Let’s say you’ve had a long day, have a rare evening to yourself, and decide to treat yourself to dinner out. You sit at a restaurant bar with a good book, a glass of wine, your own company. You choose your meal, start to disappear into a story, and then—bam—it’s spoiled by the intrusion of a chatty neighbor. You give your book a regretful, longing look and resign yourself to the opposite of pleasure.
There are few moments more purely happy than those dedicated to uninterrupted reading, and few more galling than those in which that peace is shattered, abruptly, by a stranger.
People tend to assume the big problem for unaccompanied women is predatory jerks. But generally speaking, mashers are easy to deal with; they’re overt, at least. Any man approaching you with a “That’s a big book!” or “That looks interesting!” or “You must like to read!” is someone who gambles often, is used to being shot down, and usually takes a polite dismissal with equanimity.
There are two other types who pose far greater problems. The first is familiar to any long-distance traveler: a generally sociable chatterer who will engage with anyone who happens to be nearby. To this type, other people are relaxing and fun, and you don’t want to burst their bubble—it takes a heart of stone to snub that friendly grandma from out of town, that sweet man who just wants to show you pictures of his husband and his guinea pigs.
Even thornier, in my experience, are other solo women. In the sort of nice place where a guy on the make wouldn’t bother you, another lady, eager for company, often will. And they’re right; you’re not going to be unkind, or dismissive. Now, I’ve made more than one friend on a plane or in a restaurant over the years, bonding over something shared or funny, but those relationships never arise, somehow, with the sort of person who interrupts your solitude.
I’m talking about someone who sees you reading and doesn’t care. These ladies don’t regard eating alone as a treat—the goal of going out is to meet someone, and you, being someone, will do. They seem to assume that you feel the same way, that surely you’d prefer not to be alone, lonely, reading. And because they are often nice, and sometimes melancholy, there is no alternative but to join in a sad, temporary sorority as your book mocks you from mere feet away. Sometimes your heart breaks for them—in theory.
These encounters always seem to occur when you’re least in the mood for them, on those days when you most crave the treat of solitude. The worst I can recall took place a few years ago, at a spot downtown. I’d had a job interview and had promised myself the consolation of pasta with eggplant at the bar. When the woman sat down next to me, she was with a friend. But then he left; it seemed he was her employee. She had reinvented herself, she told me. She had grown to love herself. She was an artist by vocation. Did I know any single men? An Aries, by preference. Could we be friends? Here was her card. She hated her parents. They were religious fanatics. She liked to read, too. She had read a good book, but she didn’t remember the title. No, she didn’t need to leave—she lived upstairs! They knew her here. She was here every night.
“Am I a good person?” she said. “I’m the fucking best.”
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.