When I was a kid, I read the New Yorker every week, and it formed my ideas about what being a grown-up would be like. I particularly liked a Talk of the Town feature, which usually began, “We have heard from our friend, the long-winded lady.” “The long-winded lady” (who I later found out was Maeve Brennan) would write her wry observations as she sat alone in a bar or restaurant, having a cocktail, watching and listening, noting the ironies, peculiarities and peccadillos of the people she observed around her. It seemed to me at the time that having a cocktail and eating alone in a restaurant was the epitome of being a grown-up, and I could hardly wait to do it. I was probably seventeen the first time I tried it. I quickly found out a few things. One, it wasn’t any fun without the drink; and second, that a young woman by herself in a bar or restaurant is like an itch that must be scratched for a good number of men. I was rarely left alone to observe the peccadilloes of the people around me; instead, I was drawn into conversations with men who were trying to pick me up.
I didn’t want to be picked up. I wanted to be alone.
Maybe it was the incipient writer in me, but what drew me to the long-winded lady was the idea of a woman alone in bars, restaurants, hotel lobbies, streets, observing and eavesdropping. She was not interviewing; neither was she the impersonal omniscient narrator. She was a woman unapologetically alone.
You don’t often see women alone and okay in fiction.
A solitary man is often seen as heroic. The brooding moody loner, wounded and complex, a flawed man who doesn’t fit in or really belong, can still be, as Raymond Chandler puts it, “the best man in his world.” Women are drawn to him, only to be left by him. He has bigger fish to fry than forming bonds.
This romantic trope did not begin with cowboys or detectives, though they certainly fill the bill. Shane, The Lone Ranger, Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Mathew Scudder, Jack Reacher are but a few among countless examples of men who ride into town, literally or figuratively, solve other people’s problems, have romantic interactions here and there, and then ride off into the sunset alone. This pageant has a long lineage that goes back to the Byronic hero, and before that, to the crusading knights in shining armor, and before that, to the Buddha, whose successful search for enlightenment required him to leave his wife and child behind. (The scriptures do not tell us whether he was humming the sanskrit equivalent of “By the time I get to Rajagaha, she’ll be rising.”)
So what’s a girl to do, when this is the romantic ideal that calls to her, too? Not being the expendable one, who makes trouble, falls for the hero, and gets left behind, but if she herself is brooding, troubled, tough and smart, with a sense of justice, a troubled past, a need for redemption, a defining quest that doesn’t involve getting or not getting the guy?
Why are lonely men romantic, and lonely women pathetic?
Maybe, along with equal pay and reproductive freedom of choice, women should claim equal access to a heroic ideal. In addition to the male privilege of not having to worry about what to wear and being distinguished rather than discredited by signs of age, perhaps women can appropriate the appeal of the outcast, the misfit. Marginalized by her inability to fit into prescribed roles, yet still being the center of moral good.
The problem is, of course, that the archetype of the loner hero is a byproduct of patriarchy. It requires leaving the world of women behind. Women can be cherished or demonized, idealized or eroticized, but not lived with. Children and family, connection and care are valued primarily as spurs that goad a man onwards and away, to protect and defend a world in which he can never truly fit in. It is a paradigm of separation and disconnection.
This chivalrous ideal, of defending home and hearth by leaving it behind, doesn’t translate so well when the leaver is a female. Patriarchy succeeds by relegating all the needs for bonding, connection and care to women, and it’s not part of the deal for women to reject or fail to fulfill them. The women who have needs and wants that have nothing to do with making homes or keeping them running, well, we’re the bad girls.
We don’t quite fit in either.
So we’re lonely too.
One of the reasons (there were many) that it was so difficult to finish my first novel, Coldwater, was that I was aware that in Brett Tanager, I was creating a hero, not a heroine. Someone whose need for redemption drives the story, a woman whose quest has nothing whatever to do with whether or not she hooks up with some guy.
I spent so much of my life knowing that I was not like other girls, but hoping no one would find out. So I wrote a book about a character who also was not like other girls, and then was afraid of what it would reveal about me. The response from readers has been gratifying beyond anything I could express.
Turns out there are a lot of us. Women with strong feelings and deep longings, problems to solve, obstacles to deal with, goals to attain and journeys to take. Quests that might include altar and bed, but not hold them out as the ultimate goal.
Women who can eat alone in restaurants, not looking to get picked up.