The fall semester of my second to last year of college, I was browsing my OKCupid matches when a cute musician's response to the site's "most private thing I'm willing to admit" caught my eye: "My cat was 100 percent deaf, and I still talked to her." I composed a message that was sure to sweep him off his feet: "My cat was 0 percent English-speaking, and I still talked to him. He was always a Spaniard at heart. Get it? He speaks Catalan."
Somehow, my pun earned a "LOL," and we met for dinner the next week. He came with an essay I'd sent him about my dabblings in New Age spirituality, sympathetic comments penciled in the margins. He confessed that he had dabbled in fringe practices as well. I already felt closer to him than the liberal atheist friends I wouldn't dare discuss past lives or auras with.
The next day, he sent a follow-up text beginning, "Heylo! Get it? It's 'hey' and 'hello,'" and I knew I wasn't alone in my bad puns either. And the day after that, he called me, to my surprise—most of the flakey college guys I exchanged numbers with didn't even text me—and invited me to the animated movie Hugo. We lingered in his Volkswagen Jetta discussing multiple universes and astral travel and missed the first showing. When we finally took our seats in the chilly theater, he draped his jacket over me.
As I took on three jobs, he planned breaks to teach me his favorite childhood card game, Magic the Gathering, and take me to book fairs, where he'd fill $5 all-you-can-fit bags with fantasy novels for himself and feminist theory books for me.
One June afternoon, as he drove me home after a weekend at his parents' house, he confessed that he'd been short on cash since he stopped working as a waiter. Earlier that year, he had quit to devote more time to recording music, woodworking, and teaching drum lessons. Gas was expensive, and since he was the one with the car, he'd been driving me around quite a bit. He asked that I compensate him with $20 a month, about half of what he'd been spending.
I was cheap, rarely tipping bartenders, so the thought of paying for my own date's chauffeur services made me uneasy. However, I trusted that the guy who had used his tips to book a weekend with me at a bed and breakfast wouldn't take advantage of me once he'd lost that spare change. And as a 22-year-old working feminist, I was careful not to further the cultural expectation that men support women.
But after weeks of lending him a few dollars here and there at cafes and gas stations, I started to wish my monthly $20 were a fee to stop him from asking me for money. Since I was not one to dish out cash generously, I kept strict tabs on how much he owed me.
One night at a game store, he suggested we split a $4 pack of Magic cards. When I pointed out that by paying for the whole purchase, he'd cover two of the $11 he owed me for meals, he said he also owed his parents cash for food and gas and was indebted to a friend for woodworking supplies, so he would appreciate if I could let my hard-earned $11 go this time. I did, but not without a fight—and something he said during that fight stuck with me.
"You've never struggled with money. You don't understand," he said.
I hated to admit he was right. I grew up with an upper-middle-class family on Long Island. I was an Ivy League graduate without student loans. My dad frequently reminded me of this, warning me not to let my background make me careless with money; he often doubted my ability to support myself. My desperate attempt to hold onto every dollar I made was an effort to prove my dad wrong. But in reality, I was more than supporting myself with three jobs, and losing $11 would not set me back. After making a fuss over it, I felt the way I did when I mumbled "I'm broke" to beggars with $20 bills in my wallet.
My friends confirmed my nagging suspicion that I was acting stingy, or worse, anti-feminist. One told me she and her husband never thought twice about helping each other out. Another said she and her travel companions all pitched in for gas on trips.
Torn between feeling selfish and resenting my significant other for making me feel selfish, I asked my dad over the phone if I was being a princess. He launched into a tirade about how a "real man" would pay for his own gas. His words had the opposite effect that he'd intended. I didn't want my boyfriend to fit the mold of a "real man." I wanted him to remain sensitive and willing to ask for help, and I wanted our relationship to be financially equal.
As his monetary problems escalated, however, I wondered if the pressure he exerted on me to dole out dollars was its own form of inequality. He was still acquiring new Magic cards and entering tournaments, which cost $20 each, but my monthly $20 was still not enough for him to visit when he promised. After he backed out of plans because of technical difficulties buying Magic cards "as an investment" on eBay and needed the night to "cool off," I felt like I wasn't a priority.
Meanwhile, I was offered a job that could be performed from Boston or New York, and we both assumed I'd go to Boston to remain near him. But as I began doubting our long-term potential, I wondered if he should even be a factor. My impending move became another source of tension. I wasn't the only one feeling placed on the backburner.
After he objected to covering his own glass of wine at my birthday party, I finally voiced the concerns that had been amassing over the course of the summer. He broke down crying, promised he'd never ask me for cash again, put on Ellis Paul's "Take All the Sky You Need," and told me he didn't want to stop me from "flying as high as I could." Looking back, I'm not sure what that song had to do with our argument, but somehow, it ended with me crying in his arms, hopeful to relive our days of $5 book fairs and late nights huddled over cards on my bedroom floor.
I moved to New York that September, visited him once, and called him the next week.
"I miss you," I said. "When can you come?"
That weekend, he was building his parents a shoe rack. The next, Nine Inch Nails were coming to town. Gas was getting ever more expensive, and public transportation was "over-stimulating." I would never be his priority.
"We need to break up," I said into the receiver, and blinked back tears as I left to shop for furniture.
When I confessed to my friends that financial disputes undid my relationship, I felt like a failed feminist. But as I heard other women recount similar experiences of men borrowing money from them and living with them rent-free, I saw it was more empowering to exit a hopeless situation than it would have been to stay.
Meanwhile, I was trying to convince my roommate that exclusively mooching off the WiFi from the Starbucks downstairs exempted me from paying half the Internet bill. I was always more like my ex than I cared to admit—except I had no excuse. He was struggling, and I would not have struggled even if I doled out over $20 a month.
Even though he wasn't the one, if the best match for me is short on change, he won't need to ask for help twice.
Heartbreak prevented me from seeing my ex for a year and a half after the breakup, but finally, we reunited as friends over sushi. Since my meal cost three bucks more than his, I offered to cover the tip in addition to half the bill.
"It's fine if we split it," he said.
"No, I insist."
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