One is a lonely number. You can’t talk on the phone to yourself. You can’t play tennis without an opponent. You can’t even walk the dog without a dog.
It takes at least two to have fun in most activities. The only things you could really do alone are play Pokémon Soul Silver on your Nintendo DS or read manga in a dark corner of the room.
Eating is no exception to the lonely number rule. If you go to a restaurant alone, the setting tends to magnify that you are, indeed, alone. At least at the movie theater, you can hide in the dark, behind your large popcorn.
I get a slightly guilty feeling every time I’m at a restaurant with family or friends when I see some lonesome person eating by his or herself. In my mind, there must be some complex reason as to why they’re alone. I mean, the poor soul can’t even find a person to eat with them for 20 minutes?
It’s especially awful in the beginning – during the pre-table sitting. The restaurant hostess will ask how many people are in the party. The response is a blank stare. This stare is then returned by another blank stare from the hostess. (It’s as if she can’t see for herself that there’s no one with them.)
There’s that slight pause and silence after the hostess’ question. Then comes the uttering of those difficult words: “Just me.” It’s hard to say when you’re trying to avoid the all too-difficult truth.
The other day, I was that poor soul who dined alone off campus, except I had the relief provided by self-seating. Another relief: the bar/counter. There is no seating option more comfortable than a bar stool when you’re by yourself. It avoids the awkward situation of having an empty seat in front of you, as if the emptiness is literally taunting you right in your face.
Once you actually get a seat, there’s the dilemma about what to do with yourself, because it’s not like you can talk to who’s not there.
This is where the looking-around-as-if-you-are-waiting-for-someone-to-arrive part comes in. All you have to do is glance around the room (360 degrees to make sure you’ve reached every possible corner) with a slightly anxious look on your face. In between each head movement, take quick glances at your cell-phone, but not too quick – you want to make sure the other restaurant-goers know you are “anticipating” someone.
Of course, you could also avoid head movement altogether by looking down at your BlackBerry, iPhone or any other 3G phone. Phones with access to the Internet and gaming applications provide a more genuinely enthusiastic and mentally preoccupied expression. There’s less acting required.
In the middle of all this, you’ve got to wonder what the big fuss is about. Why bother feeling so ashamed – or at least so awkward -about eating alone? The answer may just lie deep down inside with our cafeteria school days.
We can’t really get over the times in grade school where the cafeteria was the setting of daily nightmares. Nobody wants to be the kid sitting at the end of those long cafeteria benches while all the other students are grouped together on the other end. Fast-forward 10 years and the concept is the same. When you’re alone, it’s noticeable.
Meals are supposed to be a time of gathering – a time for congregating and socializing, which makes it all the more noticeable when you’re alone. Because of this, there’s the risk of being ostracized. This is why all those studies show that children should eat at least one meal per day with their families. To me, it’s because it improves their self-esteem, grades, relationships and practically every other possible positive thing.
For many children, eating around the dinner table with family is the only opportunity for them to actually interact with others and be a part of a group. This is still the same with college students – except that we often don’t bother to initiate meals together because of our varying, packed schedules.
But solo dining ultimately creates … a bunch of loners among all of us. Instead of trying NOT to be a loner as we did as kids, we are, well, bringing it upon ourselves. Besides, even if we’re all too busy to eat together or enjoy eating separately, we always have the option of eating alone in our own homes.
Next time, just get the food to go. It solves half the problem. The other half is solved if you just make the time.
TIFFANY LEW is excited for Picnic Day. Of all the things the day brings, she’s most excited for the food. That will probably never change. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.