I am part of a circle of nine friends who has been going out to eat together every other Thursday, almost without interruption, for many years. We are all writers or artists. Two of us actually make some money at it, and all the rest of us have a major additional source of income, from teaching or unrelated day jobs or spouses. All except Judith, that is, who lives alone and is trying to make it as a serious painter. I know that she has very little money, and I notice that lately she begs off from our dinners more often than not. I am sure it is because of the cost. We do not eat at super expensive places, but we don’t stint on dessert or wine or coffee, or even appetizers, so our individual shares—we just divide the check by the number of people present—can add up.
I miss Judith. I also think that we should be more sensitive to her needs. What to do?
—Communitarian in Collingswood
Dear Com (I thought you might object to “Commie”),
One way to mitigate, if not solve, the problem is for the group to start asking for separate checks—or, in the case of restaurants that do not allow this for large groups, to have people tote their meals up separately. This would at least give Judith some control over her expenses, although it might not be a totally pleasant experience for her to nurse a side salad and water while everyone else is having fun pairing various wines with their three-course meals.
Another obvious alternative is to eat at less expensive places. Perhaps success has made the group somewhat bourgeois in recent years. It might do them good to get back to their Bohemian roots. But I am not sure your circle would go for this, especially if they are indeed a bit bougie these days.
Of course, eating at cheaper places may not solve the problem. Nor may getting separate checks. Judith may be too strapped for cash to eat out at all.
I do not know how tactful and generous your group is, or how proud Judith is. If you think the group will wholeheartedly agree to it, and if you think Judith will be fine with accepting it—and the knowledge that you all must have been discussing her in order to plan it—the best option would be to continue eating freely at higher-end places and pooling the check, while leaving Judith out of the pool. As you imply in your letter, creative people should help one another out, especially if they are old friends. The cost to the rest of you will be minimal, and you will have the benefit of her company.
You will need to decide whether offering to subsidize her dinners is more likely to delight Judith or embarrass her. Then you will need to talk to everyone in your circle. Assuming they all agree, you will also need to be reasonably sure that nobody in your group will ever, ever betray any resentment or condescension. It might only take one grudging snipe— as in “Having the baked Alaska, Judith? After what we spent on wine, I think I’ll just get coffee”—to alienate Judith forever.
If you do make this offer to Judith, I suggest doing it in person, without making a big deal out if it. For one thing, it is easier to insist in person, and you should insist. Tell Judith that her friends have been missing her, and came up with a simple idea to get her to come to more dinners. Remind her that her friends can easily afford this small addition to the cost of the meal. And stress that you are all doing it as a way, not just to secure her presence, but also to support her art—which I assume you all are, more or less, being creative types yourselves.
If you do not think this subsidy plan is a good idea, or if either your group or Judith won’t accept it, you might ask the group to consider alternating their restaurant dinners with at-home potlucks—or, if not alternating them, at least swapping for a pot luck every two months or so. Your bougiest members can show off their posh places, and people will be able to hear one another better and move around more than at a restaurant.
If none of this works, be sure not to lose sight of Judith. Invite her for dinner at your place sometimes, or for coffee, or on a walk, or to a party. It is not good for artists to be too much alone.
I have this prickly, somewhat socially inept, but basically really nice childhood friend named Jean-Michel. We grew up together on the East Coast, and I was mildly pleased to learn that he had taken a teaching job not far from me.
Jean-Michel is a music professor. He sometimes writes reviews, and he gets free thickets to things. Yesterday he called me and said he had two tickets to the symphony for next Saturday night. When he told me the program and soloists, I said, very sincerely: “That sounds fabulous! Thank you!” I was just about to add that my husband and I would be thrilled to have the tickets when he said: “Great! I’ll pick you up at six and we can have dinner first.”
He hung up before I could explain, but I honestly am not sure I would have, anyway. I mean, he sounded so happy that I was going with him. And it really seemed awful to say: “Oh, if it means going with YOU, that’s a whole different story.”
Anyway, I told my husband Laurent what had happened, thinking that he might be mildly vexed, but would mostly be sympathetic and amused. Instead he got really mad, asked me what the hell he was supposed to do on a Saturday night when I was off at the symphony with somebody else, and stormed out of the house. When he came home, he told me that he had cooled off but still expected an apology. I told him that I was sorry that I had unwittingly committed myself for a Saturday night without checking with him. He told me that if I was really sorry I would cancel. I asked him if he had made any special plans or anything for that night. He said no, it was the principle of the thing. I asked what principle. He said that if I didn’t know he wasn’t going to tell me.
What should I do? I feel bad about upsetting Laurent, but I do not think he is being very reasonable and I would hate to hurt my old friend’s feelings. By the way, there is no question of any romantic attachment between me and Jean-Michel, who is gay (I am a straight woman), as well as totally lacking in sexual charisma, and my husband knows it.
—Exasperated in Encino
I agree with you that Laurent is not being very reasonable. You misunderstood your friend, and now you are trying to avoid hurting his feelings. If doing so involves a wonderful night out at the Symphony, so much the better. Given that Laurent had made no special plans for next Saturday, and that Jean-Michel is clearly just a friend, it seems that Laurent’s only beef is that you’ll be out, perhaps even having fun, without him. I think he should suck it up this time. It is not as if you arranged the date on purpose.
It is reassuring to read that Laurent’s response surprised you. Could he just have been having a terrible day? Could it be that there is something about Jean-Michel—The name that’s arguably even cooler than “Laurent”? Jean-Michel’s being a musician, when you obviously love music? Some home-town thing?—that sets Laurent off? Let’s hope that he was acting out of character for some reason. But If you think that Laurent’s response in this instance is a sign of some new, or newly revealed, aspect of his personality, take care: talk to him, and seek friendly or even professional counseling. Spouses can become controlling, and overly dependent, over time without anyone’s really noticing. Be vigilant.
Now back to immediate practicalities: I do not think you should cancel. Unless you believe that your marriage will really suffer if you don’t cry off—and, even then, I would demand an explanation!—I would go to the symphony and thoroughly enjoy it.
If you want to, and think if might help, invite Laurent to the dinner portion of the event. You could even call the theater and see if you could snag a third ticket: Jean-Michel might be a little disappointed not to have you to himself for all or part of the evening, but he could not reasonably object, and I do not think his feelings would be hurt. I would give him a heads-up, though. Call him and let him know you’re inviting Laurent or, at the very least, call and let him know that you have already done so, and that he will be joining you. You will know what to say: something along the lines of “When Laurent heard about our plans, he was so excited that I decided to/would like to include him. Hope you don’t mind. He has always wanted to get to know you better…”
I hope that, by the time you read this, Laurent has recovered from his snit (because that’s what it sounds like to me).
The next time somebody calls you with tickets, listen very carefully before you respond, and choose your words with equal care. This may not be easy: I have been trying to come up with initial response I think you should have given Jean-Michel but, despite the benefit of hindsight and plenty of time, the best I could come up with was: “Do you mean that you have two tickets to give away? Or will you be able to come?”—and even that sounds vaguely insulting. So I hereby officially place the burden on the givers of tickets to make their intentions clear.
Cleaver’s in-house advice columnist opines on matters punctuational, interpersonal, and philosophical, spinning wit and literary wisdom in response to your ethical quandaries. Write to her at [email protected]. Find more columns by June in her attic.