I was 27 the year my first novel sold for half a million dollars. During the three years I spent writing the book, I’d gotten by on next to nothing, eating ramen noodles for dinner and living in a rented apartment in Colorado over what may or may not have been a meth lab. I had $10,000 in credit card debt and $30,000 in student loans, and the most I’d ever earned in a single year was $15,000. Half a million dollars, I remember thinking, was more money than I could spend in a lifetime.
I’d never had money before, and now that I did, I had no idea what I was supposed to do with it. I met with bankers and accountants, strangers in suits who helped me divvy my new money into the kinds of accounts I hadn’t known existed, for purposes I hadn’t ever thought about: a CD for the significant chunk I would owe in taxes; a health savings account (HSA) to cover the deductible on the medical-insurance policy I could finally afford; an IRA to protect a portion of the money for the unimaginable day when I would need it to live on. Afterward, they would shake my hand and congratulate me on my success: I was making such good choices with my money!
In other matters, my choices were less admirable. While working on the book, I’d become involved with a man to whom I was now hopelessly and desperately committed. He was smart, talented and unwaveringly confident in my ability to succeed as a writer. He was also my former professor, twice my age and married with two children.
He lived in Montana, and though our relationship had developed almost entirely over e-mail, it was my most shameful secret, more isolating and terrifying even than my poverty. Again and again, I told myself I had to stop, but again and again, I found myself writing to him, waiting for him, wanting from him. Then, a few months before the sale of my book, he separated from his wife. A few months after, we moved in together. For a brief time, I existed in a kind of dream state. It was as if every wish I’d ever made had suddenly been granted. After years of doubt and loneliness, of suppressed guilt and profound longing, of jolting from sleep in a panic about how I would pay my rent, there I was: Author! Girlfriend! Half-a-millionaire!
As soon as I arrived in Montana, I began to awaken to the reality of the situation. My boyfriend—who had joint custody of his two children, then 12 and 16—had rented an apartment a few blocks from the house he’d shared with his wife, but he’d brought almost nothing with him except for a table and chairs. During our first dinner together, the children stopped me before I could sit down. That, they said, pointing at my chair, was where their mother sat. Not in this empty apartment, of course, but in the house where they all used to live together. The children were skittish and brusque in my presence, their grief and confusion still raw on their faces. I was a total stranger. No space existed for me at that table, yet there I was, glass of wine in one hand, fork in the other: There wasn’t much else for me to do but stay and eat. And so we stood for a moment, all of us, then shuffled places.
In the weeks that followed, we passed many awkward meals together. Someone often yelled and someone often cried and someone, sometimes, got up and stormed out. From his friends and family my boyfriend received calls and e-mails and visits: What was he thinking? Had he lost his mind? I began to envision his life as a giant set of scales: On one side were his marriage, family, friends and reputation; on the other side was me. Despite the obvious imbalance, he had chosen me. I could say I hadn’t known the suffering I would cause simply by showing up, but the truth is that I hadn’t wanted to know. Once I was there, though, the knowledge was unavoidable. Sitting at the dinner table night after night, I found myself face to face with the reality of what had been broken, of how many things had been lost.
And because I could not undo what had been done, because I could fix nothing, I tried instead to replace it. I was nobody’s mother, nobody’s wife, but I began to imagine I could be a kind of fairy godmother, armed with the power of my newly earned money, granting wishes with a magical wave of my credit card.
I started with what had been left behind at the other house: gas grill ($1,000); electric guitar ($1,200); PlayStation ($250). I bought rugs ($3,000), high-thread-count sheets ($350) and matching duvet ($400), a black leather sofa ($2,000).
The more I bought, the less I seemed to have. Though we had been involved for years, my boyfriend and I were in many ways strangers. We had opposing patterns and practices. We fought over everything: when to clean, what to eat, who said what to whom in which tone of voice. Mostly, though, we fought over money.
“I’m paying for everything!” I cried.
