The Quesadilla Man
Ellie has asked me what I had for lunch. It is a simple, seemingly incidental question. But I have to pause, considering my answer carefully, wondering if this is the moment when I will reveal to my youngest child a deeper truth. A hidden flaw.
I take a breath. I answer simply, “A Caesar salad with chicken.”
To my great relief, Ellie asks for no further details.
Yet Nora, my wife, who had appeared to be engrossed in a book in a neighboring room, calls out, “Isn’t that what you ate for lunch yesterday?”
Ellie turns to me, waiting. Clearly recognizing that Nora’s comment means there is more to this than I have explained.
“Thanks,” I say in Nora’s direction.
I am a person with many particular habits, rituals in a way, each day structured around a wide range of routines that, in and of themselves, don’t appear to be notable, but that can, to someone close to me, appear as precise and particular as a formal mass, conducted in Latin, starting at midnight. It’s disturbing to the unindoctrinated, but for those on the inside − in this case me − there’s a deep comfort in it all.
Eating forms one of the most particular and regimented habits I have.
I have, for instance, eaten yogurt for breakfast every day for approximately eighteen months. This is what I do. I eat the same thing for breakfast and the same thing for lunch for months at a time. I would do it for dinner as well, except Nora won’t let me, which makes me love and respect her even more than ever. Her refusal is clearly a caring yet firm response to my obvious if unspoken cry for help, a plea manifested in my obsessive need for yogurt at breakfast and, as of six months ago, a Caesar with chicken at lunch.
The lunch habit gets awkward because I am, actually, an extremely private person. Yet the constant routine of ordering the same thing for lunch every day leads waiters, cooks and restaurant owners across the city to begin recognizing me as that guy who comes in every day and orders a Caesar with chicken. This is at once embarrassing, annoying, disturbing and, in the end, often helpful, because sometimes my order will get bumped to the front of the line, either as a nod to my regular patronage of the restaurant or out of some latent fear of what might happen if The Caesar Guy doesn’t get his salad right away.
Maybe it’s a little of both.
I’ve learned to mix up the restaurants I frequent for lunch, alternating my destination so that I appear slightly less obsessive to any one group of restaurant employees, while in fact I’m simply spreading my obsession across a broader geographic range and wider number of people – people who will, inevitably, recognize me elsewhere, at a store, in a bar, Hey, isn’t that the guy who eats a Caesar with chicken every single day?
Even for me, though, there comes a time when I transition from one meal to another. It’s a rough and unsteady period, realizing as I do that one meal has run its course and I am in need of another.
I’m in one of those states now, transitioning from a Caesar with chicken to cheese quesadillas.
A friend once asked if I would tell him when I came to one of these transitionary periods, hoping that I’d let him shadow me around as I searched for a new food, trying different options, failing, worrying, and distraught as I consider what new direction to follow.
The friend wanted to take notes. Snap a few pictures.
But I wouldn’t let him.
In truth, I don’t like to talk about or even acknowledge this change from one food to another, feeling as I do that I’m betraying my true Caesar-with-chicken self as I move awkwardly yet uncontrollably toward life as a quesadilla man. There’s something unseemly and adulterous about it all.
However, at the moment, cheese quesadillas are proving to be hard to find at more than a very few locations. Quesadillas aren’t particularly common in this part of the South. And so it’s as if I’ve newly found myself to be a devout Methodist yet I live in Iran or Dubai. As a result, I am more and more often cooking quesadillas for myself, which means I’m eating lunch alone and at home.
This worries me. Am I shutting myself off from the world in order to focus more intensely on what I eat for lunch every day? Am I simply using quesadillas as an excuse to be alone?
I tell myself that being able to admit my concern is, in and of itself, a good sign. I tell myself it must be the first step in an inevitable recovery.
Ellie, of course, knows nothing of these obsessions. She continues to stare at me, waiting. “How come you had a Caesar with chicken two days in a row?” she asks.
Even from the other room, I can sense − almost touch − Nora’s anticipation of my answer.
I scratch my ear. I make a shape with my lips. “Well,” I say to Ellie, “I ended up at the same restaurant two days in a row.”
Ellie is a relatively obsessive person herself. It’s probably best she doesn’t hear of my own obsessions any time soon. I hesitate, then say, “My meetings were set up that way.”
There’s something so deeply effective about the use of the passive tense.
Ellie hops off a stool. She heads out the backdoor to shoot baskets with her brother. I’ve managed to protect her from my weaknesses for yet another day.
I call out to Nora, “Thanks for the support.”
Even across the house, I can hear Nora says quietly, “Quesadilla man.”
Eric Barnes is the author of the novel Shimmer, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books. By day, he is publisher of three newspapers covering business and politics in Memphis and Nashville. His work was selected for Best American Mystery Stories 2011.