The Princess And The Pack Of Crisps

Crisp1I have a disorder. I used to flatter myself by calling it a mild case of Asperger’s or Autism, but its real name is ‘Intolerance’.

The sound of people eating makes me sick.

Our brains are designed to cut out background noise, and mine works great with the roar inside an aeroplane, the hoover, even Coronation Street, but someone butchering a packet of crisps?

It stared as a child. Unable to listen to my parents tackle breakfast, I would eat my Weetabix on the bottom step. My Mum would throw coffee down her throat in squelching gulps, whilst my Dad beat up a bowl All Bran. What was particularly distressing was the in-breath he felt necessary before each bite, as if he were about to swim a length underwater. Finishing up, his spoon and mouth would travel and meet somewhere in the middle, so he could vacuum up waves of milk. What didn’t catch would splash back into the bowl and occasionally land back up on his forehead.

My head would prickle, and when I couldn’t take it anymore I’d scrape my chair back, mutter an ‘unbelievable’ and take up protest on the stairs!

At work I am only ever half as productive during the lunch hour. A colleague, on a low-carb diet, buys protein-heavy ready meals, which she heats up and transfers into a china bowl. This bowl has an engraved pattern of flowers on the inside, which means lots of places for pools of sauce to collect. Naturally, having only had 236 calories, she’s still hungry, and will scrape and grate the bowl for the last drip of non-fat béchamel. 

To communicate my displeasure, I bang my keyboard loudly, fingers like a four-year-old at a piano, writing emails lined with red worms and hoping she picks up the message in my crude Morse Code.

I’m praying she looses the ‘four or five pounds’ soon, so she can either get back to brie sandwiches or buy a baguette as a mop.

But it’s not just lunch; it’s the continual snacking. I mean, I wish my manager would stop walking over to my desk and asking me a question through a pretzel stick. I get enough feedback from her as it is.

As you might gather, this issue makes the world of dating sticky territory indeed.

When my ex-boyfriend ate, it sounded like a cross between a goat retching and someone with an itchy throat. He’d pull back and snap his throat as if breaking up lasagne with his oesophagus. I knew our relationship was coming to an end when I had to repeatedly pause the telly, to do a passive aggressive impression.

Since my ex, I’ve toted up a fair few dates, a disproportionate percentage of them being first dates.

One was at the cinema, with a man so engrossed in the film, he was forgetting to breathe between fistfuls of popcorn from a never-ending bucket. In my peripheral vision all I could see was his mouth going round and round, like an actor warming up to deliver Mark Anthony’s ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen…’

We were watching ‘Drive’, a film full of long, intense silences, relying more on Ryan Gosling’s wonderful face than dialogue. His bucket of popcorn was finally coming to an end, and his hand, scraping around the bottom, sounded like a rat scrabbling to climb the sides. Irritated, I tipped his bucket forty-five degrees, a gesture intended to be helpful, but also to highlight his greed. It didn’t help. Like a child on the claw machine at the fair, he kept dropping what he’d collected for a better hand. This went on and on until, under the pretext he was disturbing everyone else, I snapped and took the bucket away from him.

And it’s not just the eating around me that shreds my nerves, it’s the eating on-screen as well. I’m thinking of those movies, full of characters who fall somewhere on the ‘goof-ball bud’ spectrum, for whom the director’s decided we’ll all feel more fondness if they deliver their dialogue through a burrito! Or those skeletal leading ladies, who only ever use their fork either to make a point, or as a garden hoe, ploughing and tilling a green salad, instead of eating it!

I’m better off just meeting a date in the pub. The number one reason being, pubs sell alcohol, and red wine makes me a better person. And I’ll often arrive at least fifteen minutes early to get a head start on this. However, recently I did manage to wreck such a date by turning it into a game of musical chairs.

We sat down next to an older couple and their small dog. They were sharing a bag of Kettle Chips, and using their two front teeth to bite down on tall stacks of crisps, crumbs gathering all over the communal copy of the Sunday papers. It sounded like someone snapping branches, and I could just make out my date’s voice above the racket.

Once finished, they gave the packet to the dog, who then spent the next twenty minutes with his nose up it, pushing it across the floor and hitting it up against any corner to get to the salt at the bottom. Losing my place, for the fourth time, in the ‘story of my life so far’, I suggested we move. I found us a peaceful, snack-free spot at the back, and things got back up to speed, until, that is, a man and a woman took the table next to us and ordered a mountain of dinner.

