If Only They Knew it was also My Birthday – Loneliness and Defying Conformity

Their knowing looks caught my eye a couple of times as I savored mediocre, overpriced seafood, washing it down with agua con gas, what they call sparkling water in South America. Their faces spoke volumes of pity amidst the dim ambience and lively holiday chatter from nearby tables. If only they knew it was also my birthday, I thought to myself between reluctant bites of yucca con queso and poor excuses for sushi.

It was Christmas Day in Cusco, Peru and I had made reservations at a “fancy” restaurant in the city center. I had just arrived in Peru that morning and I was traveling solo for a week. There was a table of four, two older couples sitting diagonal from my small two-person table situated against the wall adjacent the picturesque window overlooking the Plaza de Armas. What they had obviously noticed was that my two-person table was serving one that evening and what they hadn’t noticed was that I, too, was studying and wondering about them – how did the couples meet? Are they locals? Do they always go out to eat for Christmas?

I was lonely. I’m not going to lie. And the shitty food didn’t help – I would later be chastised by a local for even stepping foot inside this particular tourist driven eating establishment. Had I known it catered to foreigners, I would have certainly opted for something else. Had the table of older couples asked me to join them out of sheer pity, I just might have!

It wasn’t the first time I had felt such a way at a restaurant whilst dining alone but it was the first time it was a holiday and my birthday whilst dining solo. A month after deciding to divorce David, I was on a business/leisure weekend trip to San Francisco where I had made reservations at a French restaurant located in Chinatown of all places. The food was actually really fantastic but the waiter who took forever to approach my table because she admittedly assumed I was waiting for someone made my loneliness the giant elephant in the restaurant. If only she knew I was going through a divorce! I ate half my meal before flagging her down to box it up so I could take it back to my lonely hotel room – at least there I could be lonely without an audience.

Doing things alone have always been a part of my life and more often than not, a comfortable and sometimes desired act – going to the movies happens to be one of my favorite unaccompanied past times. I recall having a conversation with my mother years ago while enjoying breakfast at one of my favorite mid-city Los Angeles cafés. When I told her what I was doing, she replied with slight dismay, stating, “I don’t know how you do that!”

It may have more to do with doing things that make me uncomfortable until I’m comfortable with them or it may have to do with enjoying the solitude of my own company versus the draining camaraderie that sometimes comes with others’ presence. I have a hunch it has a lot to do with doing the thing that society tells people, like the San Franciscan waitress and the old couples, is strange and/or pitiful. I find there to be a liberating factor in defying conformity, no matter how strange, pitiful, or lonely I might appear or feel.

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Am I Lonely or simply, Alone?

The sun shone vividly in the dull blue, cloudless sky this afternoon as I made my way to the Annenberg Space for Photography in West LA to view the highly revered National Geographic Exhibit. As I approached the building, two employees informed me and some other patrons that we would have to wait in a line as they had reached the building’s capacity. It wasn’t a long line and I was second in it.

As a couple exited the museum, the woman at the door ushered for two more people to proceed inside. The older gentleman in front of me stated that he was waiting for someone and that I could go ahead of him. I offered the group behind me to go ahead since I was solo and that is when the confusion settled in.

Remember The Symbolism and Melodramatic Conundrum of the Empty Seat? This unexpected situation wasn’t so different when the gentleman in front of me assumedly asked aloud when I did not enter with the younger group, “Oh, you’re with this group?” motioning to the group of elderly ladies eager to join their friends who were already inside. The employee holding the door also had an inquisitive look upon her face as I shook my head, offered a friendly smile and unashamedly announced, “I’m alone.” In response, the man in front of me curtly said, “Oh” and proceeded to non discreetly stare at me several times before I was gratefully escorted inside the exhibit.

I did not look at him as he did so but I do wonder what this man was thinking, what sort of assumptions or stereotypes were quite possibly running through his mind. Did he pity me? Was he wondering why I would be out and about on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in a city full of millions of people all by myself? Was his look one of envy? Did he wish his forthcoming company had stayed behind and he could enjoy the exhibit entirely on his own? I’ll never know but it is intriguing.

I have taken to joyfully going on “dates” with me, myself and I be it the movies, a leisurely walk, a museum, what have you and I thoroughly enjoy my own company. As I’ve stated before, I think it is important to know how to be comfortably alone and I believe there is a lot to be gained from doing so. This subject has come up on numerous occasions as of late.

After mulling over the topic with a male friend of mine who is in a similar situation such as I, he presented it to me in one of those simply mind blowing fashions that I had never quite considered before. You know, like one of those moments where you say to yourself, “Duh!” He stated, “I guess it’s just the difference between being alone and feeling lonely.” Prior to this conversation, I don’t think I ever understood these to be so starkly different and yet the more I ponder it, they truly are.

I choose to be alone, do things by myself but feeling lonely is something that occurs when I desire company, when I am in need of basic human interaction. My friend and I continued discussing this fascinating issue a little longer. The interesting question was raised, “How can one expect to share a happy life with someone if he/she can’t even enjoy and be happy with his or her own company?”

We went on to further discuss how unequivocal introverts who are quite possibly more comfortable going it solo even experience loneliness from time to time. Human interaction, albeit, is a necessity and it can be satisfied in many different ways by sometimes, the most unlikely of sources. I believe even complete strangers can provide the human contact necessary to appease the loneliness be it with a kind, simple gesture such as wishing someone a “nice day” or even eye contact coupled with a sincere smile. I honestly believe this is part of the reason why it’s been reiterated, “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

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