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For love or money? A tough call, writer finds

What happens when your soul mate can't give you security? One woman ponders the true meaning of "for richer or poorer" in this essay from "The Secret Currency of Love," an anthology about love and money.
/ Source: TODAY books

Money can't buy you love — and love won't always bring you money, either. Author Lucy Kaylin, executive editor of Marie Claire magazine, ponders the true meaning of "for richer or poorer" in this excerpt from "The Secret Currency of Love," an anthology of essays about the intersection between love and money.

I met Kimball during the go-go eighties, a time of gaudy ego and reckless consumption, of stockbroker as rock star. In New York City, how common it was to see bands of those raucous, self-satisfied money men in their striped power ties pouring out of bars after yet another world-beating bell-ringer of a day downtown.

Occasionally, I got caught up in it — we all did — dancing with boys in suits at cavernous fantasia clubs, choking down martinis. But at heart, none of that was really me. The daughter of arty-farty, self-deprecating lefties, I knew I was little more than a tourist of the decade.

Kimball, whom I’d repeatedly glimpsed on campus during graduate school and finally met years later at a book party, was much more my type. Apart from his good looks (lean, with coat hanger shoulders, a fetchingly craggy face, eyebrows that looked like they’d been woven from horsehair), he had deep knowledge about esoteric things like bookbinding, marine fossils, and Beat poetry; for our first date, he took me to see the Gutenberg Bible at the Morgan Library. He wore cool thrift-store suit jackets over sweaters with zippers; down the road, he calligraphed me love notes on handmade paper. Unlike the overstuffed, red-faced financial dudes who wore their ambitions so garishly, Kimball had mystique.

What he didn’t have, however, was bank. Armed with that license to print money, a master’s degree in library science, he worked as a rare book expert at one of the big auction houses. I loved and admired him for the expertise, the connoisseurship it took to do that job — for the sheer righteousness of turning his obsession with books into a career. But, as the eighties became the nineties and the tech stock boom threatened to turn everyone around us into millionaires, Kimball’s defiantly boho worldview was, for me, losing some of its allure. While friends were buying condos, we were pooling our change for the $12 Mexican entrée.

Problem was, I loved him. I loved his quiet obsessions, his chic reserve, his utter devotion to me. Amid the breast-beating vulgarians chasing a buck, I prized his singular uncheesiness and his appetite for quirk, however unremunerative. I loved the way he hunched over his loopy little art projects, making woodcuts and collages and inscrutable tableaux from bits of foil and newsprint — the way he’d dip his pen nib in an inkwell and scratch out a couplet. For my birthday one especially penniless year, he painted phrases on T-shirts, one of which read “I love your chestnut eyes” — stacking the last four words in such a way that they spelled my first name vertically.

And yet ... I wasn’t so unaffected — so uninfected — by the times that I didn’t crave some piece of the pretty good life. I’d grown crass enough to want to live like an adult someday, with chairs and couches I hadn’t hauled in from the sidewalk; I hoped to graduate, eventually, from a futon to a bed. Working long hours as an assistant at a magazine, treating my apartment like a walk-in closet, eating popcorn for dinner (topped with grated parmesan if I was feeling flush) — I indulged in the archaic, sexist fantasy of a guy swooping in one day and taking me away from all that.

But was Kimball, with whom I’d been involved at this point for a couple of years, the guy to do it? The son of a self-made father of four who compulsively switched off lights around the house and ground out a living by repossessing the TVs, couches, and cars of folks who couldn’t pay their bills, Kimball had no stomach for hardball — no appetite for the aggressive pursuit of a buck. Instead, he rid himself of the dirty stuff the moment he got his hands on some, compulsively picking up the bar tab when out with friends — even second- and third-tier friends — never mind that the tab might constitute a full quarter of his salary. Kimball was the sort of guy who’d sooner gouge out his own eyeballs with a fork than publicly split a check and figure out the tax. And he found the unseemly settling up one is expected to do each month with utility and credit card companies to be such an unremitting buzz-kill that he tended those relationships haphazardly.

Of course, I brought fiscal baggage of my own to the relationship, having grown up modestly in a quaint little town in Connecticut. My father was that very cool thing, a writer — originally of pulp fiction and later of the would-be great American novel. Sadly, a publishing contract for the latter never materialized; my father literally went decades without making a nickel. To be fair, this turn in his career took place after my sister and I had already left for college, so it’s not as if we suffered (my father had a day job at a publishing company while we were growing up; my mother was a social worker). But the concomitant deferral of dreams would become a source of constant, low-grade stress in the family. Although I revered him totally and grew up valuing the unmercenary, cultured pursuit, I also feared it; I knew how that kind of rarefied idealism could betray you. For better or worse, so much hinges on one’s ability to earn — especially if one is a man. When it came to Kimball, I wasn’t eager to take on the disappointments, limitations, and, yes, failings of yet another purist.

As such, over the course of the next few years, our relationship was dizzyingly on and off. During breakups that typically lasted a month or two, I’d set about dating a woolly array of seemingly more marriageable guys — the suit-wearing VPs and financial analysts who crowed about their investments over dinner and thwapped down the plastic as nonchalantly as if shooing a fly. Some actually owned cars — can you imagine? Virtually all wore clothes they’d bought new — pinstripes and cotton that reeked equally of dry-cleaning chemicals and prosperity.

