We live in the age of full disclosure. In this era of creepy stalkers, emotional maniacs and frightening venereal diseases, you can't be too careful, so singles have learned to utilize romantic phrases such as, "Have you been tested for AIDS lately?" as casually as one used to suggest, "Shall I pick you up at 8?"
As my romances blossom, I learn about my boyfriends' health records, former lovers, stints in therapy, trips to rehab and devastating childhood traumas. Is nothing sacred?
Well, yes, there is one thing that should never, ever, ever be discussed. One subject so taboo that if you even begin to flirt with the notion of dancing around the subject, you're considered wildly offensive. I'm talking about money, honey.
Last summer, I was joyriding around in my boyfriend's new convertible. We were testing out the acceleration, battling with the CD player and speculating whether the GPS could talk in Spanish. Although I had asked my guy about 25 thoughtful car-related questions (not an easy task for a girly girl like me), I then stumbled upon the one mortally inappropriate one.
"So, how much did this bad boy run you?"
My guy looked at me like I had just suggested we go spin doughnuts in a school-zone. He sneered and asked, "Why on earth would you even ask a question like that?"
I tried to quickly recover. "Um ... I was thinking of buying a new car." He looked unconvinced and completely offended.
"If the price is that important to you, I am sure you can find it on the Internet," he replied tersely.
I was going to let it rest, but I was upset. "Did you tell your friend how much it cost?" I asked. He said yes. "Did the co-worker that took you to the dealer know how much it cost"? He said yes. "So why," I asked, "am I not allowed to ask such a question?"
"With you," he said, "it's different."
Some guys protect their financial information as gravely as those soccer players who grab their crotches during penalty kicks. Now, the car-guy had shared family secrets, confidential work information and a frighteningly precise sexual history with me, yet the sticker price of his stupid car (which was the new convertible BMW M3 -- look it up if you're curious) was a sticking point.
I believe that men who won't talk about their cash think that we're after it. With that one simple question, I am perceived as a little money-grubber.
What is it about money? Does the unfortunate characterization of the "greedy Jew" make us hesitant to discuss money for fear of reinforcing the stereotype? Yet protectiveness of cash transcends social and religious barriers. A WASPy friend of mine explained that he was raised never to discuss money, which, like politics and religion, was considered offensive dinner-party conversation. Even in the secular American workplace, income is kept secret.
And for romantically involved men or women, the subject is even stickier. Maybe men worry that they make too little money and their masculinity or "breadwinner" potential will be called into question. There are also high-earning, professionally successful guys who wonder if women are pursuing them for their hearts and minds, instead of the Rolex on their wrist.
Are we women simply supposed to wait around until the "I do" to find out if we are going to be paying off some guy's old college loans? And is it fair for us to wonder? Society's answer: an emphatic no!
A week ago, my new (and improved) beau asked me to help him shop for a new apartment, explaining that his current floor plan was huge, and the monthly rent obnoxiously high.
"What do you want to spend?" I asked.
"Less than I do now," he answered cryptically.
"What do you pay now?"
He looked pained. He searched his mind, and finally settled on an overly diplomatic answer: "The current market price for a two-bedroom in Brentwood is anywhere from $1,800 to $2,600 per month."
I groaned inwardly, thinking, "here we go again." But I didn't learn from my past, deciding to let 'er rip.
"Look," I began, "I don't care how much you spend, or how much you make. But if you want my help, then you should give me a hint at a budget. And I am so sick of guys being anal and assuming we're after your money. It's not that I am dying to know your financial situation, but we have gotten naked, met each other's parents and you even let me drive your truck, so you know, as far as your rent is concerned, you can trust me."
He smiled, and then he let it rip. He told me his salary, his savings, about financial windfalls and losses and, yes, his rent. True, he did make a lot of money -- but that only made me feel more materialistic for bringing it up. After I heard it all, I realized that he hadn't been hiding anything from me; but he thought it was too early in our relationship to discuss money -- and he was right.
I was embarrassed. Even though we had seen each others' bodies, families and motor vehicles, even though we knew about past lovers, sexual history and psychiatric evaluations, somehow, when he laid it all out before me so precisely, it was all too much. I wished I lived, not in the age of full disclosure, but the age of mystery, when all your suitor asked you was, "Shall I pick you up at 8?"
Lilla Zuckerman is the author of "Tangle in Tijuana" (Fireside, May 2003), the first book in the "Miss Adventures" series. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.