The Kept Woman was a regular at the store where I worked to help pay for university. Called the Central Gourmet Produce & Deli, its buzzing fluorescent lights and greasy windows were part of a tiny strip of overpriced martini spots, workout clubs and trendy eateries that ran all of four blocks along 1st Avenue in Vancouver.
The area was image-obsessed, full of upwardly mobile young singles who exchanged pick-up lines while scooping designer-dog poo. Working in a place where these citizens slunk in for solo dinners in jogging pants required some discretion. The Kept Woman was different. She looked, if nothing else, intense. Toned body, dirty blond hair, nice clothing, face stretched and tightóa nine partying her way down to a seven. Her eyes had a darting energy, and her laugh was abrupt, loud. She came in almost every night, putting on a performance of indifference and condescension. But more than anything, she seemed bored.
I found out her story my first week at work. Kate, the night manager, pointed up from the alley where we sat passing a joint and a box of pilfered Oreos. ìShe lives in that penthouse, the one on top of that building.î I surveyed the huge rooftop patio overlooking English Bay and peered into the glass turret (honestly, who has a turret?) at the fifteen-foot ceiling and sleek, modern decor. The place was gorgeous. ìThereís this married guy that pays for everything. Youíll seeóhe comes in once in a while to pay off her account.î
The Kept Woman was the type of regular around whom workers suddenly got very busy. The most junior or unlucky staff member usually ended up helping her. Often that was me. She was always irritated and impatient when she arrived at the counter, dropping a fumbled handful of productsóvitamins, spices, a pack of combsóon the counter in front of me, huffing loudly and drumming her nails while I rang them up, as if she hadnít been aimlessly wandering around the store for twenty minutes.
The Kept Woman and I lived on completely different planets. Not quite Mars and Venus, more like Saturn and something in the Holmberg IV galaxy. Paying my way through university, confident in the conviction that I was doing right by the sisterhood, I saw her as a cheat. There I was working so hardóshe didnít deserve to have it so easy. More importantly, she shouldnít want to have it so easy.
Even weirder was her keeper. What motivated a man to arrange a complicated scenario with such a Jezebel? An affair at least was understandableóanyone whoís felt the tidal pull of temptation will concur. But to co-sign temptationís mortgage papers? Inexplicable. I speculated: she threatened to tell his wife; heís in real estate and just lets her live there; sheís a high-class escort and heís her pimp; she is his bookie and he owes her millions. Anything was possible.
When I finally met this benefactor, I was surprised at how normal he seemedóexpecting Gary Busey, I found Jeff Goldblum. He was a blur of well-tailored taupe, broad shoulders and disarming charm. Once a month, they came in together, and true to reputation, he paid the balance on her accountóthe largest in the bookóin cash, the bills briskly plucked from a pocketed wad. I felt sorry for the Kept Woman in those moments. She was made up, strained, proud, clearly enjoying her brief time on his arm. To a stranger, they would have been just another couple in love.
Any mention of the Kept Woman to female friends inevitably stirred up lively debates about feminism, power and sex. Less inevitably, and increasingly, it also provoked a pining for the clarity of her arrangement. Of course, this nostalgiaófor an era when gender roles were clearly defined and much less flexibleóhas always been alive in our culture. The difference today, and we can see its example on hit shows like The OC and Desperate Housewives, is that this re-invented domesticity is portrayed less as a return to traditional values and more as an empowered, modern career choice.
A new kind of housewife is on the rise.She is streamlined and efficient, she does yoga, she screws the gardener while the organic cookies are baking. She is a reasonable compromise between femin-
ism and traditionalism, actively choosing her role and celebrating the power and freedom of this choice. Thereís a mixed message hereóempowerment and success can be found inside as well as outside the home, but only if youíre female.
Even in a circle of strong and educated women, questions of gender relations are incredibly complex. ìMen find it easier to do business and make bigger salaries, and I donít feel bad spending his money,î says a friend, who recently quit her job and now relies on her husbandís income. A woman I debated Plato with in school tells me that she considers her career to be more of a hobby, that despite similar salaries, the husbandís is the ìrealî money and hers is just for shopping and fun. Asking a friend how his band is doing, Iím told that the drummer is now a car salesman in Kelownaóhis girlfriend was tired of supporting him.
Few of these women would describe themselves as kept. They are looking for jobs, finishing school, waiting for work visas, starting home-based businesses or actingóalthough some seem more motivated in these pursuits than others. Living off a manís salary is seen as not entirely proper. While itís an urge we may all secretly share, itís not one we celebrate.
There is a cost to being kept, whatever the degree. And to live life outside of acceptability takes a special kind of courage. Really, what else can you call it? Feeling the judgement of others is isolating; the Kept Womanís snootiness seems a sad kind of protective dignity. I see her, with her thin blond ponytail lifting in the breeze outside her turret, a bitchy Rapunzel with a barely present prince. I wonder how it feels to be her, sitting alone in a glass palace and letting down her hair.