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.

The author fills her Sunday brunch table with things in order to feel busy and stave off loneliness. (Adina Giannelli)

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.


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