by Laurel Touby
A gift of this magnitude was bound to alter our fiscal interactions (and, who knows, maybe foment a revolution among all men).
FOR THE ENTIRE YEAR we had been dating, my boyfriend Derek had been talking about how he would do “anything” to get to Turkey. Anything short of earning money, that is. Derek, a gig-a-year jazz musician with a heart of silver (and a wallet empty of it) couldn’t seem to amass forty dollars for new Nikes, much less the $800 or so for intercontinental airfare.
He’d work all right, at odd jobs paying starvation wages, but with a halfheartedness that rarely afforded him luxuries. “Money is a necessity, like toilet paper,” Derek always says, “What’s the point of accumulating it?” “If you have wads of it, you can use it to wipe yourself on your trips to foreign countries where toilet paper is in short supply — like in Turkey,” I say. This leads into a long rant session about how there once were patrons of the arts who would duel at the chance to support the next Mozart or Beethoven. “But, today,” gripes Derek, “Big Business buys arts sponsorships and the individual gets off the hook with free Shakespeare in the Park.”
So, last June while he was reading the fortune at the bottom of his espresso cup, I was surprised to hear myself say, “Let’s spend August on the Bosphorus. My treat.” We were at our favorite Italian restaurant and the look on his face was so beatific, I had to assure the waiters that he hadn’t joined the Papacy. It was a Hallmark moment that would have touched even the most jaded greeting card illustrator and it panicked me. Yet, I didn’t have the nerve to back down.
Besides, I figured, his birthday was coming up and I needed to recuperate from a high-pressure (high-paying) job I had just quit. We both needed the trip. And I still had a bankbook full of emergency cash to blow before I joined the ranks of the pseudo-employed (as a freelance editor).
The very next day, we were enrolling in Turkish language classes, trekking to the library to pore over travel guides, buying sunblock, white baseball caps, lead-testing kits (for ceramicware), and having serious second thoughts (at least I was). Was I the most generous woman on Earth, I wondered? Offering to pay for a trip out of state suddenly seemed bizarre. I mean, what woman (who wasn’t desperate for company) would go this far for a man? Actually, I had one friend, Stella, who went pretty far for her man — and he bankrupted her. Not an encouraging precedent. For years, she had felt too ashamed to admit to anyone that she had been taken. That’s how it goes though. Men keep mistresses (and their fortunes) while women lose control and then can’t even talk about it.
After telling a few of my friends about my intentions, I knew why Stella had clammed up. They became very protective of my interests, these women who had stood by complacently during the assaults on the ozone layer, the green box turtle, and the Turkish Kurds. My best friend Susan said, “I always knew he had an angle. Why don’t you dump him at the airport?” “You’re setting a bad precedent for womanhood,” exclaimed Tiffany, a femme fatale who prefers women, but lets men take her out on lavish dates for the sole purpose of “equalizing the gender wage gap.”
MAYBE SUSAN WAS RIGHT. If he really cared about me, he would have turned down such largesse. Tiffany had a point, too. A gift of this magnitude was bound to alter our fiscal interactions (and, who knows, maybe foment a revolution among all men). But, perhaps that’s what Derek had in mind: being kept. He had always complained about certain financial hardships . . . . I envisioned a new, suntanned post-Turkey Derek holding his hand over his groin Michael Jackson-style and granting me sexual favors in return for rent money.
I became snappish and secretive. Minor disagreements had me rising in the middle of the night to calculate the cost-benefit of love: just how much did he appreciate me — $800-worth, $1,500-worth, $5,000-worth? For $800, shouldn’t he treat me better than anyone had ever treated me? (What would it cost in Turkish lira to be treated like a queen?) Finally, during one fight, I suggested that maybe one of my girlfriends would like to go on a trip with me to Turkey — using his ticket.
How do men take women out for dinner even without expecting them to lay down their lives in gratitude? Well, that question got me thinking. If I were a man, would there be any raised eyebrows over my paying her way? I began testing out this theory by casually telling people in the grocery store, on bank lines, at the unemployment office (for a demographic cross-section), about how my boyfriend planned to take me on a trip to Turkey. No one blinked an eye at his generosity, even after I explained his dire financial situation (to rule out any economic inequality bias). I told one unflinching Citibank patron the trip would cost “somewhere in the range of $16,000.” “You must mean a lot to him,” said the man. “He’s mortgaging his house,” I told another. Somehow, the more Derek sacrificed for me, the higher my value soared in their view. And he gained something as well, some kind of power that went along with being a good “provider.” But the more I spent on him, the more foolish and pathetic I seemed, a sucker.
I could never tell my mother. She, who thinks feminism is some kind of reproductive disorder, considers the phrase “go dutch” to be an inscrutable non-Romance language. By Mother’s calculus, the amount a man spends on gifts, dinners out, etc., sums up a woman’s worth on the marriage market. These telling tokens are, in effect, advances on a young woman’s dowry. My dates all through high school could have been serial killers (one actually did end up in jail for murder), but if they sported the right attitude (and the right leather) she’d overlook such cosmetic problems. “Why doesn’t Mr. Ostrich Loafers ever call you any more?” she’d ask.
She meant well, but the bottom-line message was “Bring a rich man into the family.” Dating-for-dollars, I called it. On the flip side, buying anything for a man (even on legitimate holiday occasions, she preferred that I cooked him kugel rather than buy a gift) was not only verboten, but was seen as laughable. A woman paying for a man was like a cow buying feed for a farmer.
