Imagine, if you will, a man. He is standing in front of you in line. You may or may not be at Qdoba. It doesn’t matter. You and the man ahead of you are both waiting in line to order delicious food at an undisclosed fast casual eatery known for its guac and queso. That is all I can say.

Imagine the man in front of you is waiting patiently in line for his turn. He is not on his phone and he is not with any other people. He is carrying a messenger bag and is wearing outdated denim shorts with a plain red t-shirt. His white ankle socks are visible under his sneakers (no, not tennis or athletic shoes; these are definitely sneakers). When it’s his turn to order, he is soft-spoken. He takes his order “for here” and sits down at a table by himself.

It is now your turn to order. Do you:

  1. Order your food without fanfare. Brown rice. Black beans. Etcetera. You shuffle through the socially mandated motions and leave the restaurant with food in hand.
  2. Order your food with fervor. You try to order as aggressively as possible to intimidate the workers into giving you extra big scoops of everything.
  3. Order your food but spend the entire time worrying about the man in the red shirt and whether or not he has friends he could be eating with or maybe he’s going to meet up with friends later but he is really cherishing his time alone right now at this undisclosed fast casual eatery.

If you are anything like me, the answer is always c.

All the lonely people / where do they all come from? All the lonely people / are they actually as lonely as they look or are they just having a bad day? – Paul McCartney and me

I find myself making up stories about the Eleanor Rigbys I see in public places as a way of making myself stop worrying about them and their potential loneliness. Her friend is running late because of a difficult client at work. His roommate is out of town on a business trip. She finally called the babysitter and is enjoying an evening out by herself.

When sitting down at a restaurant, I try to face the wall or window instead of the room so that I don’t have to see if there are people who are eating alone. If I see them, I have a hard time focusing on anything else until I have my story constructed for why they’re not lonely. I recall the number of friends I have who enjoy going to dinner or the movies by themselves and I’m comforted that these people could have very consciously chosen to have a solitary evening. Yes, that’s it. They must want to be here by themselves. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be. Right? Right?!

I also wonder if anyone sees me and thinks of me in this way. Do I ever warrant other people’s made-up stories? Am I the lonely woman in the library that people feel sorry for? When I was a kid, my dad coached high school basketball, so my mom brought my siblings and me to every game. One of the player’s grandparents thought my mom was a lonely widow with three kids who just really loved basketball—why else would she show up to every game if she wasn’t related to any of the players? He carried around this mistaken assumption for years until someone mentioned to him that she was the coach’s wife. So, logically, all the lonely people I see must be married to someone on the other side of the room, just like my parents on all those nights at the gym. Yeah, that makes sense.

Her daughter got stuck in traffic but will get here eventually.

He just spent the whole day with his buddy who is visiting from out of town and is glad to have a little time to himself.

She couldn’t find any friends who wanted to see this movie. That wasn’t about to stop her.  

He is, in fact, alone.

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