By Laurel Dammann
Personal challenge: eat out, alone. Order a drink, dessert if you can, and absolutely no looking at your phone. You can read or you can write, but with sincerity; don’t use your book as a prop to make it look as if solitary, hungry you is an accident, that you reluctantly ended up here due to hunger pains and poor planning. You must look intentional, like someone who is initiating an experience. More than one self-help book probably describes it as “owning the moment.”
It’s not the best night to launch this experiment.
I’m in the midst of one my periodic coffee abstentions— I do these to prove to myself that I’m not addicted— and so there’s a dull, consistent pounding at the front of my skull. My work day summed up in three words: could be better. There was no time to wash my hair this morning so it’s piled on top of my head in a look I’ve titled “cockapoodle meets live wire.” Trump will be president of the United States. Lunch was so minimal as to be nearly non-existent.
Yet here I am, waiting for the hostess to seat me— only me— at an eclectic late night diner with as many colors on the walls as menu items. I am not nervous, I am repressing terror.
“How many?” the hostess asks.
“Just me,” I say, faux nonchalant.
The hostess doesn’t say a word, just smiles, nods, grabs a menu, and begins walking towards a window table set for two. I put my bag and coat on one chair to staccato the fact that tonight it will be “just me.”
“Someone will be by to get your drinks soon,” the hostess smiles one more time before hustling back to her post by the door. Drinks, plural. Either I look like I need to double fist it or she slipped back into the habit of speaking to more than one guest in a party. Either way, I’m overthinking it.
Plenty of people eat out alone and enjoy it. I’ve watched it happen and been as mystified as I have been horrified. My feelings on the matter have a lot to do with a less than simple past with food, potentially being chatted-up when you want to be left alone, other people’s perceptions, the imagined spotlight— every reason starts and ends in my head. That’s why I’m here, to get out of it.
In the booth to my left there is a hipster-style family of four: mom in combat boots, dad in a beanie and thick-framed glasses, the little boy and girl, each somewhere between five and ten, wearing hand-painted sneakers. At the table in front of me sits a gooey-eyed couple that looks to be in the middle of a successful Tinder date. There’s another couple nearby that seems to be struggling through the opposite. The woman has her phone out under the table, fingers tapping madly, and the man is stealthily doing the same. A pair of older men dressed in three-piece suits and bow ties are eating pancakes and drinking Blue Moons by the bar. I find them all to be some of the most interesting people I’ve ever seen.
The waiter arrives and, while I appreciate how handsome he is, I’m a little perturbed by how self-conscious it makes me. I make sure he knows that I am an empowered woman by uncoiling from my exhausted slouch and arranging my face into an expression of overzealous confidence. He waits attractively as I settle on a drink that looks like it will give my brain a pleasant tickle and food I can eat without making more of a mess of myself.
“Just you tonight?” he peers at me through dark lashes and I think that he has to know how good that makes him look.
Again with the faux nonchalance, but it seems to be working because I’m starting to feel a little less tense. My smile is real when the waiter tells me he’ll make sure the bartender mixes my drink strong.
I’ve never dined out alone in my life. The closest I’ve ever gotten to the experience was after three whiskey highballs at Hiroshima station, the worried bartender insisting I eat some squid jerky to curb the hangover he knew was coming. I have friends that swear dining alone is an empowering experience, some that say it is a treat they don’t partake of enough, and one that doesn’t seek the experience out, but finds my fear of it a little amusing: “No one wants to watch you eat. They’re there to enjoy their food, not stare at you.”
The thing is, I’d believe that friend except for the fact that I watch people in restaurants. I do not for a minute believe that I am the only person who does this. Judging by how frequently people observe each other throughout daily life, I doubt restaurants are where anyone draws the line. Especially because people do fascinating things while they eat. For instance, my mom softly hums when she takes a bite that is particularly delicious. My brother puts his arms around his plate like he’s afraid someone will take it from him. I’ve seen people wiggle when something they try is satisfying, compulsively cover their mouth with one hand every time they chew, and take a moment to study each bite before eating it. I know someone who makes sure that everything on their plate stays absolutely separate while I like to mix flavors that border on the incompatible. My point: I don’t see how most people could not take a second glance at their neighbors while eating out. There’s too much you might miss.
That’s where dining out with another person comes in. Obviously, good company makes good food taste sublime, but good company is also a safety blanket; you don’t look as creepy people-watching when you have a partner to avert your eyes to. When you’re alone, looking away is difficult to manage without blowing your cover as an uninterested fellow diner.
The waiter brings me my drink and it is as strong as he promised. He winks at me as my mouth contorts around the taste of vodka.
“I’m going to need another, please,” I say.
“Sure thing,” he winks with the other eye— I notice because I can’t— and meanders back to the bar with a slight swagger.
