How to Eat
by MW Cook
I was thin. We all were. No. Thin is the wrong word. Thin is what you call someone who is not overweight. I was worse than thin. I was stick-like. My bones seemed to be fighting to break free from my skin. I once held my belly so tight that I was pretty sure I felt my spine on the other side. We were not thin. Thin is a hundred pounds. We were something else. Something wrong. Something that would have made you stop if you passed us in the street. Stop and stare and point and retch.
It was the hunger, of course. I live in a land where there is no food. Not just a shortage of food, mind you. No food. None. Ziltch. Nada. We are born starving, live starving and eventually die of starvation. So when I heard about a restaurant opening up in my town, I was intrigued.
I didn’t tell my friends I was going. They would have laughed at me (have you ever heard a starving man laugh? It’s nothing you want to hear). None of us really believed that those places actually had any food. But the hunger was sharp that evening, so I went.
It took up the corner of an out-of-the-way intersection. The night was arid and dusty, like it always is. The dust made me think of rain – something I had never seen but heard of in the fantasy novels I read. It made me thirsty. The lights were on and there seemed to be friendly sounds coming from within. I quickly checked to see that no one I knew was watching, and I went inside.
You have never been truly hungry, so you will not be able to appreciate the sensation those first smells caused. The thick and heavy aroma of beef was in the air, twisting at my insides and fanning my desire so that the pain of hunger brought tears to my eyes. I almost collapsed. But there was hope in the pain. Hope of a meal.
A man in a black suit came up to me, trying to pull his sallow face into a grin.
“A new customer! Yes, how nice. Table for one? Of course. Yes, follow me!” He turned and led me to an empty booth and bade me sit. “Just a moment, sir, and I shall be back with your meal. Yes? Yes. Now you must be patient, of course. Good things come in time and in time you shall see that the time you timed paid off in the end, yes? Yes. But now stop your fidgeting and sit up straight, for this eating business is a serious business, yes? Yes. And try to wipe that spittle from your lip, yes that’s a good lad. You wouldn’t want to dishonor your meal by coming to it all sloppy and ravenous. That just wouldn’t do, would it? So, yes I shall go and bring everything you will need in order to enjoy your meal. But you must be patient, yes? Of course yes.”
And so he went. The smells were stronger this far into the restaurant. I could see other customers, talking with each other, but the walls of the booths were so high I could not really make out what it was they were dining on.
Time passed and I suppose the pangs had gotten worse because when the man returned he gave me a look and shook his head. “Tsk, tsk, dear sir. You mustn’t look so pained. That’s no way to approach a meal. But no matter, put on a cheerful and controlled face and all will be well soon, yes? Yes. Now I’ve brought you all the things you’ll need in so that you may enjoy your meal decently and in the correct order.”
Here he started taking things off his tray and placing them in front of me.
“First, of course, you have your dining clothes. The outfit you’ve come in with might have served while you were a pitiful starving wretch, but now that you are well fed you need to dress the part. It’s not the clothes that make the man, of course, but I could hardly call you a proper man with the clothes you have on. So chop chop and get dressed.”
I obeyed. As I dressed he continued to talk while piling my table full of things. Plates and utensils. Cups and saucers. Napkins and finger bowls. There was a book about the nutritional value of the meal. Another book about the journey the raw materials took from the farm to the plate. Another blank book was for me to record my thoughts of the meal. Higher and higher he piled the junk, so that it covered the table. And, as it creaked and wobbled higher than my head, I realized the sickening truth. There was no food to be had at this place.
I was about to ask, but he seemed to see the question in my eyes. With a glimmer he put down the tome he was about to heave atop the other objects and spoke. “Impatient, hmm? Don’t trust, eh? Tsk, tsk, dear brother. What shall we do with you? You think you can just demand the meal in the way you want it? Hmph! You must come on the meal’s terms. There are no others! But, no matter. May I present your dinner.”
Here he made a flourish and pulled a plate from the tray. The food steamed and drove me wild with its smell. What was it? I cannot remember. I only remember that deep, glorious sensation running through me. That inexpressible thought: I shall soon eat! He placed it on the table in front of me.
I drove at it, reaching with my hands, drooling at the mouth. The sallow man moved and intercepted my hands.
“Been here so long and yet learned nothing? Tsk, tsk,” he said. “Patience!”
“But I’m so hungry,” I croaked. I felt tears forming in my eyes.
“But to eat with your hands is so vulgar! And you still haven’t read the books I’ve given you about the meal! Read them, first. Learn to use a fork and knife. Then you’ll be worthy to take part in the feast, yes? Yes.”
I stared up at the books. At the utensils. At the daunting barrier this sallow fool had put up between me and my meal.
I pushed him aside, gripped the food in my hands and bit down hard. My teeth met plastic.
I gnawed on the chew toy for a while before fully realizing that it was fake. I looked down at the pathetic waiter and realized that he was as thin as I. Indeed, as I gazed about the restaurant, I saw that no one was eating – they talked about food, read about food, but ate nothing. No one was healthy. We were all starving to death like everyone else.
I left. The man cursed at me as I went. He called me a rouge, a delinquent. He said that I lacked the digestive strength to devote myself to my food when times were hard. But what was I to do? Why pretend to be full when I still starve?
I stumbled into the street, my hunger made more clear and sharp than ever before. And I fell to my knees and screamed at the sky, begging for food. There was, of course, no answer.
I started to walk home. But I kept walking after I arrived. I walked right past my door. I couldn’t get food out of my mind. Nor the sensations of the near-food I had encountered. I almost turned back to return to the restaurant. But that thought was sour in my mind. And so I walked and walked. I walked all over the world, searching for food. Searching for a people thick and healthy. Searching for a man who makes true food, and who only bids me eat. I searched a long time.