During my first relationship, I remember going out to eat all alone one night.
I ordered a steaming pot of ramen noodles that had a deep orange egg cracked over it. I sat outside and gulped the saltless soup. The broth had a taste similar to instant noodles – no time had been spent on it and the flavour lacked complexity. Winter rain brushed against my make-do coat and I shivered, in silence.
Everything felt out of odds. I did not feel comfortable eating ramen alone. I remember my phone beeping like a torch in that cold night – my boyfriend had texted me again. My mind felt numbed and my concentration hinged on him and the lack of his physical presence. I could not enjoy the meal or bask in the moment, in peace.
I remembered my disoriented emotions like broken pieces of thread – completely irreparable. During that relationship, I could never sit and “be alone”. So I socialised a lot more, sought more make-do companions or scrambled into group gatherings, to counter the loneliness and stagnancy I experienced.
I do not remember his face, the cadences in his voice or his embraces anymore. He has become a distanced ghost in my memory.
One night I stopped to pick up some Korean food. Once I found a restaurant, I had no intention of going home. The smell of pomegranate tea, marinated meat grilled in barbeques and bibimbap burning slightly stopped me in my tracks.
I sat on a tool, as a large pump hovered over me (I think the building used to be an old industrial site). I broke the chopsticks and rubbed them in my hand to heat up my flaccid fingers and in anticipation of the kimchi soup. Before the soup, I had pickled onions, cold kimchi and rice placed before me.
The soup manifested as if prepared for a grand, ceremonious occasion. It bubbled and boiled– spitting chilli flakes into my eyes! At once, the contrast of the hot soup and cold sides revitalized me.
For the next, ten minutes, I savored my meal. The act of eating is an instinctive need but I found it here to be deeply restorative. My day’s fatigue disappeared like I had just removed a thick cloak. Once I got up to leave I remember my body’s lightness as it traversed the mist. Enshrouded, I climbed into a heated tram and escaped into the confines of my home.
During my relationships, I like to sleep in. I cannot get up early on Saturday or Sunday mornings and commit eagerly to the day. When I fall in love, I surrender and retreat from life. My ambition lulls and I feel deeply disconnected from society.
Ever since the end of my last relationship, I developed a routine of going to Victoria Market to pick up my monthly vegetables on a Sunday morning. I go into the delicatessen full of hands coming out, high pitched voices and a mix of condiments (think freshly made jams, rich vegetable dips and bees’ honey from Tasmania), rich cheese , smoked meats (like Hungarian paprika filled sausages) and a mix of spices. I line up next to a screaming mob in front of a Turkish borek shop.
I fish out some coins and hold out my hand for my usual order. “The spicy potato one” I say eagerly. I then go to Market Lane for an early morning latte that has 2 shots of coffee and spoon in coconut sugar. The coffee speeds up my thoughts and I listen to the ebbs of my emotions like tides; they rise and fall, simultaneously disparate and harmonious. There are no thoughts about a relationship. There is only the hum of “me”.
Someone broke my heart again and, like a quiet death, my emotions closed up.
Very soon, I found a job as a food assistant in a hospital in Richmond. I handed the patients their meals, collected their used trays and moved through their rooms and the kitchens. I did 10 hour long shifts, all indistinguishable, as days blended into each other. The repetitive days of heartbreak punctured by physical soreness and the omnipresent smell of death like fermenting cabbages haunt me to this day.
On an increasingly mundane summer day, I hobbled out of the hospital and rushed into the city. On the train, I had a deep desire for the taste of Sichuan peppercorns that burned the ends of my throat. I strode inside “Shanghai Dumplings” on Little Bourke Street and ordered the first dish that caught my eye: it had minced pork, juicy noodles and greens on top.
I poured a good amount of chilli paste, soy sauce and vinegar onto it. Once I finished, I remember feeling famished. I sat and drank my tea. Almost instantly the smell and taste of death had been erased. The food had eased my soreness and breathed life into my dead heart.
I started to enjoy summer after that. I remember going home at 8.30pm as the sunshine encased me in its rays.
Solitude had not been reductive to me. It has not left me sad and alone. It had built me up to feel complete, by myself, rather than in relation to another person.
Dinner alone on a Friday night is a challenge. It is challenge even if you are content in your body and love aloneness. I have become an expert at creating solitary food moments, except for, on the Mt Everest of solitary food night: dinner on a Friday night.
I finally found a place that accommodated me. Pellegrini’s is a little shop on the end of Bourke Street that ends next to Parliament station. It has a trademark neon sign highlighting it.
The restaurant has checkered boxes, an old espresso machine, a cantankerous kitchen and red, leather stools. Pellegrini’s has a timelessness about but it never feels removed from the current times. Waiters in white uniforms swirl around me. There’s no formality there and I still have the luxury to sink into my thoughts, my side project or my book. These days I relish the solitude and bask in the echoes of background noise that plays out like a haphazard orchestra lead by a madcap conductor. My mind and thoughts are connected together and I am present.