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.