The lady at the counter told us it would be about an hour before we could get a table set for us. Luckily, the tide turned in our favour and we were allowed to get in and get comfortable, ready to devour as much food as we possibly could.
The restaurant was a really small one near the city centre in Piccadilly, which could probably only fit about 50 people at once and last night my sister and I decided it was about time we explored it for ourselves.
We were seated really close to the exit at a table for two. My sister sat right in front of me and in between us was the extractor fans above the stove on the table. It was probably our fourth time at a Korean BBQ and we were determined to master the DIY cooking concept without any major cooking fails like the second time around, but that’s a story for another time.
The mother and three kids next to us had already grilled and devoured way too much pork belly than they could possibly eat, and we were bent on doing the exact same as we intently examined the five-page menu. Fifteen minutes of contemplation and consultation were what followed, leaving us to order so much more than we could handle. There was so much life going on both inside and outside the box-sized restaurant, as it was a typical Friday night, but things were even better because the weather was great by Manchester standards; in other words, there was not a single drop of rain and the wind blew at the perfect moments. It felt like the whole city was out to play: half of the residents were probably at the Spice Girls’ reunion concert at Etihad, while the other half roamed around town in search of food or trouble, who really knows?
Although super worth the coins, we were already beginning to regret ordering so many portions when the family of four next to us got up and headed towards the door. The chatter in the room drowned out the sound of the BTS and BLACKPINK videos that were being played on rotation since we sat down and as the sky got darker more people kept rolling in and out.
At some point between consuming my large bowl of black-bean sauce noodles and chatting to my sister, I noticed the person seated a table away from ours. Probably in her early 20s, a girl wearing a grey t-shirt and jeans had just taken her seat and was looking through the menu. She had a carefree vibe about her as it seemed like she had been there a couple of times before. She took a lot less time than we did in ordering the food she wanted and after the waiter left, she carried on using her phone.
That was when I noticed. She was alone. She was alone, and I wasn’t the only one noticing it.
Shouldn’t be a big deal, right? Oh, but it was. Not only did I take note that she was alone, but I also could see the eyes of other customers shift towards her. The peanut-sized room, as well as the fact that she was situated exactly in the middle of it, made it harder not to notice. The voices of chatter and laughter coming from the other tables, including mine, pointed out the empty chair in front of hers. The silence coming from her table made so much noise.
She, on the surface, seemed to be super unbothered by the whole thing as she typed away on her phone. Once the waiter placed her order on the table, she delved in and began eating it.
I bet she could feel it; the heavy eyes on her that were taken by her “courage” to sit at that centre table alone. I bet she thought some people would deem it a sad sight to see. The scenarios they’d create in their minds to justify her choice to be at that table were probably really far-fetched and distant from reality.
It was almost like she was making a statement by just being in that situation, a statement that had nothing to do with eating. A statement that had everything to do with being alone.
The first thought I had after I saw her was how much guts she must have had to do that: to be alone in that scenario.
Growing up in Italy, food was and still is a really big part of the culture. At noon it was almost like there would be a complete shutdown around town as families would gather back at home for lunch together. Food was not just food, it was a social event that took place on the daily. My favourite memories in all my lifetime are probably the ones that took place around a table with people that had jokes rolling from their tongues and truth is, if we’ve never had a meal together, chances are we aren’t that close anyway.
Seating alone in the cafeteria is something I’ve never done. I remember if I ever happened to be alone at lunchtime in uni, I would order my food, go up to the first floor in the computer lab and then eat while pretending I was too busy catching up on assessments and deadline. I preferred to do that sometimes instead of seating alone and seeming alone.
I guess last night I had this thought: alone doesn’t mean lonely, it just means alone and there’s nothing so wrong with being alone.
Should she have not come to the restaurant because she was by herself? Should she have changed plans because her friends took a rain check? Should she have remained in the comfort of her four walls despite the great weather or gotten a takeaway instead?
Being alone shouldn’t be pitiful. It should be normal to a certain degree. It should be ordinary to seat at a table and eat while being silent with your own thoughts without people wondering what happened to you. It shouldn’t be weird, it should raise questions or red flags. In fact, I believe it should be something we do every once in a while; a date with ourselves. A day where we do all the things we’d normally do with our favourite person or a large group of people: go to the cinema, go shopping, go grab a bite or watch an open mic show. It could form of therapy, a reminder that being on your own should never be something to be afraid of.
I wish it was something that wasn’t constantly in my head. I wish I could go around New Look without feeling the need to pretend I’m on the phone doing something more important than hanging out with a friend. Could that be what she was doing? She looked confident, self-assured and comfortable. What if she wasn’t? What if the constant stares and voices all around her were the reason why she was typing away? Maybe the phone was just a welcome distraction and she was doing what I do when I’m alone. Would that be easier to believe?
Your restless romantic roamer