“Table for one.” It’s such a seemingly odd, out-of-the-ordinary request that the Princeton Triangle Club has a whole song about it. A duet, the song rides on its singers’ desire for a “table for two” — which they fatefully, perfectly achieve by the melody’s end. I’ve seen the song play out countless times, but a “table for one” holds such a different place in my life: It’s not odd. No, it feels too familiar. I’ve taken myself out to dinner or lunch, to breakfast or for coffee innumerable times. Often it’s simply out of necessity — but a few solo meals stand apart, persisting at the front of my memory for the greater emotion they carried.
I’ve been hung up on these solo meals since the fall of my junior year when I took myself to see Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” at the Princeton Garden Theatre. Toward the film’s end, a queer foreign writer — the vignette’s narrator, played by Jeffrey Wright — is asked why he writes about food more than anything else.
Wright’s performance had me holding back tears in the dark theater:
The character spoke for me. Not-straight, not-white, out of place as a solitary foreigner — he knew something about me I rarely share. Though fictional, he had shared my seat at all those tables for one.
I think I had been primed to be so moved by that scene: A few weeks earlier I had taken myself up to New York City for a day. I bought myself the fountain pen I’m using to write these words and a blue jacket that would soon become like a second skin, and I took myself to a little French restaurant in the West Village. I was shown to a table made for one person and no more, squeezed into a tiny nook between the entry, the front window, and the bar. I had nothing to do except eat or stare out the window onto the sidewalk and its passersby.
I had chosen to escape campus that day, to treat myself, but the scars of a loneliness I had been feeling that fall were still fresh. These scars revealed themselves when the sidewalk table immediately on the other side of the window-pane — just big enough for two — was filled by a man and a woman on a date. We would’ve been practically dining at the same table if not for the window enclosing me. It felt like too perfect a contrast to my situation, enjoying a day of my own design and full of what I favored in life, but still on my own. It’s really hard to discover or to notice that the life one wants and is trying to build can involve so much solitude.
I thought of all that as I walked out of the Princeton Garden Theatre. Eventually, my mind turned to an evening in Paris, two years prior, during the solo travels of my gap year. I was part way through my quiet dinner when two men and two very young boys filled the table next to me. The restaurant’s tables were so close that I couldn’t avoid hearing their conversation. It became apparent that the two American men were showing their children the same Parisian sights and streets they had explored as a young couple.
I spent the rest of my own silent dinner debating whether to try to strike up a conversation with them. I think I wanted to thank them for something — maybe for the hope they instilled in a younger me that very much needed it. I remained silent, even as I found myself trailing behind them while I walked toward the metro. They had brought out in me the inverse of what I felt two years later in New York.
When a young, too-uncertain gay boy sits alone at his dinner table, neighboring tables-for-two elicit more worries than any sense of reassurance. The straight couples and the gay couples present totally different worlds. The straight couples present an alternate life — one that seems easier, more straightforward from the solitude of a table-for-one. The gay couples present a promise — one challenged by the difficulty of recognizing, of fighting for, whom you want to join your table-for-one.
I largely forgot about all this as my junior year went on. However, it came rushing back in early May. On a detour from a business trip, my mom visited me on campus. The first night, we went to dinner in town with one of my best friends. She and my mom chatted through most of the dinner. Meanwhile, I fell quiet. Even with their company, I momentarily felt the solitude of a table-for-one. In another life, I thought, maybe we would’ve been more than friends. In another life, maybe that dinner’s guest would’ve been a boyfriend. In another life, who joins my table wouldn’t be such a fraught matter.
Maybe that’s why I keep returning to my tables-for-one; why I seek them out time and again. Enjoying solitude can often be easier. Until it’s not. Until the larger, neighboring tables become too distracting of a reminder.
But the times I’m not distracted, when I can fully relish in solitude, my table-for-one is comforting, much like it is for the character from “The French Dispatch.” I don’t know what it says about me that I can find so much comfort in solitude despite all the angst it may also induce.
A proper table-for-one — the one without distractions — and the solitude it offers the companionless foreigner might just serve the purest taste of freedom: a brief respite from a world that expects a certain perfectly orchestrated table-for-two.
At every table he returns to, this character is not the queer foreign writer. He simply is — on his own, on his own terms.
José Pablo Fernández García is a senior from Loveland, Ohio and Head Prospect Editor at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at email@example.com.