The New York Times recently published a piece about the lives of the hyper-rich stay-at-home women on the Upper East Side, complete with sex-segregated dinner parties and year-end bonuses from wealthy husbands for being “good wives”.
These may appear surprisingly crude to some, but less so for me. Much of my short marriage felt like a business transaction during which I was paid $325 a week, in an arrangement that was certainly not as privileged as those women on the Upper East Side, but would still be considered one of great fortune within larger social structures.
The experience was one of obscene inequality that rarely gets recognised as such. With the backing of “romantic love” and a rhetoric of choice, I found myself knocked back the loser in a deeply ingrained power relationship that constantly renewed itself.
By the time I could actually say it out loud, I had been a kept woman for over six months.
That day, I walked a couple of blocks across my hip neighbourhood of U Street in Washington DC and stepped into my local hairdresser. I was pleased: I had finally found someone I liked to cut my hair. Her name was Rachel and she had tattoos from neck to toe.
Of all the people I had met in my lonely time in DC, I felt a kinship towards Rachel. I told her I wanted my hair cut in a mohawk and she was excited.
“What do you do?” She asked me casually as she started cutting.
The answer came out before I could even think about it. “I am a housewife,” I said for the first time ever. And it was true. The disappointment I felt she carried in her eyes was one I carried in myself too. To be a kept woman had been the most profoundly alienating experience of my grown-up life. Which wasn’t to say much — I was only 24.
Alex and I met in Italy. I was 22 and starting my career as a journalist after spending years of free to near-free labour and hard work building it up. The day I met him in Rome was the day I found out I had been offered a job with an Italian newspaper in Milan, a four-hour train ride away.
He was an American diplomat based in Rome, a former lawyer with an intellectual family. He was 16 years my elder and had reached a point in his life where he felt he was ready to get married.
Our first conversation over drinks was about sexual assault, sexist policing and misogyny in Italy — all topics close to my heart. He agreed with me on everything. He expressed outrage. He said the right things. Here is a man who sees me, I thought.
I took the job and moved to Milan three weeks later. We met up for romantic weekends in Tuscany and spent nights in palatial hotels his work sometimes paid for. We got drunk on Aperol spritzes. At a time of tumult and precariousness in my life, I found his Rome apartment dark and comforting. He made me feel safe.
He proposed nine months later and I said yes. He said if I gave up my job now to follow him back to the US, he would compromise down the line — make sure to give up some professional gain and let me have my turn. He sold me a “10-year plan”: 10 years for his career, and then it would be 10 years for me.
And in the meantime, what better thing than to be married to a diplomat, he posed, to travel to unexpected places and be exposed to so many different experiences, especially as a journalist?
My family and friends were worried. It only made me more determined to go through with it. The following summer, having been in my job for less than a year and a half, I quit and moved to the US to be with him.
The panics came quite fast, but I pushed the negative thoughts away as much as possible. I had no friends aside from his, no work visa, no social security number and no routine.
We quickly agreed on a sum for my “services” as a wife. It was $325 a week. At the time, it seemed like a lot. I had never had much money as an adult. I certainly never knew money to arrive so easily.
Our rent was paid by his employer. I enrolled in an intensive Arabic class, which he covered. I started volunteering with a media non-profit and went running with homeless women. I ran a marathon and raised money for a cause. I went to the gym, and felt pressure to stay fit.
My $325-a-week stipend was expected to cover our weekly shop at Whole Foods (I was expected to do all the cooking), my cellphone top-up and bits and bobs like public transportation and drinks with those friends I tried to make. I covered the odd meal out. Any frills, I would have to pass by him. He had the means, though: for a party his parents were throwing us, he covered the cost of a Vivienne Westwood dress.
In the beginning, I would wait for the sound of Alex’s keys in the door with excitement and trepidation. But quickly, I grew quiet.
Alex hated my lack of propensity for cleaning and the fact that I left my shoes in the way. He screamed when I put a sharp knife in the dishwasher. When we got a puppy, I was praised for how good I was with him. His family chimed in: “Rose is so good with Alfie.”
Sometimes, Alex would go into silent rages and not speak to me for days. His rages would cease when I would break. After days of silence, I would break down into shaking fits of humiliated, desperate tears and he would apologise.
I tried to get better at putting my shoes away before bed.
He had a high sex drive and was furious we were not having sex often enough. We were having sex a few times a week instead of a couple times a day. My lack of constant sexual availability was one of the few things I felt I had to hold on to.
The money started feeling dirty. Maybe it always did. He would leave it in cash on the wooden table just before the entrance to the kitchen. Without a social security number, and still waiting the interminable wait for my green card to come through, I could not (or believed I could not) have my own US bank account.
Sometimes Alex didn’t have change, so he would give me $320 now, and $5 later.
There were happy times too. Times when I felt we were a family and times I felt things would almost certainly get better. We lived such a conventional, fulfilled life from the outside. If only I could shut up, I would often think to myself.
But mostly I felt numbed by my dependence and powerlessness. I screamed a lot and was accused of being hysterical and unstable.
“You lied,” I told him, pointing to one of the many things — among them the fact that he had told me after I had moved to the US he would not allow me to work as a journalist (too controversial with his job), something he had never mentioned during our courtship in Italy. He thought I might consider instead working as a French teacher or in the admin part of the American embassy.
“You lied too,” he would retort. “I had not realised I was marrying someone so emotionally unbalanced.”
I started to forgo the hairdresser and cut my hair myself. I used pink scissors that I bought in the children’s school supply section at CVS. It saved me money and difficult interactions.
Alex received news of a posting to west Africa. For bureaucratic reasons, I would not be allowed to follow him. He didn’t think twice before saying yes.
Still visa-less, and therefore unable to work in the US, I applied to the best American graduate school programme I could find, and got in. He paid for it. I rediscovered my brain and refused to lower my voice. I refused to lose either of them willingly ever again.
Just two years and three months after marrying him, we were divorced. Guilt, shame, relief and gratitude submerged me.
“You know if we get a divorce you won’t have health insurance anymore?” He asked me by way of warning in our final days together. – By Rose Hackman
Image – Gallo