The waitress led me to the far side of the dining room, close to the buffet line. When I’d told her I’d be dining alone, I didn’t expect to be sectioned off, away from the families and groups, like a neatly-segmented garden plot. “We’ll plant the turnips over there.” I had three cohabitants in my ad hoc leper colony. Two had dutifully faced the wall, resigning themselves to stare at the taupe wall paper and 1970s-era Asian artwork. The third was a man in his mid-fifties, with close-cropped gray hair, a neatly trimmed beard, and wire-framed glasses. His short-sleeved plaid shirt was tucked fastidiously into navy blue trousers, elongating his already lanky frame. My guess was he was a college professor. If you have any idea who Harold McGee is, he looked like Harold McGee. He was the sort of man you’d expect to drive a Prius. Instead of facing the wall, he faced the dining room, surveying the familial landscape. I filled a plate with fried rice, cream cheese wontons, and sweet and sour chicken and I walked over to this man. “I don’t like eating alone,” I said. “Would you mind if I joined you?”
He gestured for me to sit down. His name was Tom – I was really hoping it would be Harold – and he was a computer engineer. He had been in Minnesota since the mid-80s, hailing from Madison, and enjoying a condo in the Capital Hill neighborhood. He spoke slowly, in a soft but focused baritone. It was the sort of voice you would expect to hear on morning radio. The sort of voice that made me wish I had a fireplace and a formidable whiskey selection. By the time I was mopping up the last of my sweet and sour sauce with the crusty remnants of the wonton skin, I’d learned that Tom is an avid hiker, racquetball player, and is planning a trip to the Swiss Alps next summer. I also gathered he’d traveled to four continents thus far, needing only Asia and Antarctica to complete the set.
Carlos Ruiz Zafon says we are freer speaking to strangers because they see us for who we are rather than who they want us to be. While we were dancing around the elephant in the room – talking about holiday plans, trying to diplomatic about whether the other person was alone by choice or by circumstance – Tom finally just blurted out his question. “Why are you here alone the weekend before Christmas?”
I told him I am single and that my friends are all traveling or busy with their families. That it’s just another Saturday for me, and the fact that it’s so close to a holiday is entirely incidental. I knew the follow-up question before he even opened his mouth to ask it. “So why aren’t you married? The first thing you said to me was that you don’t like to eat alone.”
I took a breath. “I don’t expect I’ll ever get married.”
Tom pressed on. “But why not?”
It almost felt like he was talking to himself, scolding himself for his regrets and mistakes. But I answered him anyway. I told him about my misadventures. I constructed an overwrought metaphor about being like a brand of bourbon nobody’s ever heard of. “Is it really gonna be worth $38.99? Screw it, we came here to buy pinot grigio.” I explained that every single time I’ve been dumped, that conversation has included the phrase, “It just didn’t feel right” and the echo of those words has left me feeling paralyzed and powerless. He nodded as though he already knew this story. We were, after all, lepers in the same colony.
We talked for a little while longer. When I got up to use the bathroom, he paid for my lunch and snuck out the door. I was hoping he’d left a note with some sage advice, something I could hear in his Morgan Freeman voice as I meditated on how to incorporate it into my life. But there was no such note, no cinematic revelation to be had. But it’s all the better: that just means I have to supply my own. And who in the world can speak more directly to my hopes and insecurities than I can? So the wisdom I give to myself is this. Don’t let your past dictate your future, and if you’re going to create a prophesy to self-fulfill, make sure it’s for a life you want. There are, after all, bourbon drinkers in the world. And Tom? Thanks for lunch.