“Are you waiting for someone?”
When I’m buying a ticket, vacationing, or eating out on my own, frontline customer-service staff greet me with “only one?” or “is it just you?” Like the server on the boat which motors twice a day out of Burlington, Vermont, for a 90-minute tour of Lake Champlain.
The server appeared almost as soon as I sat down at a table for two (the smallest I could find) by the railing on the open-air deck. “No, it’s just me,” I told him. “OK,” he said, and set a small glass of water down on my table. “I’m going to be taking care of you, so I’ll be back in a minute! Just let me know if there’s anything you need.”
He wasn’t back. I don’t think he or any other server looked in my direction for the rest of the trip. They were busy bringing hard seltzer and margaritas to the dozens of couples and families around me. And that was OK. Napkins, menus, and the occasional top-heavy piña colada were flying in the wind; I didn’t need a cocktail the price of a yacht to enjoy the distant Adirondacks. And I get it—a vacationing family buying lunch and a round or two of frozen drinks is a much bigger tip than one person with a book for company.
The problems of solitude
I know that taking a tour or going out for a nice dinner don’t seem to be things that most people do on their own, so maybe it’s natural for hospitality staffers to assume that I’m waiting on someone else or that I’m not keen to order anything. I enjoy single life and regular solo outings, so I’m used to hearing “it’s just you?” after I clearly have placed an order for one, but it still gives me an odd feeling, as if I need to convince people I’ve arrived when I’m standing right in front of them.
There are other drawbacks to going it alone, especially on vacation—trips by train and plane are a lot more tiring when you have to watch and carry all the bags yourself (though it’s a great incentive to pack light). There’s no-one else to spread out the costs. And especially for women traveling alone, there are other challenges: drivers who aggressively hit on you, or harassers who are always at the ready. “And where are you going?” a man in Lake Worth, Florida, leered into my face as I walked to a local bar.
But there are benefits to adventuring alone. It may shock you, but not everyone thinks that beelining on foot to a series of used bookstores with insufficient air conditioning is a great way to explore cities in the summer. But that’s OK—when I travel alone, I don’t have to please anyone but myself.
“You’re still over here?” a New York friend asked me 40 minutes after we entered The Strand—time which he used to circle every floor, and which I used to examine six or seven tables closest to the entrance. Our mutual interest in things like bookstores is one reason we enjoyed dating, and our different ways of browsing is one reason we’re better off as friends who meet up occasionally.
Instead of waiting to find someone who wants to read and absorb every single plaque, I enjoy spending hours at museums on my own. I also enjoy a sort of pleasant social limbo in which I can simultaneously keep to my own thoughts, doing only what I want to do, while also being more open to connecting with or assisting people around me. Being alone in public somehow makes me both invisible to others (absorbed in their pairs or groups) and more likely to be approached.
Becoming a window
Earlier this summer, a woman who looked about 18 nervously came up to me on a Connecticut Amtrak platform while we waited for an engine change and asked if she could borrow my phone. She had accidentally left hers in her mom’s car as she ran for the station and had no way to contact her ride hours later. She used my phone to make a call and text her worried boyfriend. As she handed it back, tears of relief flowed out of her eyes and soaked into both sides of her disposable blue facemask.
“Thank you,” she quavered. “When you’re on your own, it’s so hard to know who’s safe to ask for help.”
I know the feeling. And I’m also glad if people around me who need a hand feel comfortable approaching me.
When I see pairs or groups of vacationing people posing and handing their cameras or phones back and forth, trying to get photos at a scenic nook, I often stop to ask if they want a picture all together. I like their appreciative smiles and the way they throw their arms around each other's shoulders, happy to be captured in one frame that shows not only who’s there, but where they are. I don’t feel lonely in those moments. Instead, I feel as if the freedom of my solitude turns me into a window on their shared experience—a window that might last a lifetime and that wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t been there, even if no one remembers me.
Why I don’t wait
I used to wait to do the things I wanted to do, like seeing a movie, going out for dinner, getting on a boat, taking a hike, or going on vacation. Especially as a younger person, I thought I needed a spouse or a partner or a friend to enjoy these things properly, or keep people from looking askance at me. And sometimes it is nice to clasp a partner’s hand at the movies, get ice cream with a friend, have dinner with my parents, or book a trip with my roommate.
But being comfortable on my own as well makes it easier to do more of what I really want to do—the way I want to do it. Seeing my own self as a perfectly worthy person to take out on the town builds a freedom that also helps replace the binaries locking up not just our relationship to ourselves, but our relationships with others. If you can take yourself on a date, maybe you can form a family with your roommates, take a day trip with colleagues, let friends become partners and partners become friends, and make out with your good exes.
It’s the kind of freedom that stops an invisible yet exhausting daily triangulation: the distance between you, the thing you really want to do today, and finding the companionship that will make you comfortable enough to do that thing. You don't need to navigate that way, no matter how many people expect you to have company.
So, yes, a table for one, please. This occasion is for me.