Paranoia on a Platter

Submitted into Contest #162 in response to: Start your story with someone looking at a restaurant menu.... view prompt

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Drama Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of mental health issues.

The moment was here; to choose from a menu. Maybe for some people this is a mundane non-issue, but for me, it felt like a rest-of-my-life, domino-effect choice. Everything rested on this decision. I could only hope I was only sweating bullets in my head and that everyone else couldn’t see my anxiety was at max.  

I liked going out to eat for the most part. I enjoyed the atmosphere, I liked not having to do dishes, I enjoyed the company and conversation of my friends.  

But I hated, despised, loathed, and feared being handed the menu. Because I knew that meant that I was going to have a very limited time to search through the pages and pick a meal. 

The whole thing felt like a giant judgment to me.  

 That moment where everyone else has easily chosen, already told the server their orders, and they are all staring at me as they wait for my choice and made me feel rushed. I also felt guilty because I’m always the one who tells the server ‘We need a minute’ when in reality everyone else has their menus closed and meals picked.  

I turned down fancy restaurants because I feared not understanding the items and then ordering something that turned out be broiled monkey brains. Or what if I didn’t know what fork to use? I would be mocked to death.  

I always felt worried and scared of what everyone else would say or think about what I ordered. I always went last to order, just in case. Because, like, what if I was going to order pasta but everyone else ordered burgers? I couldn’t live down that kind humiliation!  

Not to mention, the panic of trying to pick out something new in a hurry would probably cause me to pass out.  

I also always could feel heart palpitations from choosing between trying something new or getting something familiar. There’s comfort in getting something I had before but I had to wait and see if someone else ordered what they had before or not. I didn’t want to be the only one who seemed boring or afraid of trying new things, especially when some of my friends called it ‘mini-adventuring’. I called it ‘what if I waste my money because this tastes awful?’ or ‘what if this disagrees with my stomach?’ But at the same time, I worried about getting the same thing and it tasting different? Yet, trying something new meant looking at all the options and that felt overwhelming.  

It’s so stupid. I even have tried to look at the menu before going out so I can just be ready. But, for some reason, a lot of restaurants don’t put their whole or updated menus online. I’ll think I know what I am going to order but then I get to the restaurant and just pretend to surf the menu for looks only to discover that the item I planned on getting wasn’t anywhere on the menu. I was terrified to check with the server about the item because then everyone would know I was completely unprepared to choose a meal.  

I know the panic was on my face when someone would kindly ask “Hey, Jenny, are you ok? You look...scared?”  

Haha, yeah, that’s me. Jenny, fully grown adult who can’t pick a menu item without being on the verge of a panic attack.  

“Hm? Yeah. No, I’m good; just thinking of something from earlier. No biggie” I’d lie unconvincingly.  

I was so scared of getting called out, that I wore anti-perspirant on my face. Thankfully, none of my friends have ever further questioned me. They just had a concerned look on their face and would drop it.  

 Otherwise, I would have an actual panic attack and they’d have to call an ambulance and I would never be invited out with anyone again. And then I’d die alone and starved and someone would find me post-mortem with a menu in my cold hands.  

I could see the headline on twitter; “Woman Dies of Indecision over Menu”.  

The rest of the article would read ‘Jennifer Clefton of Morgan City, Ohio was found in the fetal position of her apartment, malnutritioned, and clutching a take-out menu. The cause of death was determined to be a heart-attack from stress of apparently choosing a menu item. Friends of Clefton’s reported she always had issues picking from a menu. There will be no services because coroners couldn’t pry the menu from the body’s hands and thus, they can’t close a coffin. A celebration of life will be held by the family in private’.  

And at my celebration of life everyone will have an assigned cupcake in my honor and everyone will say “We always knew this how Jenny would go”.  

And my close friends would be so hurt, they’d never go out to eat again! And then they would miss out on dating the love of their lives or get turned down for a life-changing interviews and it would be all my fault! Then I would be sent to haunt a restaurant in the area they keep the menus for all eternity as punishment for ruining the earth-life of my loved ones.  

This is what flashed through my mind every time a server handed me a menu the moment my fingers clasped the laminated sheets of paranoia.  

I know it’s nuts. I know it’s insane and exaggerated to think of picking food from a menu to be the literal death of me. And after-life of me. I just can’t help it. The only part that came easy to me was ordering the drink; I always got water and no one thought twice about it. It saved me from having to look at another menu or made me able to skip up to two-whole menu pages.  

No one else seemed paranoid. Which leads to that I had jealousy issues too. I would look at anyone around me and watch how casually they’d scan menus. One of my friends even has the nerve to always say how he ‘can’t ever choose’ and then is the first one to pick out something. I’ll secretly glare at him over my menu sometimes until I’m jumped out of my reverie of envy by someone else asking if I know what want.  

No! I never do. I always pretend to laugh and say “Haha, not yet. Still looking”  

That same guy once told me a horror story about him being at a client-dinner with his boss and he had to be the one to pick out the wine for the table. I had to forcibly shut my jaw. I could never! There are thousands of wines in the world, how do you pick one that everyone will like? Someone else asked him if he took a wine-pairing class and he said ‘no’. What?! So, he literally just blind-ordered and it turned out, ok?! I never found out because the conversation steered toward how the meeting went etc. And I was too nervous to ask about the wine. We were far past that part of the story and if I asked, everyone would know that’s what concerned me. I couldn’t let them know I was that crazy. 

The story had made me so worried that I became nauseous and took most of my food home. I just told everyone I’d had a bad day and wasn’t hungry.  

I hate that I lie so much to cover up my panic.  

In fact, it’s one of the reasons I turned down any dates to restaurants. I always suggested something like going kayaking, mini-golf, or hiking. People thought “Oh, Jenny is so adventurous and out-of-the-box" when really Jenny is so scared of looking at a menu on a date that I’d rather do anything that keeps menus far away from me. The downside is, most dates declared me to be ‘too much to keep up with’ or ‘too high-maintenance’ because I never could just go out to lunch. If I tell them the extreme paranoia I experience looking at menus, it will scare them off. And then I scare them off anyway.  

I wish I knew why it happened. Because it doesn’t linger- once the food comes and I take my first bite, I’m fine. No more panic, no heart-racing, no holding my breath so I don’t hyperventilate in front of everyone.  

I have no idea where this comes from either. I have been too scared to get ‘real help’ because then people will know for sure something is wrong with me. And the whole actually having to reveal all that stuff to someone else openly. One of the therapy methods might be to go out for observation and they’ll stare at me, making it all worse. Them actively watching my weirdness unfold and me fully knowing they know I'm freaking out? No, I can't; I can NOT deal with that. So, I just try to privately help myself.  

But I can’t think of any times that were-food-trauma related. I don’t know when it really started. I’ve never even had food poisoning.  

My parents were great and they asked the same normal stuff my friends did: “Do you know what you’d like?” “Anything you have a particular taste for” etc. I had never been outwardly embarrassed in a restaurant outside of my head. I feel a little insecure about other things, but nothing gets me as heart-attack ready as choosing from a menu.  

For now, I just do what I always do when it’s my turn. Order what the person across from me did. No one has asked about it so they probably haven’t noticed.  

Wait. Maybe they do notice and they just politely aren’t mentioning it to me.  

Oh bleep.

September 02, 2022 19:04

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