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February 19, 2007

Living Together Left Me $26,000 in Debt

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The year Chris finally became a jet pilot, we stopped flying together. He took his mom to Las Vegas all the time, but it was too hard to get me a seat, he said — I wasn't family. One day, my mom sent me a book about a man who loved airplanes more than his fiancée. My parents hated that I was just living with him, but I'd done it against their wishes, and I was determined to make it work. I'd already downgraded my wedding fantasy: Gone were visions of a big party and my perfect puffy dress. I replaced them with a smaller, simpler ceremony. After all, I rationalized, we'd been together so long, who needed a big party? I knew his friends; he knew mine. That May, yet another one tied the knot. "You'll be next!" she laughed. It was a running joke. But I felt like the punch line. Finally, I confronted him.

"Where do you see your life in five years?" I blurted out.

"I don't know," Chris said.

"C'mon," I pressed. "Do you see yourself in a house? What do you see?"

"I think I'll have a house," he said slowly. "And I'll be a captain. And I'll have a better car."

I couldn't believe it; I didn't figure anywhere in his five-year plan.

"Do you see yourself married?" I asked.

"I don't think I do," he said carefully.

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Don't you like this the way it is?" he asked.

"I think you need to leave," I said.

It's been two years now, and I haven't really dated anyone since. For months, I cried like crazy, for the lost time, the lost dream — who I'd become waiting for him, what I'd put on hold. Because after I dried the tears, this is what I saw: I had been 23, and hopeful, when Chris first stepped off that plane. At 31 I was single again, scarred, and starting from scratch. Worse, perhaps. I had far more debt — $26,000 — than when I met him. Not to mention the $36,000 he owed me in back rent alone — which he acknowledged, and I tried, in vain, to collect. If we were married, it would be different. After all, I did the time. But I was never his wife, and I had no recourse.

I thought about it a lot. When, exactly, our relationship froze; why I was willing to prop us both up for so long. I don't think I'm alone in this. I've seen plenty of smart, strong friends go to amazing lengths to keep broken relationships aloft. But I do, in part, blame myself. Sure, I was good to Chris. I was good at supporting his dreams, and absorbing his debts, but at my own expense. I hated myself for that. So I took a long, hard look at the should-haves: ultimatums I didn't issue, signs I refused to see, and why I didn't pull the rip cord much sooner. All I can say is that it's curious how myopic we become in the pursuit of love — and particularly marriage. I didn't need it. I wore the suits. I was the breadwinner. But, I had to admit, beneath the career woman was this retro me, the Amy in that vintage cartoon, who really wanted it — clamored for her big dress, her turn to cut the cake, but also for something more enduring: the commitment I imagined marriage would provide. It's why I pinned my hopes on Chris for so long. I still hope to find it. Only this time, I won't try to will it into existence. I'll look for someone willing to give it in return.

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