My whole life I’ve been a picky eater. Incorrigible, weird, dysfunctional, disordered. My parents used to bribe me to eat on family vacations because I was in an almost perpetual cycle of not-eating, feeling sick from not eating, then not eating because I’m feeling sick. They’d give me money, or choice of activity or an extra souvenir to incentivize things like, one, whole sausage link or an extra two bites of pancakes.My repertoire of edible foods was very limited and my appetite, even for the few things I liked, was even worse. In the late eighties and nineties, there were no self-righteous parenting blogs or other well-meaning internet advice to shame my parents for their tactics. Besides, they were doing their best to keep me alive.
By the time I got to law school, I’d been living on my own for almost ten years. The first three of them were spent finally sympathizing with the daily struggle of my mom to feed me. During the college dorm days, I lived on a steady diet of Ritz crackers smothered in peanut butter, sugared cereals, apples and soft serve ice-cream. When I moved off campus, I was so busy during the day I frequently arrived home after dark to realize I hadn’t eaten a thing. On a good day, I ate pepperoni pizza pretzel from the Wetzel’s on the A floor of Ackerman before filling a bag of sour candy to keep me awake during afternoon class. On a bad day. I ate ten Oreos, straight out of the freezer, at 11pm, in bed.
As a junior, my on-again-off-again boyfriend was appalled by my eating habits and critical of my parents for not doing more to force me to eat. Both in variety and amount. In my many attempts to tailor my behavior to please him, I took to being more adventurous with food. In his many attempts to make up for being such an asshole, he’d apologize for nasty behavior by feeding me donuts from the shop his parents owned in the San Fernando valley.
During my senior year, I remember my roommate, and best friend, Alice, would cook extra dumplings, nightly, to ensure I put something substantial in my body. We’d eat together, standing up in the kitchen, yelling at each other about our insensitive ex-boyfriends, global social injustice and other important struggles facing young feminists of the time.
In so many ways, Alice kept me from starving.
The years after college were a mixed bag of consistently feeding myself like an adult then unpredictably reverting back to survive-on-cereal behavior.
Returning to UCLA for law school sometimes felt like going back in time and other times felt like visiting the past as my present self. Some of my favorite spots for food and fun felt haunted by the ghost of my ex-boyfriend and memories of our life together. The smells and sounds swirled together evoking an emotional mix of happy nostalgia and reflective sadness.
One of my favorite undergrad study spots was the novel cafe. A two-story restaurant slash coffeehouse on Gayley avenue, one of the main drags in Westwood. The bottom was filled with small, round tables surrounded by metal chairs. It looked like an outdoor patio had been converted to indoor dining by boxing it in with windows. I preferred the upstairs, a loft-like space with a corner bookshelf that housed dusty-old versions of not-quite famous novels. The staff was tolerant of lingering students, they had reliable wifi and you could order off the whole menu, all day.
Yelp wasn’t quite a thing back when I was in college but I imagine that’s how Nick found his way to “Novel” years after I first discovered it. I read his text message as I was leaving an evening yoga class in Santa Monica. It was a half hour old already and he’d asked if I was interested in joining him for dinner and studying. I let him know I was twenty minutes away but I’d stop by if he’d still be there.
Just before 8pm, I rushed through the front entrance, almost missing Nick as I instinctively headed upstairs. On the third step, I caught a glimpse of him in my right periphery. He was huddled at a corner table, near the window. There were two heavy textbooks on the small, round table. He was leaning back in a metal chair, staring at a third, open book. He was wearing his black-rimmed glasses and appeared quiet and focused. He wouldn’t be for long, as I ungracefully interrupted with my always-a-little-too-loud-for-public voice that sounded a pitch or two higher when I was nervous or excited.
I threw down my overstuffed lululemon bag and yoga mat. I pulled two chairs close to each other so I could sit in one and put my legs up on the other. My once sweaty hair was now dried, sticking to my forehead and the sides of my face. I could feel the sensation of my still-damp sports bra in the center of my chest.
I’d later wonder if it was early moments like these that prevented Nick from falling in love with me.
Nick had “already eaten.” He gestured towards a small, almost clean plate, and I note the remnants of what appears to be a salad. I nod to signal understanding and try to conceal my curiosity about the seemingly unusual eating habits of my new friend.
I had a long, torrid history of close male friendships and I knew almost all of my boy friends (not boyfriends) to devour large meals at frequent intervals usually with high concentrations of protein.