The Art of Being Alone

Yesterday was Good Friday, and true to weekend form, I had something or other lined up for the night. On the agenda last night was a quiet dinner with old friends at a nice, homey little Italian restaurant in a corner of Newtown. In the jolly presence of good natured banter and huge helpings of comfort food – the cannelloni with spinach and ricotta I stuffed my face with was so good I couldn’t have cared less that it was probably bringing back all the weight I had lost intermittently throughout the past month with a vengeance – it had been easy to forget the near-constant heartache that had been following me around for the past three weeks or so.

Having spent the whole day out and about trying to whip my research project proposal into shape, I had not been running late for once, and thus had to sit on a bench at the station while I waited for my friends to arrive. I’d impulsively bought a book on the way to the station, so I began reading it rather than having to sit and stare into space for the next fifteen minutes while I waited and felt like everybody walking past was judging me for being there on my own. Truly, I don’t think anyone even noticed me, not even the guy who had been sitting two seats away from me. But that thought is one which unfailingly runs through my head whenever I’m running solo – are they looking at me? Judging me? Pitying me?

When I was younger, I hated being alone. I would surround myself with friends, spend every waking minute with at least one other person. Having lived in a foreign country since I was thirteen and gone to boarding school, it wasn’t as difficult as it sounded. I literally had sleepovers every night. In a typical day, I would have breakfast with my dorm mates, go to school, have coffee with my then-BFF, spend all of lesson time passing notes with random classmates, gossip during break time with my desk mate while stalking our crushes, who were invariably playing football on the tennis court right next to our window, hang out after school with my girlfriends, have dinner with my dorm mates again before bedding down with my roommate, then rinse and repeat. The weekends were typically spent alternately hanging out with my girlfriends or my then-boyfriend and his friends. Besides the times when I was in the shower or camped out on the toilet, I was never alone. (And the toilet thing is debatable – those stories about girls going about their business together are generally true.)

As I grew older and graduated from high school, though, being alone sort of became the norm. In high school you were thrown together in a bunch, and whether you liked it or not you had to get along for the next few years if you didn’t want to be a social outcast. Once you enter college, however, it’s a complete one-eighty. There are no longer any cliques or social obligations. Sure, you have the occasional party or binge-drinking weekends, but spend any more than a few hours with anyone and you’ll be scorned for being clingy. Study groups? Those no longer exist. You are expected to excel at being independent and alone. Having been absolutely terrified of even having to wait at the train station for an extra five minutes for a tardy friend, going to college was a life-changing experience for me.

Through college, I learned to eat alone, get coffee on my own, and once when I was feeling exceptionally adventurous, go to the theater on my own. It had been nerve-wracking, going up to the box office and asking for a ticket for one, cringing internally at the judgment I presumed the greasy, gum-chewing kid had been heaping on me – oh here’s a chick asking for just one ticket, poor thing, she hasn’t got any friends! I had nearly turned tail and ran, but I toughened it out, stared him down, and grimaced when he handed me the printout. And you know what? I loved every second of it. To this day, I cannot watch Gridiron Gang without recalling the liberation of sitting in a near-empty theater with a venti iced caramel macchiato from Starbucks, my feet propped on the seat in front of me. That film remains one of my favorites, and going to the theater on my own has become my fail-proof Prozac.

And once I’d done that I realized I could do anything else alone. Well, nearly anything. So far I’ve yet to sit at a bar and order a drink on my own, but I have been to karaoke by myself – and loved it! And while I can technically ask for a table for one without feeling like I want the earth to open up and swallow me, niggling thoughts of ‘omg he’s judging me so hard for being alone and having no friends OMG’ still pop up now and then, although it takes less and less effort to tamp them down now. Then again, between my LTE-enabled iPhone and the book I nearly always carry around with me, being on my own now isn’t exactly as difficult as I remember it to be.

P.S. I found it very novel that pubs and bottle shops close super early on Good Friday. We practically walked all of Newtown to find a place where we can enjoy some after dinner drinks to no avail. Apparently it’s always been that way, for religious reasons – “there were traditionally tight restrictions on alcohol sale on Good Friday”. No booze in Sydney – that’s a first!

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