Sitting on the uncomfortably peeling blue bleachers at my high school in central Maryland with a soggy bologna sandwich in one hand and my phone in the other, listening to my friend drone on about the latest senior year breakup, I couldn’t help but wonder what dining would be like in college. A lifetime of cliché ABC college films taught me that lunch had been replaced by brunch as the big social event, a place where a group of model friends blinded you more with their sterling wit and camaraderie than their teeth ever could. I wanted that perfect High School Musical picture, though I guess I could do without teens dancing and singing on lunch tables.
I knew I was skipping the most important step, making friends, but I could wing that no problem. I just wanted to trade the 45 minutes of procrastinated-homework-cramming lunch, for a free, witty, humorous conversation between friends at a glistening red table in college.
Fast forward one year and one acceptance letter to BC later and the time had come. I stepped onto the white tiled floor of McElroy dining hall after my first day of class at noon (aka rush hour), which meant no idle standing or you would get jostled aside. I absentmindedly tripped over invisible objects and my phone slipped in my clammy hands. My internal dialogue rivaled a psychiatric patient.
Menu? Not important. Just take your time so maybe you’ll see somebody you recognize.
Topics of discussion: class, schedule, major, oh and name, of course name. Repeat it at least twice.
There’s that girl from my writing seminar.
No, she’s sitting with too many people.
Hey, I met that guy in line at the bookstore.
Ugh, where are my roommates?
Maybe if I fake text, people will think I’m waiting for someone.
Better yet, Snapchat.
Needless to say, I ate alone at lunch (dinner, too), and started developing defense mechanisms.
Rule one: I always had my phone. Some meals I would check Instagram and Facebook at least three times.
Rule two: I studied when I didn’t have a lunch buddy. Propping up a textbook on the table, even upside down, could avert the sidelong, awkward glances that I would chance with people eating in a group.
Rule three: I always had earphones in, even if wasn’t listening to music.
As I had more meals alone, I started to become uncomfortably comfortable…I relied less on my defense mechanisms and started to enjoy the isolated quiet amidst the noise of the dining hall.
Most importantly though, I was able to watch and truly see. I saw Meredith; she cleans tables with the brightest smile on her face and she gives the best knuckle bumps. I saw Paul, another amazingly kind worker at the cafeteria. He has such a gracious heart and even just talking about the weather with him can always make me laugh. I believe that Meredith and Paul, despite their learning disabilities, have more social kindness and intelligence than a majority of the population.
Standing in line, I no longer searched frantically for someone to sit with, but greeted the sincere and warm cashiers. Ms. Kathleen, a sweet, wonderful grandma, will always ask about your day and even call you by name if you smile at her enough. Serious and secretly kind Usef, who speaks more than three languages, is brilliant if you can get him to open up. Don’t even get me started on Maria in Eagle’s Nest, who not only makes the best Tuscan chicken sandwich (extra mozzarella if you smile), but so kindly remembers everything you share in the five minutes it takes to make a sandwich, even if you haven’t seen her for a week.
Whatever reason I had for eating alone, be it insecurity, shyness or social awkwardness, it was safer than the time I tried to brave a random table. I couldn’t hide from the conclusion that every dumb coming-of-age movie forced down my throat: being alone is, wait for it, lonely.
A part of me considered my meals a crusade, bravely fighting against the social tyranny of popularity. As if the passionate writing in my journal (another phase of me eating alone) somehow transformed me into one of the secretly cool and intelligent loners I saw dance in the ABC movies I love to watch. Crap, I really need a better film education. Yet looking back on that loneliness, I see something beautiful, small, quiet, peaceful and rarely noticed, a lot like eating alone. I see confidence.
It’s no secret that dining with others is a strengthening and encouraging aspect of my daily life now, after I joined a billion clubs and finally made friends, but I will always look back fondly at the times that I could sit unnoticed in a high top window seat and just blissfully observe.
Once in a while, I’ll slip away after paying for my food and go to a corner section of Mac. I stop on my way to say hi to Meredith and Paul before sitting alone, peaceful and quiet, where hopefully no one will recognize me and stop to chat, disturbing a rare, uncomfortably comfortable brunch with me and myself.