Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time alone in coffee shops, sipping on an Americano and writing in a notebook. I’ve done this for years, in places all over. I remember being in Amsterdam, having an omelet and an espresso by myself on Christmas day, writing about the snow. That Christmas, being in the Netherlands by myself, a feeling of total isolation came over me. I was away from everything, frightened to talk to people. I also found myself obsessing on nearly every small detail of my own behavior. There were several times (like walking through the Rijksmuseum or watching a band play on Christmas night) when I was surrounded by people but felt as though I had completely faded away. This feeling stayed with me for months.
That April I decided to drive to Queens to see an old college friend, and it was on that trip that I had the bad experience with the Mexican Salad. On opening day of the baseball season, I left my car parked outside her apartment in Astoria and went into Manhattan to watch the games. My friend had to work, so I went alone all the way to Times Square, anxious to see Roy Halladay’s Phillies debut. After looking around for the perfect place, I eventually settled on some sports bar that was a bit more upscale than I wanted. It had a huge screen, though, where I saw Placido Polanco place a grand slam into the seats in left field. The bartender brought me a beer and asked if I wanted to eat anything.
“No thanks,” I said, forcing a smile. I’ve always had trouble eating in public. When I was a kid, my father would have the restaurant bring me my meal in a box because more often than not I couldn’t touch it until we got home. It’s something about the lights and the people that makes me nervous and when I’m nervous I just can’t stomach anything. All that said, I was starving that day and looked enviously at what the upscale NY businessmen ate. Burgers and wings, sandwiches and pasta. It looked amazing. I wished that I would be able to stand a chance against it.
Around 4:30, when the Mets game was over, the place cleared out. I’d been drinking for hours and was ravenous. The bartender – an older blonde woman with a Ukrainian accent – brought me a menu. I was still aware that I was feeling anxious about eating, so I avoided ordering a burger or a sandwich. Too heavy. Instead, I ordered a Mexican Salad. That would be light enough to handle, I figured. I ordered another beer to help me relax.
By that point, though, I had interacted with people so little that I felt almost completely sucked into myself. Ordering beer was the only time all day I had said any words. I felt like I was a part of the bar the same way the oak tables and the electronic dartboard were. The other people there didn’t seem real to me, but instead were as distant and two dimensional as the baseball players on the television screen. This is what I was thinking when the bartender placed the salad down in front of me. I looked at it, and that’s when panic started to settle in.
It didn’t look at all like a Mexican Salad. There were no tortilla chips, salsa, or guacamole. “What if this is the wrong salad?” I thought. “Maybe I shouldn’t eat it. Maybe there’s been a mistake.”
I sat there and stared at it. Finally, I took my fork and began to eat. It was damn delicious, but it didn’t taste especially Mexican. That made me more nervous. I looked around the bar to see if there was anyone else there waiting for a salad. I imagined the bartender, with her thick accent, rushing over to confront me.
“Stop!” she’d say. “That isn’t your salad!”
“Oh,” I would say, playing dumb. “Really?”
She would glare at me. “Didn’t you order the Mexican Salad?”
“Does that look like a Mexican Salad to you?”
“Um, no, not really.”
“Do you see any salsa? Where’s the salsa?”
“What about guacamole? I don’t see any guacamole. Do you?”
“No! I don’t see any guacamole! It’s Manhattan…I thought it was some fancy fusion thing!”
I ate faster. I had to finish the salad before they would realize what I had done. If the salad was gone, I could just say that yes, it was in fact the Mexican Salad. They would never know.
After I had finished and the bartender took the spotless plate away, I realized how strange I was being. I had gotten the correct salad, obviously. I smoked a cigarette and felt ashamed of myself.
“Eating shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought.
Nor should talking to people.
Or being around people and not wanting them to go away.
I paid and left. I was supposed to meet my friend to go see the screening of a new Greek film. As it happened, I missed her, and found myself wandering through SoHo, where I used to hang out when I was in college. I sat on a bench and thought about all the good times we had back then.