Eating alone

I remember the first time I took myself out to lunch. Not the fast-food variety, either; that was old hat, routine. A real, honest-to-goodness sit-down meal in a restaurant where a hostess greeted me and I had to look up, shyly, and say, “Just one.”

I didn’t have a book or magazine with me (a rookie mistake) — just a bowl of pasta and my cell phone, which I used to scribble notes to friends. I was a freshman in college and preparing for a night shift at work. I needed a heavy meal to make it through the evening, I decided, and stepping into this new sense of independence was like donning a foreign skin — uncomfortable and itchy and strange. I was 18 and had never dined alone. I hurried through the meal, paid my bill and left. Though proud of myself, it was vaguely unsettling.

Now I don’t mind eating alone. My lunch break is a refuge from an otherwise busy day at the newspaper where I sit writing and answering emails, lost in a paper world and far from my own thoughts. I never leave home without a book — ever — and am often fondly teased for always having a paperback nearby. Though it’s costly and time-consuming, I go out to lunch every day. The usual haunts near my office become a place in which I’m lost to the world, picking at a salad or biting into a crisp sandwich.

I don’t mind eating with others, of course, and rarely turn down a lunch date. On the Fridays my boyfriend isn’t working, Spencer meets me in town to catch up and make eyes across a table. My sister and dad pop out to meet me once or twice a week. And my mother often calls to meet on Fridays, after she’s run errands and is looking for a buddy.

But the other days — most days? I watch the clock and anticipate where to run, never minding the fact that I walk in alone, order alone, eat alone. Characters in novels keep me company, and I eagerly anticipate returning to a world that is not my own. I don’t feel lonely . . . most of the time.

I live a quiet life, maybe a solitary life. And I often think about that college freshman, that girl afraid of looking out-of-place, and I think about how I’ve changed and grown and learned — and of the poets and stories and books that have defined me. And I think of Li-Young Lee — my favorite poet — and this poem. Because I love it, and because it is true.

Eating Alone
By Li-Young Lee

I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.

Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.

It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.

White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want.

18 thoughts on “Eating alone

  1. I eat alone all the time. I love to take myself to dinner. I always bring a book or my eReader. My only complaint is the waistaff stops by too many times to ask me “how’s everything?” ARGH! GO AWAY, I’m tryna be alone here!


    • As long as we have a book, we’re good to go! And I agree: it’s tough being peppered with questions, especially when I’m just getting to the good part.


  2. I loved the poem.
    I actually miss doing things alone. I live literally five minutes from work so I go home during lunch if I’m not meeting my mom somewhere. With a husband and a kid it’s difficult to justify going out to dinner by myself, seeing a movie alone, or going to a concert alone, things I used to enjoy.


  3. I used to hate eating alone (I always thought people were staring at me), but now I find it really entertaining. I can try anything on the menu and really savor the meal and people watch.


  4. I love the poem. Thank you for sharing.
    As far as eating alone goes, it still frightens me a bit. Which is unfortunate because I absolutely love to eat out. If i had a little more time and a little more money, I would definitely venture out to have lunch out every day. Maybe when I get a real job that will become a part of my routine. But I still find comfort in having others nearby. I’m not sure I have the guts yet to go to a place and ask for a table for one. But I want to be there because I am definitely a solitary person. Most days it is just me or me and the boy and occasionally me and the family. But most frequently it is just me. And while I would love to make a few more friends, I know that at my core, I am a bit of a loner. I am shy and tend to just keep to myself. But I still haven’t really grown into that piece of me just quite yet. I’ll get there someday. You have definitely inspired me! And I know I’ll have my books to keep me company unconditionally.


  5. I’m ok with eating alone, I only tend to mind it if the only table avaliable is one that can seat lots of people because then I feel bad. It definitely helps to have a book because otherwise the options are stare at your food or look around, and looking around can be uncomfortable.


  6. “I never leave home without a book — ever — ” 🙂
    What a wonderful treat to give yourself most days. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and Lee’s poem.


  7. I don’t mind eating alone for lunch, I’m pretty adventurous when it comes to trying food and it can be hard to find someone to come with me. I find that it’s a great way to relax because you get to pick a place you really want to go to without having to compromise plus it’s the perfect time to catch up on some reading.


  8. Last summer I worked in Des Moines and went out for lunch every day. It was expensive, but I really enjoyed getting to know all the different restaurants and becoming a regular. I never eat out for lunch in Iowa City, I just bring my lunch, but I wouldn’t mind getting away from work and having some alone time. It’s something I’ve recently craved.


  9. I stopped in to say I love eating alone too, especially if I have a book, and I see I’m not alone! I like people watching, though, so sometimes I don’t get much reading done!


Comments are closed.