I enjoy food immensely. All kinds of food, with few exceptions. I am not a picky eater. In fact, I’m fairly adventurous when it comes to trying unidentifiable foods. Of course, there are a few foods that are just completely unnacceptable; foods that I find so repulsive, the facial expression I unwittingly make after tasting them makes me look like I’m turning my face inside out.
Then there are foods that I don’t find quite so objectionable taste-wise, but the texture just makes me shudder from the top of my head right down to my toes, like quince paste or cabello de ángel (a type of pumpkin jam). If it’s soft and sweet with a weird grainy texture and the grainy bits aren’t sugar, I’m naturally suspicious. Up until recently, I was a cheerful omnivore, eating everything before me. I am still trying to be an omnivore, but for the past year and a half, it has been a struggle.
I never understood vegetarians. I understood the reasoning behind it, but I didn’t feel any kind of way about it. Yes, I love animals, and no, I would never kill one myself, but meat is delicious and we are designed to eat all kinds of everything, so how could you give up all that edible enjoyment for some ethical ideal? For me, my love of animals was entirely disconnected to the meals I ate.
For the past year and a half, however, something has been happening. Feelings are seeping into my mealtimes. The more I read, the more feelings I have, and the less I’m able to enjoy my meals in the thoughtless, ignorance-is-bliss way I did before… Honestly, it’s kind of killing my buzz. I read a comment by Peter Dinklage where he said,
“I like animals – all animals. I wouldn’t hurt a cat or a dog, or a chicken or a cow. And I wouldn’t ask someone else to hurt them for me. That’s why I’m a vegetarian.”
… and I thought, Well, damn it.
I love chorizo. I love jamon serrano. I love seafood and shellfish and chicken noodle soup. I love chili con carne and sushi and bibimbap and winter stews. All of this is true.
It’s also true that the one time my father ever brought me fishing, I caught one and then bawled my eyes out when a man came up behind me and dashed the fish’s head against a tree stump.
It’s also true that, while staying in a house with a chicken run in the garden, one of the chickens got sick, stopped laying eggs and grew a strange fungus that made it look like one of her legs was turning into a tree branch. I took the time every day to grab Sick Chicken, gently wash her leg and smear it with vaseline until she got better.
It’s also true that as a child, I would make my father stop the car every time we spotted roadkill so I could cimb out and check if it could be rescued. Most of the time the answer was no, no it could not, but on the rare occasion the animal was still breathing I would insist on it being put in the car and brought home for “medical attention” (food, water, and a blanketed cardboard box in the garden shed).
These are not, as it turns out, wholly compatible mentalities. There is now food that I actively feel guilt while eating (pork, in particular), which greatly diminishes my enjoyment of it. I’m still fine with fish and shellfish, but I never thought it would ever happen to me with meat so the question is… for how long? How long can I hold out? How long more will my enjoyment of food outweigh the feeling of being a selfish hypocrite? And why now? Why have I suddenly developed this late-onset vegetarianism?
I am torn by my love of food, and my feeling that I shouldn’t eat anything I wouldn’t be able to kill myself. Which is basically nothing. I can’t even kill Lenny, what hope do I have of killing something sentient? Left to my own devices in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse, I’d have to become a woodland forager, surviving on questionable mushrooms and bits of seaweed…
To fully set the scene, I must first explain certain truths about myself, like the fact that grocery stores relax me. I know, but they do. They are my zen garden. They are my mountaintop sanctuary. I can’t explain it, but walking up and down aisles of consumer goods just speaks to my soul. I don’t necessarily have to buy anything, it’s just the actual act of browsing that makes me feel a deep and abiding sense of calm. Roaming Target at 11pm with no shopping list in mind is my idea of bliss.
Also, I love automatic sliding doors and those little metal barriers that spring open as you approach; I always put my hand out, wave it to the side, and pretend I’m a Jedi.
Try it! I promise it will brighten your day considerably.
Anyway. I’m in the grocery store and I’m strolling aimlessly up and down the aisles. I have my earphones in because I’ve been listening to a podcast*, and I am idly contemplating a packet of crisps when a large guy comes over and starts talking to me. At first I don’t hear him, so he gets right in my face. I pull out an earbud and he says:
“Hi, how are you?”
What an opener. Ladies and gentlemen, witness this masterclass in charm.
“Good, thanks,” I reply politely with a smile, and then put the earbud back in my ear and step past him. He follows me and gets in my face again. I stop and pulled the earbud back out, feeling a tingle of irritation.
“Are you looking for something or just browsing? You look like you’re just window shopping. Are you window shopping?”
“Yeah, pretty much.” I put the earbud in my ear and step around him again.
