I’m sat alone in the middle of a restaurant – a table for one. The introverted part of me wants a discreet table in the corner so I can morph into the décor, so that I can be an unimposing onlooker of those around me. And yet, as I embrace my central position I realise that I’m proud of dining alone; it demonstrates a strength and resilience that not many could sustain. It’s one of the key features and impacts of travelling alone – a privilege my Victorian sisters fought long and hard for. The Mary Kingsley’s of the world had to labour under other pretences to justify their wandering; the desire to experience a foreign city alone was not enough.
So, I maintain my space in the centre, acting as a beacon of progressiveness, independence and dominance to all those in the restaurant who think that maybe they might like to travel or dine alone too. I get stuck into my book, lost in a world that is not my own and yet could very well be: Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark . Her haunting depiction of single women surviving alone, outside the confines of marriage, makes me forever grateful that I earn my money fair and square. And yet the preying, caddish influences of older men, drawn to the independent, confident, young women she depicts still prevails – from the 1920s to 2019 – the difference being that any potential suitor of mine would unlikely provide me with an allowance after he’s cast me aside to pick up a younger model or return to the domestic bliss of his wife. It’s all on me.
I wonder whether men experience the same exhaustion that women do? The exhaustion that comes from the fight of being a woman; drained from having to supress anger at the daily mansplaining that we have to bear – for the judgements that get made about us. I’m tired of my own guilt at not being what other women are, or not wanting the same thing that other women want. I’m tired of feeling that I’m not feminine enough, or that I’m cringeing inside because I feel too feminine. I’m exhausted about questioning whether I’m good enough to be here, whether I’m worth the money I’m paid, or even whether I’m being paid enough compared to my male peers. Am I being mugged off at every turn?
I boil with rage and exhaustion at #everydaysexism. I raise it with those around me, and yet the effort of speaking about it is draining on my psychic energy. The label of being a ‘militant’ as a result of my views is even more tiresome.
It’s exhausting to negotiate my position within a heterosexual relationship, where the man expects to be the breadwinner, the highest performer, the dominant. It’s tiring to deal with the fall-out when they realise that they aren’t all those things, and they’re not needed in the same way that other women may need them. Resolving and comforting their insecurities because of my queering of womanhood feels like something I have to invest my energy in.
It’s exhausting being a feminist and a daughter, challenging a patriarchal male who expects adherence to his authority because he’s my father – even if he’s wrong. The roles that women play conflict, and sometimes I find myself caught in transition between them, or a hybrid of many. That’s exhausting.
I feel a sense of doom that this exhaustion will only get worse as I get older, as it becomes more apparent that I’ve rejected society’s expectations of womanhood. Alternatively, I could look ahead and see some respite as I grow and solidify into an unapologetic woman who’s found comfort in her role, appearance and expectations – no longer willing to accept the guilt or embody the shame that’s thrust upon us as women. Will the battle ever be over? Because it is a battle. Every day. The right to be heard and the right to be present is a fight that has to be won all over again. A fight that men don’t have to have – their place is secure, entrenched, expected and reserved for them.
Rhys’ protagonist’s exhaustion of survival resonates deeply – a bone tiredness that I fight every day; to keep a roof over my head and know that it’s safe – 100% mine – and no one can take it away from me. Unfortunately Rhys’ characters get shuffled from one form of accommodation to another dependent upon the kindness and affluence of her lovers, old and new. It’s a fatigue that makes you contemplate marriage, or being a kept woman, if only to give the brain a rest – to get some sleep. Except I know I couldn’t do it. And while Jean (and her characters) married multiple times, or attached themselves to many financially-supporting men, Jean could never settle with such an arrangement either – it never worked out that way.
Both Jean and her characters escaped reality by sleeping many hours a day, darkening her bedroom and eradicating the mental pain by drifting into unconsciousness – often aided by liquor. I empathise with that desire to feel nothing; sleep is often the only respite – not just of physical exhaustion but the mental gymnastics and discourses that run me ragged. I painfully look back on a time when, like Anna in Voyage in the Dark, I would use alcohol or sleeping aids to just knock myself out, to quieten the noise, if only for a few hours.
I look up from my book, still at my central viewpoint, and my eyes land on a couple who’re tourists in Berlin. They’re not talking to one another – they eat in silence and look in different directions. I recognise their loneliness, their isolation from one another, and it reaffirms that the exhaustion is no lesser within a relationship – in fact, the burden of carrying the other’s often makes it greater. The grass is no greener. One cannot rely upon another to alleviate the exhaustion, to end the fatigue. It just creates a different drain on the soul that single people don’t have to sustain. In that moment I feel blessed; I’m fortunate that I could pay for my trip alone. I didn’t need to ask permission, I didn’t need a male companion to be admitted to the restaurant. The drain of the 9 to 5, and those days spent under the duvet, were worth it if only that it has bought me my freedom – my freedom to sit in the middle of a restaurant, reading my book. In Berlin. Alone.