I don’t go to church, but I do eat alone in restaurants. There is a similarity in the experiences – the quiet lighting, the solemn way the maitre d’ ushers me to my seat, the hushed whisper of his crepe-soled shoes, the smoothing of my skirt before I sit, the brief smiles at faces turned momentarily toward me.
Some people detest eating alone but I like it. Things smell better when you eat alone – there are no words building up across the table, keeping the aromas pushed close to the plate.
People are uneasy when a woman eats alone – especially paired people. Within the pairs, the women feel a sort of sympathetic self-conciousness. The men feel a frisson of curiosity at the possibilities. The women belatedly sense that the men are frissoning and resent how an empty chair increases rather than decreases my capital, when a moment ago they’d been feeling so relieved to be dining out as part of a pair. Dining alone is yet another thing most women would rather not have to learn to look sassy and self-confident doing.
I look up to see a woman looking at me as she makes a remark to her pinstripe-wearing husband, her lipsticked mouth forming the words as clearly as if she’d spoken them in my ear: I could never do that. He gives one of those looks around the restaurant that is designed to seem casual so he can see who she is talking about. As his eyes pass faux-innocently over me, I think about winking but don’t.
I am briefly annoyed. If it was that kind of restaurant I’d order fajitas, because of the sizzle that makes heads crane towards me as if I were dancing and my skirt had suddenly caught fire .
But it’s not a fajita kind of restaurant. It is the kind of restaurant where the good lighting adds $15 to every entrée. Floor to ceiling windows are open to the mild California night air that puffs at the sheer red fabric hanging there so that it billows romantically. The women of the couples that sit near these curtains work hard to conceal their delight at the way they imagine themselves to look in this setting, and carefully avoid looking at me, the lone woman , who might be looking back but isn’t, because I am looking at the curtains too, thinking how they remind me of the red light district in Amsterdam, where hookers lounge in red curtained show windows like actual merchandise, bored with the way they straddle the straight backed chair in fake black leather, bored with the way the tourists gawp as if at something newly sexy and unsuspected when for them it’s just nothing at all but more of the same old thing.
I order oysters, discreetly sniffing each as I lift them to my mouth, enjoying the faint briney smell that always reminds me of the aftermath of sex.
I order rack of lamb and the pungent taste of the meat evokes a rolling grassy hillside dotted with my dinner’s brothers and sisters. I like this vision and contemplate it as I chew.
I order asparagus spears which arrive brushed in olive oil and standing in a bristling green bundle so that their heads look like the tops of shrubs in the spring after its rained.
The only time I was in Amsterdam I took a shortcut back to my hotel from a restaurant. It was a fancy restaurant but I left still hungry for something. I used the map to plot my shortcut and was deep in the Red Light District before I knew it. Dusk had fallen and suddenly men were everywhere and I got nervous and ducked into the first shop with a door open. There were three women sitting there in chairs, not dressed particularly sexy and though they didn’t say anything, I could still tell right away that it was not a shop shop, but a girl shop, a sex place.
They didn’t seem surprised to see me, a woman, standing there as if I wanted what they had, though I had it too. I looked around and gave an embarrassed smile and left, walking back to my hotel as fast as I could go. I never realized that the sex workers actually lived in the Red Light District (I always imagined it like a deserted Wild West Town during the daytime) but obviously at least some of them do, because as I walked I could smell the smells of the lives they lived above the red lit windows. I could smell unidentified meat cooking, and the mineral smell of ancient pipes that stained the old buildings with their sweat.
The meat smell made me think of home, how my mom had a schedule of meals and you knew what day of the week it was by the meat – Monday was round steak, Tuesday was hamburger, Wednesday was pork chops, Thursday meatloaf. We always had cheap meat except on weekends. Every Sunday I woke to the sound of bacon frying, the car starting up as my dad went to get the milk and the paper.
The waiter asks if there will be anything else. I send him away with an order for a cappuccino and an apple tarte tatin, and a folded over napkin for the woman.
Yes you could, it says. With a smiley.
The best part of eating alone is not having to negotiate over, or share, dessert. I enjoy the way the espresso cuts the stickiness of the caramelized apple.
The waiter hovers; I look up. A generous pour of port breathes alcohol and fruit into my flushed face. “From the gentleman,” he gestures and I look up to catch pinstripe’s smiling nod. I lift the glass and wink at his scowling wife.