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.
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.