Now 46, I thought I’d left behind the opportunity to be some rich man’s paid mistress. I am, at least in my own approximation, a faded beauty, a blown rose, a woman clearly and ineluctably past her visible prime. I have wrinkles, cellulite, a spatter of grey hairs, and a perceptible slackening of flesh. I have begun to show my slow submission to the great mistress gravity, that inescapable force that will make every one of us her bitch, eventually.
I know that my evaluations of myself tend to the austere, even the draconian. I am, in a word, harsh with myself. I always have been. It is a hard habit to break, and as I age, I find it yet harder not to view my softening and my drooping with an eye more charitable than a Calvinist’s. I, therefore, had thought that I’d gone beyond the time when any wealthy man would extend the brass ring of mistresshood.
The idea of being a mistress touches me with a frisson that combines the electric thrill of pleasure and the creeping horrorsloth of morality. I have a fascination with mistresses. In last spring’s fit of bibliotaphic acquisition (a mania that, parenthetically, continues to hold me in its thrall), I bought around five books on the world of the Parisian demimondaine: those women kept by men of society, money and the arts in during the belle époque. I read about Harriette Wilson, Coral Pearl, and Catherine Walters; the men who kept them; the houses the men built for these women; and the culture these women spun around themselves like a glamorous cocoon. It seems an intoxicating, if fraught, life, at least as they lived it, a hundred-years-and-change and a continent away.
I admit that my notions of this coddled yet precarious courtesan’s life appeals to my inner rebellious romantic. I have always had a soft spot for women who get by on their wits and their tits, and I’ve always held a similar warm berth in my bosom for those who live lives that flip the big, fat bird to social constraints. Plus, the money seems awfully nice, as does the lifestyle. The part of me given to flights of whimsy appreciates the aura of insouciant freedom that surrounds the kept woman, even as the rational part realizes that this freedom is bought at a steep price. It’s a price I can’t pay, it turns out, even though I’m broke as a nag and about five bucks away from abject insolvency.
Just before Christmas, I received a series of texts from the man I have named here The Vampire; these texts escalated in size and fervency. This man is a rich, rich man, a man so stupidly wealthy that he razed his perfectly cozy vacation house to build a 10,000 sq. ft. monstrosity whose visible foundations he studded with imported fifteenth-century French stones, because twenty-first-century American ones weren’t quite picturesque enough. The Vampire is a man of ridiculous wealth, or a ridiculous man of wealth. Your choice, really.
He is also, I’m quite sure, fairly insane. Said insanity being a facet of his personality that always makes me stop and ponder at anything he avers to me, no matter how fevered, how frequent or how tempting. And yet, after several fevered texts wherein The Vampire virtually kowtowed in text-speak and offered upon digitally, and lexicographically foreshortened, bended knee to repair the wrongs he had done to me, I responded. He wanted to right wrongs, he said and said again unto inescapable notice.
These were prodigious wrongs, and though I didn’t trust him, and though I didn’t believe him, and though I was bored, and though I did it against my better judgment, I eventually wrote back. Thus began a correspondence that crescendoed in The Vampire’s offer to “take care of me” if I acquiesced to “hang out” with him, an offer he made both via email and in a surprise phone call. Apparently, “hang out” remains code for “have sex with” even when the speaker is in his late thirties, married, wildly successful, rich beyond reason, and quite possibly sociopathic.
Let me be really clear about my financial situation at the moment. I am poor. I am beyond a day late and a dollar short. I am on the other side of living hand to mouth. Every month, I look at my tiny income, and I move stuff around so that I can afford to eat as I pay my rent, cell bill, credit card, utilities, pet food tabs and the like. Any untoward expense like a haircut or new contact lenses immediately stretches my budget beyond its bursting seams. My bottom line is not pretty.
It was, then, not without a tremendous amount of twitch-laden reluctance I turned down The Vampire’s dubious offer to “take care of me.” But I did, and in the end, I told him my bottom line is that I don’t date married men (we dated four years ago; he had wedded in the past year and a half; he admitted this to me, though I’d already discovered his married state through a sly and clever device I call “Googling”). He said, “Well, if that’s your bottom line.” I said it was and we said good-bye.
My last, stony assertion to The Vampire isn’t strictly granite. I will sometimes sleep with a man who is married. I’m not a hardliner about marital fidelity. I understand there are grey areas—marriages on their individual path to dissolution, couples who have ceased to couple, people who choose flexible marriages—but I also know a grey area from one saturated with static, and I’ve grown self-protective. Apparently.
But I wonder how self-protective I really am, for if I was truly protecting myself, wouldn’t I have chosen, as some other women do, to make some money while being happily bedded while swaddled in a luxury hotel room and high-count sheets? An article from Time magazine on a book by nearly the same name, “The Truth About Woman, Money and Relationships,” made me reconsider my knee-jerk denial to The Vampire. In this article, the book’s editor, Hilary Black, discusses how much money influences the relationships decisions made by women in a precarious profession like, say, freelance writing. Black says, “I think that women [who] grew up as the children of baby boomers — certainly, from that generation on — felt they had a lot of options, and one of the options was not to work. I think that's why so many women who wanted to make their own way in the world and did so very successfully are kind of caught up in this conflict and this ambivalence about who earns the money,” and then she notes that while lots of women do marry for money, they don’t talk about it.
No doubt they’re also reluctant to talk about when they fuck for it.
I once was an accidental whore. But I’ve also found myself in greyer and much more culturally acceptable areas—times when boyfriends (or ex-boyfriends) have given me money for rent, food, and other necessities. And if I’m honest with myself—and I do try to be—as much as I hate the ethos of movies like Pretty Woman or, more recently, Sex and the City, I buy into it. There is a part of me that finds the thought of a cardboard cut-out of a man, a cold and emotionally unavailable man, a man with more hard cash than molten emotion, a man who can “take care of me” appealing. It’s with terrible truculence that I admit this thought, but there you go. I guess it’s true that you hate most in others what you hate in yourself. I hate Pretty Woman, and yet Pretty Woman lives a life of quiet desperation deep in my breast.
But when the offer was extended to me, when the great not brass but gold ring was dangling, I smacked it down. I walked away. Sure, I walked away with regret, I walked away cursing my ethics and my self-knowledge and my stupid unwillingness to extend trust to this man who so clearly did not deserve it. I walked away while waving a tearful good-bye to cash and luxury goods and happy romping with a man who, despite his insanity, I actually liked, but I walked away.
If the triad is power, sex and money, in saying no the two latter, I kept the former for myself. It’s a nice thought. I just wish that I could count on my ethics and my good sence to pay my overdue rent.