Brendan is out of town tonight. We’re almost never apart, and we prefer it that way, to put it mildly. But whenever one of us goes off without the other, I feel a resurgence of some old part of myself, my lifelong pleasure in being alone.
We tend to go off for three nights at a time. My experience of being the one who stays home follows the same trajectory every time Brendan leaves. The first night, I’m blue and a little agitated, as if I’m going through withdrawal. The second night, I’ve slipped back into an old, much-loved skin, the quietude of my own mind without the presence of anyone else but the dog, and I revel and wallow in it. But by the third night, I’m agitated and restless again. By the time Brendan gets home, I’m more than ready to resume our life in tandem.
When I was married and living in Brooklyn, my husband generally worked late at his studio. On most nights, we ate together when he got home, at 9 or 10 or sometimes even 11. But once in a while, I called to tell him not to hurry home. He never complained: this meant he could stay as late as he wanted.
I was happy, too, because I preferred to eat earlier, and I loved going out by myself to restaurants. On those nights, I headed out early, at 7 or so, my favorite dinnertime. I had plenty of places to choose from. We lived in Williamsburg, before it was ruined and overpopulated and overdeveloped. Back in the mid-90s, new restaurants were opening here and there, but the old tried-and-true ones still thrived, hadn’t been driven out yet by exploding rents.
My favorite place to go for “bachelorette nights,” as I called them, was a place called the L Café, on Bedford just off N. 7th, near the L stop, owned and run by a woman my husband had gone to Bennington with; it was definitely “new Williamsburg,” and it was funky and quietly glamorous, but it wasn’t achingly hip – that was a few years away, the relentless self-consciousness that infected the neighborhood.
The L was in a narrow, long storefront, the general size and shape of the inside of a trailer. There was a sweet, lavish garden out back with wrought-iron tables and wooden booths. The interior had the dark wood wainscoting, tin ceilings, and linoleum floors of classic North Brooklyn décor.
I walked in and was instantly enveloped in moody indie music and a warm breeze of good smells from the kitchen. Strings of tiny white lights twinkled behind the bar. I always sat at a small table in the back and ordered a plateful of something homey like yellow rice and red beans and roast chicken, or lamb stew with chickpeas and root vegetables. While I ate and drank wine, literally wriggling my toes with the deep happiness of autonomous solitude, I would write, by hand – I can hardly remember how anymore, but in those days, I kept a journal I wrote in almost daily, like finger exercises for a musician. And I annotated the printouts of my current novel-in-progress with a pen.
I always had a second glass of wine but never a third. I stayed there at that table for two or even three hours in a self-contained bubble of words and food and wine. People came and went and talked at the tables all around me; I didn’t look at anyone. I eavesdropped a little, but only in a desultory because-it-was-there sort of way, without any real purpose. If someone I knew came in and greeted me, I said hello back with the borderline-rude brusqueness of a night watchman, guarding the factory. The whole point of these nights out was to be alone in public with a plate of food and some wine and my writing.
These nights afforded me immense happiness, more, I think, than any dinner party or one-on-one dinner with my husband or a friend, in those days. I’ve always felt loneliest in the presence of other people – people I can’t connect with, people I feel unseen by, people who make me feel insincere or uncomfortable. For me, loneliness comes from a sense of missing something. I don’t miss anything when I’m alone.
The L is closed now, like many of my old favorite places, not that it matters, since I don’t live anywhere near Brooklyn these days. Tonight, Brendan’s second night in L.A., I fed and walked Dingo and headed for the fridge to unearth the pot of chicken vegetable soup I made yesterday, which is very good and wholesome and filling and all, but which I had for dinner last night as well as lunch today.
I stood there for a minute while Dingo eyed the cut-up apple on the board on the counter. Because he’s trained me well, I tossed a few pieces at his head, and he caught them as expertly as a frog catching flies.
There was no wine in the house. That settled it.
“Guard the house,” I told him, collecting my laptop and phone – the contemporary equivalents of a journal and printout of a work in progress. “I’ll be back.”
Outside, a warm, strong, rainy wind blew. I walked along two blocks of uneven brick sidewalks to Bonobo, the hipstery local pizza place. There were strings of tiny Christmas lights strung along the tin ceiling and moody electronic music playing. I sat at a table in the back by myself and ordered the house salad and wine and a gluten-free arugula pizza. The waitress had a pierced nose and a tattoo and could have worked at the L Café in 1997. I ate and drank and wrote and ordered a second glass of wine, but not a third.
In a big soup pot, put all the vegetables and herbs in the house, chopped small: in this case, the rest of the cauliflower, 4 ribs celery, 2 onions, ½ sweet potato, 1 ½ heads worth of crushed cloves of garlic, a handful of basil, 5 tomatoes, and a red pepper, plus the chicken bones from the leftover roast chicken, the rest of the chicken broth in the box, 2 bay leaves, salt and pepper, some cumin and herbes de Provence and cayenne, and a few shakes of Worcestershire sauce. Cover with water plus an inch. Bring to a boil, uncovered, then turn down to a simmer.
After half an hour or so, when everything is soft, add the leftover coconut-saffron jasmine rice (or some other starch) and the chopped leftover chicken meat, optional. Bring to a soft boil again, turn down, and simmer for 10 minutes. Taste the broth; adjust seasonings. Serve with fresh lemon juice and Sriracha.