I don’t know that I’ve ever really thought of myself as an independent kind of girl. Growing up, there wasn’t much opportunity for independence or even alone time. My parents were divorced by the time I was seven and had shared custody. So while we were shuffled back and forth, my sister and I were constantly together in close quarters. We shared a room from the time she was born until the tail end of my senior year of high school. Just in time to go to college, where I would share a room and/or apartment for the next five years.
I had my little group of friends, starring a BFF, who I would do just about everything with. I never went more than five minutes without a boyfriend. I wasn’t one to do things on my own, and I sure as shit wasn’t taking any steps outside of my comfort zone. But a few months after graduating college, I think I surprised everyone (myself included) with an unexpected display of independence. For lack of anything better to do, I packed up my stuff and moved to Harrisburg, PA. I didn’t know anyone there but it was the home of the one and only job offer I received. I figured, “Hey, I’ll probably figure it out, meet some people. It’ll be fine.” I did the same thing again two years later when I packed up and moved to Philadelphia for grad school. “I’m sure I’ll meet some people. I’ll figure it out. It will be fine.”
Going into my second year in Philly, I decided to try living by myself for the first time in my life. To my great surprise, I loved it. I had no idea how much I loved being by myself (said the girl who just spent the lion’s share of the last twenty years in one monogamous relationship after another). In time, my needy and insecure twenties gave way to my much more independent thirties. Well, independent if you ignore the years I spent living with that horrible boyfriend. But we never did anything together, so I feel like that barely counts. I started branching out, doing things on my own and really enjoying my own company. I mean, I’m hilarious. Who wouldn’t want to hang out with all this?
This past September, I got an email alert about cheap flights to Chicago, and I jumped on it. Why not? I had the time (reason 972 why early retirement is the best), and the flight was so cheap that I could afford to make a long weekend out of the deal. I didn’t bother trying to find someone to go with me. I stopped waiting for people a while back. While I love my friends dearly, they are grownups now. And we all know what it’s like trying to make spontaneous plans in adult life—there are no spontaneous plans. Everything gets scheduled weeks or months in advance because there’s always something. So if I want to go to see the ballet or take a class in something I’m interested in, I don’t try to find someone to go with. I just do it. My trip to Chicago was no different. This lone wolf was going to check out a new city alone.
After a day of riding around on the double-decker tour bus (one of my favorite things in the free world), seeing the sights and taking pictures, that Saturday night I was going to see a show at Second City. In case you aren’t familiar with Second City, let me just tell that you are familiar with Second City. It is the improvisational comedy enterprise best known for cultivating comedy greats like Gilda Radner, John Belushi, Chris Farley, Mike Myers, Stephen Colbert, TINA FREAKIN’ FEY, and pretty much anyone who has ever been on Saturday Night Live. Needless to say, I was super-duper jazzed to see a show at such a notable place. I put on my Saturday best (ripped jeans and a plaid shirt) and took Chicago’s version of the subway to that side of town.
I arrived at the theater with my ticket in my hot little hands. As I waited in line, I admired the photographs on the wall of all of the alumni that had performed there in the past. Standing there, I got more and more giddy about what I knew was going to be an amazing feat of comedy. The doors opened, and the masses began to slowly shuffle through the doors into the theatre. As I got closer, I could see that there was a young woman, mid-to-late twenties maybe, taking the tickets and then handing the people off to a hostess who would escort them to their seats. Once I was in earshot, I could hear that the woman was asking everyone how many people were in their party. I got up to the podium and handed her my ticket. Naturally, she asked how many were in my party.
“Just me,” I said with a smile and a silly little faux shrug of the shoulders.
She tilted her head to one side, scrunched up her face in what I can only assume was meant to be a sympathetic expression and said, “Aw, been there.”
With cat-like reflexes, I raised my right hand to stop her and said, “You’ve been nowhere. I’m fine.” (I’m not even sure what that grouping of words was supposed to mean, but that’s what came out.)
