Cheap Thrills

A story of American women in financial jeopardy

Also, driving through Big Sur over many years, I’d become curious about the Post Ranch Inn. All one could see from the road below was a misty green hill rising up beyond a gate. The Post Ranch Inn’s cliff-side retreats were $700 a room and up. And so what? “Seven hundred dollars a room!” I told my husband, arms akimbo, legs planted like Yul Brynner, flush with my Hollywood cash. “For just once in my life, I want to know what a $700 room is like!” I found out. The SUV ride up the hill? Thrilling. The moss-roofed entry port? Magical. The room? A veritable aerie boasting a 180-degree Pacific Ocean view, a stone fireplace, a slate tub, every surface discreetly touched with perfect northern California appointments—exotic teas, eucalyptus bath salts twined in raffia, Bose sound system with DMX … “No!” I snapped at my husband as he leaned over the dials. “Miles Davis we can have at home!” I jabbed my finger toward the skylight, dropped my voice to a whisper: “What we’re paying for is the birds, the susurrus of the birds, the natural Pacific birds.” He opened his mouth as if to speak, but I shushed him. “Don’t you understand? We can’t afford conversation,” I hissed, my Shanghai blood roaring in my ears, its eternal abacus clacking. “At $45 an hour, what we’re paying for is the silence, the natural Zen silence!”

Which brings us to the fact that being neurotic is expensive. Amid the crazily sleep-starved wars of the first baby, Mike and I booked ourselves into therapy. But we soon realized we could stop fighting, find a way to divide the household labor, and save the $120 a session—our health insurance being no dental, no mental. (Since you ask, this is what we came up with: he does all the cooking and cleaning and laundry, and in reward gets to be very bossy and curt about it, and we also have to eat whatever he feels like all the time—lots of fish. I do the bills.)

These are just household things, though—issues of circumstance, fate of genetics. Truly cheap people are, in their secret hearts, individuals. Iconoclasts. Rebels. Always oppressed, always breaking out, with some kind of personal “crazy philosophy” (my dad’s term, eyebrows lifted, twirling index finger at the temple). I think the most colorful intro to mine is via one of my favorite novels, Pearl S. Buck’s Pavilion of Women. On her fortieth birthday, after serving two decades as a faithful wife and mother, the matriarch of a great house in China announces to her husband that she’s done with having sex. She’s finding him a young concubine, and is in fact that day moving to another pavilion so she can sit in the library and read books.

I’m fully aware that our 1,300-square-foot bungalow cannot house a young concubine. (Look at me: I’m already doing the math. I’m figuring that young women being what they are today, our concubine would probably also require therapy, fiction-writing classes, spa treatments, the rosemary soap, the Tranquility candles. Forget it!) But what I relate to in this character is the great weariness suddenly felt, midlife, with the trappings of being female. For instance, at forty-four … I’m tired of looking at myself in the mirror. I’m so bored with it! My God, I’ve been looking at this face for decades now. When will the tedium end?

It wasn’t always like this. At age thirty-six, in the year of the mirage-like TV pilots, I found myself many mornings at 10 a.m. riding glass-walled elevators to a lot of frightening meetings with a lot of fresh-faced young people. In multiple fun-house reflections, I could see that I looked like a hound dog, Leonard Nimoy–esque. Those eye bags haunted me day and night. So I paid $3,000 and had them lasered right out.

But here came the strange part. The procedure was so quick, so simple, so painless, and so effective—I looked fabulous, no one could deny it—that my outer appearance actually … began to unravel. Not just the bags but the scales fell from my eyes. For a decade I had cosseted my eye bags like royal invalids—creaming them, lotioning them (after reading a tip in a beauty magazine, I even tried smearing them with Preparation H). Now that I was free … there, there, there on the bathroom counter! That busy, self-important cityscape of skin revitalizers, moisturizers, scrubs, washes, lifters, exfoliants. I suddenly saw that dusty shantytown for what it was: an utter sham! With one sweep of my arm, I razed it. I threw those Clinique and Nivea jars and tubes away, every single one!

When I was the servant of the eye bags (and they my master), oh … I used to be so hunched over, in apology for my hideous presence. I wouldn’t dare leave the house without my hair meticulously styled, makeup labored over, wearing what I hoped—prayed!—were my hippest outfits. But now, with the eye bags gone, it was like my female debt was finally, suddenly paid in full. And now the pendulum was swinging wildly the other way. With the worthless cosmetics gone, what else could I do away with? Ideas were flying to me. Why wear earrings, why put on lipstick, why even—the sloth that dare not speak its name—change out of the clothes you slept in? I have this pair of $10 black drawstring Target pants that balance perilously on culture’s very Mother Who Works From Home fulcrum. Are they running pants? Exercise pants? Pajamas? Who knows? Then again, check out this Ann Taylor striped T-shirt I’m wearing—Goodwill, $1! (That’s right, one dollar. Don’t mean to brag, but I paid for it in quarters!) As for my fabulous shoes, they’re probably German and expensive, but for me? Free! Because like all my shoes, they’re cast-offs! That’s the upside of having girlfriends who are rabid shoe buyers. It’s such trouble to go back to Nordstrom’s to return a color they don’t like; it’s easier just to … give the shoes to me. Thanks!

Because it’s not new clothes I hate so much as clothes shopping. Several decades in, it is the mall itself that has become wearisome to me—depressing, odious, exhausting. Glowering down from all around are posters not just of ten-foot-tall eighteen-year-old supervixens, but of men! Even in Victoria’s Secret! Men of rock-hard pecs, gelled hair, curled lip! How gay are our Madison Avenue ad executives?

Speaking of which, one day it hit me how much I’d come to physically dread going to my pricey salon. The faux-antiqued walls, the WWD magazines, the jumping club-kid haircutters (who are by now actually north of forty, just like me). The owner of the salon is Taz—that’s the name of the salon, “Taz”—and it suddenly struck me how sick to death I was of hearing about Taz. Taz was here, Taz was there, Taz was in South Beach, Taz was on a shoot in Arizona … where he was developing a new line of “product” including some $30 chi-flavored botanical serum I’d have to, as usual, fake interest in. You know what, Taz? They’re just split ends. Fuck off.

Then there’s the whole weight project. My friend Carolyn has lost twelve and a half pounds in the past three months. Good for her, you say, but consider what she’s spending: $199 for six months at Jenny Craig, plus many little tins of food at upwards of $400 a month. And what with all the deprivation and the sensitized palate, there’s the feel-good sports ion water she deserves, at $2 a bottle, of which she has several a day. New gym membership ($40 a month). New running shoes that really fit, air-spring sole, cushioned heel ($100), plus important new sports leggings, new socks, etc. To entertain her during all that treadmilling, a $299 iPod. And to celebrate a drop of two sizes, a recently purchased pair of $300 “distressed” jeans.

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Sandra Tsing Loh is a writer and performer whose radio commentaries appear regularly on American Public Media’s Marketplace. She can also be heard on KPCC-FM, in Pasadena, California.

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