Ok last week I told you part of a story and then was like, “but I’m waiting to see if anyone publishes the rest.”
I’m bad at waiting.
Here’s the rest:
If you’ve never heard of the Master Cleanse, you may not be as big a Beyoncé fan as you pretend. The Master Cleanse is the liquid fast Beyoncé used to lose weight quickly for her role in Dreamgirls. It’s also a fantastic way to punish women for not feeling capable of living up to contemporary beauty standards. But I digress.
On one hand, it was a relief not to concern myself with eating. I’d wake up early every morning, fill my Nalgene with cold water and grade B maple syrup and freshly squeezed lemon juice and a few shakes of cayenne pepper, and be good to go for the whole day. (I’m leaving out the part about the daily salt-water flush which is repulsive and you absolutely don’t need to hear about it except for the one hilarious morning I bolted through the station at 34th and Penn screaming “SOMEONE PLEASE GIVE ME A BATHROOM!!”)
I did miss the act of chewing. I missed clenching my jaw onto variously textured surfaces. I missed the feeling of food yielding to the increasing pressure of my teeth. I missed the sensation of flavor breaking across my tongue like a wave.
But. Being unburdened from the constant mental gymnastics around figuring out how save money on food was euphoric.
On the tenth day of my cleanse, my skin had taken on a kind of ethereal glow. On the fifteenth day, it began to slide down my face and hang loosely from my cheekbones. Friends who didn’t express concern to me directly would ask my husband if I was ok. He didn’t know. He’d ask me that himself.
I wasn’t, of course. I was trying exact control over an aspect of my life in the most aggressive way possible.
And I wasn’t talking about it. To anyone.
On the twentieth day of my cleanse, something snapped. I don’t remember how I got there or what I was thinking as I drifted through the aisles, but I found myself perched on the steps of Balducci’s (formerly a high-end food emporium on 8th Ave, now a CVS) at noon on a Tuesday. I held a single-origin chocolate bar from Venezuela in one hand and a plastic container of goose liver paté in the other. They were ten dollars EACH.
I remember staring at both items with wide fearful eyes, paralyzed over which to eat first. In the cavernous hyperbolic echo-chamber of my memory, it was at this precise moment I got a text from my manager: “CALL ME ASAP”.
That’s probably not entirely accurate. I don’t even remember if I had my cell phone on me at the time. I certainly could not have been holding it in my hands. They were occupied by my first meal in twenty days.
However. The news was good! A recent play of mine had garnered some attention outside my small community of theatre makers. My manager was fielding calls from TV and film execs. He texted to find out if I could start taking lunches.
Just like that.
I was stunned.
Like, are you telling me I can eat well for free? Like, really really well?
Like, expense-account well?
(Note the obvious question I should have asked: “Does this mean I might get a writing job?” Which was not an option in my mind at the time, for reasons I understood much later.)
YES, you will eat well. You will be offered meals at Whichever Stylish Midtown Eatery your exec can land a reservation at. And you will eat there.
You will eat well. FOR FREE.
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In general, my theatre work veers slightly left of the mainstream. My writing can be messy and confounding. I use language that whiplashes between poetic and profane, and my characters skulk around the darker corners of feminism, family, and fucking. My plays often lack any real resolution. In the past, they’ve evoked confusion and irritation and excitement in audiences. They have not, however, readily exclaimed “TELEVISION-FRIENDLY.”
But this was the mid-2000s, years before our current so-called golden age of TV. Small production companies were just beginning to recruit writers with edgier and more idiosyncratic voices. Playwrights were considered an untapped and relatively inexpensive talent market, accustomed as we were to churning out high-quality material for very little money.
We were also wildcards. These lunches were basically opportunities for executives to determine who among us was the kind of crazy that could be reined in enough to make money without killing what was interesting about us.
I tried to schedule at least one per week. I’d prep fastidiously. Light dinner the evening before, no breakfast the day of. I’d don my Nice Dress from H&M– a flowy olive-colored linen maxi that could bridge multiple seasons and camouflage period-bloat.
At the restaurant, I’d study the menu like I was prepping for the LSAT. I’d order appetizers, salads, pastas, steaks, fish, greens, cheeses– whatever looked the most filling or expensive.
