The couple were seated at the window table eating their dinners. She was looking at him. He was looking at his plate.

"What are you thinking about?" she asked finally, engaging him with a half-smile, cocking her head flirtatiously, her fork poised in the air.

He returned her smile for a minute and said, "Oh, nothing," and went back to his dinner. His wife, with a glimmer of disappointment, a hint of hurt, pierced a heart of lettuce and joined him in a somewhat silent meal.

I watched the scene next to me like the audience at an ancient play. I had heard it, overheard it, before. I recognized the body language from other table-tops and sofas. Women leaning forward, men sitting at a slight remove. Wives grinding the conversation in gear, husbands disengaging.

Where are you going? Out. What are you thinking? Nothing.

But what made it all so much more poignant this time was that this husband and wife were in their 80's. It was white hair that she tipped flirtatiously, a lined hand that was raised in this gesture. It was possible, I calculated, that for 50 years, for 60 years, she had wanted to know what he was thinking, wanted to reach into his mind, and he had given her "nothing."

Of all the set pieces of dialogue that go on between men and women, theirs was dismally common.

I have watched so many women leaning toward their men, as if their need pressed them into a dangerous incline. So many women asking for intimacy. So many women wondering: is he thinking of her, of them?

I have seen the men, too, more removed or perhaps contained. So many men resisting this womanly intrusion into their privacy. So many men uneasy with this incessant need for what her magazines called "communications." So many men thinking of "nothing."

I didn't know this couple, never saw them before and may never see them again. I didn't know what silences and words have passed between them over the years. But they fit into some test-pattern. The wives who want to talk and the husbands who want to read. The wives who want to talk and the husbands who want to watch football. The wives who want to talk and the husbands who want to eat silently.

I wondered if this hasn't been a deeper rift between men and women than pay scales of legal rights. A double standard of intimacy, of need for connections and sharing.

I know, it's generalization. I know it's changing. The male stars now are not John Waynes of strong silences but men who have words spilling out of the cracks of their old images. The extraordinary aspect of the characters in the movie "Ordinary People" was that the father -- not the mother -- kept reaching out, wanting more, feeling more. Like Dustin Hoffman in "Kramer vs. Kramer" or Richard Dreyfuss in "The Goodbye Girl," the fantasies of "women's movies" are about men who ask the questions, demand the connections, need.

Yet in real life it is the old dialogues and acts that hold the center stage. In "Unfinished Business," author Maggie Scarf says that women build their lives on attachments. The investment of a woman's self in others is as striking as ever . . . and as fragile.

Women's depressions were largely triggered by personal loss, personal failure, she said. Men's depressions were largely triggered by work failures. The differences were still so strong that she wondered if they were innate.

I don't believe that these human gaps are riveted by our genes. But the difference is there, painfully obvious, and painfully lingering. I wonder about all the decades trapped now between this woman's need and her husband's "nothing." Between so many needs and so many "nothings." I wonder about the differences between all the "us and thems" -- women and men.

There is one moment, one exchange of doubt, between women in Margaret Drabble's "The Middle Ground" that passed my mind as I watched the white-haired couple sipping the last of their coffee:

"Do you think," asked Evelyn, 'really, seriously think that life is very different for men?'

"Kate stood still and thought apparently earnestly, shaking her head without any flippancy at all and no facial expression whatsoever: 'I don't know. The truth is, I do not know."

"No,' said Evelyn. 'After all these years of thinking about it, neither do I.'"