I'm Too Anxious to Eat at Restaurants Right Now

I desperately miss restaurants and the people who work in them, but I can't make myself go back just yet. Here's why.

Dining Out Anxiety Coronavirus Essay
Photo: Noam Galai / Getty Images

I'm having a panic attack in a supermarket parking lot. This is probably not the first time this has happened to me, but I can't know for sure because when you live with anxiety and a panic disorder, the playback of scenes from your life tends to come with a steady crawl of terror at the bottom of the screen, obscuring the rest of the picture. Did I say something ridiculous? Did I turn off the stove? Did I return that email? Did I leave something out that the dogs can swallow and will necessitate a five-digit vet bill? A lot of time, therapy, and medication had allowed me in recent years to focus on the moment at hand and minimize (but never fully eliminate) the amount of real estate the upset takes up, but of course COVID-19 blew that all to hell and since March, opportunities for fear have been blasting out of every screen and speaker. In this particular instance, it's coming from my text messages, where Ali, one of my longest-term and dearest friends, is inviting me to dinner at a Brooklyn neighborhood restaurant that I've been going to faithfully for over 15 years. I'm just not ready.

I want to with every cell of my being. In pre-pandemic times, I'd text her right back, "See you in 15, and whoever gets there first should grab two seats at the bar if there's room," swoop some eyeliner on my face, and sprint out the door before the yowling agoraphobia had a chance to lock its claws around my ankles. Angela, my favorite bartender in all of New York City and possibly the world, would see me walk in the door and while she'd go through the pretense of asking, "What will yourself be having, my love?" we'd both know it's a French 75 and she'd have already started making it. Giant wrap-around hug from Ali, banter with Tim the veteran server and Berton the manager, burger (cooked black and blue with melted Gruyere and a slick of chipotle mayo, salad instead of fries—or maybe not), talk deep from the heart like we'd seen each other yesterday even if it had been half a year, cap it off with a little too much Branca Menta because hey why not, and stumble home with my battery and belly full. It's a celebration. It's just so goddamned normal. It feels like a different life.

The last time I took up residence at that very bar was on March 13, which I remember quite vividly because I was certain the woman several feet away around the corner of the L was going to murder me with her unchecked, open-mouthed coughing. Gross in non-pandemic times, and an act of what felt in the moment like careless violence in a month when the city was starting to shut down and spiral into uncertainty over how to stop the spread of a disease that any one of us could be harboring, deep and silent in our chests, unaware. Did she not know? Did she just not care? Was she just in denial or wanted to have one last open-mawed rally before the world ended? In any case, I couldn't control her behavior, so I did the only thing I could—finish quickly, tip heavily, and say a heartfelt thank you to the staff. I hope we'll all be back soon.

Now they're back—with a thousand precautions and protocols and outdoor-only seating and oh blessed day, a window for takeout cocktails—and I just can't make myself sit down at a table to join them. I'm too afraid, not of them but for them, and I don't know what the right thing is to keep them safe. People who work in hospitality are my personal heroes. They keep me fed, coddled, delighted, and at least temporarily sheltered from the woes of the world, even though in non-pandemic times, they're often among the most vulnerable people in the workforce. There are exceptions, of course, but the majority of restaurant workers don't have benefits through their employer—especially healthcare. Many haven't gotten any sort of government-based unemployment money because of documentation status (and if you think your favorite restaurants aren't relying on the labor of undocumented workers to get you your delicious meal, well, now you know) or because of overwhelmed and antiquated phone-mail-internet systems. And an hourly minimum wage—including the tipped minimum wage which varies by state but federally is $2.13—is the norm. Many restaurant workers just don't have an option to not return to work because they're the least able to weather the loss of a paycheck, but they're also at tremendous risk from exposure to diners who open their mouths to order, eat, and scream about the indignity of being asked to wear a mask to protect their fellow humans.

I can control my own behavior and I trust the safety standards of restaurant workers because the protocols come to them as naturally as breathing (pre-pandemic, at least), but the diners are the wild cards that keep my brain and guts on constant shuffle. Outdoor dining has resumed in New York City and I find myself crossing the street to avoid the sight and sounds of unmasked diners, even as I envy them. I, too, would like a break from the increasingly crushing monotony of my own home kitchen, and takeout from neighborhood places I'd like to stay in business. I'd like not to flinch when characters on TV shake hands or dance with abandon at crowded nightclubs or steal a fry from across the table. But the other screen I keep turning to won't let me look away. It's the COVID case tracker from my mother's nursing home in South Carolina—static for a while, but ticking ever upward since the state reopened.

As I spent that final evening indulging in my burger, she was on Day Three of lockdown. At the time, it just meant that the facility was closed to outside visitors—which was bad enough because it meant my immunocompromised father couldn't make his daily visit—but now the residents are confined to their single or shared rooms. My mother is a nearly 77-year-old dementia patient with a host of physical, cognitive, and emotional impairments. She is helpless. She relies on interaction with other people to keep her tethered to the world and physically safe. While the state was reopening and I saw on the news that people were enjoying their first taste of unmasked abandon at beaches, bars, and restaurants all "Whew! So that's over!" I sat 700 miles away sobbing, useless. Her condition is such that solid food presents a choking hazard—she almost died last year when a forgetful fellow resident shared a bite of her PB&J—but go on and have your margarita and nacho platter at a crowded bar in spitting distance of the man who will sing along at an outdoor concert next to the daughter of a woman who shops alongside the healthcare worker from my mother's nursing home.

There were no cases there for months. As I write this, I am checking the tracker again. There were six recorded deaths there as of yesterday. Today the fatalities are up to ten. There will be more. The toll is infinitely worse at my aunt's nursing home in Pennsylvania—so bad that she cannot return to the memory care unit from the ICU where she was rushed with an infection. She, too, has dementia and cannot recognize her own family members or understand any of what is happening. I see people on my screens arguing that this is all about freedom. My mother—and millions of people like her in nursing homes and hospitals across the country—are just as American as any of them, and they do not have that luxury, just that of the selfless consideration of their fellow man, which feels these days to be as rare as toilet paper in April.

I want to take care of everyone—the staff of the restaurant that has seen me through heartbreak and joy, Ali, my aunt, my mother, my father who has seen her through the glass doors just once even though they have been married for over half a century, my sister who brings him everything he needs and lives in terror of bringing the virus home from the hospital where she works—and I cannot do anything but sit and shake in this parking lot, nervous that the grocery store I'm working up my courage to walk into will be filled with aggressively unmasked shoppers just double-dog-daring me to say a word to them about it. As it turns out there are only two of them, young, brawny, and breathing heavily onto the cheese kiosk, and I imagine walking up to them phone-first with my mother on a Skype screen 700 miles away and fading from the world, but I can't. There's only one iPad in the nursing home, borne room to room by a healthcare aide, and appointments are in great demand.

I want to scream at these selfish men until I fall down, but I envision the blast radius of my spit and tears, even through my mask, and how it would linger in the air for hours and how the whole place would need to shut down to clean up after me, so I swallow it down. I'm feeling so sickened and scared that the carefully-selected contents of my cart suddenly seem inedible—let alone a meal served on a sidewalk next to strangers. For now, I've lost my appetite.

Epilogue: My mother, Dorothy Kinsman, died of COVID-19 on August 7, one month after I started writing this story.

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