Why I go to Maine in the winter.
Table for One is a column by Senior Editor Eric Kim, who loves cooking for himself—and only himself—and seeks to explore solitude in its many forms.
I had always wanted to go to Maine. I once took a fiction writing course in college where a boy named Patrik, who was from Portland, Maine, sat next to me all semester. Tall, blonde, and lanky, he wore oversized green sweaters and had a smile as big as his face. He was a lovely writer. He’d catch me staring at him, wait for me after class, and invite me to parties where he and his friends would lug huge kegs of beer into the bathtub. Because he was from Maine, I’d always associated the state with his boyish charm, his kindness.
Years later, I would learn that I was right. Boys from Maine are the nicest, and they can pull you out of anything. At least for a little while.
After college I started graduate school in New York. I had just been diagnosed with major depressive disorder by my psychiatrist, after years of fighting it on my own as a teenager and never having a name for it. It’s funny how things can grow limbs and hair and immeasurable darkness when you just name them. But my depression was never obviously present. It would come out mostly at night like a boogie monster, as I lied in bed until 3 a.m. going over my thoughts, worrying about my future, my career, my mental health. It would come out when I least wanted it to, like when I was laughing with friends at a bar, or when I was on a date. It would come out and look me in the eye, and I’d say, “Oh, you again.”
I remember one night, in my last year of school, I called my cousin Becky to tell her I was thinking of taking my own life. I felt stuck and couldn’t shake off the black, crushing feeling. She listened quietly and talked me off the ledge by asking deliberate questions like: “What’s different about tonight?” and “Have you told your therapist?” Though I could hear the tremble in her voice, she was calm and knew how to help me navigate my depression and identify its triggers. She helped me realize, over the course of the year, that one of those triggers was how unhappy I was in school.
So in the spring, I dropped out and got a job instead. Working in an office was the change of pace I needed to reset my outlook for the year. It was fun and, more importantly, a distraction from all of my problems. But I lapsed again in the winter. I stopped eating and started losing weight. It didn’t help that it was December 2016, and half of America seemed to be grieving the loss of its sense of self. I felt it on the train, on the street, in the office—the tone of the quotidian had shifted, for the worse. There’s no cure-all for that kind of depression, but there are little things that can help sometimes. At least for me. Like imagining myself somewhere other than where I am, even if for one brief moment when I close my eyes to transport myself for a while.
That’s when I thought of Patrik and the short stories about Maine he had inspired me to write, even though I had never been. That’s when I thought, if there were one place I could go to get better, then maybe it was Maine. So I bought a plane ticket (they run cheap from New York City to Portland), told my boss I’d be out of the office from Friday to Monday, and set off.
I got into Portland on a Friday afternoon. I took a cab straight to the cheapest inn I could find. It had a lovely foyer that looked like the inside of an old house, or like the one in Roald Dahl’s “The Landlady”. There was coffee on the side for guests and big armchairs in the lobby, in which I’d sit and read Anna Del Conte’s Risotto With Nettles, my book for the weekend, every morning. I was charmed by the inn’s quaintness, every little detail a distraction from the feelings that had gotten me on that plane in the first place.
It was a cold day in December, and the wind felt good against my cheeks, the kind of soft chill that wakes you up and makes you aware of every one of your senses. Which is a great thing when you’re walking down the street, in a foreign city, just trying to grab a bite to eat. That’s when I found Eventide, an oyster bar on Middle Street. There, I ordered a brown-butter lobster roll on the softest bao bun I’d ever had, and a green salad tossed in a nutty nori vinaigrette and jeweled with an array of pickled vegetables. And for one brief moment, as I sat alone at that bar, eating quietly, I was able to feel something other than that dark, heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach. For one brief moment, I forgot that I was depressed.
This simple joy made me think back on my weekly sessions with one psychiatrist in particular whose approach was, at least to me, overly clinical. More often than not, I'd just end up with some new prescription that never worked. I’ve always believed that depression can be a lot of things, but that medication is just part of the whole. There’s no perfect cocktail of pills for fighting something that’s at once biological, chemical, situational, emotional, and environmental. But certain pills can be stronger than others.
There was a couple down at the other end of the bar, likely tourists as well, but otherwise the restaurant was empty. I’ve never been one to shy away from a little friendly chit-chat with strangers, but I was grateful to get to enjoy my solo meal in the peace and quiet of that Maine afternoon.
