When I was twenty, I waited tables at an Italian restaurant on the northwest side of Chicago. It was here that I learned the basic skills one needs to thrive in the service industry: how to carry plates stacked up my arm, how to roll silverware, how to guard a walk-in cooler so my co-workers could sneak in to huff whipped cream cans. It was here, too, that I was on the receiving end of the worst emotional barb a man can hurl at a twenty-something woman.
One day, our manager, Paul, announced a contest: He had ordered too many cases of red wine, so whoever sold the most bottles would win a free meal of their choice off the specials menu. I was a broke college student, so the word free had an especially tantalizing ring to it. I was also fat, so the word meal filled me even further with the competitive spirit. But winning the contest meant that I would have to come off like some kind of oenophile—describing the tannins and the flavor bouquets and such—an impossible task for a junior at a Big Ten University. If you couldn’t bong it, shotgun it, or smash its receptacle against your forehead, I didn’t drink it. Needless to say, I lost the contest.
But in a strange turn of events, my friend Sarah, who also did absolutely nothing to promote the wine, happened by sheer luck to sell the most of it. She was (and is) a great friend of mine, so after her shift, she agreed to share her spoils of victory with me: a solid pound of pesto gnocchi with shaved parmesan. “I did it all for the gnocchi!” she sang, riffing off a Limp Bizkit song that was popular at the time.
We blithely dug into our mountain of potato dumplings and began to discuss our favorite conversation topics: parties and boys. One of our co-workers, a Bible-beating, weight-lifting YMCA resident named Obide sat watching us. Over the course of the summer, Obide, who was a teetotaller, had made no secret of his disapproval of our debaucherous ways. This time, he sat listening to us for awhile before finally shaking his head sadly and whistling in a low, mournful tone. Obide was a great whistler, because his teeth were so crooked he could eat a head of lettuce through a tennis racket.
“If y’all keep carrying on like thith,” he said sadly. “ ain’t nobody gonna wanna marry you!”
And there it was: the most hurtful thing a man can say to a young, single woman. At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about marriage. I was embroiled in a pathetic summer fling that would end, in flames, that September. But it didn’t matter. It still stung—badly. Even if you don’t ever want to get married, you certainly don’t want to be unmarriageable. If you want to remain a bachelorette, you’d like to do so on your own terms. To be marriageable means to be respectable, to have class. When someone deems you unmarriageable, they are essentially saying that when they look at you, they see a person whose genetic makeup is best left weeded out of the succeeding generations of humanity.
I wondered: what had I said over the course of my employment that would make Obide think that no man would ever want to marry me? Was it the fact that I often showed up to work unshowered and hungover after a late night drinking in the forest preserve? Was it the fact that he had overheard me agreeing to go to Howl at the Moon with Greg, the perverted food runner? Was it the fact that, on one occasion, I, too, may have huffed a whipped cream can?
After his comment, Sarah and I looked at each other, laughed it off. We ate our gnocchi. But it tasted gluey and depressing. And after we both quit, we never spoke of Obide—or his insult—ever again.
So how do I know this is the worst insult a man can say? Because in ten years’ time, neither Sarah nor I ever forgot it. It turns out that I did find someone to marry me—someone wonderful, even, who I love like crazy. We got married on August 17, 2012, exactly 5 years to the day since Sarah also found someone to marry her. And when she walked into our wedding reception, she didn’t congratulate me or my husband. She didn’t compliment my dress or my hair or my ring. Instead, she hugged me and whispered in my ear: “If only Obide could see us now!”
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