Now, I know I haven’t stuck my hand out and primly stated, “KINDLY LEAVE ME ALONE, GOOD SIR. YOU ARE INTERFERING WITH MY SUPERMARKET MEDITATION” but to be honest, I don’t feel like I should have to resort to that in order to be left alone. If I were to pull the other earbud from my ear and smile gormlessly into his face, twirling a lock of hair around my finger, then he would have reason to persist. That’s not what’s happening though. None of my body language is inviting even the slightest prolonging of the moment. I am actively trying to escape the situation. I don’t think my feelings on this can possibly be misconstrued.
Instead of taking the hint, he turns and falls into step with me. I can hear him talking still but at this point I’ve tuned him out and am actually annoyed because 1.) I’ve given absolutely no indication of being interested, 2.) he’s ruining my mountaintop sanctuary experience and 3.) he’s really large and persistent, which makes me feel threatened. I hate feeling threatened; whether the threat is real or not. I feel vulnerable, and I hate feeling vulnerable, so then I feel annoyed that someone has put me in the position of feeling vulnerable, which just makes me feel angry….
It’s a complex tangle of emotions.
I take a breath and imagine for a moment that I am a porcupine. I imagine that I am covered in spikes and every quill on my body is ready to impale him if he gets too close. Then I exhale deeply and ruefully accept that sadly, I am not a porcupine, and even more sadly, I have no quills. Instead I am a small, soft, squidgy human, and I cut my fingernails quite short, so I don’t even have acrylic-talon weapons of death** at my disposal. I decide my best plan of action is to pretend I can’t hear him over the sound of my non-existent music, and just leave the shop. Which I do.
It’s a shitty feeling. If you’ve never felt so intimidated you’ve needed to leave a public space, you might not understand this. All I can say is that it feels really rubbish to change your plans because someone makes you so uncomfortable you don’t feel you can stay. It feels like weakness, and I guess it is weakness, but I’m polite and I’m also half the size of this man who thinks he can wear me down with inane conversation, so I retreat like the coward that I am. I walk down the street and turn the corner. I walk down another street, go into a shopping centre, take the escalators up to the first floor, and wander into another shop.
And this [unutterable word]…. he follows me.
I realise I might be particularly sensitive thanks to past experience, but this guy appears in front of me like a recurring hallucination from a bad trip and says, “Hey beautiful, we meet again!” as if it’s just a total coincidence and well fancy meeting you again so soon and he is looming over me grinning and I want to punch him in the face with my tiny fist because seriously, screw this guy and his dogged determination to ruin my day.
I don’t, obviously. Partly because that would be an overreaction, partly because I’m polite, and partly because I’m afraid that he would punch me right back with his fist the size of my face and I’d end up embedded in the tiled floor.
I know there are people thinking, ‘He probably just wanted to talk to you,’ and I agree. You are right. That is probably what he wanted to do. Maybe he thought I was shy, and I just needed the right amount of persistent conversation in order to bloom like a delicate flower. Maybe he thought he was being brave, walking up to me in the supermarket and striking up a conversation out of the blue. That is pretty ballsy, after all, and I don’t really have a problem with that. Take your chances chatting up the girl buying groceries. Go hard! Maybe she’s only strolling the shop floor because she’s waiting for a guy to sweep her off her feet next to the cereal. Maybe your eyes will meet over that box of Rice Krispies and love will blossom on aisle five. Who knows? Life is short, take a risk.
However, I do have a problem with the fact that once it’s clear I’m not interested in a conversation, he doesn’t just… let it go. He sidesteps my sidestep. He actively ignores any and all signs of discomfort on my part because his desire to talk to me is apparently more important than my desire to walk around without feeling hunted.
That’s how I feel in that moment. I feel like a wide-eyed, frightened rabbit. I let my eyes glaze and slide right over him, and then I turn and walk in the other direction as if I haven’t seen or heard him. I wonder whether he will keep following me around the shop. I wonder if he will follow me home. I keep moving through the aisles without actually looking at anything on the shelves, keeping an eye on him out of my peripheral vision. Then the heavens open up outside and it starts bucketing down.
I take my chance and, while other people huddle inside the door fiddling with hoods and umbrellas, I walk straight out into the downpour and keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reach my apartment complex. As the gate swings shut behind me, I feel like I’ve reached the safety zone in a kiddie game of tag.
Once I get inside my apartment, I am so angry I am shaking. I am angry with him, because he ruined my day and made me feel small and weak. I am angry with myself for being small and weak. I am angry because after listening to two episodes of a podcast about boundaries and anger, I totally and completely failed to express myself in terms of either one of them. I was too afraid of the consequences to use my words. I was too afraid of what his reaction would be if I rejected him. His total dismissal of my obvious discomfort made me far too uneasy to challenge him in any direct way, because if he can ignore my disinterest so fully, why wouldn’t he ignore my rejection?
Instead, I’d run back to my burrow like the frightened rabbit I am. All keyed up, I ranted about it on Snapchat. Now I’ve ranted about it here. Maybe next time I’ll get loud and brave the consequences. Maybe I’ll take up Krav Maga in the meantime. Or maybe…
Maybe there won’t be a next time.
