`Table for One, Please'

I WAITED a decade for the man I would want to share every evening with forever - dinner, dishes, movies, as well as Sunday brunch and arrivals at the airport. But now that I've found him, I find myself acting rather strange. Like tonight. I am sitting alone in a restaurant - by choice - lingering over my food, waiting to catch the late movie down the street - alone. He's somewhere else, studying, skipping dinner. And I'm thinking about him, but I'm glad he's not here.

I used to be uncomfortable when I dined alone. Hosts stared accusingly when, after asking how many in my party, I replied, ``One.'' The worst, of course, was eating at the deli across from my apartment, always so packed on Sundays that you have to take a number. I shudder when I recall the last time I ate there; the hostess boomed out, ``Brown, party of one!'' I slithered through the gaping crowd (no doubt thinking ``Poor thing, what's wrong with her that she's eating alone?'').

But tonight I could hardly wait to announce to the hostess, after a group of shy girls signed up before me, that I was ``One, please.'' The girls turned one by one at the sound of my voice, to see the woman who was dining unaccompanied. I smiled in turn to each of them and followed the hostess to my table for one.

Looking around the restaurant, I realized I was the only person dining solo. But it didn't bother me. Tonight I'm my own guest. Tonight I'll take time to catch up on what I've been up to. To remember old times. To think about the future. To be quiet in the middle of a crowd.

In the movie ``Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,'' Marilyn Monroe (as Lorelei) has a line which hit home for me, something to the effect that the most lonely thing is to be alone in the middle of a crowd. I don't feel lonely tonight. Maybe it's because I know I have a boyfriend waiting for me somewhere. I hope not. Because that means if he weren't there....

But he is.

I order anchovy pizza (I know he'll enjoy my leftovers) and watch the happy tables around me. I don't pick self-consciously at each bite as I used to when I ate alone; tonight I wolf down a couple of slices and chomp away. The table of three girls is lost in laughter and fighting over who should finish the last piece of pizza. The couple next to me orders one dessert and shares it.

My life is changing. Leaving my family after the holidays wasn't as difficult this year, knowing that he would be at the other end to pick me up at the airport.

My concept of family is enlarging. I met his grandmother at Christmastime. When she said ``I'm so glad to meet Anthony's girlfriend,'' his mother was indignant. ``She has a name of her own, Mother!'' she said.

That's the way I used to feel. And I still do. But I know that I'll always be an individual first, and a partner second. So I looked at the whole family standing around me, embarrassed because they thought I was embarrassed. I smiled, wishing I still had a grandparent to say a similarly awkward thing to him. ``No,'' I replied. ``That's ok. I like being called Anthony's girlfriend.'' I squeezed the grandmother's hand.

I told my cousin today - my best friend - that I'm in love. She said it didn't sound like it in my voice, which made me wonder: Should love make me giddy? Off balance? That's not the way it feels - that's a fairy tale. Nor should being alone make one feel incomplete. But something inside - I'm not sure what - is at peace.

For now, I'm content with a man who likes leftovers and hates pollution. Who makes an omelet better than the deli across the street and loves life the way it deserves to be loved.

But I will always need time away from him, time for myself, to brood, to pray, to write poetry, to play Pavarotti loudly. To talk to my mother on the phone. To dance in the dark and hit the boxer's heavy bag that hangs in my apartment. To remember that I will always be ``party of one'' first, and if taken good care of, this one will be have a lot to offer another and make an even better party of two.

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