The only bar near my gate was packed and every seat was taken. After the Tolkien-esque journey that is getting to O’Hare during rush hour on a Friday, all I wanted to do was sit down and unwind before my flight. I weaved my way through the dense crowd and waited patiently for a seat to open up. When one finally did, I sank into it and happily paid the staggering airport-bar price of $20 for a glass of shitty domestic Sauvignon Blanc. I sipped my wine and quickly became lost in a fascinating article of great cultural significance….which is to say I was reading about ‘90s sitcoms on Buzzfeed.
I was startled from my reverie when the seat next to me opened up and a woman came out of nowhere and practically flung herself onto it. She asked me if anyone was sitting there. I shot her a big smile and told her it was all hers. Yes, my seat sister, I thought. Sit down and come to know the happiness I have found. But instead of picking up on my good vibes, she heaved a huge sigh and said loudly to no one in particular, “WELL, I GUESS MY HUSBAND WILL HAVE TO STAND”.
I paused mid-sip. Was she talking to me?
Determined not to shatter the peace I’d created for myself, I ignored her and went back to reading “20 Things You May Not Know about Saved by the Bell”. But the loud sighing continued until the long-fabled husband finally arrived, and she greeted him by announcing, “I’M SORRY HONEY, BUT THERE ISN’T A SEAT HERE FOR YOU. YOU WILL HAVE TO STAND”.
No ambiguity that time. This woman definitely expected me to offer her husband my seat. Ignore her, I thought. I mean, I have – on more than one occasion – pretended not to notice someone having a bowel movement in the middle of a city sidewalk in broad daylight. This should have been a breeze. However, unlike sidewalk defecators, ignoring this lady only seemed to increase the amount of crap that was coming out of her.
“I’M JUST SO SORRRY THAT THERE ISN’T A SEAT HERE FOR YOU, HONEY.” Although she was addressing her husband, I could feel her eyes burning into the side of my face. “I MEAN, YOU’D THINK SOMEONE WOULD MOVE.”
Excuse me? I was here first. Why should he get a seat instead of me? I glanced to make sure he was not elderly, on crutches or – I don’t know – wearing high heels or something. But of course he was not. I had earned that seat. I’d waited patiently for it and paid $20 for the right to sit in it. The bad taste in my mouth was no longer due to the shitty wine.
This was not garden-variety rudeness. No, this was a phenomenon I’d been encountering since around the time I turned 30. To this woman, her need to sit with her husband outweighed my need to sit. Period. It’s not always the case of course, but to a lot of married folk, single people eventually start to look like spare parts, kicking around, taking up space that could be occupied by “real people”.
Now, maybe this woman in the bar was just an asshole. Maybe she would have been just as worked up if she’d been prevented from sitting with her sister, her manicurist. Her pimp. I don’t know. But I was skeptical. When you’re a single lady of a certain age, once you’ve been expected to move, to step aside, to give something up (if only your dignity) enough times, you start to notice a pattern.
I am unmarried. I might get married, but I’ve chosen not to yet. I’m not 22. Or divorced. Or a nun. I’m not a psychopath or a shut-in. I’m not Oprah. I don’t fit neatly into a demographic box and, let me tell you, that ambiguity makes people uncomfortable. Whenever I meet someone new, and they find out I’m 35 and single, they assume something must be wrong with me. That I am incomplete. That I am a half who somehow failed to become whole.
And trust me, this stigma is real. If you don’t see it, congratulations! You’re either married, in your twenties, or a man. It’s real and it’s annoying. It’s annoying every time we single ladies get a wedding invitation without a “plus one” because those are for spouses only; every time a family visit means that we dine at the kids table and sleep on an air mattress while married couples eat with the grownups and sleep in beds; every time someone asks us why we haven’t “landed a man”; every time we have to work late for the same pay, while our married colleagues get to leave at 3:00 for their kids’ soccer practice; every time we pay more for insurance and taxes than married people do….
Every time we’re expected to move so “real people” can sit together.
I was in that airport in the first place because I was flying to yet another out of town wedding. Alone. At said wedding, I knew my married friends would ask when it’s going to be “my turn”. I knew whenever a slow song came on I’d have to duck into the bathroom to avoid being left sitting by myself in a sea of empty tables, like a character in the first half of a bad romantic comedy.
I knew complete strangers were going to look at me and see one half of a whole.
There was a time when I would have just given up my seat to avoid the whole ordeal. But that particular Friday night, in that particular airport bar, I just wasn’t in the mood to feel like a spare part. As I watched the woman and her (apparently feeble) husband try to somehow eject me from my seat using sheer will, I finished the last of my $20 glass of shitty wine, and ordered another.