After a few conversations with Derek, and much ruminating, I decided I wasn’t going to be hemmed in by a sexist society’s dictates any longer. I was going to be the sow, cow, she-goat, that broke free of the tribal pen. By taking Derek to Turkey, I could begin to equalize all those he-pays evenings out that I had sheepishly accepted since my teens. I’d show Derek and men across the Mediterranean how generous a woman can be with her money. Forget Turkey. We were on our way to Mecca!
AS SOON AS WE HIT ISTANBUL, I began to enjoy this new mantle of proprietress that I had donned. He was the most handsome, most intelligent, most genial man I had ever dated. Who more worthy to spoil? And now there was this new vulnerability to savor. Fair Derek was my charge in a foreign land, powerless. (One wrong move and his next home would be Stamboul by the sea.) I took control over everything, from where we slept (“Let’s get twin beds, hon.”) to what we ate (“No seafood tonight, dear. The smell of it gives me a headache.”).
To his credit, Derek was able to get into his role as well. At first, I’d ask, “Are you sure you’re not hungry? It’s been 10 hours since your last meal?” But, by the third day, he was less diffident: “I’m starved. Can you take me there for lunch?” Of course, the more forthcoming he became about his desires, the more I enjoyed thwarting them. “Get down on your knees and beg for it, slave,” became an erotic passkey for us. On the third day, I took Derek to the city’s crown jewel, Turkey’s version of The Mall, the Grand Bazaar or Kapali Çarsi. It was awesome, better than any of the swap-meets I had seen back home in Florida. This was indoors, and it sprawled over acres of dirt-packed avenues lined with you-name-it. There were more than 4,000 shops selling silk carpets, ancient jewel-encrusted swords (good luck exporting one of these babies), modern leather handbags, Byzantine pottery, pre-Christian coins, mother-of-pearl inlaid mirrors — all at amazingly low prices. Who needed muggy old mosques and museums when you could have this? Macy’s and the Met — on sale.
Even Derek seemed mildly interested in what the Bazaar had to offer, especially after I handed him my credit card and said “Get yourself something nice.” It was so fun seeing him run from shop to shop deciding what he wanted, looking back at me for approval on each purchase. He spent half an hour trying on leather jackets, his face shining like a kid playing with kitchen matches, till he had found just the right one, with ample pockets and a matte finish ($165). Then, he bought a lovely silver bracelet ($50) that resembled a serpent, his first article of jewelry ever. And on to the carpet shop, where he picked out a brightly-colored woven saddle blanket ($65) to be made into a shoulder bag. The shopkeeper had it tailored for him on-the-spot, as we sat cross-legged on a pile of ancient Turkish carpets sipping chai (turkish tea). Inspired by his example, I went off to do a bit of shopping myself, a glutted Turkish Sultana.
Over the next week, the lira flew fast and furious for endless rounds of meals, hotels, transportation and Turkish trinkets, and the novelty of paying began to wear off. (“I’ve got lira-whip,” I told Derek, my own version of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, or whiplash of the wallet-bearing wrist.)
We were down in the southern part of Turkey, now, in Side, where it was hotter and the water was that artificial blue of peppermint mouthwash. It was in this idyllic setting that my promises to myself evaporated, and amidst the crags of my resentment, a daisy chain began to form: I love him/I love him not/I love him/I love him not. These were not silent musings.
I began taking small, indirect jabs at Derek. Did he have to comment on that Turkish girl’s dress? Why didn’t he let me choose the tour we were going on that day?
Everything finally came to a head one sultry evening over the real issue — fish, er, rather, money. As Derek was about to order an expensive fish dinner: “You could at least try to be a little bit of a conservationist, the tiniest little bit, after all the money I’ve spent,” I said in earshot of the waiter. Derek flushed red. After a very silent meal, we were walking back toward our hotel when he replied: “I’ve been thinking maybe I should go home now. This isn’t worth the price either of us has paid.”
HE WAS RIGHT to a certain degree. I was playing a role I didn’t much enjoy and I was taking it out on him. I had tried to be the Cary Grant of Big Spenders, Homus Providus Maximus, a man that, not coincidentally, my mother would swoon over. But was this being generous at all? While some men give freely, others must exact a toll from their partners. Like such a man, I expected deference and the fawning gratitude of my beloved in return — the traditional fruits of financial power. But in the end, this charade of power made me uncomfortable. It felt too much like love in exchange for money, buying a gigolo, keeping a man. For his part, Derek played right into that. By accepting my largesse unquestioningly, he was not being sensitive enough to me or my limitations.
After talking these things over, Derek and I began to cautiously negotiate a detente. And we decided that I shouldn’t try any more Kamikaze missions with my wallet. To this day, though, we still have squabbles over who pays the bill when we eat out. The old models just don’t fit. Going dutch isn’t really equitable. After all, how can we split things 50/50 when the ratio between my earnings and Derek’s is more like 80/20? He suggests that we prorate the bill based on our individual balance sheets. Or that we should take turns paying, he, at cheap restaurants, I, at the more expensive ones.
Maybe I should just count my blessings. With sexual harassment and the glass ceiling to contend with, our dinner table power plays are the kind that any 1990’s career woman would welcome having.
Laurel Touby is job strategies editor at Glamour magazine, small business editor at Executive Female, and a freelance writer who still finds time to travel.