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.