The blue Maserati that almost hit me on my evening walk around the neighborhood had an Om symbol stuck to its rear fender. What a way to have gone, I thought in the aftermath. Mowed down by a totally Zen millionaire.
I’d returned to my mother’s house to avoid death, after all. Not only from the virus but from my own hand. After two and a half months in lockdown alone in my apartment, I was starting to look for a way out.
The darkness crept in. I’d been expecting it.
I thought about calling a friend from college that I hadn’t talked to in a long time—she lived in the same city and had pills. Lots of them. Years earlier, I lived with her, and one night she’d dumped a large jar of pharmaceuticals out on the kitchen table and we’d googled the serial numbers stamped into each pill to sort them.
Would she help a sister out and, say, give me the correct combination of pills, to be washed down with vodka while calmly lying on my bed, waiting for my long-dead father to appear and take me home?
I would offer to pay her, I thought.
I would offer her every bit of cash I had at hand. It would be more money than she had by a factor of at least ten, probably more. There was an even greater amount to be had, but to access that in cash would require too many phone calls.
Then, I fell in love. It was easy to fall in love in quarantine—fear and loneliness doing what they do and all, I got too attached, even more attached than usual as there I was, in an apartment, afraid. Finding this man again and discovering our similarities in our long conversations was, in so many ways, a dose of hope that allowed me to hold off on asking my friend for a handful of those pills we had sorted years earlier. Love is the drug, and his daily texts and phone calls were better than any chemical compound that would have taken me out of this mess.
We had unusual things in common: the same rare genetic disorder—connective tissue misfires that I recognized from my own body making him all the more beautiful to me. Much-older fathers who died a week apart in 1992. A fondness for looking at houses on Vermont real estate websites. In lockdown, he read my novel and said it was a guidebook for falling in love with me. He told me my writing comforted him. Someday, he promised, he would make me a casserole.
In 2020, I was confident that we were facing the end. The sacrifice of staying indoors in hopes of next year being one where we can go outside and hug our friends without fear was tempered with the latent fear that it may not have been worth it. Would I flame out? Would it be the virus? My Marfan syndrome-ridden aorta finally tearing open? How many people that I love would I lose?
Like everyone else living through The Death Age, I confront existential issues like, What is it all for? What was all that work? What if I never publish another book? Can I be grateful that I got to do it once?
And, of course, my desire for partnership has, for years, been a need unmet. Even in good times. And it continued to be, in bad times.
There, I gave away one of the endings.
A pandemic and a man with the same poorly built aorta, and still.
We will not remember this time as the golden age of mental health. I, like you and everyone else, was not operating at the highest level of, let’s say, dignity and sanity. I was not suicidal, but from a fearful and hopeless place, alone in a world on pause, I did think about my friend and her jar of pills.
Although I am very careful in word and deed, when this man was telling me how wonderful I was by way of ending things, how smart, how beautiful, how caring, how I would be a fantastic partner to him, how I would be good to his children, how I would bring so much love to his life, but he just couldn’t, I blurted out my family’s net worth.
I do not believe for a second that this dollar amount, which fluctuates based on the market and is all theoretical anyway, has anything to do with my worth as a human being. But I threw it on the table, like a freshly caught fish in one of those hackneyed dating site photos.
I have never uttered this dollar amount to another human being.
He was underemployed and had been in a bad way for a while. Though he didn’t say this was one of the reasons he didn’t wish to continue our courtship, it kind of hung there in the air. Why he didn’t deserve me. Why I shouldn’t want him.
No one needs to know that number, and the number itself is something of a fiction anyway. I do not control that money. It, in fact, controls my family: only as an adult did I register how members of my family gave away their very selves all to stay in the family trust.
But still, I know it’s there every minute of every hour. And if he liked me better than all of his exes combined, as he said, but was still giving me the heave-ho, maybe the fact that I came with a handsome dowry might stop him from running away.
Money can be used to buy things you want, like a house, like a bottle of nail polish, like sushi, like a trip to France. For one split, unhinged second, I thought maybe it could buy me what I wanted, too.
“I guess I won’t be paying for your kids’ college,” I spat.
I don’t expect everyone to understand the complexities of wealth. For starters, any and every rich family is fucked up. Mine is no exception. My grandfather was the impoverished child of Armenian Genocide survivors. He was smart and lucky in business and died one of the wealthiest men in his smallish California town. His estate was not distributed equitably among his heirs, and that’s its own story.
Money itself doesn’t make anyone happy. My grandfather died rich, and also miserable and scared in a body stilled by ALS.
The street where my mother lives is dotted with rich old widows: sad, but in far better financial shape than most women their age. They are the lucky ones, based merely on the fact that they were married to men who did very well for themselves. My mother does not fit in with this crowd. “Small dick!” she once yelled at a man around her age who was stalking the Whole Foods parking lot in his Lamborghini. It was pathetic, she argued, to drive a car like that five miles an hour and think you’re hot shit.