After lunch, I decided to take a ferry across the pond to Peaks Island. But when I went to the dock, I learned that the next ship wouldn’t be departing for another couple of hours. So I walked along Commercial Street and stopped into Arabica Coffee House for one of the best cappuccinos I’d ever had. The microbubbles were superfine, like feathers, and it was velvety but balanced and bitter (the espresso had been pulled at just the right moment). It made my chest feel good as it went down. It didn’t hurt that the barista was very nice and pretty, too.
I was holding a large DSLR camera around my neck (food tourist that I was) and asked if I could take a picture of him.
“Sure!” he said, straightening out his black T-shirt with a wolf on it. I went behind the bar and took a couple of shots from the side, but didn't get the shot until he forgot I was there. As he brewed that espresso, the steam wafted up against the light, which would look really nice in the black and white photo I’d send him later in the day.
I crossed the street to take the ferry to Peaks Island, where I walked around, taking pictures and jotting down notes, and headed back across the water at sunset to have a gargantuan platter of lobster scampi for dinner at Street and Co. There, I met a nice couple sitting next to me at the bar. They said, “We saw you across the street earlier, through the window. You were drinking alone at that other bar.”
I was drinking alone at that other bar. I was at once embarrassed and touched that, in the midst of my great, leaden loneliness, someone was watching over me the whole time. It made me wonder if we’re ever really alone. As the couple recounted my actions, I felt like I was outside of my body, seeing a play-by-play of what they had seen of me: a boy reading a book, crying over his Scotch.
They talked to me through the whole dinner, and I didn't even mind it because I could feel their kindness. It reached out and enveloped me like a duvet. He had a gentle, friendly face like a teacher's. She was blonde and had a big smile like my old classmate Patrik, and for a crazy second I wondered if she might be his cousin, which of course she wasn’t (I asked). Because we were sitting at a bar, we had to warp our bodies sideways to hear each other, which was uncomfortable, but only physically. Emotionally, we were wrapped up in the comfort of conversation.
I don’t even remember what we talked about. I drank so much red wine that night, I couldn’t for the life of me recall whether I’d cracked open my lobster claws, though I certainly ate the tails. I walked back to the inn and cursed myself for wasting lobster claws in Maine. Back in my room, I emailed the barista the picture I took of him. The next day, he asked me out for coffee and I said yes.
The rest of my weekend would be filled with little moments like these that made me forget the big sadness in my heart. There’s something about solo travel especially that leaves you vulnerable like that. A heightened sensitivity means you’re on guard all the time—it also means that any small act of kindness from a stranger becomes magnified, and food that would otherwise just taste good becomes that much more nourishing.
There’s a reason I’ve gone to Maine every winter since. It’s my short solo trip at the end of the year, a break from work and the hard daily beat of life in New York City. And though I’m not in that turbulent place I was years ago when I first went in search of an antidote to my depression, it’s something I still do to remind myself of a time when everything seemed to be falling apart. To remember how bad it can get if I’m not mindful about taking care of myself.
Taking time to read a good book, to enjoy a quiet night alone, to take a hot bath with a glass of my favorite Chardonnay.
As it turns out, Maine is the quiet place I need when I’m looking for answers or need to sort through my thoughts. It’s the place where I can take a necessary break from the comfort of friends and sociality, because my only obligation is to myself. Because I’ve always felt that the one way to ever truly know that you’re okay is if you’re able to be alone—and to be happy alone.
And so, should you ever find your way to Portland, take note of the city’s expansive kindness, especially to strangers who travel there alone. It’s the perfect place for solo diners, or anyone who appreciates a good meal. And you just might find that one couple with their hearts on their sleeves, which is exactly what you need when you’re at your loneliest. In the way that the Dementors in Harry Potter can sense depression and will do everything in their power to feed on it, so too can human beings, even without knowing it, identify a lost soul from a mile away—but they’re the ones holding out a piece of chocolate like Professor Lupin, because it helps keep the darks and twisties at bay.
On my last day in Portland, as I waited at the bus stop for the airport in my big red marshmallow jacket, I texted Patrik for the first time in years: “I was in your hometown this weekend; it’s everything I thought it’d be. The boys are nice, too.”
He wrote back something long and winding and Maine-like, I don’t remember exactly. But I remember I could hear the big smile behind it, and it made me feel better for a while.