the embrace, but I had no answers.
“Leave her, dear, she’ll come round,” my grandfather said, hugging me.
I pulled away and he caught my hand gently and said, “We have faith in you.”
I sat down again. Everyone ate and talked something about South African politics and the near end of apartheid, something about my mother’s art career, my sister’s high school exams, my uncle and aunt’s travels and medical careers. But nobody mentioned my sixteenth birthday coming up. I was not a part of the conversation. I tapped my fork on the plastic place mat. I chewed my nails. I chewed ice. I drank my water. I tore my blood-red napkin into tiny pieces and arranged them one by one in a perfect line around the edge of my white plate.
“Don’t you want to taste our soup?” my granny said. “Oh, go on. I’m sure you’ll like it.”
I shook my head no. I’m not hungry.
“Don’t be like that, it’s only good for you!”
“Don’t push her, dear,” my grandfather said. “She’ll come round.”
“She just needs to be in her own space,” my sister said. “She’s fine.”
The waiter was back to clear the plates and take orders for the main course. My grandparents debated whether to share the braised oxtail in red wine or the slow roasted lamb shank. My mother ordered the lamb chops on the grill, as usual, with creamed spinach and pumpkin on the side. My sister ordered the veal in lemon butter. My uncle ordered the venison, which he said was the only real meat because it had been allowed to run wild. But it was his wife who riled me up the most because she had this way of ordering her meals time and again with unequivocal certainty and never, not for a second, wavering. To me this meant that she knew herself. And I envied her for that. She ordered the grilled linefish of the day with new potatoes and oven-roasted zucchini. The chef’s special. Then she folded the menu, put it aside and joined in the conversation, which sounded like white noise. I didn’t hear a word anybody said because I had my own staccato monologue going on in my head that was getting louder and louder.
One bite of bread/ only allowed salad/ just order salad/ must drink water/ had an orange for lunch/ yesterday a spoon of rice/ last night three carrots with mayonnaise/ no oil/ I’m not hungry/ fuck this/ I want to run away/ sit/ sit/ pretend you’re fine/ say you ate a late lunch/ I hate this restaurant/ fuck the waiter/ fuck everybody/ why can’t I be like everyone else?/ what’s wrong with me?/ had half a banana at ten/ had two bites of cheese at eleven/ had five grapes or was it seven?/ fuck I can’t remember/ I think it was five/ shut up/ or seven/ shut the fuck up/ had two sips of juice/ had seven cups of coffee/ had two carrots with mayonnaise/ had three grapes/ or was that yesterday?
All the people at the table were drinking, talking, laughing but there was no sound. No sound except for the monotonous voice in my head slamming into walls like a blind bird and all I wanted was to block my ears. But how the hell do you block your ears when the noise is inside your own head? And it won’t stop. No matter what.
Sometimes they fussed over me.
“But why don’t you eat something small?”
“Go on, you must be hungry.”
“I bet you haven’t eaten all day.”
“But you’re looking too thin.”
“How about trying this? This looks nice.”
“Well, what do you feel like eating?”
But my answer was always the same, “I’m not hungry.”
Then my mother started.
“I have been trying to tell all of you for months now that this is what I have to deal with every single day. You just can’t get through to her. She has made up her mind. She doesn’t realize what it’s doing to all of us to see her in this state. You would think, from the way she behaves, that eating one meal with her family would kill her!” I stood up fast and pushed back my chair and threw my fork onto the table hard. It hit a glass and made that shrill noise glass makes before it shatters.
“I’M NOT HUNGRY!” I said.
I turned around, knocking my hipbone on the back of my chair, and stormed off.
Alone in the restroom I paced up and down telling myself to just go out there and order something. Order the smallest, blandest, most un-fattening thing on the menu. I fell against the wall and collapsed onto the ground hugging my knees to my chest and trying not to cry. Tears stung my eyes and I moaned aloud to stop them.
I’m hyperventilating. There isn’t enough air. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.
I stood up slowly and paced the cubicle back and forth, back and forth. My throat closed. My neck tightened. I couldn’t swallow. I couldn’t breathe. My breath was right there stuck inside my chest but it couldn’t get out. It couldn’t escape.
I slammed my hands against the wall and screamed inside, begging for it to stop. The mirror… the mirror… I had to see my reflection in the mirror. But it only showed my body from the chest up and I had to see my stomach. I grabbed the trashcan in the corner to stand on but it wasn’t sturdy enough. I kicked it aside. I pulled my shirt up and jumped up and down so that I could see my stomach in the mirror. I smeared the skin on my belly over and over like I was greasing a baking tray with butter and told myself that my stomach is still flat. My stomach is still flat. I sat on the toilet and tried to pee. Tears streamed down my face. My pee was stuck. There was nothing coming out.
I told myself to get back out there before someone came looking for me.
But they never did.
I am so frustrated because I know this is so fucked up. I know that I am only at a restaurant trying to choose one meal of my life from a stupid menu. But I am stuck inside my head. And I can’t get out. I just can’t get out.
I glanced at my face in the mirror and dabbed my wet eyes with toilet paper and blew my nose. I saw a girl with pale skin and fear in her eyes. But I couldn’t help her. She was already too far away. It was time to go back out there and sit alone with the agony of indecision.
Once everyone else’s food arrived, I was still trying to decide what to order. The waiter was back to ask me for the fifth time what I wanted to eat.
“Have you decided yet?” he said, his eyes locking mine.
“An Italian salad. No olives! No dressing! And extra lettuce,” I snapped.
By then my mother was trying hard not to stab me with her eyes and my grandmother was telling me to stop acting like a child and my sister was giving me that ‘get over yourself’ look and my uncle and aunt were pretending I wasn’t even there. By the time everyone had finished eating his or her meal, my desiccated salad arrived. I poked the lettuce with a fork, bit a piece of cheese, spat it into a napkin and pushed the plate aside. I got up, shoved my chair away and stormed back to the restroom to climb the walls because the enemy had attacked and there was nowhere else to hide.
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