That would be nice.
*It’s a comedy podcast called The Guilty Feminist and you can find episodes of it here.
**I always wondered why people get such awkward looking nails and how they’re able to do anything with such long claws but now I’m thinking that actually they seem like a sensible choice in terms of self-defence and maybe I should invest in my own set of tiny daggers attached to my fingertips.
I feel like there are certain universal social cues that everybody understands. I think everyone would agree, for example, that people wearing earphones are generally not looking for a conversation.
Despite this, somehow, for some reason, people break this seemingly simple rule with me all the time.
I can’t tell what it is about me that invites this kind of behaviour. Is it my tiny stature? Is it something about my face? Do I have an invisible ink tattoo that reads ‘TALK TO ME’ under strip lighting? It happens a lot. A man once motioned for me to take my headphones off in Tesco while I was looking at packets of rice, and when I did so, he said, “I just wanted to tell you, you have really lovely hair.” And then he sat back on his heels and stared at me expectantly.
I’m not really sure what he was waiting for. I cast a surreptitious glance either side of me to make sure there were no hidden cameras. I hadn’t even brushed my hair that day. There was nothing worth complimenting there. I thought about the food I still needed to buy for dinner. I thought about the awkwardness of the moment and how it would only increase if I got stuck in front of him in the checkout line. I thought about the fact that he probably thought he was being nice by interrupting my day to pay me a wholly inexplicable (and unnecessary) compliment, and I thought about the fact that by doing so he was making me deeply uncomfortable. Then I slowly placed the packet of basmati rice back on the shelf, said, “Thanks,” turned around, and left the shop without a backwards glance.
I beat a hasty retreat in all awkward situations. I am basically a human turtle.
Of course, sometimes I’m not given the option of being a turtle. Sometimes I am trapped by wretched misfortune. Sometimes I am on a 6am flight next to somebody who insists on a conversation.
The last time this happened was relatively recently. I’d had to wake up at 4am (which I’m sure you’ll agree is not at all conducive to a pleasant demeanor), and I was looking forward to listening to a podcast and napping on my two-and-a-half hour flight. I decided earbuds wouldn’t cut it, and brought my heavy duty Sennheisers to completely block out ambient noise.
Unfortunately I hadn’t counted on the persistence of my fellow passenger. Before we had even taken off, I felt a tap tap tap on my shoulder. I removed my earphones, expecting the flight attendant, and instead twisted in my seat to meet the smiling face of the man sitting next to me.
“Are you off on holidays?” He asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, just for a week. You?”
“Oh no, I live there now.”
“Oh, nice.” I put my headphones back on. I lay back and closed my eyes.
tap tap tap
I took my headphones back off.
“Do you know anyone over there?”
“Yeah, I have family there.”
I put my headphones back on, feeling a little guilty for being so rude. Still, if I’m honest, there are very few people I would want to have a conversation with at 6am; a stranger sitting next to me on a plane is definitely not one of them.
tap tap tap
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
I ripped off my headphones and turned my body to face his. I stared daggers of pure, undiluted hatred straight into his soul. He stared back at me with a bland expression of irritating, energetic cheerfulness. I crumpled back into my chair in defeat.
He talked to me without pause for the next two and a half hours.
It would be more accurate, in fact, to say that he talked at me, as he didn’t seem to require any actual participation on my part. At first I thought he might just be a nervous flyer, and this softened my attitude towards him. I felt a lot better about him tapping me on the shoulder three times when I thought it stemmed from nervousness rather than an obnoxious disregard for my personal space.
“Do you not like flying?” I asked, sympathetically.
“What? Are you kidding? I love flying!” He replied, before launching into an exhaustive list of the many places he had visited.
My juicy grape of sympathy shrivelled instantly, and hardened into a sour raisin of resentment that can only truly be understood by people who are too polite to extricate themselves from these sort of situations.
He told me about everything he had received for Christmas. He told me about his grandmother, his niece, his woollen jumpers, his hobbies. He told me about where he lived, and why. He told me about his parents, his siblings, his holidays. At one point he paused in the middle of a story to point over at a man who was similarly talking the ear off a woman a few rows ahead of us.
“God, look at him. You can tell she’s not at all interested and he’s just chewing her ear off! Poor woman.”
I stared at him. “Yes,” I said dryly. “Can you imagine?”
He shook his head in an agonizingly oblivious show of pity and then continued with his extremely detailed story about his family pets.
By the time we landed, I think I knew almost everything there was to know about him.
I collected my suitcase feeling dazed and wondering once again what it is about me that invites people to ignore the sacred social cue of the headphones. Does this happen to other people with as much regularity? If you’ve had this happen to you, how did you handle it? If you’re someone who has interrupted a stranger wearing headphones… why?
I’m off for a walk now. I’ll be wearing my headphones.