The night out was intended as a long, overdue excuse for a date. But with traffic jammed the entire way I arrive late, too late, and miss the opportunity for a quiet dinner together at the Italian place we love in Sunset Beach next to the bar he is playing with his band until closing. It's nearly eight and he's already tuning his guitar on stage when I get there. I'm starving so I figure I might as well eat where we planned, load myself with carbs, and head over full so my wine has something to stick to (This being my most responsible and delicious solution to curbing the likelihood of a hang over seeing how drinking just about anything these days without being perfectly hydrated, and properly fed proves recipe for major regrets in way of hang overs the morning after) Plus I know a couple bowls of peanuts at the country dive bar he's playing is my only option for the remainder of the night and the thought of it pains me.
At the entrance I wait nearly ten minutes before being finally greeted by a slender blonde hostess with a slick bun who asks if I am "waiting on someone," eyes dodging behind me assuming my partner might be shielded by the shuffle of people exiting the lobby. I tell her no and wait as another girl switches her places and inquires - a second time - grabbing two menus as she does, whether there would be "another" joining me this evening. "Just me" I repeat, now feeling a strange sense of shame burning slow inside of the pit of my stomach as I'm standing alone in semi formal attire, explaining myself to two young women who both appear equally baffled as to why I might come in, dressed up, to eat in a place like this alone. As if fresh pasta and good wine wasn't obvious enough motivation. But I decide that fact and reason in your twenties differs largely from the decade that precedes it. So I accept that I very well might have been perplexed by the same sight at the same age when even the idea of running random errands around town always seemed far more appealing with friends.
Once I am finally seated I settle into the familiar, mindless scroll on my phone, checking photos, Facebook, Email and Amazon arrivals before texting my friend to let her know I'll be over at the bar after dinner when I am greeted again by another young (attractive) women in a black bodysuit and red lipstick who inquires - for the third time - if I might be "waiting" for another party. "Nope, just me" I say masking my growing irritation by this repetitive correction for something so simple as a women in a silk blouse eating alone on a Saturday night during peak date night hour.
When I inquire about menu selections I am given a hurried, stripped down description of each so I choose the salmon with a glass of red wine scribbled in her notepad. I sit watching the food cooking behind a glass divider as the smell of baked ziti and white clam sauce stir up new hunger pains. My wine is delivered, followed by a plate of steaming hot salmon smothered in a thick garlic dressing atop a generous mound of pasta so I take a second to remind myself to slow down and enjoy it. To eat with ease and savor the meal. The kind of reminders I need every so often because of how quick I am to loose touch with such basic things after kids. When nearly every meal that lands in front of me I approach like some kind of timer is attached to it, with the intention to finish as fast as possible because a million other things are erupting around me as I do. That and the bitter fact of having to "share" anything in my proximity that is even remotely appealing to a table full of curious mouths where I am typically left with the shredded aftermath of whatever it is their preferences resist. And someone is always in need of more milk, less veggies, cheese scraped, and crust trimmed.
When I finish my food I sit wondering why no one asks if I might want a second glass of wine, or desert. I don't. But know it to be the standard script of any server caring for any table, especially if they need an easy way to hike the bill. When my check is dropped off I slide my card into the slot and hand it off, watching as two men enter. One heads straight to the bar and the other to a corner booth lit by one dim candle. Handsome men in dark suits who are greeted instantly with quick smiles and perked interest by the same girls who disregarded me upon entrance, holding menus touting evening's specials. A wine list is handed off with some enthusiastic suggestions accompanying the options.
A couple minutes later I watch as warm bread baskets are delivered to them individually to enjoy before their meal. Something I hadn't even remembered as being routine to this place even though the fresh chunk of sourdough is always my favorite part. I see this and realize somehow - as hungry as I was - that I led it slide.
For the first time in my life I, after brief debate, I scrawl a zero circled with a dramatic slash through the center of it on the tip line where my gracious thanks in dollars would typically go. I sign my name and walk out. Noting the gross difference with the dining experience of these two men, dressed to the nines, solo, confident, and naturally expecting bread and booze, compared to mine wherein the matter of 45 minutes I am made to feel at all once: pitied, neglected, dismissed in my decision to eat there, and to some degree, maybe even a little guilty for being dressed up for my lone dinner date, for taking up a prime table while a room full of couples start to line the lobby, and inquiring about wine in hopes of receiving some valued insight. And of course, for feeling equally deserving of that damn bread basket.
I try to write it off as a rare and unfortunate experience but then the same thing happens again a few days later. Heading to meet a friend for Mexican food I end up alone when she cancels on my way there.
Out on the patio I am seated in the least desirable spot on site, and asked with slight concern by another young server in a ponytail if I am waiting on another. I tell her no. That it's just me, and sit in the bright sting of a noon day sun with an ice tea in need of refilling and a salad too big to finish on my own. Resenting how something so silly as a table for one gives reason for pause when the fact is, the older I get the more I enjoy time out on my own. Places I use to only visit with company becoming spaces I can be still and silent when I want to be. Unaffected by having to entertain the thread of conversation. Wandering happily around a flea market at sunrise, sitting in a movie theater mid week late night just because, a hotel bar in the city, a museum, coffee shop and, only recently, an airplane. Places I use to save to share with others existing as places I cherish alone. A benefit that arrives I suppose with age and confidence coming as trade for some of the other sacrifices it demands in return.
Which is to say, to the young ladies out there waiting tables and counting hard earned cash at the end of the night - I want you to know that I use to be you. I spent my weekends plenty of years running around catering to the sick oddities that are American dining. Begrudging the stupid fact of trite modifications that forced me to smile through violent emotions cutting circles in my head while being talked down to and insulted by careless people. I scrubbed piles of filthy dishes, scrapped gum from beneath table tops, filled ketchup bottles to the brim and married condiments and restocked bathroom goods long past mid night on weekends when all sorts of exciting things were happening elsewhere. I was there in the trenches, poor and miserable in the clenches of minimum wage, with aching feet dreaming of better place up ahead. Where I guess now I've arrived. But know that it's just as loud, and messy, and demanding, and exhausting as it was before. Just in different ways. So when you see me come in wearing silk, with tired eyes and in need of wine, do me the favor and try not to pity, judge or dismiss me in my request for my table for one. Don't disregard the prospects of my tip or give me the bad table in the sun, or withhold the offer for desert. Because I'm sitting here at your table on a break from other side just like you on the 11:00 hour, when the lights go out, the doors are locked and you get to put the stress of a long hard day behind you for a bit. Until tomorrow, when we both have to wake up and get back to it all over again.