“What do you want to eat?” is one of the meanest questions you could ask me.
Well, without a menu or something in mind, it’s just an easier way to tell me you don’t like me. There is a certain amount of space I reserve just for the anxiety I get nearly every family night where we say we’re hungry and what should we eat? I’ll suggest old favorites and am scoffed off nearly every time. My anxiety builds as no one can agree on anything. I just want chicken tenders and fries. I just want french toast. I get the same five things, but it does not matter. I want to eat but I don’t but I need to or else my brain will get worse and I cannot do that here or anywhere and we were fine ten minutes ago and I do not have an appetite but my stomach says, no, demands otherwise.
When I was younger, the answer to what I wanted to eat was easy. This is because I didn’t have a choice. To an extent, of course I did. Did I want nuggets or a Big Mac? Did I want link sausage or patty? There were choices but none that could prepare me for the utter chaos and uncertainty of adulthood.
When I was a kid and a teenager and maybe a little older than that, what I ate was what was put in front of me, generally. I had choices when we went to restaurants, to diners especially. I know how to cook, and to cook well, but I freeze every time I have to make something. It’s not the food that scares me; it’s the audience.
My sister was a picky eater, but we couldn’t leave the table until the food was gone, and my granddad, he yelled a lot, and I hate yelling, so, when he would turn to talk to my grandma, I’d just put her food on my plate and eat it. When we had our version of the Last Supper in second grade, we were given lamb, and no one but me liked it, so everyone gave me theirs. I yelled “I’m the garbage disposal!” and laughed. My other grandparents, who I’d see at least five times a year, two months in summer, let me and my sister pick out whatever we wanted to eat on our first grocery run. We came back, and I was so big, the next time we came down, I wasn’t allowed to pick just anything anymore. My cousins, aunts, really everyone in my family made fun of my eating habits. Food went from being exciting to being necessary to being a chore, and I’m still stuck in the last one. People stopped asking me what I wanted because I would just “want chicken tenders and fries,” which was true, but was the laugh and eye roll afterwards really necessary? I already felt so far behind in so much — school, friendships, growing up, being human — that I felt like food was the one area I could control, that I could force myself to grow up in. I’ve regretted every burger, every fancy ass cuisine outside my comfort zone ever since.
Diners are some of my favorite places. There is not an expectation to grow up. Actually, there’s an agreed upon belief that time freezes as soon as you walk through the door.
Every diner is like a show. The kitchen and behind the bar as writers’ table and director’s notes, the workers as sound and lighting design, prop masters, and actors all rolled into one. It’s fitting, because my first memories of diners are after theatre shows.
After one of the first shows I did in sophomore or junior year (the years run together), I got into someone’s car and we drove to Silver Diner. It wasn’t super late to an adult, but it was late to me as a high schooler with no parents calling me asking when I’d come home. I smushed in with a couple of friends, and we drove not even ten minutes up the road to the diner. When you have a crush, no matter how much you want to tell yourself you don’t care, your body will always know where they are. Between bites of bacon cheese fries, pushing quarters into the jukebox machines at our tables willing our song to play next, I kept looking back over at her. We had three tables, almost a corner of the restaurant to ourselves, and I was amazed we were allowed to be annoying as fuck without being kicked out. We all paid with whatever lunch money we had left over and lingered outside the restaurant, telling dumb stories until we got into each other’s cars to go home.
It was one of the first times I felt like I existed outside of my family. That I could sneak glances (I wasn’t sneaking; I was incredibly obvious) at the girl(s) I liked, that since I could pay for my own food, I could choose what I wanted to eat. No one ever explicitly said I didn’t have a choice when it came to food, but it always felt easier to let food happen to me rather than be an active participant in it. Here, I could be an active participant. There’s nothing spectacularly amazing about diners, and that’s one of the reasons I love them so much. The food, though delicious to me, is not exciting. The atmosphere of jukeboxes and smiles against checkerboard tiles blend into unreality as I see black people at the counter unbothered, as white people smile at me even when all my white friends are yelling their hearts out despite needing to be on vocal rest.
No answers are too wrong in a diner. My best friend and I had met with other friends for some diner outing or another. One of her triggers can seem silly to others, and when one of them reared its head through song, I felt her tense next to me in the fake leather booth. I tapped her hand, and she looked at me, and it felt like her anxiety was building. I pulled my iPod nano out of my skirt pocket and handed her an earphone while our friends kept speaking. I let her pick whatever song she could find to tune out the radio above. After two to three minutes, the song changed, and I felt her body relax just a little. She handed me my iPod nano back and whispered thank you before grinning back at whatever our friends were saying. Nowhere else would I have felt safe enough to offer the only comfort I know how. In other places, I was always worried about being too obvious, too gay, too black, too everything. But in that moment, I could move my hand to meet hers underneath the table without worrying anyone was watching. I could help her and not be ridiculed in the attempt.
Diners are places of unreality where I can get my food and not worry about being stared at or made fun of while selecting my entree or while eating, where I can safely look out the window while people talk instead of forcing myself to make eye contact, and where I am guaranteed to enjoy whipped cream at whatever capacity I want. There are rules here, but they make sense. You come in. You sit down, you eat or sit with people for a certain amount of time, and the atmosphere tries its best to stay the same, giving just enough space for longer laughter than the last time, room for a misplaced glance without the repercussion of violence just a small shrug and glance away, enough air that the music feels different each time it plays, even though the singers can only share their songs from below our feet if they ever choose to sing again. After trying to make the waiter smile, moving your plates into two stacks so it’s easier for the person cleaning up behind you, and paying the check, you’re going to have to remember how to fit your incorrect body into a world that does not want you. But in the diner, you can pretend you fit. In the diner, nothing makes sense and so, it’s the perfect place for you.