by Alex Coburn
Whenever I’m stuck at a restaurant by myself I always feel like the waiters think I’m weird. “Does this ever happen to you?” they say in infomercials. “Does this ever happen to you?” I always think that all the waiters are staring at me and that they must think that I’m pretty weird to be eating alone. Because no one eats alone, right? I’ll walk in with my eyes glued to the floor, completely convinced that everyone there is talking about how strange I am. I’ll take out my phone to pass the time (pretend I’m engrossed in a deep and involved text conversation), and when the server brings my food, I’ll nod faux-absentmindedly and thank them in my best independent New York twenty-something voice. I put on all these affectations even though I know that in the end, they probably don’t care as long as I tip 20 percent.
It’s in these alone-at-a-coffee-shop moments that I tend to think about who I am as a person. I tell myself that I’m generally good despite a few major personality flaws. For example, I talk way too much, and I’ve never gotten over my annoying childhood habit of interrupting. I play with my hair. I worry about what people think. I say overly dramatic things like, “I’m going to pass out,” every time I’m under even the least bit of pressure. And worst of all, I jaywalk. I mean, come on, jaywalking? Do I want to be hit by a car and have my limbs tragically flung across street? But anyway, I tell myself that I’m generally good. And I tell myself that because I’m so generally good, the waiters probably don’t think I’m a total oddity. They probably just think I’m a teenage girl sitting alone at a restaurant which, of course, I am.
Lately, I’ve been relishing the moments where I can detach from it all. I love the idea of walking alone in the rain down a city street while holding a cardboard coffee cup with some slogan like “Respect your local baristas!” on it. I love the idea of bumping into someone I used to know, of the slight squint of the eye when I ask where I know them from, of the light laughter when they tell me. I love the idea of seeming beautifully detached from the world. I’m trying too hard, aren’t I? It’s just sort of funny, you know, how I love the idea of all these things but I feel horribly awkward when I put them into practice. Maybe I’ll never be the type of person who genuinely enjoys eating at restaurants alone, but I’ll always love the idea of it.
I think I like this mindset because it’s easier to dream than do. As a child I was a woman of action, but now I’m more of a girl of contemplation. I feel like I’m Benjamin Button-ing. How did five-year-old me, who wore a tutu and tap shoes everywhere she went and clearly had her shit together, devolve into eighteen-year-old me, who is mildly cute but overly self-deprecating and panics at the mere sight of the demand: “Tell us about yourself.” But when I watch my favorite films with these terribly self-aware heroes, the kind that deliver every line so awkwardly that you can see the words on the page, I start to realize that even Wes Anderson has gone through this stage. The only difference is that he has multi-million dollar movie deals. Why has nobody written a quirky indie movie about me yet? Don’t I deserve validation? Where’s my best-selling book of neurotic essays and tell-alls?
I just have so many things I want to be that it’s hard to hone in on who I really am. I’m always trying to find my “thing.” I’ve tried to be mysterious and cool — James Bond cool, not Ferris Bueller cool — but acting calm and collected doesn’t really work for someone as excited as me, and, “Coburn, Alex Coburn” isn’t my favorite introduction since I’m not a huge fan of my (not mysterious and cool) name. I’ve tried to be a French New Wave heroine who looks elegantly distressed all the time and wears long wool coats, but after four years of French, I still don’t sound like a native Parisian. I’ve even had a brief 20th Century Literary Heroine Who Is Married to a Former Yale Football Star But Is Secretly In Love With A Mysterious, Tragic, Party-Throwing Millionaire phase, but it got a little exhausting to keep turning on the green light at the end of my dock. It’s weird to think that now I know less about who I am than I probably did when I was five, but there’s a lot of uncertainty in coming of age. It’s not like I didn’t have plenty of books that had already warned me; I just chose to ignore them.
And obviously, and maybe this is my one true comfort, I am still growing. I’m still young to the universe. I’m not a complete person yet, and maybe no one is ever “complete.” We continue to learn and grow until we die if we’re lucky. I hope I’m not trying too hard again. I hope I don’t sound sappy and gross. But I truly do believe in the power of optimism — even if I haven’t totally attained it yet. I still put “Daydream Believer” on every morning to pump myself up for the day. I still have a youthful, you-go-girl attitude about life; maybe when I’m older, I will still have that. And maybe when I’m older, I’ll have rid myself of the angst that comes with being eighteen, the prolonged sighs and immature eye rolls that still slip into my daily habits.
Maybe my inability to define myself is what defines me. And why do I have to have one “thing” anyway? Why can’t I do it all? Why does life have to be about being either this or that? Pretty or smart. Funny or nice. I want to be “and.” I want to be nice and funny and smart and pretty. I want to fit a thousand lives into one. I don’t think I’ll ever be at peace with being able to describe myself with one adjective. I don’t think anyone is. Not to be totally vain on behalf of the entire human race, but we’re all more complex than that. We’re always running faster and stretching our arms farther. We borrow from other’s experiences and piece together our own. We are constantly waiting for better things, and when that better thing comes along, we continue to wait. We are only satisfied with dissatisfaction.
Maybe I’ll never be able to perfect the art of eating alone. Maybe I’ll never stop entering rooms by saying, “God, I’m so stressed out.” Everyone has parts of them that they are never able to shake. But I hope I find this essay in twenty years. I hope I can read it and remember how it felt to be eighteen. Some people never remember. I hope I’m a little bit different. I hope I cut my hair or become fluent in another language or learn to meditate. But as much as I hope that I’ve changed, as much as I hope I’ve become magically cool and secure, I hope I still hate loud chewing and weak coffee and laugh tracks. I hope I still love pad Thai and burnt yellow sweaters and the smell of record stores. And even if I’ve found my “thing,” I hope I never forget how much fun it is to be a million things at once.