“Of course, you wouldn’t understand,” said Margot. “You’re a man; it’s different for you.”
This took me by surprise. I had always thought of Margot as an intelligent woman. She was my ex-sister-in-law, if one can have such a thing; after my divorce I still saw Margot from time to time to have lunch, and we got on well as a rule. Stating the obvious was not her usual conversational tactic, but there it was. I was a man—that was true, and as a result, things were different for me.
“So you can’t be expected to understand.”
This was too much. “What exactly is it that I am incapable of understanding, Margot?”
“What it’s like.”
We were no closer to the source of my gender-based incompetence. This was most unlike Margot, and I was concerned.
“Perhaps if you tried telling me what it was like, I might try to understand.” I put my knife and fork neatly on my plate. Margot toyed with her salad, and when she looked up I was surprised to see that her eyes were reddening.
“What it’s like to be thirty-five and single.”
Now we were getting somewhere. Margot had never married, and had been single for the past five years “by choice”, she said. “Well, no, being forty-two and divorced, I suppose my understanding of these things is limited.”
Margot wiped her eyes carefully with a tissue. “I just get sick of it more and more, you know, Laurie, I really do.” She drank some water and composed herself.
“I can understand that.” And I could.
“Do you have any idea of how humiliating it is?” she snapped suddenly, and I jumped.
The idea of Margot being humiliated was alien to me. She was an environmental officer in the petroleum company where she had originally started work as a chemist. With a solid academic background and a good sense of public relations, she had scaled the ladder swiftly, right through the glass ceiling. I tried to think before I spoke.
“Margot, you’ve always enjoyed being single. Or so you’ve said, anyway. What’s happened?”
“Nothing. Everything. Oh, I don’t know.” She pushed her chair back from the table, and stared at her plate.
I knew it. “Tell me about it.”
Margot sighed. “All right, I suppose it really hit me a few months ago, when I went to Michigan for a conference.”
I was getting interested. I am an academic, and conferences hold many terrors for me, but I wondered if Margot had met someone. “Did you meet someone?”
“No. No, it’s not that, don’t worry. But I stayed at a lovely hotel in Detroit; I love the States because everyone’s so charming and calls you ‘ma’am’, which always makes me laugh,” and she had started to smile, and I was pleased.
“And I went down to have dinner in their restaurant that night, by myself. And the maitre d’ said, ‘Table for one, ma’am?’, and I said, ‘Yes’, and then it hit me.”
Her eyes had started to fill with tears again.
“What hit you?”
“Table for one. I was dining alone. I’ve done it hundreds of times in public, and it never bothered me all that much. But this time, I started to get paranoid. People in the restaurant were looking at me, looking and saying, look at that woman eating her dinner by herself, what’s wrong with her? I’d turned into a woman who dined alone.”
I was puzzled. I dined alone all the time and no one stared at me; or if they did, I was usually too busy reading, or making notes, to pay attention.
“You’re just imagining it, Margot, I’m sure of it.” I tried to be soothing, which was a mistake.
“Oh, so I imagine things now, do I, Laurie?” But she was without rancour, and she carefully wiped the tears away again.
“Well, what’s the problem, then? I mean, if there’s a problem with dining alone in public, don’t do it. Or go on the offensive and stare back at them; that usually makes people concentrate very hard on their dinner, I find.”
“I knew you wouldn’t understand.” This time she was angry. “There’s no point trying to tell men anything like this, they just think you’re being stupid or over-sensitive.”
“Perhaps you are.” Another mistake; she glared at me.
“Easy for you to say.”
This made no sense, and now I was beginning to get nettled. “Margot, what have you just told me?”
She looked surprised, but I pressed on: “You have just told me that you had to eat your dinner alone in a restaurant. Where was the restaurant? In an expensive hotel in Detroit, where I have never been. In fact, I’ve never been to the States. How much do you earn, Margot?”
She told me, and I was rocked; it was twice my salary.
“You earn that much, and you’re worried about dining on your own? Good God, Margot, you could have bought the restaurant.”
