t he Starbucks guy with the goatee and leather necklace yawned. "Was that nonfat or low-fat for the double latte?" "Non," said Claudia. She watched him carefully as he headed for the low-fat. "Jesus! I said nonfat. Excuse me," she said loudly, waving at him as if she were hailing a cab.
I yawned too. "Does it really make that much of a difference?"
She glared at me. Claudia was snappish lately. Even on a good day, she was not one to suffer fools gladly, and I felt sorry for the slacker who was now getting a royal tongue-lashing. He rolled his eyes at me, but wisely avoided taking up arms. I could just hear him: "I'm sorry about the milk mix-up. Would you care for anything else -- a spanking perhaps?"
"Well!" I said brightly as we sat down, surrounded by impatient business people snapping back the pages of the Wall Street Journal. "Is it work?"
I hesitated to ask that question. Claudia is a lawyer, and I usually don't like talking about her work. Her clients, about whom she is understandably vague, generally run toward oil companies responsible for destroying bird sanctuaries and CEOs defending their right to drop M&Ms down the blouses of their secretaries.
"Work is actually going great," she said slowly. "We just got a major decision overturned. School bus manufacturer held liable for not providing seat belts. All the kids in the accident dead. Still, it's not Ford's fault."
I held up my hand. "How's, uh ... I forgot his name."
Claudia eyed me fatuously. "You know, girlfriends are great. Aren't they? I don't make enough of my friendships." She examined the toe of her Jourdan pump. "But since you asked, what's- his-name is probably in the same boat as your what's-his-name."
"Julian. We broke up."
"That's putting it rather dramatically, isn't it? Hope it was after Valentine's Day. Didn't you say he owned a chocolate company?"
"A flower store." I gazed at her perfectly Lancômed mouth, set in a sad little moue. "Did you have a bad Valentine's Day?"
"Oh, I don't know. No. Yes. I just ... I give up. I am really tired of it all."
Uh-oh, the mid-winter romance blahs. It was catching. Everyone seemed to have it this time of year. "All this dating. All these safe lunches, moving on to the romantic dinner. The 'Oh, you liked that movie? I did too' until finally you have enough in common to move to the sleeping together stage. Then the AIDS test conversation."
She sighed, her voice in a sing-song litany. "Then the staying over once in a while, borrowing each other's books, until one or both of you realize you didn't really like the other one as much as you thought, at which point you break it off -- unless, of course, he's beaten you to it and is seeing someone else on the side."
I knew Claudia was a cynic, but this seemed bitter even for her. "It's February, Claudia. No one likes February" -- traitor, I thought, you know you like Valentine's Day -- "and in any case, I thought you liked being single."
"I do. Or, I thought I did. I'm tired of being treated as if I'm in some lower caste by the couples of this town. They're so goddamned self-satisfied. Particularly the women. I'm telling you, unless I am part of a couple, I plain don't get invited to dinner parties anymore. A single woman in her 30s is a leper. A sad, pathetic soul who can't get a date. Remember that article in The New Yorker, about a year ago? About the single woman living in Manhattan who loved her dog and was starting to hate men? When men read that article, they're fascinated by it. They say, 'Wow, what a freak she is.' I couldn't stop reading it. It was like rubbernecking a bad car accident."
"So what? What's the alternative? To just give up?"
"I'm thinking about it," she said seriously. "At least men can go to a bar and hang out and have a beer or two. If I go to a bar alone, I start getting these weird looks, like who's she, and why is she here, alone?"
"Maybe you're projecting," I suggested lamely. "Maybe it's this city. I've always thought that you dated a lot for a woman in San Francisco. It's not like the pool is that large."
"Hey!" She turned on me. "There's plenty of single men out there, make no mistake. Look at Silicon Valley. Teeming with corporate techie-turned-multimillionaires looking for love. You should have seen San Jose on Valentine's Day. Men walking around on their lunch hour, ties thrown over their shoulder, wild looks in their eyes, searching, searching. It was like that kid's book, 'Are You My Mother?'"
"Well, that's an unfortunate comparison." Still, I'd heard a lot of this from my single friends. Why was it so ridiculously hard to meet people in this city? Was it getting as bad as New York?
"If it's true that there are lots of fish in the sea" -- I didn't say that the sharks Claudia had been describing make me a little queasy -- "then I don't understand what you're complaining about."
"Because I am just sick and tired of being alone." She sat silently, as the phrase hung in the air. "There, I said it. I don't want to be made to feel guilty about it."
She traced some latte foam and a little ahem noise came from the back of her throat. "I think I can contain these little relationships, these Flings Plus, but every time one of them ends, a little part of me gets eaten away."
Hearts, sharks, children's books ... I'd heard so many versions of this. There's no one out there. I can't meet anyone. The good ones are taken. And finally, the I-Give-Up stance.
"My friend Ed has opined that the I-Give-Up position is the only way you'll ever meet anybody," I said. I didn't mention that Ed spoke with the loftiness of someone happily ensconced in a committed relationship. "It's just a little stage, I'm sure."