About 16 years ago, I spent New Year’s in Santa Fe, NM, with some friends who lived there.
Early in the evening of New Year’s Eve, my friend Bett and I had dinner with two friends who were older than us, and who intended to make an early night of it. Bett and I had other intentions - we were going to the big party at the Railyard. But that was still hours away, so we headed into town in search of mischief.
We stopped briefly at a restaurant where Bett’s girlfriend was having dinner with some friends. As we talked with them, even though I had just eaten dinner, I ordered some food.
As we left the restaurant, Bett mentioned that many of the town’s art galleries were open, and were serving free drinks. We agreed that alcoholic freeloading would be a fine way to pass the time before the party, and off we went.
It turned out that some of the galleries offered free food as well as booze. I partook mightily of both, even though I’d just eaten dinner followed by an appetizer.
As I chomped on some buffalo wings, I saw Bett looking at me.
“You can’t turn down food, even when you’re not hungry, can you?” she said.
“You’re right,” I said. Even before I explained why, she already knew and she already understood.
There had been many times in my life when the only way I could eat was to steal food. When I was a child in Maryhill, Glasgow, food of any quality was seldom available to me. One of the most painful moments of my life, a moment of pure grief, pure loss, was caused not by the death of a person but by being deprived of a meal.
I was in my early teens, and I had just been handed a plate of chicken. This was a rarity. My diet was almost exclusively one of fried processed meat - usually cheap sausages - potatoes, eggs and white bread. Chicken was an expensive luxury, so I was excited.
Before I could eat any of it, a woman who was supposed to be taking care of me came into the room. She was drunk at noon, and she didn’t like me. She said something unpleasant to me, I responded in kind, and she knocked the plate of food out of my hands. As she stomped the chicken into the dirty carpet, the hopelessness I felt was so huge that there was room inside me for nothing else.
That woman is dead now, but, more than 30 years later, I can still see the look of dumb malice on her drunken face. In the years to come, I was to mourn the loss of that meal more times than I could keep count of.
There were other times, times of inadequate food or no food at all. And, when these times were over, I still lived in fear of their return. I could never bring myself to pass up a chance to eat. I still felt that I had to take it whenever and wherever I could get it, because if I ever had to go hungry again I did not want to have to remember the times when I could have eaten but chose not to.
As Bett and I walked through the snowy, dark streets of Santa Fe, I told her all of this, and the love between us eclipsed the pain and fear that always came with the memories.
Things started to get better after that night. The memories still come, too often, but they don’t have the power they used to. This morning there is plenty of food in my fridge, but, not feeling like eating breakfast yet, I am only drinking tea.