The dining dead

May 23, 2021, 8:53 p.m.

Going ahead, I will never be able to unsee the dining dead. At restaurants my eyes will skip from the eager, carefully dressed couples wading through try-hard conversation, the comfortably jaded ones with their inside jokes, the exhausted ones coaxing their children to eat the spinach, and land finally on the pairs of faces tight with shame and irritation. Their fingers picking at the tablecloth, restless in discomfort and grudging boredom. The space between these couples is so thick and miserable that even disagreement doesn’t inject into it. Only the sounds of waiters gliding from table to table and clinking, clattering, scraping cutlery against dishes. The movie “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” demonstrates this dining dead phenomenon in a grim feat of mimesis — Clementine (the female protagonist) stabs her chicken and sips her beer at a Chinese restaurant. Her eyes dart around as she feels a dull, inexplicable humiliation that mounts into sensitive impatience. Her boyfriend, Joel, slouches and grumbles in front of her. She snaps at him — a scathing reminder to clean his hair off the soap in the shower. They have nothing else to say to each other. “Are we like those bored couples you feel sorry for in restaurants?” Joel thinks. “Are we the dining dead? I can’t stand the idea of us being a couple people think that about.”

Here on Stanford campus, Coupa Cafe is where I watch out for the dining dead. California daytime is wheedling me into happiness. “Siamese Dream” by the Smashing Pumpkins seethes in my ears as I wait for my coffee order. The sun like a sneaky keyhole view of hell, and this album like a sneaky keyhole view into right now. A table of boys clambering over each other’s voices glance needily at the long-legged girls studying at the table next to them. Billy Corgan sings “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known” against the looming, opaque walls of frantic guitar as I wave back at someone walking by. I’m so dissociated. Despite their rage, the sounds of this record manage to be gooey and spaced out too — loops of tension and release, faster, slower, faster, whispers to screams. It’s so ambitious. It lands so well. 

I first experienced dining deadness for myself in the summer of 2018. The place was called Smoke House Deli. Its air conditioning was obnoxiously loud and blew my hair into my eyes everytime the breeze hit my face. The paper straw heedlessly rolling around the inside rim of my glass of iced coffee was beginning to disintegrate. I heard a fly buzz as we died; the stillness around our forms was like the stillness in the air between heaves of storm. The last time we’d eaten at this restaurant, we had laughed about a dining dead couple a few meters away, snickering gleefully at the steely determination with which the woman didn’t make eye contact with her partner. And there we were some years later, fully empathizing. Ha ha ha. 

Right now, I am at Coupa Cafe watching a girl explain to her date why she’s choosing Tesla’s Bay Area office over the Boston one. Suppose I was the dining dead once again, staring forcefully at Green Library through the window and burning in the shame of lost chemistry. The dining dead are always trying their best, though that doesn’t add up to much. I’d tell my dining dead partner about “Siamese Dream” by The Smashing Pumpkins in the hopes of generating conversation fodder. I’d tell them about how the song “Cherub Rock” unfolds with the most no-bullshit crescendo I’ve ever heard. The guitar refrains in it are stable and fast, the drums sprint and blur within windows of rolling percussive flourish. I’d tell them I’m unendingly impressed by how little the album depends on reverb and excessive distortion to accomplish its fuzzy, violent and sometimes berserk sonic density. And these efforts wouldn’t go anywhere, by nature of dining deadness. I’d slump back into my chair to refresh my emails. 

After some moments of silence I’d sit up again and explain that it’s tricky for me to talk to people about music because it forces me to reconcile how much the record is changing my life with how replaceable it is. Every album I’ve ever believed was going to be the one to get me through life was nudged out of my Spotify On Repeat playlist by others. And somehow that’s actually a lot more about the people I’ve loved than the music. The fourth track, “Hummer,” sings this to me — “Yeah, I want something new/ But what am I supposed to do about you? / Yeah, I love you, it’s true / Life’s a bummer /When you’re a hummer.” My friends will read this and say (affectionately), like, okay, basically, so, you’re pedagogizing your own whorishness. And I’ll say, like, okay, yeah, maybe, leave me alone. 

Dining dead partner — I’m trying so earnestly to be interesting enough. Beliefs are really sticky, and you converted paranoia into a belief of mine. The trackRocket” retreats into moments of feathery, simmering quiet, before avalanching back into my brain — “I torch my soul to show/ The world that I am pure.” The seventh track, “Soma,” has a shimmery, arpeggiated opening that seeps paranoia into me. I’m flinching with anticipation for the expected roar of guitar, but it doesn’t enter until very late, with an explosive wailing, wobbling guitar solo that melts away with unsettling sleekness. Being with you was a lot of flinching anticipation too. When I trudge through torchlit sand at Half Moon Bay at 2 a.m., I might as well be walking on the moon. When the edibles hit too hard in an underground tunnel, I might as well be in a whale’s belly. When I wake up the mornings after, I might as well be waking up next to you again, but I am not. The eighth track, “Geek USA,” sings this to me — “In a dream / We are connected / Siamese twins /At the wrist / And then I knew we’d been forsaken / Expelled from paradise / I can’t believe them /When they say that it’s alright.” 

Beliefs are sticky. I’m alarmed by the intensity of emotion with which my friend gushes about her boyfriend. I’m just as alarmed by friends who doggedly adhere to the lifestyle prescriptions of their religion. And I’m even more alarmed by the firmness with which some friends defend their political or philosophical beliefs. I think they’re so brave. Meanwhile, I stutter through conversations with debilitating epistemic insecurity — how can I retain any security of judgment while reckoning with the tautological non-negotiability of unknown unknowns? Pliancy of faith is important, I have reasoned with myself. It ensures I am open-minded. It means my opinions are constantly updating for new information. Infidelity of belief is good, I have reasoned, because this way I will never feel vulnerable in a conversation. I will never have to slink away from a disagreement sulking because I was purely and categorically wrong. I will never feel the searing, prickly cognitive dissonance of having believed in something and been proven naive for it. Adaptability of faith is important to me so that I never have to feel scolded for attachment. I never want to be the dining dead ever again. 

I guess that’s my pedagogization of whorishness.“Yeah, I want something new/ But what am I supposed to do about you?/Yeah, I love you, it’s true / Life’s a bummer /When you’re a hummer.” Dining dead partner, you converted paranoia into a belief of mine. Thanks for framing us as some kind of Jeff Buckley and Elizabeth Fraser, I look forward to being interviewed about you when you finally die. 

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