But when the waiter left the table, dread set in. It was Time to Talk.
Which shouldn’t have been an issue. These weren’t pitch meetings. These were “generals;” casual getting-to-know-you chats about mutual areas of interest. Nothing real was at stake; no job offers, no check signings.
As a playwright, I don’t do much of that. I scribble, type, shake, wince, and basically perform a dumbshow of all my neuroses at the back of the theatre for an audience of no one. I hate the sound of my own voice trying to make sense of the world out loud.
So when it was Time to Talk, I’d anxiety-shred cocktail napkins and spew endless reams of stupid shit about POLITICS PUBERTY ART BICYCLES MARGARINE PENISES SEINFELD CANCER HORSES EUROPE HOSPITALS COFFEE SEXISM until the food showed up. Then I’d head home later with piles of leftovers and a world of shame burnt on my face.
You: “But Sheila… if nothing real was at stake, why were you shredding napkins?”
Um… because every interaction with every TV exec felt like I was one step closer to something that could be ripped away from me?
You: “But didn’t you say you wanted to support yourself with your writing? Didn’t your three crappy jobs leave you no time to get sick or exercise or be human? Didn’t the last play you wrote take you three years to finish? Didn’t it get decimated by the press in one evening? Weren’t you ashamed that all your shoes had holes because you wouldn’t spend more than $25 on footwear?”
Um yeah. I was conflicted about getting the things I said I wanted, obviously. I’m a trashy Jersey chick whose family got kicked out of their home while the neighbors watched. If those execs knew? They’d chuck me into sack with a can of Aquanet and hurl me toward the shore faster than you can say Thunder Road.
You: “Ok… so if one of the meetings had turned into a legit job offer, you woulda been like, sorry no thanks, I’m just a trashy whatever chick who blah blah blah?”
At the time, I didn’t recognize the irony of my dilemma. My not-paying-for-food had come from a subconscious desire to repair the mistakes of my parents. BUT, it blinded me to the reality that I had a shot at protecting myself from a similar fate.
Which is messed up, right? That my psychic attempts to un-lose my house might actually spoil my chances of ever affording one?
What’s a Jersey girl to do?
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The meeting with the network was rescheduled at least four times. An “emergency on set” or a “table read that ran late” or “the first time she’s had a migraine in years” kept pushing it back.
And YES, it was thrilling for a relatively unknown playwright like me to be scheduling lunch with a mid-level exec from a well-regarded cable network about AN ACTUAL JOB. But it was also frustratingly nebulous.
Was I selling my work or myself? What was an acceptable level of crazy? How much preparation was expected of me?
That last one was particularly murky. The network owned the rights to a magazine article they thought could be a fun, twisted, half-hour comedy. I was told to come up with a “take” on it. Not quite a “pitch,” but definitely a “way in.”
I had no idea what that meant. My reps were like, just don’t do too much work. They’re interested in your instincts. Your gut reactions. Et cetera.
I was being asked to Talk About Ideas Over Food.
I read the article carefully and took a bunch of notes. I practiced talking about it out loud to my husband. When lunch was officially confirmed, I splurged on a dress from Zara that was twenty bucks more than I felt comfortable paying (it was $40). On the morning of the meeting, I ate breakfast– leftover birthday cake from work– and re-read the article until it was time to leave.
That was a mistake.
What I should have been doing was planning what to order. Because if I really wanted that job, if I really wasn’t terrified of leaving my safe little crater of controlled chaos, I would have done everything I could to get over the sensation that a) I was getting away with something, and b) I didn’t belong there.
But the moment I stepped into the dazzling Hell’s Kitchen bistro (high ceilings, light-flooded, filled with people my age in suits) the voices began cranking in my head. Who let the scrubby chick with the terrible shoes in? Don’t they know she’s just here for the free food?
A lone woman with a smooth blow-out waved me over to her table. “I like your dress! Is that Zara?” She handed me a menu. Listed in two neat Copperplate-fonted columns was everything I’d ever wanted to eat, ever.
