I gaze up at the flourescent strip lighting in the surgeon's office, willing the Beatles on my iPod to keen even louder for Dear Prudence to "come out to play." I need them to drown out the sound of hypodermic needles being stripped from their wrappers, to out-sing the crisp clack
of some giant stapler-like thingy being readied to pierce flesh. I begin to make deals with God: If it's benign, I'll sponsor an Indian schoolgirl's education. If it's benign, I'll help Julia really nail her multiplication tables. I'll call my mother more, do more dishes, compost for our nonexistent garden.
Biopsies are recent inventions, but negotiating with God must be among man's most ancient ones. Of course, my prebiopsy bargaining was just pleading in disguise: faux brokering between the entirely powerless—a supine woman, clinging to the paper strip down the middle of a doctor's examining table—and the all-powerful, whether one calls it God, the Fates, or "the luck of the draw."
To cut a real deal, both parties need some power. Gangsters and parents both know this well. When Marlon Brando, as Don Corleone, promises to make someone "an offer he can't refuse," it's a bargain struck at gunpoint, another deal-that's-not-one. As a mother, I've used this thuggish tactic more than I'd like to admit. "That's the deal" is a common slogan in our home. When my husband or I use it, our daughters know they've reached a red line, not to be crossed. It is bedtime. That gerbil cage needs cleaning.
Time was, women cut far fewer deals than they do today. In the past, when they remained dependent on their fathers or husbands, their lives were less about striking deals than hoping for the best. Fairy princesses—those perfect models of traditional passivity—don't cut deals. Whether they're sweeping floors while their sisters swan off to the ball or marrying the prince, both drudgery and love fall on them from great heights. Deals don't happen in dictatorships, where, let's face it, most of those princesses live.
Real live women negotiate. Over the past century, we got the vote, the Pill, washer-dryers, and antidiscrimination laws, giving us choices, freedoms—and the ability to strike any number of deals. Nowhere is this more true than in the arena of relationships: In November 2009, the Obamas revealed in The New York Times
that their own partnership is a series of negotiations, a deft balance between his political ambitions and her own professional and familial ones
. When Michelle said that the equality of a union "is measured over the scope of the marriage; it's not just four years or eight years or two," it seemed clear that the post–White House era could very much be hers. Their bald acknowledgment of the brokering involved in their marriage wasn't a sign of two lawyers at work but two equals in love.
To be sure, the traditional blueprint for "marrying well"—her beauty, his paycheck—still proves popular. In my leafy London neighborhood, I know women who have made such deals. They often seem calmer than I am, and they're inevitably sleeker, with taut skin and trainer-honed bodies. Many of their husbands leave the house before dawn to catch the Hong Kong markets when they open, returning home late, ruffling their kids' hair while they sleep. These women vacation on small and exquisite islands, but they're never sure when they'll reach them, as they are tethered to their husbands' timetables. That's the deal.
When I met the man I was to marry, he certainly didn't seem like a deal. Lacking height, a hearty handshake, and career ambitions, he didn't conform to the traditional notions of a catch. Antony was a slight, suburban-born Englishman, a dead ringer for Christopher Robin in Winnie the Pooh.
When we met, he was languidly pursuing a history doctorate, but his keenest aspiration was really to reread Proust—for the umpteenth time—and see as many movies as possible. His vast stores of warmth took time to find, guarded as they were by those twin emotional weapons favored by the British male, irony and reserve. I spent a weekend parsing a document that turned out to be a love letter but which I'd thought was some sort of philosophy essay laced with liner notes from a Prince album.