At the age of nineteen, I embarked as an uncultured ignoramus on my first of many travels abroad, and while in Thailand I found myself dining with a friend at a gourmet all-you-can-eat buffet that included filet mignon, top-shelf sushi, and other such delicacies that ordinarily would have far exceeded my college-student budget. Thailand's cheap cost of living, however, allowed an hourly wage earning teenage grunt like myself to indulge in such a feast, for only a fraction of what it would cost back home.
During that phase of my life I essentially ate like a carnivore, and a frugal one at that, so throughout the meal I focused on stuffing my face primarily with filet mignon. Uninterested in trying to enjoy a well balanced meal with a variety of foods that complimented each other, I simply aimed to maximize my meal's cost per bite, and to cram into my belly as many food-dollars as I could. After two or three rounds I'd had my fill, at which point I picked up my unused lap napkin from the table, wiped my chops, then crumpled the napkin into a haphazard mound on the table, like a dilapidated shrine to my blatant lack of culture and etiquette.
My friend, still chewing at a leisurely pace, raised his eyes to meet mine and then glanced at my empty plate, my crumpled napkin, and my idle hands.
A hint of disappointment tainted his intonation, and I hesitated before responding.
"Mmm, yeah, I'm good."
He stared straight into my eyes while pausing in silence before indicating his disapproval.
"You should eat more."
He spoke in a low, serious tone, with his head cocked slightly to the side while raising his eyebrows and nodding his head yes, reinforcing his friendly but firm disapproval.
As evidenced by my gaunt figure at the time, I usually stopped eating at the point of mere satiation. This gourmet buffet, however, warranted making an exception, and I had already blown past the point of satiation, barely still in the realm of comfortably full. But because I had never tested my stomach's maximum capacity, I lacked a true understanding of my own limits, and so without much thought I took my friend's advice and lumbered back to the buffet for one last round.
My bloated and heavy stomach insisted that I avoid any more filet mignon, so instead I gathered a miniature plate of sushi, which was most likely delicious, but which was thoroughly unenjoyable to me as I choked it down one laborious bite at a time. After I cleared my plate and wiped my chops once more, my friend cast another disapproving stare at me and again expressed his disapproval.
"You should eat more."
At this point full-on discomfort had already seized me, and my droopy eyes signaled the onset of an imminent and cataclysmic food coma, but the stern sincerity of my friend's tone, as well as my then extreme susceptibility to peer pressure, forced me to at least consider the idea of dessert. Though my stomach begged me not to, my sweet tooth egged me on, and my friend's unflinching stare convinced me to go for one more last round.
After a grueling ten minute ordeal of force-feeding myself a piece of chocolate cake, flushing down each bite with a mouthful of water because I lacked adequate saliva to swallow on my own, I collapsed back into my chair and fought off the urge to dry heave, barely able to move. My friend stared at me with a smile that now betrayed any hint of innocence in his motives as he nodded his head once again.
"You should eat more."
The absurdity of the notion almost forced me to laugh, but the excessive discomfort in my belly wouldn't allow it. And then only seconds later, an urgent wave of fear washed over me: I have thirty seconds to find the bathroom, because I am going to throw up.
As quickly as my discomfort would allow, I silently rose from the table, much to the surprise of my friend, who likely thought I was on my way back to the buffet. Knowing that I had no time to find our waiter and ask where the bathroom was — that I had only enough time to dash to the bathroom immediately — I scanned the room with my frantic eyes as the din of clanking tableware and unintelligible Thai conversations faded from my hearing.
The restaurant, though only one quarter full at the time, seated perhaps almost a hundred people. My hurried scan of the spacious interior failed to locate the bathroom or even any signs for it, and so I began speed walking toward the exit, desperate not to draw attention to myself. But blending in proved difficult, as I already had two strikes against me. In contrast to the beautiful tan skin of the Thai people, the public eyesore of my pasty white skin at the time bordered on mild albinism. Add to that, like many of my fellow yokels from the Midwest of the United States, I obliviously sported a mismatched fashion catastrophe so atrocious that if it didn't cause people to cringe, it should have.
Scurrying toward the exit required me to pass by the buffet, where I collided face first into the overwhelming collective smell of warm foods. What would have otherwise been lovely and tempting aromas instead punched me in the gut with a heavy fist of nausea — a haymaker which stopped me dead in my tracks as I covered my mouth and began to dry heave. My racing mind switched gears, giving up on the idea of fleeing, and instead focusing on a new assessment: where in my immediate surroundings would be the least offensive place to vomit?
Obviously the vicinity of the buffet was out of the question, so I turned away from it and saw at the edge of the room an enormous empty flower pot, almost big enough that I could have fit inside it. Without hesitation I dashed toward it as involuntary abdominal contractions launched a warning shot, filling my cheeks to the brim with a mush of watered-down chocolate cake and sushi. The moment that I grabbed hold of the flower pot's rim and thrust my head inside, my face erupted with a short geyser of barely digested but well chewed chunks of filet mignon soaked in saliva and gastric juices. My body seemed keenly aware that the food in my belly was indeed good quality nutrients worth holding on to — that there was simply too much of it — and thus ejected only the excess volume, leaving me comfortably full with no need to refill from the buffet.
With my back to the restaurant and my head still in the flower pot, the primal dread of vomiting subsided, but a different flavor of dread took its place as the reality of the situation sunk in: I now had to confront what I presumed would be the horrified faces of many dozen strangers all staring at me aghast, ridiculing and scolding me in a language that I didn't understand. The mere thought of it terrified me, and I scrambled to devise some sort of escape plan as I kept my head buried in the flower pot like a frightened ostrich. But soon I conceded the hopelessness of my fate — that I had made a public spectacle of myself, and that a stewing backlash surely awaited me.
With my head low and my shoulders hunched in shame, cowering from the onslaught of silent but vicious stares that I knew to be piercing me from behind, I withdrew my face from the flower pot, braced myself, and slowly turned toward the restaurant interior.
Of the several dozen patrons and staff, not a single person was looking in my direction, and so far as I could tell, not a single person had even noticed my debacle. Dumbfounded, I stood motionless next to the evidence of my crime and waited for someone to point a finger at me, scoff, or at least grimace, but it never happened. Even my own friend, seated with his back to me, seemed none the wiser.
When I returned to the table, my friend glanced at my empty hands and chuckled with subtle surprise.
"Oh, I thought you were going for another round."
Still speechless from disbelief, I simply raised my eyebrows and shook my head no while putting on my best air of nonchalance.
It wasn't until many years later that I came to see this event as a larger metaphor for the human tendency toward needless worry, and the ease with which egocentrism can distort perspective. To this day I have to remind myself that the universe doesn't center around me, and that often times regardless of whatever nonsense I'm self-conscious about — whether it's a fresh pimple on the side of my forehead, a haircut that didn't turn out right, or the debacle of vomiting in an upscale restaurant — there's a good chance that most people don't even notice, and those who do notice probably don't care, because they're too caught up in their own needless worries.