We never once talked about money. I talked around it, bumped up against it, and felt it hovering like a thick shadow. I wasn’t about to bring it up. What was I going to say, “You seem pretty rich”?
Early on, it was none of my business. But even without trying too hard, I could piece together that his Ivy League finance degree and MBA set him up for a nice lifestyle. But he didn’t have a car, so I thought that spoke of a certain down-to-Earthness that comforted me. That he actually took cabs everywhere was something I pretended not to notice and dared not add up.
On our second date he explained hedge funds to me in such depth that I forget that we were really talking about money. Big money. I followed along, but was afraid to ask questions because I didn’t want to seem like I cared that much. Because I didn’t.
Every dinner out, I offered to pay, and I meant it, even though his idea of an “any night” restaurant was my idea of a special occasion restaurant. He always laughed when I flashed my earnest Visa debit card. I was sincere, but he looked at me as if I was being ridiculous as he plunked down his jewel-toned American Express. I kept offering and kept meaning it.
As time went on, it got harder not to notice money stuff. Wealth markers appeared like mile signs on the highway. At a party his neighbor told me that he owned the two-story penthouse that she lived in. I’m his renter, she said with a slurry exuberance. I tried to unknow that fact because it felt like a violation of his privacy, as if she’s slipped me pictures of him in compromising positions.
One of my friends saw his family’s name carved into stones in front of the museum– Major benefactors, she exclaimed. I made a mental note to take the side exit if I ever went to the Field Museum.
The whole unspeakableness of it made me uncomfortable, but the longer we dated, the less words I had. I never knew if I was insulting him by offering to pay or if it was outrageous and offensive to assume he was Bruce Wayne, minus the whole Batman gig.
Seven months in, we took a trip and he carefully outlined that I would pay for my airfare and he would “pick up the rest.” I swooned when he detailed the financial arrangements– the explicitness, the clarity–it made me feel like I could breathe normally again.
He grew preoccupied about a family feud involving the unspeakable fortunes that were still none of my business. His oblique references were hard to follow, but I intuited that the subject was nuclear. I sat in the back seat of his mother’s Lexus on the way home from brunch at the Ritz while they spoke through clenched teeth about “assets” and “tax shelters.” It had taken me three months to ask him if he voted Republican, so there was no way I was going to be able to initiate conversations as intimate as those concerning a family fortune.
Our relationship inevitably frayed into nothing when what we couldn’t talk about snuffed out the handful of things that had sustained us. We parted on decent-but-distant terms as two people who’d kept each other at arms’ length must.
Years later, I took the front entrance to the Field Museum. I stood on the stones bearing his family’s name, wondering if his great family fortune has finally risen or fallen. Of course it was none of my business; it never was.