For many years now, the Loud Eaters have terrorized me in movie theaters.
The lip-smacking popcorn munchers, the Mountain Dew slurpers, the Peanut M&M crunchers with their horsy teeth, the nachos rustlers scooping their steaming globs of melted cheese and licking their fingers - inevitably they end up sitting next to me.
Or directly behind me.
Or directly in front of me.
This has almost become a preordained event.
But the other night, I witnessed a spectacle so breathtaking that it was surely a pivotal moment in the history of eating at the movies.
To set the scene, my wife and I went to see the spy thriller Breach at the sprawling Regal Hunt Valley Stadium 12 cinema.
Have you been to this place? It's unbelievable. No matter when you go, the place is packed and the parking lot has all the calm of a NASCAR race just letting out.
Anyway, we get to our theater and after the obligatory 27 previews, commercials for the concession stands and gentle reminders to silence your cell phones, the movie finally begins.
Just then, a man comes up the aisle carrying two large brown paper bags from Panera Bread.
This I recognize as trouble.
"An Eater," I whispered to my wife. "Might be a Loud Eater, too."
Naturally, the man stops at my row. He squeezes past us and takes the seat next to my wife. Apparently, he's with the three people off to our right.
Either that or he's just super-friendly, because he proceeds to reach into one of the bags and hand out sandwiches and sodas to those three.
OK, this is no big deal.
I have seen people eat sandwiches in movie theaters before.
I have seen people eat Buffalo wings and Chinese food in movie theaters.
Look, I get around, OK?
So I go back to concentrating on the movie, trying to ignore the crinkling of the sandwich wrappers, the slurping of sodas, the jiggling of ice in the plastic cups, etc.
Suddenly, my wife elbows me.
"You gotta see this," she whispers.
I look to my right.
The man who handed out the sandwiches is now eating - this is absolutely true and I'll take a polygraph test anywhere, anytime, administered by anyone, FBI, CIA, you name it - a bowl of soup.
And not just any bowl of soup.
This is a big bread bowl of soup.
A bread bowl of cheddar-cheese-and-broccoli soup, we think.
OK, so now there is a man slurping soup in the darkness about three feet away from me, and about eight inches away from my wife.
And here's the thing about Breach: It's an OK movie about the fall of FBI agent Robert Hanssen, who was caught passing classified information to the Russians.
But it starts out kind of slowly, with a lot of serious-looking people talking in hushed tones.
There's no loud rock music, no car chases, no helicopters blowing up in midair. So you sort of have to concentrate on what they're saying to stay with the plot.
Which is hard to do with a soup-slurper next to you.
But, look, I am a man who believes in tolerance, going along to get along, etc.
So summoning my enormous powers of concentration, I manage to blot out the soup-slurper and get back into the movie.
Until my wife elbows me a few minutes later.
"Look what he's doing now," she whispers.
I look to my right.
The man is now gnawing on his bread bowl.
Apparently, he has finished the soup, because the slurping sounds have ceased.
Instead, they've been replaced by gnawing sounds, such as you might hear from a mouse or a woodland creature feeding.
Look, don't get me wrong, I am all for gnawing on bread bowls.
I myself have gnawed on a number of bread bowls over the years, and found the experience to be satisfying.
But here in the darkness, the gnawing sound is unnerving. And never mind the sound - the idea that someone is gnawing is bad enough.
Up on the screen, Robert Hanssen's secret life is beginning to unravel. His disgruntlement with his job, his obsession with high-powered automatic weapons, his taping of lovemaking sessions with his wife, all of it is spilling out.
But who can concentrate on any of that when a stranger is gnawing on a bread bowl in the darkness not three feet away?
It was a long movie. On the bright side, the smell of sourdough bread wasn't too bad. Better than the nachos with the gobs of processed cheese.
But the gnawing ... that could really get to firstname.lastname@example.org