The first time I ate lunch alone, I was in a high school bathroom. It was the first day of sophomore year, which meant a reshuffling of the cafeteria. I stood paralyzed in the doorway until I spotted my group of girls from last year. They had snagged one of the round tables that was typically reserved for upperclassmen.
There was one problem, they informed me. The table wasn’t large enough to fit all of us. Eight pairs of eyes focused on me. I ate in the bathroom and cursed myself for having been late to lunch, but I never lost another game of round-table musical chairs.
The second time I ate lunch alone, I was in a corner of Norris. No familiar faces. No one else desperately seeking a small-talk partner. Everyone seemed to have a lunchtime companion or two or 12.
I don’t think I turned a page of the textbook in front of me. I was too busy glancing up every now and then to determine whether or not anyone was staring at me. Maybe, I thought to myself, the people sitting in groups and laughing loudly aren’t having as much fun as they seem to be. Somehow, though, the idea that none of us were having fun didn’t make me feel any better.
The next few times I was alone were equally uncomfortable. If someone I knew stopped to talk to me, I felt like they were judging me for sitting by myself. I was painfully self-conscious. Was it better, when asked how my quarter was going, to answer “good” or “fine”? Was it too much of a downer to counter a complaint about the cold with “I hear it’s going to get even colder this weekend”? If someone sat down with me, I wondered if they secretly would rather be sitting somewhere else but they’d felt sorry for me because I was alone. I looked through people when I talked to them, and I had a complex about everything — if someone said they liked my shirt, I’d assume they were turning around and saying it was the ugliest effing shirt they’d ever seen. I’d say I was a little bit insecure.
A few weeks later, I found out that I’d be spending Thanksgiving on campus. At first, I thought I would use the time to branch out. I’d befriend any other people who were staying here over break. But the lure of relaxation was too difficult to pass up, so I caught up on sleep. I played guitar guiltlessly. No more neighbors to bother, no more homework to worry about.
On Thanksgiving, I talked to friends who had gone home and were now readily complaining about their families or their curfews. “Aren’t you lonely?” they’d ask me. Here was someone openly pitying me because I was alone. But I was happy and relaxed. For the first time, I didn’t feel the need to justify myself to anyone else. I was excited to see my friends again, but the idea of spending another day or two alone didn’t bother me.
Alone time is time for me to just be without worrying about how I appear to anyone else. The more time I spend by myself, the closer I get to figuring out who I am when I don’t have to be anybody. Taking time to reflect on events lets me notice the similarities between them. It makes me practice putting my thoughts into words — a surprisingly important conversational skill. I can think out loud when others are present. I can be rid of self-doubt.
Learning to be happy by myself has taught me to be happy all the time, because no matter what I have, who I’m with, or where I go, I never have anything less than what I have when I’m alone. In any moment, at the bare minimum, I have me. I can turn inward and think about all the people who I will probably get the chance to spend time with soon and the stories I’d tell if I had someone to tell them to. That way, the next time I see them, there is no small talk. No discussion of the weather or winter quarter thus far. Just a whole lot of the kind of conversation that makes people want to interrupt my alone time out of interest this time, not pity.
But even now, when I get exhausted, I start saying things carelessly and without thinking them through. My brain slows down, or its link to my mouth has been cut somehow, but somehow saying nothing at all would be even more awkward. I start to feel like I’ll regret the way I’m acting, and I long for some time to catch up with me. In those moments, I think to myself, “Maybe tomorrow I’ll eat lunch alone in Norris.” When I do, I wonder if any of the people sitting in groups are having as much fun as I am.