“in order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion.”*

this post was written on sunday night, september 21. it’s now monday, september 22, and i’m sitting in a coffee shop across the street from chicago’s union station.

cloud gate, aka "the bean," chicago

cloud gate, aka “the bean,” in millennium park, chicago

tonight i walked the few blocks from the hotel i’m staying in with my boyfriend to a diner in a section of chicago called south loop. i’d assumed it’s called by this name because there’s a light rail sort of contraption that hugs the area, but upon doing the wikipedia thing, i found out that the origin of south loop is unknown. but, when i hear the name, i think of a neatly tied ribbon, which is downright pleasant, and it actually is pretty nice, complete with a trader joe’s and elevator-building apartments. it’s also not nearly as filled with homeless people as the other sections of the city we’ve been roaming for the past four days. chicago has so far made new york look, in comparison, positively free of the mentally ill and drug-addicted folks society has abandoned to the streets. ’merica.

at least, on this chicago trip, no one tried to choke me on the street outside of a bar. i don’t remember what i’d said to that girl to piss her off, but, boy, was she mad!

so i rolled up to the diner solo, as my boyfriend was at the time in a large hotel conference room showing and analyzing footage of his interactions with girls as a learning tool for other guys. at this point, i’ve eaten alone so many times, it never strikes me as strange, but when i stood at the please-wait-to-be-seated sign (fuck you, hyphens. why can’t i use small caps in wordpress?), the host (because he was a dude and not a hostess, though host makes it sound as if i were about to attend dinner theater) peeked around me. considering i’m not even 5’2”, the options for who might be hiding behind me were few.

“just you?” is what he said, to which i answered a neutral, unmodulated “yup.”

and then he puckered his lips and crinkled his brows in thought, nodded, grabbed one menu, and led me to a counter seat so my ass wouldn’t take up too much real estate in a booth or at a table. he wasn’t so much judgmental as observant, and i wasn’t offended—only surprised, i suppose.

it seems as if all i hear or read about anymore, especially when it comes to being a woman, is independence. having our own careers, traveling alone, raising a child alone, starting our own businesses from scratch, etc., etc. but every time i look at facebook (which, i’m happy to admit, has been pretty infrequent nowadays), someone has posted yet another fucking article or top five list on how to be happy, and there’s always something on there about being comfortable alone, learning to be alone, spending time by yourself. i wholly give my credence to these prescriptions and similar, but independence seems to be en vogue, something people say more than they practice.

i feel the same way about glorifying the benefits of kale. kale is great for you. kale is delicious, whether sautéed, in a salad, in chip or smoothie form—however you want. eat it with your bare hands out of the bag like i do.

amtrak train (nyc > chi)

this is the snapchat photo i sent to my friend in nj while i was working on the lake shore limited amtrak train to chicago.

i actually whipped out a ziplock of it on the train to chicago and ate it like popcorn (yes, everyone, i took a train not a plane to chicago, so please ask me again why i would do this and tell me why it sounds crazy), and the guy next to me gave me the same look as the host’s in the chicago diner. i guess maybe he’s more sophisticated and makes his pesto with kale (which is a thing i didn’t know you could do until i googled it a minute ago), so i understand his reservations about my low-class kale eating.

but everyone needs just to eat kale if they want to and shut the fuck up about it.

 

the eleven city diner, south loop, chicago

the diner in south loop

anyway, it’s still odd for a woman—maybe anyone, to be honest—to have a meal alone. you can grocery shop alone. you can mail letters and go to bookstores alone. you can pick up dry cleaning and get your nails done and hair cut and buy wine and go running, but eating a meal in a restaurant alone is another matter, especially if there doesn’t seem to be any tangible reason for doing so. i didn’t walk into the diner with a huge backpack to show that i was just passing through. i wasn’t wearing sunglasses indoors, earbuds jammed in my head to show i was either having an emotional breakdown and didn’t want to be seen crying but felt the need to have dinner in public, or i was massively hung over and looked like a hollowed-out avocado. i wasn’t carrying a laptop nor did i have a bluetooth in my ear to indicate that i had important business to attend to on a sunday night.

which i totally did. i had to talk to my friend in california on gchat and eat a huge omelet with spinach.

(they didn’t have any kale.)

almost two years ago to the day, i’d been sitting in a dusk-lit square in madrid, staring at a spanish menu and trying to figure out which item(s) could easily be made vegetarian, when i glanced over and saw a women eating alone. she had a book, a meal, and a glass of red wine, and she looked to be in her late forties or early fifties. madrid was the seventh, and last, country of my trip across europe, so by that point, i’d had at least one breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack, coffee, dessert, elevensies, second breakfast, and alcohol session by myself, and the first time i’d consumed something alone—when i’d self-consciously sat in a café in rome and had espresso—seemed to have occurred eons, not weeks, ago.

madrid, spain

the restaurant in madrid where i ate my first madrid meal. the woman on the right may or may not have been the poor lady i was hard-core judging.

still, i found myself wondering about the woman, and why she was dining by herself. did she need to get away from her man/woman, did she even have a significant other, was she divorced or widowed, was she a spinster with one hundred gatos, did she have no friends . . .

i guess i could have hypothesized that she was eating alone because her pickup artist boyfriend was teaching the intricacies of game and dating, but the idea didn’t cross my mind for some reason.

then i thought, really? you’re eating alone and you can only wish you had one hundred cats!

in all seriousness, the thing is, that lady looked content. eighty-six that. more than content, actually: happy! happy in the i couldn’t give a fuck way, which, to me, is the height of happiness. i realized my curiosity was laden with judgment, and i thought instead about other things, like ordering patatas bravas and queso fresco and a tortilla española (no wonder i gained five pounds in europe), and what i would do for the last two days of my trip. i was getting closer to independence in that madrid tapas bar than i’d ever been before, and i see it now as the preparation i needed to do what i do now, which is to freelance alone and eat alone and not speak to another soul for sometimes an entire working day. today i’m closer still—though not close enough to ignore when a diner host “observes” my solo status—but i’m nearer to happy, for certain.

someday, may the supermarket shelves be bountiful with kale, stocked end-to-end with kale chips and kale pestos and kale salsas and kale cheerios, and i can gchat and eat omelets and take an hour to drink one cup of coffee sans spinster hypotheses and en paz.

 

*albert camus