Journalist Megan Jones writes about requesting a table for one in a world designed for two.
I was in Gothenburg, at the door of a restaurant I had marked with a little green flag on Google maps, holding one finger up as the waiter looked behind me, presumably waiting for someone else to come in and put their arm around my waist.
‘No, just for one,’ I said again. The smile that had started as genuine was sliding quickly towards forced.
The waiter looked dumbstruck. Was this seriously the first time someone had asked for a table for one? I looked around the restaurant. Nothing about it screamed an inability to cater to solo diners. The waiter held up his hand to me in a gesture of ‘wait, please’ and went to conduct a conference with the sommelier. They talked in low voices as they threw glances over at me. Continuing to smile at this point seemed inauthentic to the point of lunacy, but I couldn’t seem to wipe the fake grin off my face. I didn’t know what else to do. I saw one of the waiters glance over to a four-top that was occupied by only two people, and I thought, Don’t even think about it. From where I was standing, I could see three empty tables, all small enough to accommodate me and what I had now decided would be my very small and fast dinner. The two waiters came over to me.
‘You can sit at the bar?’
I had come to Gothenburg because it was the bank holiday weekend, and everyone I knew was either going to their family homes or to extortionately priced cabins in the middle of nowhere with their significant others. Having neither of these options at my disposal, I decided that rather than sitting around the flat all weekend, I would take myself to the cheapest place Skyscanner had to offer. My day in Gothenburg had taught me several things, the most important of which was that there are only certain things that are acceptable when you’re alone. You can walk around alone, you can go to a museum alone, you can go to a swimming pool built into a harbour alone, but you absolutely cannot go out to dinner alone. Or if you do, you cannot expect the same treatment as the people who were smart enough to bring someone with them. As I sat at the bar shovelling my salad into my mouth as fast as I could, I had a thought: when did the public space become inhospitable to single people?
I polled my friends on the topic and turned up some interesting anecdotes.
‘I was flying alone and checked in f**cking early to get my aisle seat. A couple wanted to sit together so asked me to swap – to a middle seat. Long haul.’
‘I was on a train and some guy asked me if I would be willing to switch seats so the two of them could sit together. And the guy next to me was like ‘sure I don’t mind’, so naturally I had to agree out of politeness’.
The phrase ‘I don’t mind,’ or perhaps more importantly its preceding question, ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ is one that I find fascinating, because it isn’t in fact a question at all. All the information you need is in the first half; the ‘do you’ is simply the interlocutor’s attempt at politeness. But the implication is that you will not say no, because how could you? How could you be so unreasonable as to refuse to do something that benefits you in no way? When did playground rules stop being in effect? When did the concept of ‘I was here first’ stop carrying any weight?
I wonder if the assumption of couples or families that single people will bend to their will is simply a question of majority rules (one person is sitting at a table. Two people arrive who want to sit at that table. The two people win the table), or is it something more deeply ingrained than that? Why is the compliance of people dining, or travelling, or simply existing alone just assumed by everyone else? An interesting outcome of my poll was that I did not get many answers when I posted it as a generic question, but when I approached people directly, individually, almost everyone could recall this kind of experience, although they hadn’t realised it at first. Which suggests that perhaps this idea of ceding territory is built into single people, that they expect it, that even they don’t believe in the right they have to the space they’re taking up. They are simply biding their time at their table for two or their window seat, waiting for the herd to come and take it away from them.
The idea of territory was what struck me most about the film The Lost Daughter, the 2021 film written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Try as she might, the protagonist, Leda, ecstatic at the prospect of a solo holiday, is not allowed to be alone. She quickly makes enemies of the large family who crash noisily into her idyllic beach paradise, simply by refusing to give up her spot on the sand so that the family can all be together. While the family matriarch’s mouth spits banal niceties, you can read her real feelings in her eyes: ‘Why are you being so unreasonable?’ And reflected back at her in Leda’s unwavering stare: ‘Why should I?’ Leda is not rude to the woman, she does not tell her how presumptuous the request is, but she doesn’t give in, either. She attempts to eat a solitary dinner at the bar and is relentlessly hit on by the villa’s porter. She goes to enjoy an evening at the cinema, but her peace is shattered by a group of unruly boys throwing popcorn at the screen and yelling obscenities at her. She tries to go to the local nightclub, resplendent in a red gown, but is chased out by the family that she so angered by refusing to move from her sun lounger. Leda represents an unknown entity for the people on the island; a woman, alone, doing whatever it is she wants. And not backing down when those wants do not perfectly coincide with everyone else’s.
It’s not just single people’s space that is considered to be less important – it’s their time, too.
Another unmarried and childless friend told me of the expectation at her workplace that she would work late (with no overtime pay) whenever a deadline was looming, while her colleagues would be released at their contracted hour because they had to do the school run. The leisure time of single people is considered by certain facets of society to be full of frivolity and indolence – and surely we don’t mind giving that up for one evening, or two, or every time there’s a deadline? Let us not forget the infamous Sex and the City episode, A Woman’s Right to Shoes, where, among other things, Carrie’s ‘friend’ accuses her of having all the free time in the world to worry about her missing designer heels, whereas she, with her three children that she chose to have, has time only for her self-inflicted responsibilities and stress. Why are single people expected to shoulder the burden of other people’s choices? And why are we unreasonable if we won’t?
Space is not designed for the individual.
There is no single person’s discount when you book a hotel room, or a cabin in the woods. You are paying for that phantom other person that you are expected to bring with you. And from the society that brought us hook-up culture, insular social media, broken families and scattered, disparate groups of friends, it’s perhaps time for the public space to catch up to the idea that some of us are happy to be alone.[/restrict]