As I wait in line for my Sunday brunch table — Adina, Party of One — I’m envious of the couples and young families surrounding me at a kale-heavy restaurant in western Massachusetts. The women are beautifully dressed; the men resemble Bradley Cooper or Adrien Brody; the children are impeccably mannered. Everyone seems so happy.
The last time I had brunch with my son, he asked the waitress if she had a penis, rocketed his jam-smeared fork across the room and into the lap of a 70-something eating oatmeal. I yelled at him.
The last brunch I had with the man I’m dating, we were operating on very little sleep. I spilled coffee all over my white silk blouse.
In my world, I am a klutz, no one is well-behaved and Bradley Cooper is nowhere insight. Dining alone will be much simpler, right?
I scan the scene. There are parties of two, three and four. Mine is the only party of one. I think about this for a moment, feeling temporarily unsettled, when a waitress calls something approximating my name and seats me between an adorable young family and an equally adorable pair of men. And I am mostly happy, while also a bit self-conscious at my solitude in a restaurant on a Sunday morning, which everyone knows is prime social time.
Why does it take such fortitude to be at a restaurant alone? Why is eating breakfast in public by oneself an act of valor, a demonstration of inner strength, a reflection of some sort of courage? If studies have suggested that doing things alone is just as enjoyable as spending time with others, why is this a thing at all?
I thought of the woman who inspired my decision to eat alone.
One evening a few weeks ago, I ate dinner at another restaurant with my son and my friend Katherine. And I watched as another woman, probably in her 50s, sat at a large table next to ours, eating what appeared to be a delicious pizza alone. It was thrilling to watch this woman.
As a single parent, I am seldom alone. When my son visits his father, generally once or twice a week, I tend to fill up my time with other commitments — outings with friends, work meetings and writing deadlines.
So watching this woman in the pleasure of her own company, as I wiped my son’s mouth of marinara sauce, reminded him to use his indoor voice, please, and struggled to keep him from drinking my friend’s alcoholic beverage, I envied this solo diner. I began to project my own fantasies of freedom upon her.
Of course, I knew nothing of her experience. Maybe she was lonely, maybe she was delighted. Maybe she took all of her meals alone and this was not at all a thing for her. Or perhaps this was the first time she’d eaten in public without a companion in years, if ever. Whatever her situation, I watched her and realized: I can do that, too.
Yet I come with armor. When I am seated at a two-person table, I immediately colonize my dining space with things. Two books, a journal, the Sunday paper. I place my purse and sunglasses on the table for good measure, and restrain myself from checking my phone. I am independent, I coach myself. I care about the news and Vivian Gornick’s latest memoir. I can eat in public without a friend or a date or a child. I just need 17 other things to do while I’m here, to demonstrate to those around me — who are probably not paying a lick of attention — that I’m not some sorry unlovable freak, but a woman who is busy and important and intellectually engaged.
Having all these things around me eases my anxiety for a time. But I am still self-conscious. How many books, accessories and other items must I stack to insulate myself from this feeling of solitude?
In that moment, I remembered a conversation I had a few weeks ago with the man I am casually dating; he is strong, independent, capable and brilliant. He tells me that he cannot bear to do things by himself.
“I know it’s crazy,” he said, “but I just can’t.”
It is probably nothing to you, he continued, but I am just not brave enough to go to a movie or dinner alone.
I sort of love him for this admission, but I wonder just how brave I actually am. Then my latte arrives, and I admire it from the other side of my table.
I want desperately to fiddle with my phone, but I’ve implemented a no-phone rule. I could just text one of my friends, the man I’m dating, my sister, to make contact with someone, anyone, as if to prove: I am not really alone here. I have people, too.
Even as I feel pathetic that I must console myself with the notion that there are people, not in this restaurant, with whom I could very well be dining, I cannot shake the feeling that there is something transgressive about my will to eat alone.
The waitress approaches, and lost in my thoughts, I jump in surprise.
“Did I frighten you? I’m sorry,” she says, placing my veggie scramble down.
“Oh, it’s fine,” I say. “I was just so focused.”
“It seems like you’re having a very lovely morning,” she said, pouring me some more water.
“I am,” I say. “Thank you for noticing.”
As I sat there in that restaurant, eating my eggs, reading the newspaper and scribbling down ideas – with no thoughts except my own, no one to speak to or make eyes with or touch, I felt happy, unencumbered and full of something close to an inexorable freedom.
I wouldn’t want to dine alone every day, I thought as I left behind a plate of uneaten home fries and a generous tip. But I could do it again. I’d like to do it again.
Adina Giannelli is a writer and teacher based in western Massachusetts, where she lives with her son and his goldfish, Bubble. She is currently at work on a memoir.