Ours was a table conveniently located in the cool shade of a tree near the principal’s office. Nobody dared to sit there, even if they were the first to be excused for lunch; it belonged to us, the same way the area around the oak tree in the center of the quad belonged to the popular kids, and the ramp leading from the theater to the music rooms belonged to the orchestra and band kids. It was an unspoken rule almost everyone abided by: We all would have lunch in our designated areas.
On occasion, one of us would bring a guest to our table: a new boyfriend, a friend who needed homework help before next period. These visitors, though welcomed on the surface, were a disturbance to our usual lunch routine. Not only were we required to make extra room to sit; we had to listen to conversations we could not contribute to, bear witness to interactions we could not participate in. I remember when one of the girls brought her boyfriend to the table almost every day. They would hold hands under the table and give each other secret smiles, and only after their relationship fizzled out did our precious lunchtime routine seem to fall back into place. Just the girls, talking about what we always talked about, taking bites out of each other’s lunches, catching up (both with each other and on our assignments) before the bell called us back into the classrooms.
• • •
The first time I ate at a dining hall in university, I sat alone at a wobbly table by the window, scrolling through my Twitter feed and stuffing suspicious sushi into my mouth when a boy I had never met before came and asked, “Is someone sitting here?”
It was that easy. This stranger and I finished our meals asking and answering questions, trying to make something out of this unplanned encounter, neither of us assigned to a table.
Once classes picked up, I learned to squeeze my mid-day meals into 15-minute breaks between one lecture and another. Meeting up with friends to do anything became a challenge. All of us had different schedules, lived in different New York City neighborhoods, and were on tight budgets that made every dollar count. I quickly learned that the routine and structure of high school lunchtimes were luxuries we no longer could afford. And with the disappearance of the lunch bell came an understanding that there no longer was an us, or a them. I was, in actuality, my own island, never lacking lunch space; lucky, really, if there should ever be a need for a table for two. I found myself oddly at peace with sitting next to my own backpack before my next class, eager to take the opportunity to listen to the stories of people who never would have been welcomed to my high school lunch table.
This is not to say that as we age we should expect not to need to feel a sense of belonging, or that it should completely stop mattering to us who our people are. I feel an immense amount of thanks for those who have entered my life not for fun but for good; without these friends I imagine that what little of the twenties I have experienced thus far would have been unimaginably different. But I have developed a way not only to find joy in solitude, but to approach unfamiliar people with a kind of welcoming embrace my 16-year-old self did not have the heart or wisdom to offer. Letting go of this notion that there are places and groups in which we do or do not belong might help us to make a friend under seemingly impossible circumstances, to see the good in someone who, on the surface, may appear to have nothing to offer to us. There is some laughter, some learning, some love to be found almost anywhere. And if the bell had rung day after day, and the table under the tree had been ours forever, I wonder what I might have never discovered.