The Loner

As I emerge through the cafeteria doors, I am keenly aware of the juxtaposition of my solitary presence to that of the many groupings of friends, acquaintances, and classmates that I pass on my way to grab one of the trays off the mountain piled at the front of the food area. I wade through a sea of tables with plastic chairs gathered haphazardly around one focal point or another. Some tables have large, rowdy groups of diners while others seat just two or three in quiet discussion. I scan the room carefully, but no, once again, I am the only solitary dinner in the whole dining hall.

It wasn't always this way. When I started my freshman year, and everybody was new and did not know anyone, there were many people who, just like myself, would shyly make their way through the food line, filling their trays and returning to a solitary seat. Once there, they would peruse the various syllabi they had collected over the course of their first few days of school while nibbling on a muffin or sipping some orange juice. Back then, if I was sitting alone, another student might come by and ask, "Is anyone sitting here?" I would gesture for her to please sit, and we would eat together sometimes even sharing some observations about the weather or the long lines at registration.

But now, with the first semester of my freshman year well underway, every day I look around and observe that all the close friendships are already well-cemented. The time has passed for pleasantries and small talk and sitting with strangers. When it passed, I'm not sure of. But clearly that ship has sailed, and I am the only one left standing on the dock.

Some days I used to see people I knew from my dorm sitting at a table. If I was feeling brave and it was a large group, I might go over and quietly sit down at their table, leaving a space or two between so as not to seem too presumptuous about joining them. Usually, when I tried this the conversation would continue on as if I was not even sitting there. It got to the point where I wondered if I was invisible.

Yesterday, one of the girls in this large group that I, tick-like, had attached myself to the outer surface of, talked to me. Clearly out of a sense of pity or obligation, she asked me a question about a class we shared, making a stilted effort to include me in the conversation. All this served to do was to instantly remind me that I was not, in fact, invisible and to make me deeply wish that I was.

With the attention of the table focused on me, I quickly stammered a somewhat nonsensical reply so that the kindly girl's obligation had been satisfied and everyone could go back to ignoring me and having normal conversations with normal people. At this point, hot-faced, I choked down the rest of my food and fled, hearing real or imagined whispers of "She's weird," and, "So awk-ward," as I departed. I hid in the bathroom, crying, wondering when I became such a freak.

This morning, I made a plan. I decided it would easier to find as isolated a section of the cafeteria as possible and to have a book handy so the appearance of being just really studious could be maintained. Grabbing my tray, I fill it, look right past my dorm mates, and head to the opposite end of the dining hall. I arrange my tray, sit down, and open my book. It is about Rosa Parks. I look at a photo of her, sitting alone on a bus, looking determined. In that moment I realize there are so many things worse than eating my breakfast alone while reading a book.