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.