Settling up at the bar while wrestling with gender dynamics

A couple summers ago, I was in a bar back home, taking advantage of a rare lower level smoking lounge, when I was approached by some boy who asked me in bad French for a lighter (“un lumière,” to be precise). Once he fell back into English, I learned that he was a “rising freshman” at Oberlin, that he was terribly bored at this bar with his friends, and would only be in Paris for a couple more days. Let’s call him Richard. Suddenly he turned to me and, with a look that spoke volumes, tried the following line on me:

“I’m so pissed off. My dad only gave me €200 bills and the barman won’t take them. I need to find someone to buy me a drink. Surely, somebody here will buy me a drink?”

I sipped on my vodka-cranberry and tried to avoid his gaze. A vodka-cranberry, may I add, which cost me an arm and a leg, so I wasn’t going to facilitate Richard getting away with a five finger discount. I never discovered whether Richard found a way around his €200 bill: we made plans to explore the city together the next day, but he cancelled for no good reason. He was cute, albeit an asshole, and I was bored enough that I didn’t really question the morals behind going on a date with him. In retrospect, I hadn’t fully grasped the terms of the exchange: €10 in booze would have gotten me a few hours the next day. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but as I revisit the memory I ask myself: do all dates have an hourly rate?

Of course, in many ways this money was just a symbolic gesture: a token gift that would have marked my interest. As foreign as this seems to me, it’s entirely possible, and even likely, that our plans to meet up seemed meaningless in the face of that initial rejection. Through a coincidental series of mutual friends, I’ve learned he describes the experience as “that time I got rejected by some guy in Paris.” A stiff drink must never have tasted so bitter (although I’ve heard pineapple juice helps).

Richard’s expectation also had logical inconsistencies. Straight stereotypes always loom somewhere in the back of my mind, regardless of how much I try to distance myself from them, and in this case they don’t really fit with what happened. I imagine a scene in a bar where a mediocre, slightly insecure dude will accost a woman who doesn’t have the time of day and offer her a drink in the hope of some repayment later on in the evening. What norm was Richard playing into that would justify him prancing over to me and demanding an old fashioned pick-me-up? I’d be disappointed if queering the hegemony really comes down to asking strangers for overpriced liquor.

This brings me back to my initial question: why was I expected to pay for this first drink? What made me the employer in this exchange of services? To me, there’s a certain amount of entitlement in his assumption that his services would be welcome. He made it very easy to build a negative stereotype of him: rich bitch abroad, fresh off the jet, is outraged to learn that Paris does not, in fact, pour itself all over him. However, I don’t think this experience can necessarily generalize to too wide a population because Richard, as we established, was a bit of a dick.

This situation should hit closer to home. I’ve noticed a contrast in my friends at Swarthmore between those who do and don’t treat on dates. Do you ask to split-fare the Uber ride to Media, or cover it yourself with a wave of the hand? Do you let your partner buy their coffee in Hobbs, or cover them, joking about the extra punch? Of course, everyone’s economic background is different, and there should definitely be a conversation about both parties’ comfort with being treated, and financial situation at large. I still shudder thinking back to a friend of mine who would take his girlfriend to Hobbs, only to watch her not order anything time, after time, after time. This very discussion assumes a certain level of financial comfort: in a situation where both parties can afford whatever good is being provided, what does it mean to cover for the other?

In a relationship that has already been established, the gift can be nothing more than a kind gesture, a treat. I’m more interested in those relationships where dynamics haven’t fully formed, where the dynamics remain raw. As mentioned, straight stereotypes lurk in the back of my mind, and a reason I’ve tried so hard to distance myself from them (to be more queer, less binaristic) is because I’ve realised many of the ways in which they used to govern my behaviour. The twinky gay, this slender, effeminate, scantily clad faerie that flutters his wings and eyelids at the men in the room, is a character I fell into regularly in high school. It was comfortable and easy: if I wasn’t a normal boy, I’d be a girly one. And now, for my reveal, I must say that I, too, would years ago lurk in bars waiting for men to buy me drinks — I know, the shock of it all is just too much. I’d lounge outside chaining cigarettes in rolled up denims, waiting to be hit on for the thrill, for the comfort, for the acknowledgement. A drink would equal a validation of the performance, and my self esteem was half-off on Wednesdays’ two-for-one night. I digress out of nostalgia, but the point remains that I firmly believe that money, in these situations, can be a gendering and categorizing force. The norm is never that far off, and abiding to a set of rules you remember from some TV show you’ve forgotten the name of provides a certain comfort. In this sense, to pay for a drink can be one of those little actions that, if you do it enough times, materializes the very social norm it’s come to represent. Richard must have pegged me wrong: maybe, deep down, we’re just the same kind of kid, looking for that same reassurance only strangers can provide, just a couple years apart. Could I have been… too harsh?

I’m probably just rambling. Richard was definitely a dick anyways.


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