"Can we not talk about this?"
My friend tilted her head in my direction and leaned her elbow on the bar. The bartender -- a small-statured Polish grandmother in leopard print pants -- was slamming down our beers while scanning the red-lit room. It was 1 a.m., and after several hours of drinking, all of us verged on difficult.
"No, I want to talk about this," I said. "I want to know why I expect a man to buy me dinner. I don't get it."
It only occurred to me later that my friend may have been having one of those "Dear God, Elizabeth, must we always indulge conversations in plain service of your freaking blog?" moments. At the time, I just thought she was drunk.
And, I was determined; I'd told her, and the rest of our group -- earlier assembled at an East Village walkup -- that I'd recently gone out with a guy who did not buy me dinner, and how this had made me feel a little bit outraged with him, and how, for that, I felt a little bit outraged with myself.
"I mean, I do expect it, but why should I?"
"I always let the guy pay for dinner," my friend said. "And I pay for everything else. Drinks, cab, whatever. But at dinner, he should pay."
I nodded. We moved on.
Later, I found myself at a different bar -- this time, in mixed company.
"It's totally a double standard."
I'd stumbled, somehow, into a conversation on the same topic. The men -- a couple of cute, well-educated, presumably progressive twenty-somethings -- were complaining.
"The day can't come soon enough," another one said. "When a guy doesn't have to always pay the bill."
"Yeah," his friend agreed. "Women and men should be equal."
"It'll be a while," I replied, reaching my arm across the table in mock empathy. "Don't hold your breath!"
And again, my most heartfelt reaction was delayed: Later, I cringed. I imagined an unfortunate-looking woman before a department store three-way mirror, demanding her boyfriend's assurance that she doesn't look fat and winced: What favor is worthwhile if it comes on demand? Who wants a guy to give you something -- a dinner, a compliment -- when he's quietly begrudging you all the while?
But then, I know there are some men who like picking up the tab; I once dated a guy who insisted, for the duration of our three-month relationship, on always getting the check -- the one time I managed to sneak a waiter my credit card involved pinning him, physically, to a black vinyl booth.
I imagine that paying for dates makes some men feel, well, masculine -- in the same way that it can make me feel girly to be on the receiving end.
And to say that women and men ought to be equal feels a bit like saying society ought to be color blind: It's a nice ideal, but one that seems indefinitely (and perhaps, importantly) out of reach.
(For a discussion of how and why these inequalities persist, I will refer you to Other People Who Write Essays Longer than A Thousand Words.)
So if we're stuck, for now at least, with some measure of inequality, then shouldn't we expect some disparity in courtship roles? Shouldn't it be OK, in other words, that I want a guy I'm dating to buy me a meal?
And yet, I'm rationalizing. I know this. How do I know this? I know this because last night, when I was trying to get to sleep early and instead wound up in bed, web-surfing on my iPhone as I half-watched the Knicks beat the Nets in preseason overtime, I came across this article from Psychology Today.
And this article told me, in effect, that I'm rationalizing. That if I am a woman who is interested in equality within a relationship -- which, screw the rest if the world, I certainly am -- letting a guy pay is a great way to set things up for exactly the opposite:
"...if a woman wants to lead or be equal in a relationship, it doesn't set a good precedent to be passive and dependent when that relationship is established. At the least, it sends the wrong signal -- if not putting her at a power disadvantage."
But isn't there power, too, in letting a guy pay? Doesn't it, too, illustrate that our affections need to be earned, that we need to be wooed, courted, because we are worthy? Isn't that also it's own assertion of power? How outrageously un-feminist can I be?
I know a middle-aged woman who (more than) calls herself a feminist and who routinely uses the phase, "Until women and men are equal..."; as in, "Until women and men are equal, I'll let a man change my tire."
I have another friend who explains that it's OK to let guys pay for dates because women spend so much on making ourselves attractive: on getting our various hairs waxed and colored and chemically treated; on smoothing undergarments and overpriced eyeliner that lasts for three weeks. The least a man can do, she says, is pay for a goddamn pasta.
I've had two manicures since 1990 and still use mascara pilfered from my mother's vanity during high school; still, this argument appeals. Being a woman is psychologically costly (trying to maintain a shred of self-esteem in a world that expects us all to share body types with eigth grade boys), and our basic upkeep (I curse every time I buy tampons) could be seen as pricier.
But what that's got to do with who pays, I'm not sure.
Perhaps the reason my friend didn't want to have the conversation is because it's uncomfortable; because while many of us do expect it to be the man that pays, I'm guessing there are a lot of us who, like me, aren't quite comfortable with that expectation.
But until women are equal (whatever that means...), I think it's a discomfort with which I'm willing to deal.