Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Table For One

It's Friday night. There are families and couples and bands of friends seated at various tables in the crowded restaurant. The lights are dim enough to obscure faces, but remain bright enough for me to recognize the flash of smiles, the opening of mouths, the tilting of heads and wine glasses. There is an unceasing background orchestra: the quiet staccato of plate against cutlery, the crescendo and diminuendo of conversations rising and fading, the chords of polite laughter and the occasional chuckle.

I am an island of silence in such a sea of conversational symphonies. There is one set of cutlery, one wine glass, one napkin at my table. I dine alone tonight.

I do this occasionally, taking time off to dine on my own. I am the only person in the fifty table restaurant dining sans companions. The waiter who showed me to my seat most definitely had a look of confusion, then politely masked pity after he asked me: "How many are you dining with today sir?" Some diners' gazes wander to the empty chair in front of me, probably wondering if my date had abandoned me. Little do they know I do this out of choice. 

At first, years ago, it was out of necessity, the consequences of odd hours, a fussy palate and the absence of friends, most of them studying overseas. Why would anyone choose to eat alone?

True, eating alone is, initially, a deeply uncomfortable experience. A seeping loneliness tends to drench you, like a raw egg cracked over your head, cold and cloying and all over you. You drain your bowl of soup only to realize that slowly as you hear the laughter and the multitude of conversations that the clientele is emptying your heart as well, absorbing your silence and turning it into oh so vacuous alienation.

The irony of such solitude is that it occurs in the midst of so many people. It is quite unlike any other sort of being alone. Driving alone tends to be distracted by music, the bastard who overtook you without signalling, the flurry of motorcycles weaving in left and right. Constant vigilance is required. Reading, watching TV or playing video games is a profoundly connective sort of seclusion, for while we are by ourselves we constantly feel, relate, attempt to understand and follow the lives of those others. And then all the rest of the solo activity list can be checked off as either necessity or distraction.

A meal with oneself is different. Precisely because you are in the midst of so many others, you are constantly being reminded of the companionship you are missing out on. You are forced to reckon with the fact that you are truly alone. It is perhaps an event of true loneliness.

Of course, most people resort to distraction. Always the iPhone to cook up some Instagram photo and Facebook status, garnished with an excess of hashtags and sprinkled with a selfie or two to assuage the asinine ego. Or the absent minded turning of a coffee stained newspaper, pretending to pore over the news that reports the same corruption, same celebrities, same old circus of a country over and over again. And if idle pursuits fail then comes haste, a swift devouring of the required sustenance without tasting, and an impatient tapping on the table as the bill comes far too slowly, before beating a retreat back into the world of known people, however fickle and superficial those interactions may be. 

"Ah yes John, how are you? I'm fine hope you're good too! Oh that thing... Oh that was Leonard's project, not mine. Oh no, it's quite alright, how are the er... ah yes, the two girls! Oh, in primary school already? Jessica must be proud. Oh right, sorry, I always get your ex and her mixed up, so sorry! Myself I'm doing yes I'm still at that company, all is good and well! (but really I just got fired but I'm not going to waste your time, you don't really want to know)"

So yes, deeply uncomfortable. But I have learned to enjoy these moments. I come from a family that has always insisted on meal time as a communal act with all the force of tradition, and a circle of friends that has always pitied the poor sod eating alone in a crowded restaurant. My friends are puzzled over the fact that I do in fact enjoy eating alone, and insist that I call them along to the next meal so I need not dine solo. It's understandable. 

Now I enjoy company as much as any other person, but there is a certain... peace of mind that comes when I dine alone. Over time, I've learned to discard the distractions, the expectations, the stares. And what is left is something that gives me a profound grounding.

Dining alone is one of the few activities that allows myself to simply be. I am in the moment. The here and now. There is a certain hyper-awareness that washes over me. Colours and smells become more vibrant. The ever so slight vibrations in my knife as I slice into a steak. The hint of herbs in the spagghetti before me. The firm but moist texture of risotto as I slowly chew and savor. Actions become more deliberate, movements measured.

Then there is the observing. To look around a restaurant, and realize it's like an exhibition of so many worlds, little bubbles of society that are so evanescent and fragile they only last as long as the food continue and is popped at the ding of the cash register. To see the sweat on the brows of waiters scurrying back and forth, the hidden scowls of waitresses as they deal with yet another change of mind, the bemused expression on a bartender as he indulges a child demanding to know why she cannot drink the beverages on display, as a hapless papa hovers protectively. I suppose it is almost voyeuristic. But a writer thrives on such observations.

By far the most observed is the self. When I eat alone, I am left with only myself as company. It is a ritual of self examination that I withdraw into in moments of confusion or crisis. The restaurant becomes a hall of mirrors, with every customer, waiter, and chef metamorphosing into reflecting glasses. I see myself through them. Perhaps this is the true reason why dining alone is so uncomfortable. Because everybody is to a certain degree insecure with themselves ... and you are never truly alone even when nobody is around, you are always facing your own demons and personalities and dreams and frustrations and perversions. 

It's Friday night, and I am dining on my own, but not alone.

Mmm. That piece of meat was really juicy. 

"Meeting" Taken December 2013, NY. OKJ.
Click for larger image.


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