The man standing next to me was staring at me. I looked away, then looked back to convince myself otherwise. No, he was definitely staring at me. Or was I just being self-conscious? I tried to act casual while I waited by the counter for my food, just as I had dozens of times before. The paranoia of being stared at though, sunk in. I found myself biting my lip, shifting around, and doing anything to ignore the man next to me who definitely thought I was a freak, because here I was, going out to eat alone.
The idea to do this struck me a while ago. We live in a world where we are bombarded by lists. I can’t scroll through my Twitter feed without it reading like a self-help book, with headlines like “Five things every woman in their 20s should know!” and “Seven things to do before turning 30!” and so on. Yet having recently reached the threshold of my 20s, I find myself secretly drawn to these articles, hoping one will reveal the key to thriving in this crucial decade. One idea in particular stuck out from the many articles claiming to offer the ideal bucket list for your 20s: the idea of going out to eat on your own.
The idea of some alone time was appealing after spending three months traveling around Europe with a band of my closest friends. I spent most of my time in hostels, sharing a room with up to 15 other people at one point. Before leaving to go abroad, I just ended a long-term relationship. Needless to say, it’d been a long time before I’d spent time with just myself.
Between the lure of having alone time, the promise of fulfillment from the magazines and praise from friends who’d done it, I decided to try dining out alone. I chose to go out on a Wednesday, penciling the meal into my day after an early- morning shift and a dentist appointment.
I took my mission very seriously. Friends who’d dined out alone before gave me guidelines: you cannot go and do work. You have to go and enjoy yourself-do something you wouldn’t normally be doing otherwise. So, rather than pack my computer and spend the time fighting the temptation to work on some tasks for an internship and catching up on email, I treated myself to a new book to read and set out, determined to make the most of my solo dining.
I’ll admit I kind of chickened out when it came to the choice of venue: Panera Bread. But I simply cannot resist their creamy broccoli cheddar soup, sugary iced green tea, and most importantly, their bread. It is my go-to place whenever it comes to meeting up with friends, so it seemed only fitting that I not deny myself of my favorite restaurant when it came to what was supposed to be the ultimate dining out experience. Admittedly, I’ve been to Panera alone before, sneaking to the one around the corner from my dorm to finish up an essay one afternoon. It’s not unusual though to see students in Panera taking up way too much room at one table with their textbooks and laptops. What is unusual though is to see someone there by his or her self simply reading.
So off I went, armed with only my newly purchased copy of Orange is the New Black and myself. In the days leading up to my meal, I was actually looking forward to it. Why wouldn’t someone want time alone with their favorite meal and a new book? It wasn’t until I pulled into Panera’s parking lot that I began to have doubts.
“What if someone I know sees me? What if they think it’s weird that I’m alone? Like, ‘Oh, poor Erin, there she is with no friends?’ What if they try to talk to me? Invite me to their table because they feel bad? Does that still count as dining alone?’”
I then gently reminded myself that it does not matter what people think. But it did not prevent me from feeling a little uncomfortable when requesting a meal “for here” with no one behind me to wait for, no one to grab a table for, no one to compare orders with while waiting for food.
And yet, no surprise, it was liberating. After years of thinking of someone else when going out, I got to be selfish. I got to choose the table I wanted. I got to choose how long I stayed, unrestrained by conversation or other obligations. I didn’t have to worry about anyone else. In fact, I didn’t even worry about what other people were thinking as I settled into my favorite corner booth by the window and got swept away by my book.
We spend a lot of our life depending on other people, especially when it comes to going out in public. We don’t go out unless it’s with friends, usually only go to the movies with someone else, even tend to avoid shopping unless there’s a friend there to tell us what looks good. It can be exhausting scheduling the things we do for pleasure around someone else’s wants and needs. What’s really stopping us from going out to see a movie that no one else wants to see?
A lot of our life is truly dependent on other people’s answers. Yes, you’re accepted to this university. No, you didn’t get the job. So why do we let that extend into our social life? We shouldn’t.
I remember, several summers ago, seeing a girl from my school eating alone in Panera. I was with someone, I’m sure, but she didn’t seem to be with anybody. I remember seeing her, she too alone with her book, feet propped up on the chair across from her. She didn’t look sad to me or lonely. In fact, she looked pretty satisfied.
I think we should all get over our fear of being alone and allow ourselves to be that person.