Paul and I met in 1991. Like any new couple, we each paid our way. It was simple. We each had a car and a home with a mortgage, taxes, and maintenance to support. When we bought groceries to cook together, when we ate out or went to the movies, we split the cost down the middle. Since we earned about the same amount—he as a nonprofit political and energy consultant, I as a writer and editor—what was simple was also fair. And since neither of us earns a lot and our incomes fluctuate from year to year, our consumption styles were also compatible. We both have learned to keep the overhead low, the financial view long, and the gratification delayed.
These facts were additionally important for us, even at the start. We were both thirty-nine, living in two states—I in an apartment in Brooklyn, New York, he in a house in northeastern Vermont—so whenever we were together, we were living together. Those periods together got longer fast. The first year I spent the whole summer in Vermont; soon I was spending a couple of months in the winter there, too, and Paul was coming to New York often. In both places we work at home, so when we are together, we are rarely apart.
With so much proximity, our stuff began to merge. The little things were the first to do so. For instance, I had six green-and-yellow 1950s highball glasses. One by one they broke, until there were two. One afternoon, browsing a crockery store, we came upon some jaunty tall polka-dot glasses on sale. We picked up four, one of us paid with plastic and wrote the sum in our cookie-jar tally. When we settled up, the cost of the glasses was added in along with bread and rice and movie tickets. Now, many years later, we have six tall glasses. Do the green-and-yellow ones still belong to me? Or were they grandfathered in under unspoken joint-property bylaws?
Our books, CDs, dishes, linens, tools, plants, and furniture mingled too. Some of the books are obviously his (anything about electricity or Vermont politics); some are clearly mine (anything about feminism). But what about the bird guides, the Thai and Jewish cookbooks? To whom did the Beatles' White Album CD belong? Who paid for the tablecloth in Lisbon? Who can remember?
Business expenses started bundling: pens and envelopes, a cell phone contract, a DSL line. Each purchase requires calculation. Is it practical (is this expense best kept separate, for accounting purposes)? Is it fair (will s/he use the cell phone much more than I do)? Each asks for a measure of generosity (so what if he uses the cell phone more than I do? I use more envelopes). Each needs to trust that the other will not overspend his or her share.
But a hundred-pack of envelopes is not going to break the budget for either of us, even if the other person ends up using ninety-nine envelopes. It was not until my car died, then, that generosity and trust truly were tested. My eleven-year-old Volkwagen Golf, with 166,000 miles on it, broke irreparably. As it happens, I was broke too. I considered borrowing money for a new car but was already almost eight thousand dollars in debt. Paul had money in the bank. He offered to buy the car. We found a four-year-old Honda Civic in good shape, for sixty-five hundred dollars. I put in a thousand dollars. He picked up the rest.
This decision wasn't automatic. Paul had to think about making the offer, and I had to think about accepting it. Would there be a quid pro quo? Would I feel perpetually guilty or he resentful if I never got around to returning the favor? We couldn't be sure. Still, talking about the car gave us an opportunity to talk about money, which we had rarely done. Paul knew I worried about money, but until that moment I don't think he was aware of how alone I felt, or how often I panicked. We were in this together, he reassured me; he would not let me go under. Now here was concrete proof.