It looks like vomit. I push the beige mass covered in a sappy maroon sauce around my plate with fork. Tentatively, I begin to cut into it…cringing as my forks sinks into damp center hitting against slimy black specks. The pungent scent- a mix of onions and peanuts- seeps out as I try to hold back a gag. Vegan “meat.” This is exactly why I don’t eat dinner at friends’ houses.
Taking in a deep breath I lift a piece into my mouth and chew, my eyes begin to water. Turns out the slimy black flecks were pepper. I hate pepper. I scramble to bring the water to my lips and closing my eyes quickly down the entire glass. Looking up, I realize her whole family is now looking at me.
“What do you think?” Her mother flashes a pearly white smile marred by the food stuck between her teeth.
“Delicious, I wish I hadn’t eaten such a big lunch!” I smile back at her and wonder if they can hear my stomach rumbling. I go to scoop up another beige pebble from my plate but I can still feel the remnants of the fire that I’d just put out in my mouth. Putting down the fork, I tune in to the conversation.
The earth revolves around the sun and our lives revolve around food. In this nation dominated by all things edible, I’m somewhat of a horrific novelty--a picky eater above the age of ten. My tongue must have been built as some Godly joke. The blueprints for a fence rather than a welcoming mat. It’s a long row of fickle taste buds that revolt at the mere sight of anything edible. Fruits and chocolate seeming to be the only things that slip through the small crannies in between them. Everyday a war against them. I lay siege with shrimp that seems to be coated in an entire ocean’s worth of salt and sprouts that belong in my backyard- as my tongue and entire body seem to fight back. Three times a day the game is getting food to my stomach before my tongue gets a chance to taste it. My only weaponry being long sips of water and dozens of ketchup packets to combat a gag reflex of steel and pure disgust.
Birthday parties, sports events, rewards and even funerals- everything is tied to what we’re eating and when. Food the socially acceptable addiction that I can’t fall into. My tongue becoming a barbed wire fence that I’m afraid to climb because I don’t want to bloody my hands. I sit at a table with an empty plate hearing compliments on the ribs with the thick, orange sauce and scent of rotten oranges. I bite my lip as read my friends texts- dripping with irritation- after I beg them to go anywhere else but that seafood place. I shrug my shoulders when faced with the look of shock from my Pre K teacher when I announced wouldn’t eat the graham crackers because they were too sweet. “Picky eater.” A label quickly placed and easily accepted by me....embraced by me.
Don’t like something- “picky eater.” Choosing something from the kids menu- “picky eater.” That was so much easier then explaining the way certain foods turned my stomach inside out and made my eyes water. At least the fence in my mouth was whitewashed picket one, a welcomed barrier. I didn’t have to worry about not liking a dish or attending some stuffy function I didn’t want to. “Picky eater.” The label that sat in my back pocket- an excuse I gladly used.
Then I would remember its indestructibility- superman without kryptonite. I was stuck in the cramped backyard. It was when I heard about sushi dates and friends going out for coffee that I would feel something worse in my stomach. Friends would say that I didn’t like that type of food anyway-but I still felt some sort craving deep inside of me.. I felt my tongue swelling almost tripling in size filling up my mouth and my lungs. The fence getting closer and closer. I couldn’t breathe. I seemed to full of “ I’ll eat before I go”, “No thank you, I’m not hungry” and “It’s okay. You don’t have to feed me- I’ll get something later.” All to the sound track of my rumbling stomach.
I would pore over any information on pickiness that I could find. I’d try the mental tricks of pretending it was something that I liked or simply stuffing it down but it didn’t work. I wondered what endorphin that I was missing as everyone else gushed over bacon. I wondered what I was losing as I peered through the cracks in my fence to the birthday party next store.
Therapists will place the blame on bad parenting. They’ll analyze all of the places that my parents went wrong. They’ll say I wasn’t fed the foods early enough or often enough. They won’t take note of my adventurous siblings. Doctors will say sensory issues and genetics. The fact I don’t have sensory issues will be skipped over. Adventurous eaters will say I’m just a product of a nation gone soft. Just another child who wasn’t forced to clear her plate. Don’t mention the times I forced myself to. A lot of people will just call it a phase I’ll grow out of. That one day after 16 years I’ll just wake up and eat everything. I like to accept all of those answers because they don’t place the blame on me. They say that I didn’t build this fence in my mouth. I wasn’t the one to nail the boards and paint the sides-something I want so desperately to believe.
I go to dump the leftover food on my plate into the trashcan. Guilt fills me as I watch the pieces slide off, wasted, into a white trash bag. The aftertaste of….whatever that was, remains in my mouth. I know I could never have made myself eat that. Eden comes up behind me and whispers into my ear, “We have some pizza in the fridge. I’ll give it to you after they finish the dishes.”
I know that my cheeks are red but I smile and I nod. I am still hungry.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.