Margot was not, as I had hoped, smiling. “Is that your idea of a solution? I could have hired someone, I suppose, to have dinner with me; is that what you’d have done?”
“No,” I answered, quite honestly, “because I’d have been too busy saying, ‘my God, look at this fantastic restaurant in this fantastic place, and I’m having a fantastic time, bring me another martini, should I pinch the cutlery?’”
This raised a dry smile. “That’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point, Margot? I’m sorry, but I think you’ve lost me.”
“I told you you wouldn’t understand. Men never do. They think all this”—and she waved around the quite decent restaurant in which we were lunching—“is all it takes to be happy. It’s not.”
“Then what is? Tell me. Perhaps I can understand then. But just at the moment, I can’t help but think that you’re being a bit self-indulgent. Which is probably my testicles talking, but I’m stuck with those, so I suggest you take them into consideration when you answer me.” I was still trying to make her laugh.
“I think what you don’t understand,” she began, “is what it’s like for a single woman out there. I mean, it’s hard, Laurie, it really is. Everyone expects you to be paired off with someone. If you’re not, it’s like there’s something wrong with you.”
“Is there something wrong with you?”
“Then what’s the problem? Margot, you’re a beautiful woman”—and she was, really lovely—“you have a wonderful job that pays you an indecently large sum of money, and it’s a job you enjoy as well.” Margot shrugged. “All right, shrug then, but you’ve got more than most.”
“Have I?” she snarled. “Have I? I only got promoted because I was a woman.”
It was my turn to be shocked. “And are you still a woman?”
“Oh Laurie, stop trying to be funny! It was quotas. Anyway, that’s what everyone says.”
I was disturbed. “I thought you approved of affirmative action.”
“I did. Until I got promoted, and everyone said it was only because I was— am—a woman.”
I was going to be damned for whatever I said that day, so I drew breath, and then let her have it.
“Right. So without affirmative action, you’d have been stuck at a lower salary, and now when you’ve been promoted, it’s all the fault of affirmative action. Brilliant. No wonder I don’t understand. You won’t let me understand, Margot, because you keep moving the goalposts.”
“How dare you, Laurie—how dare you?” She was really angry now.
“How dare I what? You earn double my salary, you have an indecent amount of equity in the property you managed to buy without a partner; you can drive a car without a partner, and you can live your own life without a partner. And no one expects you to wear a veil in public.”
“Stop being such a bloke,” she snapped.
“Since when has me being a man been such an issue to you? We’ve always gotten on fine before, just talking; what on earth’s come over you?”
Margot sat back and looked at me. Finally, she said quietly, “Because the rules don’t apply to you.”
“What rules? Margot, what rules? There are no rules.”
“Yes there are. There are rules for women, and I don’t fit in with them, and I get paid back because of it.”
“It’s a backlash, a backlash against women. Designed to make us feel guilty for everything we’ve achieved.”
“You had dinner alone in a lovely restaurant, and that’s punishment? My God, I’d better get on the phone to the Burmese government instantly. Send all dissidents to dinner at the Yangon Hilton, but make sure they go alone. They’ll never live it down.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Then what did you mean? How are you the victim of a backlash?”
She sighed. “It’s too hard to explain. It’s so subtle. The staring in the restaurant. People saying things. It hurts.”
“Subtle?” I was amazed. “It’s so subtle it seems to me to be largely a figment of your own imagination. I mean, Margot, you’re living in a civilised country, where you can vote, own property and live exactly as you want. You can eat what you like, wear what you like, and sleep with who you like.”
Margot was silent.
“You don’t need a man; you’ve always said that. You’ve got everything.” I picked up a parmesan breadstick and bit into it. “How much more do you need to be given, before you can just start enjoying it?”
Margot looked me in the eye. “You’re absolutely right,” she said. “In fact, I’m going to start enjoying it right now.” And she picked up her handbag and walked out.
I sat there aghast, until a gentle touch on the sleeve brought me back. It was the waiter. And then I began to laugh, because Margot had left me to pay the bill.