I have no problem being alone. Most of the time, I’d rather be alone. As Miss Kate Sloan often says, it’s usually a good day to be me. I’m pretty cool to hang out with. However, I draw the line at eating out by myself. Lunch does not count. Anywhere where I can acceptably read while eating doesn’t count. Anyplace without waiters doesn’t count. And it boils down to this: no way am I eating dinner at a restaurant with cloth napkins by myself.

Even thinking about it makes the place between my heart and my ribcage tight with anxiety. I have a bit of social anxiety that comes from chronic shyness that I pretend to hide but can’t quite get rid of. I don’t send back food at restaurants for fear of upsetting the waiter/waitress/cooks/bystanders. I don’t like calling people I don’t know, even to order pizza or make a doctor’s appointment. I never raise my hand in class, and if I do, I blush the entire time I speak. I sometimes plan conversations ahead of time to keep from saying something stupid. Most of the time, this is something I handle and don’t let affect my life. But sometimes the anxiety grips vicelike around my throat and becomes something I have to run from.

Going to Spain helped me to mostly silence the constant thrumming voice in my head saying “You’re going to make a fool of yourself.” In Spain, I was forced to make an ass of myself. I had to figure out all over again how to do simple things like buy milk, order food, ask for the check, and ask for help. One of my first days there, I was to catch a bus downtown and meet my friends at the plaza. My friend Amanda told me to take any bus to a certain stop downtown. But while I looked at the map, I got confused. None of the routes seemed to go in the right direction. I couldn’t even locate where I was on the map. I knew from an earlier trip that bus stops weren’t announced. It was dark, and I doubted I’d be able to recognize the stop I needed from the window. “Just ask the bus driver,” Amanda said on the phone. By then, my hands were shaking so hard I could barely hold onto the phone. I knew I was going to get lost, and I knew everyone would make fun of me. What kind of moron can’t manage to take a bus downtown?

When a bus pulled up, I stepped on and froze, staring at the bus driver. He made an impatient beckoning gesture and I found I couldn’t say a word. I stumbled backward off the bus. I ending up walking downtown instead, following the only route I knew—the curve of the bay. Gradually my heart slowed down and I walked with angry steps. It started to rain, and I was soaked by the time I found my friends. It took me almost two hours.

After that, I decided it was time to get a fucking grip. I made myself do things while my heart pounded so much I could feel it at my temples. A few nights after the bus incident, when some people asked me to go out, I made myself go with them, even though they were all strangers—something I never would have done before. Because of that, I made great friends for the rest of the trip. Even a few months ago, I went to a reading by myself for the new volume of Best American Essays. When the talk was over, a few people approached me to ask about a question I had asked. I got to talking with them and they were nice enough to invite me out to dinner. They all knew each other and were friends. To my surprise, I agreed to go. Halfway through dinner, I went outside and called Charlie to tell him what had happened and felt such a sense of buoyancy. I hadn’t realized how much my introversion weighed on me until it was gone.

But there are still some places where I draw the line. Eating out is one of them. I know I’m not supposed to care what other people think. But I do. Anyone who says they don’t is bullshitting. I couldn’t handle the thought of sitting at a table with everyone’s eyes flicking to me and flicking away, the whites of their eyes like a camera flash, wondering what my problem was. Why is she eating alone? Doesn’t she have any friends?

That makes me so disgusted with myself I can barely stand it. It doesn’t even make sense. So last week, when I was craving sushi, I told that little voice in my brain to go fuck itself and walked over to one of my favorite sushi places. This wasn’t the big leagues—it’s a small restaurant and I was eating early when it wouldn’t be busy, but it was something. I couldn’t believe it—I felt almost normal. For a half second, I actually missed being shy. Who am I, I wondered, if I’m not crippled by self-doubt? That’s so much of my identity I barely recognized myself without it.

I may or may not have been skipping up the stairs, a newly converted extrovert, when I felt the pull behind my ribcage. I was nervous. As I got closer to the restaurant, I could feel my feet dragging. Maybe I’ll just sit at the sushi bar, I told myself. Then I shook my head. No. That’s cheating. I took a deep breath and kept walking. When I got to the restaurant, I realized my hands were balled into tight fists. I unclenched my hands, and my nails had left little while crescents in my palms. “One for dinner?” the server said. I nodded once, a quick shake of the head. “Would you like to sit at the bar?” A temptation and I wanted so badly to say yes, but some other part of me was saying “No, a table please,” and following the hostess to a table near the window.

At first, I sat facing the restaurant, but then I felt intimidated and switched chairs, facing the street instead. The thought of people’s eyes on my back was much worse, so I switched chairs again. You don’t quite realize how much waiting is involved at a restaurant unless the service is terrible or unless you’re there alone. The worst was the wait between ordering and receiving my appetizer. I had a glass of wine, which helped, and I resisted the urge to get out a book. I could feel that my breathing was too quick, and I hoped no one could see how fast my chest was rising and falling. I took small sips of wine, focusing on the sweetness on my tongue and the burn in the back of my throat. I knew that as soon as the sushi came, I would have something else to focus on, and everything would be ok.

I’d like to tell you that those moments waiting by myself were transformational. I’d like to tell you that now I can call strangers with ease. But as I signed the check, I felt unchanged. The knot in my chest had gradually dissolved, leaving nothing much in its place. As I walked down the stairs I’d floated up earlier, I realized that eating alone wasn’t the thing at all. Eating alone is not what I was afraid of. What made the difference was when I chose to not be afraid.

If you’ve been afraid to eat out alone, don’t be. It’s uneventful. If you are someone who’s fearful, like me, it’s nothing to be afraid of. Forcing myself to go helped me see how much I need to get the hell out of my own way. I don’t want fear to continue keeping me from anything—especially sushi.

3 Responses to “Vice”
  1. Lindsey says:

    I know how you feel, Jill. Calling strangers, I hate it. I got used to it when I worked as a receptionist, but if someone else offers to make a call for me, I’ll let them. I always feel like a moron whenever I’m somewhere by myself and I always want a buddy along with me to affirm to the rest of the world: “Yes, see? I have at least one person who likes me and he/she can testify that I have several other people who don’t think I’m too much of a weirdo either.” I don’t know what my problem is, but I’m working on dealing with it by pretending I don’t feel that way. It’s kinda working. I went to the movies on my own a while ago and it was okay.

    • Jill says:

      I was actually going to go to the movies by myself the other day–that I don’t think I’d mind because it’s dark, and also, like Anna says, I won’t have to share popcorn. I’ve gotten better at calling because I often have to deal with things on the phone at my job (and usually unpleasant things), but I’d still rather have someone else call to order the pizza, if I can.

      I don’t think this sort of anxiety is something I’ll ever get over, but maybe I’ll be able to handle myself a little better. I didn’t write about one incident where I tried to go to a meetup for Spanish speakers (all strangers), and had a panic attack outside and had to go home. NEVER AGAIN.

  2. Anna says:

    I’m alone most of the time now, but I don’t know if this has made me more or less tolerant of dealing with strangers. I have become a little used to it. Right now I’m eating by myself at Jimmy Johns because even though I had lunch I’m so hungry. Obviously I was rereading this column for entertainment. IDK. I hate calling people on the phone but I’ve found that since I’m alone all the time there’s nobody else to witness my embarrassment. But…I make Jack call everyone when he’s home. I’ve also been to the movies by myself a couple times and I liked not having to share popcorn. Anyway, I know what you mean about being shy. I had six heart attacks when I walked up to my new racing team for the first time. Oh, bummer…my sandwich is gone!

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