“Oh, ok,” she replied with total indifference. And with that, she whispered to a young man whose job it was to take me to my seat and told me to enjoy the show. On what felt like the never-ending walk to my seat, the young man attempted small talk: asking if I’d ever been to Second City before, where I was visiting from, blah blah blah. I answered his questions halfheartedly as I was suddenly very distracted by an overwhelming sense of self-consciousness. In just a matter of seconds, I went from thinking I was some ballsy chick to wondering if I was actually just a weird lonely loser lady on vacation alone.
The theater was configured to have a few different types of seating. Closest to the stage were rows of seats, then up a level was bistro seating—rows of tiny round tables with three tiny chairs jammed in around them. The young man gestured to a table that had an empty seat wedged between the two people already seated there. Right behind that seat was a much more comfortable scenario: a row of chairs right up against the wall, no tiny tables to bother with or dates already in progress to interrupt. I played dumb and started to sit in the chair against the wall, hoping he’d have sympathy on me and not force me to shove myself in between the couple clearly out for a night on the town together.
“No, ma’am? THIS is your seat,” he said, making it crystal clear that he wanted me to be the third wheel at this table. (And WHY do people keep insisting on calling me “ma’am”? It wounds my spirit. Seriously.)
So I gingerly crammed myself into the seat in between the couple. Dude, awkward much? Luckily, awkwardness is my specialty these days so I just leaned into it. I made some self-deprecating jokes about being the weird lady out on the town alone, ruining their date. They insisted I wasn’t ruining anything (they were being nice, it was dude’s birthday and this was her gift to him; yeah, I know). We got to talking. Turns out, my new bestie Renee was originally from New Jersey, so we talked a lot about the Jersey Shore, Philly, and how awesome it is to be from the East Coast. Then I jokingly told them about what the girl at the door had said and how it made me feel, if only momentarily, like a giant loser.
“You’re not a loser. I don’t know if I’d go someplace I’d never been before by myself. That takes some balls,” said my new friend, Brian.
In the end, it turned out to be a great night. The show was amazing, everything I’d hoped for and more. And as luck would have it, Renee and Brian were taking the subway back to the same neighborhood that I was staying in, so the good times continued. By the time I laid down in my AirBnB bed, I had all but forgotten about the whole lonely loser lady comment. Until the next day, when I looked around the tour bus at all of the couples, families, and groups of friends snapping pictures of themselves (fuck all of that historic architecture, just take pictures of yourself on a bus).
Once again, I got lost in my head wondering if I was just deluding myself. Maybe I’m not some ballsy, go-getter who waits for no one. Maybe the reason I do everything alone is because I am alone. That train of thought started to bum me out pretty hard. And then I got annoyed; I was annoyed at that girl for causing me such self-doubt. And I was really annoyed with myself. Because, right, why do I care what some chick who I will never see again thinks about me and what I’m doing? I was mad that I let it get to me and that I was second guessing myself.
And I can’t help but wonder, would she have said that to a guy in the same situation? Maybe, maybe not. But I kind of doubt it. I think that part of the problem is that, even in this day and age, the assumption is often that a woman is alone by default, not by design. That she’d be with someone if there was someone to be with, but since there’s not, she’s not. And in that moment, I felt like that woman was looking at me as one of the leftovers—another sad, lonely thirty-something woman with no man, no friends, and a lot of hobbies to keep herself busy (like knitting sweaters for her 14 cats). I had to remind myself that I could have waited around for someone to go with me. I could have compromised on the kind of trip I wanted to take and the things I wanted to do while I was there. But I didn’t. I chose to go alone. That’s not weird. That’s ballsy, bitches.
So the next time you come across some brave soul venturing out alone in this culture built for two, do me a favor: save the sympathy. Instead maybe just applaud them for having the courage to go it alone and the tenacity to do the things they want to do, whether they have someone to do them with or not.
Please and thank you.