But try as I might, I couldn’t break free of Kimball, as circumstances repeatedly threw us into each other’s path. One night I was at a restaurant on a date with someone else when he walked in, alone. And I was so poleaxed by the sight of him that the date banter quickly dwindled to monosyllables. Soon after, Kimball and I actually left together, with the bemused blessing of the guy I’d come in with. Even he could see we were meant to be together.

About six years into our checkered relationship, Kimball conquered his fear of convention and institutions long enough to actually propose marriage to me. The reception, I like to think, was quintessential us — spirited and classy in spite of itself, thanks to things money can’t buy, like a sky full of stars and fireflies lighting a dance floor ringed by ancient hemlocks. In that carefree, generous, soul-expanding idyll, who could have known we were about to embark on the year of living stingily — in every sense?

It was my doing. Yes, I’d surrendered to my love for this man, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t reform him, couldn’t fix him. So desperate was I to protect us — me — from the sort of financial lassitude I’d feared would be our undoing, I chased down every penny that came and went from our home. With the stealth of someone who thinks she’s being cheated on, I snuck peeks at Kimball’s bank and credit card statements and grilled him about them later. Did you pay it? How much? When does the late fee kick in? Have you communicated with your creditors? Call the good folks at Amex and tell them what’s up. When a limited edition print or a book with a hand-tooled binding showed up — not some midlife crisis-y electronics or a Bugatti, mind you — I questioned Kimball on how much it cost. Can we afford this? Having thrown my lot in with his, I made it my mission to put his financial affairs in order and transform him into a fit life partner.

Our first wedding anniversary arrived in June. We celebrated with an uncharacteristically pricey dinner downtown at an haute celeb-haunt. Feeling giddy about the more or less good year we’d had, I raised my glass of champagne to him, expressed my love, and proposed a bit of a parlor game: Let’s each say what our big hopes and desires are for our marriage in the year to come.

Me first: head cocked, starry-eyed, yet somehow still ... corrective in tone, I suggested something about communicating more fully and anticipating each other’s needs. We clinked glasses and took a sip on that, amid the posh clatter of A-listers nibbling miso cod.

Then came Kimball’s turn.

He squared his shoulders and looked right at me — not his style, really. “My hope for this year is that you will get off my back about money,” he said, lowering the champagne glass — his blue eyes turning stormy. “My hope is that you will stop hounding me about my credit cards and what I spend. Because if you don’t, we’re not going to make it. I’m serious about this.”

Kimball leaned back in his chair, without breaking eye contact. “I’m thirty-nine years old; I’ve been taking care of myself for a long time. And maybe I’m not perfect with money, but I’m not irresponsible. I’ve always had a roof over my head and everything I’ve needed. I’m fine. And you can love me or not — that’s your choice. But you have to stop trying to change me, because it’s not going to work.”

It was a classic come-to-Jesus moment — the most dire of my life. I hadn’t had them often, accustomed as I was to spackling over tensions with chitchat and rhetoric; there is very little I cannot rationalize, and it simply isn’t like me to be rendered speechless. But tonight was different. I felt the space between us growing, as if the table itself were pushing us apart; I saw Kimball hardening — saw the hairline cracks in his typically loving facade. I saw the damage I had done. Although he is not the type to issue threats, the message was clear. I saw in that moment that I stood to lose everything.

“Okay,” I said — nothing more. We clinked glasses.

In the dozen years since, amazing things have happened. Once it sunk in that acceptance, trust, and faith are the real mortar of a marriage, I eased up considerably on the nudging and the judging — even rolling with the occasional overdraft notice, the sort of thing that used to send me into a white-hot, hand-wringing, garment-rending freak-out. For his part, Kimball actually developed an interest in finance. Not only did he start making decent money as an art adviser and appraiser, having parlayed his bone-deep passion into a wildly marketable skill, but he even began gravitating to the stock pages and making appointments with be-suited investment advisers with names like Mike. Unbelievably, Kimball is now in charge of our financial affairs — he’s our liaison with the tax guy, our point person on estate matters — and doing a darn good job of it. We’re fine. We own a three-bedroom co-op in Manhattan, for god’s sake. The wolves simply aren’t at the door.

Did he take all of this on for me? Maybe, in part — I can be a pest, but never a monster, and I know he wanted things between us to work out. But we also had a baby on the way, and it’s amazing how the mere idea of that can transform a person.

Most important, with me off his back, Kimball could grow and change on his own, as opposed to being clipped and pruned and tortured into some unnatural shape. I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this was all it would take; some years earlier, after much haranguing and cajoling on my part to get him to give up cigarettes, he quit cold turkey — while out of town for a few weeks on business, alone and away from me.

Not that he’ll be donning tweed and nestling into a club chair anytime soon. I count on Kimball, now the fit and happy father of two, for his defiantly offbeat take on what it means to be the man of the house — whether he’s papier-mâché-ing cereal boxes in the kitchen with the kids, reading them some elliptical, transcendental verse by way of a bedtime story, or defending my son’s right not to get a haircut.

Kimball is a great provider in the deepest sense of the word. As for the lesson in real love he taught me, I’ll always be in his debt.

Lucy Kaylin, the executive editor of Marie Claire magazine, is the author of “The Perfect Stranger: The Truth About Mothers and Nannies” and “For the Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun.” She lives in New York City.

Click here for a trailer for the “The Secret Currency of Love,” and find out more about the book here.