“So stop!” he said.
But I couldn’t stop. Paying made me feel useful, important, in control. It made me feel absolved. Well, it made me feel as though I might someday be absolved. After I’d paid for all the things I thought we needed, I kept on paying for things we didn’t. When the children argued over what they wanted for dinner, I paid the check at a restaurant where we each could order what we liked. When tension began to rise or blame began to fall, I paid for plane tickets and shopping sprees. But all the while, I felt an awareness growing: My money wasn’t solving any of our problems; it was just making it easier for us to avoid facing them. All I was buying was time.
For a bit, that was enough. I would pay for a trip or a party or a new set of clothes, and the whole family would, for a few brief moments, seem to have everything they wanted. I longed to lock those moments down, to own them, to get a receipt. Which is how, a year after I moved to Montana, I found myself writing a check for $125,000 to make the down payment on a house.
There are plenty of reasons that buying this house would turn out to be a big mistake, the most obvious being that (1) I could not afford it—the house cost $500,000, the same amount I’d gotten for my book, only before the cut that went to my agent, and the cut that went to the government, and the cut that went to all that crap I’d bought; (2) only a fool would believe that an empty house could be enough to make people happy; (3) the day I signed the check, I already knew that nothing was going to be enough to make us happy. Once again, I found myself jolting from sleep at night, panicked not about rent or groceries but about the man sleeping beside me and about the distance between us, which, every day, widened a little more. The more time I tried to buy, the more quickly it seemed to pass.
Two years after I bought the house, my boyfriend and I called it quits. I put the house up for sale and fled to New York, a city where no one looks too closely at anyone else’s humiliation, where people let you be alone with your shame.
This was in 2009, and the house was worth 25 percent less than it was when I bought it. For the year it sat on the market, I paid the monthly mortgage ($2,500) along with rent on my sixth-floor walk-up ($1,500). Because the house was empty, the monthly cost of insurance doubled($1,000). In the fall, the basement flooded ($500). In winter, the sidewalks had to be shoveled ($300). In spring, the front yard sprouted weeds ($600).
That’s the thing about the big mistakes: You don’t just pay; you pay, and pay, and pay, and pay.
I spent a lot of time on the phone with strangers, pleading for deferments, or reductions, or loans. Every time I opened my e-mail, another bill was due.
I told the real estate agent in Montana to drop the asking price, but he said that if he dropped it any lower, I wouldn’t get any of my down payment back. That didn’t matter, I told him; just make it disappear.
When I called the accountant about withdrawing money from my IRA, he said this was the worst time to take out money. I’d lost more than half of it in the crash. If I withdrew the money now, I would suffer a substantial loss. There was $45,000 left in the account; it was the last of my book money. But I could not imagine a loss more substantial than the one I had already suffered. Before we hung up, he told me I should know I wasn’t the only person this had happened to. I was still young, he said. There was time to recover.
Three years later, I’m 35 and still far from recovered. Recovery is incremental. You can’t simply make a declaration to live more consciously or choose more carefully or consume more responsibly. The work is delicate and deliberate and difficult, and it happens so gradually that without your even noticing, the events from which you’re recovering begin to seem fragmented, dreamlike and very far away: that time I blew through half a million dollars and ended up with a black leather sofa; that time we went to Amsterdam; that time we made a wrong turn and saw a house we thought we could not live without.
I recently sold my third book, but I no longer think of money as a magical power or cure-all. It’s a tool, nothing more, something that, with care and caution, will buy me only enough time to write the next one. I’ve learned that real power comes not from what you can buy for people but from how honest you can be with them. There is magic in healing, and it has nothing to do with gifts or trinkets. It comes, instead, from straightforwardness, from sincerity, from vulnerability, from the capacity to stand, empty-handed, before the people you love and admit, I made a mistake, and from the willingness to say, free of agenda or expectation, I’m sorry.
Aryn Kyle's latest book is Boys and Girls Like You and Me.
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