Under the first impressions of booze, the faces of my fellow diners seem a little less about me and a lot more about their own worlds. The bow tie duo switch plates and the one with a beautifully waxed mustache is commenting about how much he prefers blueberry, that he isn’t sure why he ordered pecan in the first place. The little girl and boy are playing some schoolyard clapping game and their parents are finishing up the appetizer. The mother taps the toe of her boot against the table as she piles cheesy fries into her mouth. Her husband pulls the cheese of his fries, gives it to her, and she eats that too.
“Then why’d you come?” the woman on the Tinder date that looked to be going well, but now seems to be speeding downhill, hisses loudly. The mother freezes, melted cheddar halfway to her lips.
“You seemed cool. I thought we had a lot in common,” the man shrugs his shoulders and stares at his fork, outlining the tines with a finger. His response aggravates the woman even more.
“I thought so too!” she nearly spits. “This is so disappointing.”
Ironically, the other Tinder date seems to have gotten a little better as the couple discovers that they’re actually a rom-com compared to what’s happening at the table next door. They’ve both put their phones down and are suddenly very interested in discussing the drink menu. I take a long sip of my cocktail, hit ice. Looking around for my waiter, I catch the man who prefers blueberries wrinkling his nose at the couple whose argument keeps growing in volume. He mouths something to his companion who promptly tries to catch the attention of the bartender.
“I mean…is it that big a deal?” the man is still playing with his fork, but his voice is louder, rougher around the edges. He’s reaching his edge.
“Yes! Yes, it is a huge deal!” the woman’s yell carries over the crowd. “How could you think having a girlfriend is not a big deal?”
The diner goes silent. When noise finally starts again it sounds forced, as if the hostess is punching the cash register keys, as if the chefs have been hired to create racket as much as dinners, as if the conversations are so involved that everyone must raise their voices by at least five decibels. Only the little boy and girl remain quiet, staring at the angry woman and the red-faced man until their father physically turns their heads back to the forgotten coloring book. “What is happening?” he mouths to his stunned wife.
The waiter appears with my drink and food, worriedly eyeing the angry couple.
“We get some bad dates here,” he says. “Don’t let it bother you.”
Honestly, I couldn’t be less bothered. At the risk of sounding like a nosy busybody, this is fascinating. I sincerely believed that these scenes only played out on reality TV.
“This date is over,” the woman’s tone is deadly, final. She crosses her arms and glowers across the table, daring the man to meet her eyes.
“Fine,” he finally looks up, voice gone cold. “That’s too bad.”
Neither of them move. The two men by the bar are chugging their beers. The other Tinder couple are on their phones again, but now, judging by the timing of their expressions and eye contact, texting each other. The hostess is nowhere in sight.
Suddenly, with an adoring cry, the woman throws herself over the table and into the arms of the man, kissing him passionately.
“Honey, that was so good,” she murmurs, snuggling into his lap. “You were really good.”
“Why’d you break?” he groans, exasperated. “You always break.”
“But you were just so good. I’m sorry. I’m really sorry. Let’s go home and I won’t break character next time.”
The couple on the real Tinder date have stopped texting and are now gaping at each other with similar expressions of confusion. The kids are unabashedly staring again and, this time, so are their parents. I’ve drained my second drink.
“What the hell was that?” screech Blueberry and Pecan at the same time.
Suddenly, I’m not dining alone. We all share flabbergasted expressions and shocked smiles as the tenseness in the room dissipates into a collective feeling of relief. Any remaining anxiety I had about this personal challenge vanishes in the wake of the weird. The couple leave a pile of ones on the table and the rest of us to theorize about what just happened. I come to the conclusion that I will never know.
Curious to see if the universe has anything else as bizarre planned, I order dessert and take my time finishing. The little girl throws a tantrum and calls her daddy a “giant fart,” but other than that things stay interesting in a pleasant, but unsurprising way. The pair at the bar move on to harder liquor and the Tinder daters leave with their arms looped together. As I search my wallet for tip money, I feel the kind of static at the back of my neck that usually comes with foreign eyes. Without any attempt to be casual, I whirl and scan the room.
Settled into a booth built so far into a corner that I overlooked it is a woman in red lipstick, entirely alone. As she signs her check, she watches me with an alarming level of ease, a steadiness that indicates that she’s been at it for a while. I look away, annoyed that I have trouble holding her stare, and begin to stuff my hair into my hat. I’m so flustered by the shoe being on the other foot that I almost miss her grinning at me as she leaves, her parting words:
“What a dinner, huh?”
- Though this story is based on one of life’s stranger moments, it is by no means a work of absolute fact. I have tried to recreate events and conversations to the best of my ability, however, in order to maintain anonymity for those involved I have changed some identifying characteristics and details.