I fold the umbrella and press open the door of the canvas vestibule. I step into the restaurant. On this rainy winter evening, the room is buzzing with diners. I push past the gaggle of folks gathered around the door.
“Hi! One, for the bar please.”
The hostess looks up. “Sure. Help yourself to the communal table too.”
I find a spot in the middle of the long, narrow table. To my left is a group of gay guys, pleasantly chatting as they wait for their appetizers. To my right, a straight couple dining with their friend. The husband is regaling the group with what seems to be a riveting tale that the wife has clearly heard before. She smiles supportively.
I remove my long black wool coat and soft ivory scarf. I walk around the table, to the empty chair opposite mine. I fold the items neatly across the back of the chair and return to my seat.
As I admire my handiwork, my eyes go to the phantom place setting before it. It will be a few more moments before the waiter comes to describe the day’s specials. Usually the waiter would remove the extra place setting right away. Must have slipped through, on a busy Saturday night.
A striped napkin sits neatly folded on a small white plate. A fork and a knife patiently stand watch on either side. They’re all waiting for someone who won’t be there right now – someone I haven’t met yet, someone I barely feel ready for.
I dig through the depths of my tall leather tote for a pen and some note paper. If this were lunch, I’d openly read. It’s dinner and this is New York, so I jot down some occasional notes. Where did I learn how to dine alone? What comes to mind is a story from nearly a decade prior.
“You sure it’s gonna be ok?” I ask for the hundredth time, blowing my nose into a ball of tissue.
I’m kneeling on the floor of the dorm room, folding clothes into my roll aboard luggage, kind of having an unexpected meltdown.
“Yes, you’ll be fine,” Sarah says soothingly. “You got this!” Hailing from the cosmopolitan center of Bakersfield, Sarah had taken the opportunity to travel extensively through Europe all by herself before the study abroad program started.
The way the Oxford tutorial program is structured, we could basically do whatever we wanted as long as we submitted a 8-10 page paper to our tutors once a week. Perfect for side trips to Berlin or wherever else on the weekends.
I was usually quite content to hang out at the university or in London (Pimms and croquet anyone?). Eventually craving a few days of sun and sea (things the UK are not particularly known for), I learned that the Grand Prix was happening in Monaco. With a little research and some luck, I found “nosebleed” tickets to the qualifying races that were surprisingly affordable and a well-appointed hostel in Nice. Curious to check it out (I mean #yolo...), I ran the idea by my friends in the program who were usually down.
“That sounds awesome, but I have a paper due on Monday for another class.”
“Wow! So cool. Gah, I just visited my girlfriend in Florence last weekend. Have fun!”
And so on. With each chat, it became clear that I had a choice: To go by myself, or not to go at all. And with that came the searing pain of loneliness.
For my life thus far, all major life transitions and adventures had happened with a group. Graduating with my classmates, starting school at the same time. Traveling with my family. We all did the same thing, at the same time.
And now sudden understanding that from here on in, we were all on different life timelines. That at 21, this was just the beginning, the first of many situations like this ahead.
I zip up my suitcase and stand it up next to the bed. “Thanks so much, Sarah.” I give her a hug as she heads out.
I find an empty spot on the pebbled beach. I pour a little bit of bottled water over a basket of raspberries I picked up from the farmer’s market in Vieille Ville, the “Old Town” of Nice. The blue-green waves crash against the knees of an abandoned pier. The peeling white paint reveals the support of solid steel pylons. Neither land nor sea, she stands strong.