He went ballistic. Telling M about my debt was not going well. He started to do the frantic head-clutching move reserved for extreme stress and duress, and he looked at me like he’d never seen me before. I bawled.
“How much???” He practically keened and clutched his head some more.
And here, I have to confess that I shaved off a few thousand dollars because I was scared out of my wits, but then quickly admitted the real sum because at this point our future together seemed unlikely. What did I have to lose? By the time I told M about my financial burden, I’d managed to chisel down my credit card balance to $13,000 from $22,600 in 15 months and had started making my monthly grad school payments. My total debt came out to approximately $30,000. His eyes bulged.
Then, still protecting his head as if to ward off an oncoming asteroid, M did something unimaginable. He said, “I’ll help you.” Help? Keep in mind, this was a man who had just lost his business with the collapse of the dot com bubble and was sleeping on the floor of a minuscule apartment, surrounded by all the computer equipment from their defunct company. I couldn’t understand what he was saying.
He had some stock that he could sell, he told me. Not enough to cover all of my debt, but enough for the credit card amount. This was an act so outrageous and so unexpected, I absolutely refused. No. Nonononononono. I was even more ashamed — I couldn’t owe my boyfriend money! I can pay it off by myself in a few years, I insisted. But he wouldn’t take my refusal. He said he couldn’t be with me while I carried on wasting money through so much interest. Debt, in every way, made him crazy.
After much heated debate, we came to an agreement. I would accept his generosity, but I would pay him back every penny and make drastic changes to do so. I would let go of the last vestige of my mirage of living the covetable life: my dream apartment. My charming little studio with crown moldings and the claw foot tub in the stylish neighborhood of Russian Hill. My money-draining haven that I gripped onto because I didn’t want people to know how bad a shape I was in financially. Instead, I would move into M’s slightly cheaper and decidedly dilapidated apartment, and he and his business partner, by necessity, would move back to Seattle HQ to officially close up shop. The San Francisco expansion had failed. His whole business had failed.
Secretly, I was relieved that I wouldn’t be moving into Fight Club in Chinatown where roaches skittered ceaselessly and the bunkmates were all men – That was where M first lived when he arrived in town, but a few months after we started dating he had found an affordable rental in North Beach (affordable at least by SF standards though I can’t find the exact amount in any of my journals). He’d marginally upgraded to an alleyway flat that reeked of a blend of bolognese sauce and raw fish and lived with his business partner while shutting down his tech company.
It was a period of turmoil. M handed me a check for $13,000 and left San Francisco. I cut up my credit cards and paid them off, sold almost everything I owned which wasn’t much, really. A dresser. Some pots and pans. A friend agreed to store my iron daybed. I scrubbed clean my sweet studio I’d called home for three years, and moved into M’s dingy room with one tiny window, and became the warden of his computer equipment. Since I couldn’t afford to pay for the entire apartment by myself, we found a girl from the Czech Republic and her American boyfriend to settle into the other bedroom. I began a new and confusing chapter of frugal living.
Perhaps the word “grim” described the situation best. Or maybe “appalling”. I would often wake up in the middle of the night while sleeping on the tatami (bamboo) mat that M had randomly inherited from somewhere. My roommates fought at top volume in the wee hours, often following it up with wild and equally loud love-making. They ate my food in the fridge without ever acknowledging it, and in the bathroom, I was greeted by her leopard print and neon thong underwear strewn all over the place (this would explain my intense aversion to leopard print now). Food crusted the counter tops and floor and our place looked less like a human habitat and more like a guinea pig cage. A guinea pig cage with really dirty guinea pigs. They were both smokers, and somehow had difficulty with the concept of ashtrays, so I would step into mounds of ashes and cigarette butts every morning when I left for work. I’m pretty sure they dabbled in hard drugs too and their source of income was a mystery. We barely exchanged words except for my meek requests for cleaning help. I started to notice things disappearing: my scarf, a pair of shoes. And this was just the first month.
Meanwhile, I avoided my friends because I now lived in what was essentially squalor with two delinquents, still with significant debt, and I had a hard time wrapping my head around my new set of circumstances. How did I end up here?
Owing M money made me feel worse than the previously looming presence of anonymous creditors. This new fiscal arrangement introduced a weird dynamic between us, and living in different cities didn’t help. We hadn’t quite worked out the logistics of how I was going to pay him back (would the rent I’m paying count since I was subleasing from him? Do I send him monthly checks? Do I pay him back in one lump-sum? It made me dizzy), and he now viewed me as irresponsible with money. Rightly so, but that didn’t soften the blow. I could sense distrust on his part, and that hit me hardest. Even though we talked on the phone frequently, neither of us could spare the extra cash to visit each other. Long distance relationships are notoriously difficult to maintain, and we knew that.
And then my roommates stopped paying their rent.
To be continued….*
*Okay, I actually have the whole thing written out, but it is mega mega long, so I had to cut it off. Finale on Friday + a giveaway that’s a little different from my usual fare!