I like to eat alone. My freshman year, when I was somewhat miraculously placed in Foster-Walker Complex, I loved trudging down to the dining hall in my indoor slippers to plop onto a wheely chair. I picked purple plates because it somehow reinforced—symbolized—my status as a Northwestern student, ambitious future journalist, hopeful freshman. At Plex, I guess because it's an upperclassmen dorm, or because many students often found themselves situated in between classes nearby, I always had a lot of people eating by themselves with me, keeping themselves company, free to look sideways or up or down or into their foods because that’s what they felt like doing, and one could even muster up the audacity to wave at a friend walking through the courtyard outside the window. No one had to have a friend or tag-along. It felt great, because.
Come fall quarter. A whole new group of freshmen, a whole new dorm in North Campus. I trudge down to Sargent dining hall. I’m still in the indoor slippers, I still plop, I still pick the purple plates, flying solo. It feels different. I see students in groups. They’re engaged in conversations, chatting with the omelet cook, saying hellos and goodbyes and I-haven’t-seen-you-in-such-a-long-time’s. I wonder if I’d gotten too attached, too comfortable in my Plex bubble last year. Was this the way it always had been? I feel as if I’m expected to eat in a group as well. I hide my food and fruit in the disposable cups to sneak up to my room, but the front lady stops me and makes me throw the food away. Mission failed. I begin my walk of shame. Did she have to do that?
In environments where food and people mix, I feel forced from my food. I feel self-conscious adding combinations of spices into dishes I think are too bland, or globs of Korean pepper paste into something not Korean. In conversation, too, I feel I could no longer be attentive. Things like timing, nuanced jokes, and quick facial expressions go unnoticed as I try to figure out how to eat and talk at once. One time, I went to Clarke’s with a group of friends and had something with a side of something, but after I left I realized I couldn’t remember what I had eaten. Was it chicken? Eggs? Cheese? Did I have a milkshake or a coffee? And who was I talking to?
As a result, I often find myself going back to restaurants alone. I called my mother the other day and told her how I felt. She worried, but understood, and told me there is an “extent” to everything. That there’s only a fine line between “just right” and “too much.” But what does that mean? And more importantly, what does that mean here?
Now a sophomore, I realize that eating alone, and especially enjoying eating alone, to be somewhat an uncomfortable activity here. At Northwestern, we are expected to be social, to be agreeable, friendly, always available to say our hellos (and goodbyes), travel in packs, if not in packs then in groups of two or more, engaging, accepting, and somehow very punctual at the same time. I am some of those things, but not always, and never for a very long time. How do I cope? Here, where I’m expected to be the best version of me all the time?