Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns for The Butter can be found here.
The late 1990s weren’t the most auspicious time to become a vegetarian. Meatless food of any real interest hadn’t yet entered the American mainstream, so there wasn’t much beyond lentils or chunks of naked and jiggling tofu to recommend itself in school cafeterias.
At the same time, vegetarianism seemed less spooky or militant even to devoted meat-eaters; most people knew at least one vegetarian, and they could see that it wasn’t part of our daily lives to chain ourselves to the gates of factory farms or engage others in long conversations about “macrobiotics.” By 2000, there was even (typically) a vegetarian item available in any given restaurant, so we could avoid the embarrassment of haggling with waiters over whether the kitchen could maybe just leave the chicken off the pasta, thanks. Where was the challenge? The gamesmanship?
Yet it was in this cultural moment, smack between having too few options to eat and having a sea of choices, that I climbed onto the vegetarian bandwagon.
Eating meat had bothered me for a long time, largely from an aesthetic standpoint. I didn’t like the look of it, the feel of it in my mouth. But I’d also developed a private, not wholly articulated or even wholly examined theory that, if I could reduce the suffering that other creatures expended on my part, I’d go some way toward lessening what I saw as my net negative impact on the universe. It was a kind of personal penalty for existing, for taking up mass and energy and resources.
Look, I’m not saying it made sense.
Some years ago, I was speaking at a conference in the South, a place where, at least in the mind of this West Coast girl, everyone was supposed to be eating barbecue and loads of it. After a long day of workshops and talks, we presenters wandered to a nearby Thai restaurant, and I found myself going through the meatless menu with one of the other speakers. As the only two vegetarians in the room—I a sometimes faltering one and she a new member of the fold—we got to talking. I learned she’d given up meat after enduring cancer treatment and what sounded like a brutal double mastectomy. The mere idea of cutting and forking her way into another being was enough to make her queasy after that. Her illness had given her a heavy-to-carry compassion—a hard-won empathy—for other bodies. Flesh is flesh, after all.
One of the first things I lost when I got sick was the ability to swallow. I would cook the same elaborate, texturally delightful meals I’d always enjoyed, then choke after four or five bites. I’d wait an hour or several for my muscle strength to come back, then eat another four or five bites. Any meal could turn into a day-long gladiatorial battle.
Dining out with friends turned into sitting out with friends. I’d pretend not to be hungry while others ate, even while my stomach growled audibly and I grew dizzy with hunger. I’d go home at the end of the night and pulverize some fruit and powdered protein into a smoothie, or mash some boiled-soft vegetables into a soup thin enough to gag down.
There’s only so much blended vegetation a person can drink before she starts thinking about eating something substantial, something toothsome.
I began fantasizing about food while lying in bed at night, trying to sleep while my stomach ached and burned. I dreamed about eating a steak—something I hadn’t touched in years. If somebody could put that steak into an unnatural union with some pieces of bacon, I’d applaud. The bizarre culinary acts that Julia Child performed with giant heads of cod on The French Chef started to seem like great ideas. The animal suffering that had concerned me for years grew harder to conceptualize. Wasn’t starving pound after pound off my dwindling body a kind of animal suffering, too?
During these long nights, I’d tell myself that, if the day came when I could eat again—really eat—I’d consume everything my greedy teeth could chew. I wouldn’t be bothered by ethics or divisions between animal, vegetable, or mineral—bring on the veal and send in the foie gras. I didn’t care if the fish on my plate had swum free or enjoyed a nice life. In fact (and I’m not proud of this) I almost hoped it suffered. I would eat it and all of its kin into extinction if it meant that I would grow strong as I assimilated their flesh into mine. I would grow larger and larger until my body could accommodate the dark and ravenous pit that had opened inside me. I was owed.
I’m not saying this made sense, either.
Last year, I started to get back enough muscle strength to swallow real food, and have spent the past months resembling nothing so much as an actress in a denture fixative commercial delightedly tucking into an ear of corn. My body finally plumped back up to a decent size, and my hair started to grow again. My eyes don’t look a jaundiced yellow anymore. And I no longer have much interest in consuming animals beyond a passing whim for a turkey sandwich now and again.
I realize that the more brutal aspects of my inner carnivore were the products of being “hangry” for several years’ time. The dark little pit in my heart closed back up. But now I know it’s there.
We’re used to a narrative that tells us that becoming ill is, by nature, ennobling—that we become better people, somehow, in the process of watching ourselves waste away or lose the abilities we once had. Perhaps there are people for whom that narrative is entirely true. I suspect it may even be true for the woman I slurped vegetable soup with in that Thai restaurant years ago. Yet I understand now that I am not among their numbers. I’m in that other camp—the one for those of us who’ve gotten a good look at ourselves and have seen what ugliness we’re capable of in all our hunger, all our human need.
Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.