The first time I ate dinner alone in a restaurant I had fettuccine in cream sauce with peas. There’s a name for that dish but I don’t remember it. I do remember holding a biography of Princess Diana on my lap, a hardcover book, one of a dozen I’d bought at the Harvard bookstore where I occupied myself in the appearance of intellectual pursuits while imagining my study group huddled around a table in a dark bar telling jokes and drinking expensive beer.
My skin crawled with the spectacle of it, a middle-aged woman alone at dinner, a person no one wanted to eat with. Why hadn’t I gotten an invitation to dinner? Why had I not invited someone to dinner? No one knew anyone when we came to Boston. We were all there from somewhere else, picked by our cities to attend a two-week community development workshop at the Kennedy School of Government. We were all smart, educated, leaders in our towns, people worth knowing. It should have been easy to be sociable, collegial. But it wasn’t. It was agony.
The Harvard experience wasn’t new to me. This is how it always was. I signed up for conferences, registered for workshops, volunteered for events only to be awash in discomfort once I arrived. Oh, I felt fine in the academic part of it. Sitting in class, being prepared, knowing things, answering questions; raising my hand was comfortable to me, like an Olympic swimmer hitting the water. It was my thing. I loved it, especially at Harvard. The instructors were famous; they all used the case study approach, picking apart public policy decisions piece by piece like dissecting a frog. There was no part of the frog we didn’t examine. I loved that part. The other parts I dreaded. The teams, the study groups, and the daily awfulness of dinner.
Since Harvard, I’ve eaten a hundred meals alone in restaurants. And as many with people I’d never met before. Somewhere on my little life journey, my overwhelming uncomfortableness in social environments evaporated. It was banished by my deafness.
Odd that a disability could be freeing but it was. Being seriously hearing impaired made living in my head okay. It made having dinner with myself (not by myself) legitimate. It became perfectly appropriate to isolate myself; I was not normal, after all, so normal expectations and judgments no longer applied to me. Oh, it was sweet to be rid of it all! I moved like Tinker Bell in my own bubble.
And years passed. It was, for me, the equivalent of the forty years in the desert that Moses deemed necessary for Jews fleeing enslavement in Egypt to become free people in their hearts and minds. My deafness was my forty years in the desert. And so I sat there in the sand, admiring the dunes, setting up my tent, watching for camels. I lived there, lonely at first but then happy and alone. I moved in my own way.
And then, praise the cochlear implant, I was only deaf if I chose to be. With my receiver turned on, the implant heard sounds unheard for years, including the sounds made by people. Dinner companions. I could have dinner companions again. If I chose to. Knowing, after my forty years in the desert, that I would be fine without them made having dinner companions a choice, not an imperative. It made me free to read a book on my lap and eat fettuccine in cream sauce with peas without every giving a thought to how I might look as an older woman eating alone. Belonging didn’t matter anymore. I had learned to belong to myself.