Swallowing a hoagie sideways

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I’m thinking about Marie Prevost right now, as I stand over my own kitchen sink, eating a stack of microwavable pancakes with my hands. Prevost was a lesser-known silent film… well, calling her a star is probably a stretch, but she appeared wide-eyed and gesturing in more than 100 dialogue-free movies. Because flicks like Hell Diver and Seven Sinners were less memorable than their titles, she’s probably best known for dying alone at age 38 and for possibly being eaten by her own dog.

Forty years after her death, English rocker Nick Lowe sang about her: “She was a winner/ Who became a doggie’s dinner,” which has to be the catchiest of depressing epitaphs. (But because Lowe wrote the song in the pre-Google era, he misspelled her name in the title.)

Anyway, I’m thinking about her because I’m inching toward my own 38th birthday and I’m wondering what would happen to me if one of these pancakes wedged itself on top of my trachea. I don’t have a dog (both a pro and a con in this situation) so I’m not sure anyone would notice that I was missing until my neighbors realized they hadn’t heard me through the walls, shouting “Don’t go on that hike, Sheila!” to a doomed character actor in a true-crime drama.     

I haven’t always thought about casually dying in my kitchen, but a well-meaning friend recently sent me a YouTube video of an off-duty fireman explaining how a single person could save him-or-herself from choking to death, and now that’s all I can think about.

He probably sent it for the simplest of reasons, because everyone — even casual acquaintances — understand that I eat like an off-duty circus animal. But on a less-superficial level, it says, “I know you might have to save yourself someday,” which is either something new to be depressed about or a valid reason for pursuing a relationship. How are your Heimlich skills, gentlemen?

“I like this,” I’ll say, squirting chocolate sauce into a pouch of Albacore tuna. “This is what I want.”

In the video, a burly firefighter name Jeff kneels on an unattractive rug, calmly teaching lonely people How Not to Die. (He also seems to live in an apartment furnished only with a pair of bongo drums and a set of floor speakers, which makes me think that Jeff learned this skill out of necessity.) Although I usually don’t take life advice from grown men wearing puka-shell necklaces, I watched the whole thing.

“This is a desperate situation,” he said, staring intently into the camera, and I know he was referring to some time in the future when I may or may not swallow a hoagie sideways, but it seemed like he was talking directly to me, about my life right now. As Jeff threw himself violently against his own brown carpet, I realized I was saying, “I’m fine, Jeff, everything is fine,” out loud.

Things are fine. But I also feel like I have to constantly reassure everyone else that I mean that. When I have conversations with my married friends, I find myself filling silences in conversations by justifying it, by wearing my tiny, unattached life like it’s an ill-fitting sweater or an unorthodox food pairing.

“I like this,” I’ll say, squirting chocolate sauce into a pouch of Albacore tuna. “This is what I want.”

I’ve felt extra defensive about it — and extra aware of it — for the past couple of weeks, ever since I spoke on an alumni panel at Wake Forest University. Over the course of an hour, two professionals and me, a woman who somehow bungled her way into a career, answered questions about gender in the workplace. The other two speakers were accomplished and impeccably polished (I made a note to steal some descriptions from their bios — I have no idea what phrases like “synergize and empower your own prospective story” mean, but that’s what I do now) as they talked about the challenges of balancing their careers and their families.

They talked about the double standards that society can place on working mothers and the frustration of having to meet unreasonable, often unfair expectations. I talked about… working, about meeting my own expectations and insisting that I liked having the freedom to sit at my desk until 1 a.m. if I needed to, on the nights when the sentences didn’t fit together the right way. In those moments, there’s nothing missing and, when I said that, I hope I sounded like I meant it.

Back in my kitchen, I finished my pancakes and, as I rinsed my hands under the tap, I thought, “At least I know how to save myself.”

I just don’t need to, not right now. Not yet.