The woman got her meal first and, without waiting, started smacking away at it, and letting out the odd ‘thuck’, which you are only ever justified in doing if you have peanut butter stuck to the roof of your mouth. After each swallow her tongue would poke out and curl, for no biological reason I could think of, and her choice of a cottage pie meant potato mash gathering round the outside of her mouth. The whole scene reminded me of a child learning to use a spoon.

I noticed she had an engagement ring on and I wondered how this woman could have possibly earned herself a proposal. I got my answer when her fiancé got his burger… Now, I know a burger can be a bit messy, but he was actually horizontal over his plate, lunging forward to catch bits of tomato and beef slipping out of the bun, and his mouth. He looked like a dog choking down an abandoned picnic.

I tried to ignore it, but kept being pulled out of my date’s career achievements to deliver a loud, cryptic sigh.

He didn’t call me back, but as I’d spent chunks of the night with my nostrils flared, I wasn’t surprised. Still it was a shame, because he made no noise at all when he ate. I mean, he barely chewed.

I’m on another date tonight, and I’ve promised my therapist I’ll behave. We’ve been working through all this. My therapist eats a bowl of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, whilst I lie on his couch and think of passing clouds and a beach in Fiji. Okay, we don’t, but he has taught me to count to ten, and is continually telling me, ‘The mind can’t concentrate on two things at once, so pick one!’

We are handed our menus and, following his advice, I’m pleased to discover how liberating it is to concentrate only on what I’m going to order.

‘I fancy Spaghetti Bolognese,’ I say.

My date looks up. ‘Spaghetti on a first date? Ooh, someone’s feeling brave!’ And he laughs. Not a real laugh, and I think I recognise the plea in it… Turns out we may have more in common than a love of Independent Cinema, private beaches and a respect for personal space.

A tumbler of complimentary breadsticks arrives. I pull one out, and as I snap a piece off, he suddenly becomes fascinated by the painting of a giant bell pepper above our heads. As I chew, it produces that predictable low, rumbling crunch.

‘Just popping to the loo,’ he says getting up.

‘See you in a bit,’ I say, bringing a hand up to cover my mouth. I feel like a pig. I quickly cram the rest of it in, but I’m still working on it when he gets back.

‘So what do you do?’ he asks. And as I speak my voice comes out thick and stocky, mouth struggling with the pockets of dry starch collecting on my gums. 

‘Actually,’ not an easy word to say given the circumstances, ‘I’m in sort of a transition period career-wise’. He looks at me, utterly disgusted.

Our mains arrive, and they’ve got his order wrong, so I start without him. As I push my fork into a heap of pasta, it makes that greasy creasing sound, which prompts him to shift his chair back and fake a cough. I try to be as quiet as I can, barely chewing, but I’m still made to talk to his bald spot as he fiddles with his cutlery. At one point he leans his head on his hand. I notice one of his knuckles is out of line. The man has his middle finger in his ear. I want to give him mine.

His four-cheese pizza finally arrives, and I’m appalled at both his blatant hypocrisy and barbaric approach towards his own meal.

Firstly, instead of using a knife and fork, he dangles sloppy triangles of pizza above his mouth, strings of mozzarella swaying, before using his tongue as a lasso to guide and dunk them in. When he chews, his mouth champs away at the speed of a rodent. It’s unnecessary and revolting. Oddly though, I’m happy to see it.

I remove the hand protecting him from the car crash of my mouth and get properly involved with my Bolognese. I’ve never tasted better. 

‘Wow, you’re really getting into that,’ he blurts out, finally uncapping his valve.

Bless him, I think. He can’t help himself, and I almost feel something like affection toward him.

‘Sure am,’ I say, ‘almost as much as you. Gosh, anyone would think we were at a ball game. 

‘What, me?’

‘Yeah, I can take a clip if you like,’ I say, through a mouth of Spag Bol.

‘Cute. Thanks for the view,’ he says, and I show him the full contents. He laughs, and this time it’s a real laugh.

We carry on like pigs at daybreak, giggling and squelching through our cheesy mains, clanking teeth on spoons of chocolate pudding, moaning over each bite, gasping after shots of Limoncello and slurping hot cappuccinos. If I were watching, I’d have to throw a bucket of water on us. But I’m not watching. I’m in it, and I haven’t felt happier or more human in a long while.

Outside we share a drunk, messy snog against a wall, and I don’t think once about the noise it’s producing. Nor do I pull away at any point to frown and wipe my mouth.

I’m seeing him again on Friday. We’ve agreed to go slurp, gurgle and spit with thirty other people in an enclosed space.

We’re going wine tasting…

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