Flounder roe with blood-orange and meyer-lemon salad. Razor-clam crudo. Grilled calamari with salsa verde. Diver scallops with tangerine pressed olive oil. Black truffle lobster and prawn risotto. Katama bay oysters.
Katama bay! Where the fuck was that? Some magical oyster paradise? And prawn risotto! I’d only ever eaten shrimp as a cocktail. Never in prawn form.
A familiar feeling lurched into my body– like I was back on the steps of Balducci’s, clutching overpriced gourmet snacks like a nun groping a rosary. When the waiter glided over to our table, I heard myself order a half-dozen oysters, a salad, the scallops and the risotto. He seemed impressed: “Wow! You must be hungry.”
The oyster and salad courses went smoothly, mostly because the exec did all of the talking. While I slurped briny flesh straight from the shell, she discussed the projects she was excited about and the playwrights she’d recently met.
Then, the entrees came. The scallops were perfectly seared. The prawns were plump and steaming. Mingling with the steam was the ghost of my father, uncomfortable in his weightlessness and heartbroken he’d never be able to provide such a feast.
I blinked back my half-tears and speared a huge glistening prawn. As I slid the fork into my mouth, the exec asked me what I thought of the article.
I realized immediately and with considerable horror…
The prawn was still in its shell.
Panic surged through me. I held up my finger to the exec, suggesting I needed to finish chewing first.
I tried to bite through the shell of the shrimp with my incisors.
It didn’t give.
I worked to remove the shell from the meat with my tongue, hoping I could tuck it behind my teeth like chewing gum.
I made a valiant effort to grind it down with my molars, enough to swallow without gagging.
The exec patiently watched me chew.
I less-than-casually searched the table for a paper napkin, hoping to feign a coughing fit and spit it out.
I began to curdle into a lump of damp fear.
The exec asked if I was ok. I nodded unconvincingly and continued chewing in sweaty silence. She watched me for a bit, then stepped out to answer an important call on her phone.
Needless to say, I did not get the job.
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People have since asked me why I didn’t just own up to the fact I had shoved an entire jumbo shrimp into my mouth without shelling it first.
I never know what to say. My best guess is this: if I had been honest with this exec, if I had confided in her about the shrimp, or the multiple entrees, or anything, I would have lost the right to feel like I was getting away with something. And I clearly was not ready to shed that idiotic notion. It would take three years, two plays, and an infant before I managed that.
HOWEVER. I’m pleased to admit my impostor syndrome has somewhat dissipated over the past fifteen years. Nowadays I can walk into a restaurant for a meeting and look around and see people wearing shoes that maybe cost as much as mine, and imagine those folks believe they don’t belong there.
’Cause everyone feels like a fraud sometimes. That’s not a tragedy. That’s just part of becoming an adult. Perhaps the real tragedy is found in those who are desperate to convince themselves (and others) they are capable of living beyond their means; the kind of impostors who believe if they aren’t heroes, they are worthless.
For the record, I’m not ignoring the fact that two weeks ago at a lunch meeting I asked for a to-go box for like two ounces of food. I could have explained this to my alarmed dining companion a number of ways: 1) I don’t get hungry when I’m nervous; 2) since the shrimp episode, I’ve had trouble chewing in front of people who could alter my future; 3) old habits die hard.
All true. But instead, I said this: “I’m fine. It’s delicious. I look forward to finishing it later.”
The survival mentality doesn’t go away just because you can afford to leave a deviled egg on the table. And the fear of having too much occupies the same psychic space as the fear of not having enough. This is likely a semi-permanent condition.
But this story doesn’t end on the question of whether or not I’ve gotten over my awkward food habits. It ends on whether or not I’ve forgiven my father for trying too hard to be a hero.
Or forgiven myself for the way I coped with it.
Or… or maybe this is actually a bigger story about the way we reinforce cultural stereotypes by successfully convincing ourselves that our reasons for doing so are individual and unique and not at all based on socialized gender norms.
I’ll let you know if I decide to write that.
In the meantime, I’m working on smaller things.
And grocery shopping.
And walking past a cheddar plate without feeling a harrowing sense of loss.
Taking meetings in offices instead of restaurants.
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