Money, Meaning and Mongolian Beef
As if in slow motion, the ominous hand of a waiter dips down into the center of view, dropping the check before I've had a chance to excuse myself to the restroom.
I'm in some Chinese restaurant in Koreatown, staring at a tank full of doomed lobsters. I have no idea whether or not I'm on a date. He didn't pick me up, which seemed to indicate a platonic vibe, but he's been really fidgety all night, in a very first-date way. He's twisting his straw with extra zeal now, looking down directly at our check, which has been pinned down by a couple of mints.
I don't know what to do. An unflattering purplish hue descends on us from the restaurant's fluorescent lighting scheme. I lock eyes with a lobster, as if to ask the poor critter, what do I do? Normally, I would swoop up that check as fast as possible, anything to avoid the awkward moment. This time, though, I'm pretty broke, and I'm thinking, date or no date, he chose the restaurant and it wasn't cheap.
I decide to go for the reach and fumble.
That is, I leisurely reach for my purse and grope around for my wallet, thus giving him time to utter any of the following phrases: "Your money's no good here," "Put that away," "This one is on me," "I insist," "Let me get this." Silence. I plunk down my share of the bill. At the end of the evening, I am shocked when he goes in for a goodnight kiss. You see, in the vexing miasma of romantic signals, I had gotten confused. To me, going "Dutch" on the first date meant it wasn't supposed to be a date at all.
Which got me thinking. Who is supposed to pay? And why does the whole subject make me so squeamish?
Money, according to those who interpret symbols, equals energy, which is probably why it takes on such a charged quality in the world of dating and relationships. Money has meaning. It isn't just a question of cash, but of attitude, of interest, of spiritual investment. Money is also power, and power is a major component of human sexuality, so it seems obvious that sometimes a check is more than just a check.
In fact, someone's attitude about money can tell you a lot about their personality, about how they were raised. There are savers, spenders, chargers, hoarders. There are people who would spend their last $30 on a nice bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, and others who would reuse the same piece of aluminum foil for weeks.
When the check makes us tense, it's not just because we don't know exactly what it means to pay or be paid for, but also because in the exchange, whether it's the "reach and fumble," the convenient dash to the restroom or the confident credit card toss, we are learning about each other, picking up clues.
My personal money confusion probably comes from the fact that growing up poor, I hated people to know it. Paying for myself is a matter of pride, not just in being independent, but in being a woman who earns her own keep. On the other hand, I can't deny the pleasure I feel when someone insists on paying for me, when they wouldn't have it any other way. When it's done right, it feels like being taken care of, and that's not such a bad thing.
For me, this has been a conundrum since my first movie date in junior high. When the ticket lady asked my pre-pubescent date, "Will that be one or two tickets?" I felt queasy. I felt worse when he paid for me.
I wondered if he thought I couldn't afford my own ticket. Worse, I was concerned about him, thinking he might have wanted to spend that money playing video games or buying comics. My final fear was that I had been bought for the price of a movie ticket. Would I owe him something? Was I no longer free to decide I didn't like him? (Side note: If you're on your first date and in junior high, don't see "Fanny & Alexander." It's a four-hour Swedish art film and you really won't have any idea what's going on.)
Wishing to better understand this issue, I took an informal poll and found that for many of my friends, even those who are married or in long-term relationships, the money thing can be a real sticking point.
Most of my single friends seem to have developed their own personal systems -- whoever asks for the date pays, whoever chooses the restaurant pays, go Dutch only after the relationship progresses, go Dutch until the relationship progresses. There are as many systems as there are people.
When I described the Chinese restaurant incident to one woman -- let's call her Former Sorority Sister -- she looked at me as though I had just recounted the lancing of a boil.
"Dutch? Dutch?" she asked, craning her neck forward. "What is Dutch? Before I got married, I never paid."
Sorority Sister's system was to fold her hands on the table and stare demurely ahead, ignoring the check and the whole dirty business. That was her advice to me, but to pull it off requires a healthy sense of entitlement, and that's really not my bag.
Still, it worked for her. I can only conclude that any system that feels right to the individual is a good system. A standard operating procedure seems to minimize the perplexity, preventing those check moments from feeling as drawn out as a Swedish art film.
And take it from me, that's a good thing.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.
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