The restaurant was so loud, I could hardly focus on what I was reading. I thought it unusual for there to be so much activity at such a strange hour: It was 3:30 on a Saturday afternoon, not quite lunch and not quite dinner.
I had chosen to skip the long line of people waiting for tables and just eat at the bar. Sitting alone at a table for two or more when there's only one of you tends to elicit stares of contempt from families and couples waiting to dine. So I slid up to the long bar, choosing a spot at the end of the U shape to eat my late lunch and read one of the new books I'd just purchased on my solo shopping excursion.
I denied the bartender's suggestion that I start my afternoon with a glass of their recommended wine and opted instead for a diet coke.
"OK, then," she said, noting my order on her pad. "Would you like to order?" She looked up at me, pen poised just above her black folder, waiting for my instruction.
"I'll just have the soup and salad," I replied, offering her a smile that I hoped demonstrated that I would be far from demanding. "No hurry."
She returned my smile, scribbled down my order and said it'd be out in a minute. I reached over to the vacant spot next to me and slid the ashtray into what I now claimed as my area. I fished the book from my purse and opened it to the first page.
But sitting in a packed restaurant, unexpected sunshine beaming in through the wall of windows around the bar, and countless conversations filling up the air around me, I couldn't concentrate. I kept glancing up at the other patrons around the bar, the ones seated at tables, the ones waiting to eat. I read the same sentence over and over.
Two older ladies chose to sit one barstool away from me, laughing and talking as they shed their coats and tucked their purses at the foot of the bar.
"Oh!" The lady closest to me announced, looking at me and then back to her friend. "We can smoke in here!" The cheer in her voice was evident.
"Oh, yeah. We're in Jersey. Thank God."
"Mind if I share your ashtray while we wait for one of our own?" Her speaking to me gave me permission to look at her. She was in her sixties at least, her eyes and mouth lined with years of laughter. Her haircut, close-cropped on the back of her head with a pile of tight white curls on top, reminded me of my grandmother's.
"Not at all," I said, giving the glass ashtray a nudge in her direction.
"We're from New York. You can't smoke anywhere in New York, you know. So it's such a treat when you walk into a restaurant and see an ashtray."
I giggled. "I know. I try to avoid eating in New York if I can."
We were bonding over our addiction to nicotine.
My bartender showed up to take their order. They were all smiles and laughter, announcing that, yes, they'd be drinking and, yes, they'd be eating and, no, they didn't need a menu. They'd each have chicken parm with extra sauce. They both opted for salad and bread. When their wine was placed before them, they said "Cheers" and clinked their glasses while I read the first line of the first chapter for what must've been the tenth time.
I gave up trying to read my book, abandoning the crutch I carry when dining alone. Although I love to eat alone, I find it a little awkward just staring to space when I eat, or trying to act terribly interested in my cuisine. But, today, I chose instead to look around, to collect an impression of the people in my proximity. Sometimes, when looking around, I'd catch couples looking at me. I wondered if they wondered why I was eating alone.
A man walked up to the section of the bar just across from me. He was large and burly, a plaid button-down shirt clinging to his barrel chest. He was speaking to his friend, his head turned so that I could see his profile. The hair on his head and face was blue-black, so dark I could see the outline of his facial hair, even though he was most likely freshly-shaved. He was sporting a goatee, with a thin line of hair tracing the edge of his jaw from his chin to his hair line. The beard paralleled a bright red scar not two inches above it. When he laughed at something his friend had said, both lines bowed with his cheeks. I couldn't stop looking at it, wondering if he'd fashioned the beard to mimic the scar on purpose. He looked at me, caught me staring. I looked down at my book.
When my food arrived, I unfurled my napkin, releasing the knife and forks tucked within it. I dug the peppers and olives out of my salad, laying them on the plate beneath my bowl of soup. I ate slowly, pausing between bites to look around, surveying the line of waiting people. Each time the glass doors opened, cold air would rush inside with the handful of people coming in or going out. Kids whined that they were hungry. A teenaged couple sat in the corner, choosing to occupy only one seat instead of two, kissing and kissing while the restaurant around them filled with people. The hostess called what was obviously his name, and their kissing ended abruptly. They both wiped their mouths and sheepishly tucked their chins into their chests as they rose to be seated. Their apparent embarrassment made me smile into my soup, made me glad I hadn't been reading my book.