I’m not a big fan of eating alone in public. I can’t even bring myself to hit a drive thru with no one else in the car. I blame it on Oprah and all those women she has on her show crying about their food obsessions and their weight, the way they’d eat two or three fast food burgers in the exit lane waiting for the light to change, how they’d ordered three meals just for themselves, because no one was there to see. One lady admitted she’d buy a whole box of Krispy Kremes hot from the roller, balance them on the passenger seat, top propped open with her handbag and eat the entire dozen as she drove to work. Just saying that makes me a little sick.
Dining out alone is like combining the irrational food obsession and weight thing with the way I feel when my husband’s sick on a Sunday, leaving me to attend church alone. The ladies cluck and tsk imagining an unsaved man back in our sin-filled house, the single men check for a wedding ring, and young people hope I won’t sit near them, because women who come to church alone usually cry or raise their arms a lot. About the only way around either solo outing is to bury your nose in a book—the Bible at church and anything else at a restaurant, as long as it’s not a self-help book, because then you will probably look suicidal, especially if you order anything other than a Caesar salad and Diet Coke.
I haven’t always been this way. Thanks, Oprah. I couldn’t have been. I survived six weeks on my own backpacking across Europe. Sure, I lost weight, but not because I didn’t eat. I got lost a lot and was too broke to take buses, trains, or taxis, so I walked—for hours, for days, for weeks. I felt at ease going into a restaurant and saying, “Just one, please,” raising my pathetic little index finger. Maybe because I didn’t understand enough French, German, or Italian to know what anyone was saying about me—about the girl in the corner eating the baked potato, the girl who ordered two beers and then a sandwich, the girl who decided eating Mexican food in Germany was a good idea, the girl with the backpack and the maps who was eating alone.
Not too long ago, I was stood up for lunch—by another girl. This was a first for me. I sat there drinking my water looking around the restaurant, checking my watch, texting people on my cell phone, and telling the waitress, “My friend should be here any minute. She’s a busy reporter, might have gotten caught up a story, or a deadline. I sure hope she wasn’t in a car wreck.” Half an hour later, I hoped she was in a car wreck—or worse. I slipped out of the booth, thanked the waitress and tried to avoid the eyes of the executives sawing their steaks, ordering the cheesecake, padding their expense accounts. I went straight home and ate a bowl of vegetable soup, while reading T.C. Boyle. I thought that if I had that book with me at the restaurant, I might have stayed for lunch, but I also know I would have eaten much less than if I was seated across from my reporter pal.
I have a friend whose husband travels frequently for business. On one long term assignment, he and his co-worker ate in the same pub for six months. He went there solo one night while the other guy stayed with clients. He greeted the waitress by name, bellied up to the bar, and had a few beers and a burger. When he got his bill he laughed. The waitress had tagged his ticket: barfly1. His co-worker ate there the next night alone and came back with a receipt labeling him: barfly two.
So, maybe that’s what I’m really afraid of if I eat out alone: that I might be labeled. That someone might get the wrong impression of me. Never mind that I’m writing this in the front seat of my car in the parking lot of my daughter’s dance studio, where I have just eaten a bowl of salad from home, washed down with a bottle of water I found under the passenger seat.