It is not lost on me that the reason we have all been stuck at home avoiding the virus for so long is because of the greed of the very wealthy: we cannot have vaccines, medications, freedom itself, unless some rich person stands to get richer on the back of this tragedy. The virus is allowed to ravage on because the Trump administration would rather we all get sick and die than pay people to stay home. If we’d been paid to stay home, if businesses had been bailed out, if we placed a higher value as a society on human life than on forcing people back to work, maybe we’d be out at karaoke hugging our friends right now.
To what end, I wondered, is money even for?
If so many people die and you don’t care.
If money is your god, yet it brings so much human suffering.
If the landscape it creates is a hellscape where simple comforts are all but forbidden.
A good friend of mine openly hates rich people. I can’t blame her, really. So do I.
The correlation between wealth and being a total piece of shit is real, and I sometimes wonder where I get off believing that I’m any different.
When I was a child, NBC ran a miniseries about the heiress Barbara Hutton called Poor Little Rich Girl. Poor little rich Barbara Hutton was the heir to the Woolworth fortune. She was, at times, the wealthiest woman in the world, her fortune topping off at one billion dollars in today’s money, and while the press made the mistake of assuming that she had it all, the fact of her seven husbands, most of whom bled her dry, leaving her to die bankrupt, should have pointed to things not being all that great for her.
To be clear, I am nowhere near Barbara Hutton’s level of wealth, but in the days after I told the man I was in love with that number, the phrase poor little rich girl flowed through my brain at a clip that brings me shame.
It’s true: money can buy you out of most of your problems. When my apartment was uninhabitable due to the management allowing construction during lockdown, I packed a suitcase and stayed at an Airbnb three blocks away.
Money can buy you out of discomfort.
He and I both had problems that my money could solve.
He admitted once: I even thought to myself that you could fix all of my financial problems.
If you track down old photos of Barbara Hutton online, her face betrays a lot of pain.
She didn’t live in an era of self-care, of canisters of Calm magnesium drink, of therapy, of “you go, girl!” self-love. Back then, you were a woman in a station, wife/mother or not. In Great Depression-era America, the fact that she had so much money gave her a kind of tragic fame. But for a girl with no mother who didn’t know who she was, that money drew danger.
She tried to buy a cure for pain.
The pandemic changed my relationship to money as it changed my relationship to the future: there might not be a future. There might not be a tomorrow. Someone I love may die, or may end up permanently disabled, forever different in the brain or body because of this time.
And so, my reasoning went, with regard to this man that I had fallen hard for: there might not be a tomorrow. We only have now. I am not stingy. I can help you through now and maybe there will be a tomorrow and maybe there won’t, but it won’t matter because either way, I love you and am in a position to be generous.
But also, this doesn’t come without expectations: you have to save me from my loneliness. You have to tell me I’m worthy of love and then live that as your truth. You have to choose me.
That’s not nothing. That is absolutely asking for something in return.
One of the questions that Adrian Nicole LeBlanc attempted to answer in her book Random Family, a quasi-anthropological book chronicling the lives of poor Puerto Rican women in the Bronx in the early 1990s, was why, when impoverished people unexpectedly receive a windfall, they spend it all quickly. Because if they don’t share the wealth, she reasoned, they risk being shunned by their people. If members of this community ran off to buy a sensible house, applying white patriarchal capitalist values to their lives, they would lose their communities.
Instead, they pass the wealth around until it’s gone.
Most people who were responsible for shaping my moral outlook on money would argue that a poor person with a fat check should use that money to create stability as defined under capitalism, where there is no value placed on close human relationships.
When choosing between the love and support of other people, or a down payment on a reasonably priced house in the suburbs, the people I know choose the house easily.
I recall a scene from book in which one of the matriarchs LeBlanc writes about makes a big batch of arroz con pollo and serves it to everyone in the building where she lived. She couldn’t afford to feed everyone, but she did anyway, because community is everything. So is love.
To me, love and community add up to a very moral life.
In 2005, my friend Shawn Levy published a biography of Porfirio Rubirosa, the Dominican playboy famous for marrying, and leaving, a string of high-profile heiresses, including Barbara Hutton, who counted Rubirosa as her fifth of seven husbands. Rubirosa and Hutton were married for all of three months in 1954, and his leaving made national headlines. I wrote to Shawn to ask him if he thought Hutton knew she was being used or if she believed Rubirosa loved her, and this is what he wrote back:
Hutton was strictly predatory on [Rubirosa’s] part (and, indeed, on the part of all of her husbands except for Cary Grant). She was sickly, delusional, poetic; he was vile… Hutton was, like, looted by everyone, and Rubi was at his utter worst as a grifter when courting/marrying her. Truly distasteful. (Can you imagine how that book would have to be written today???)
It wasn’t as if people didn’t know what Rubirosa was about during his lifetime—his repeat marriages to wealthy women were the subjects of newsreels and scrutiny, and what he did to the previous heiress didn’t keep the next one from succumbing to his charms.
Months after he ended our courtship, I met up with this man in a parking lot, and our conversation turned to the subject of this essay. He told me he’d discussed with a friend how long he might have been able to keep up the ruse of being with me for my money. Months? Years? He’d thought about it. He could have milked me. I would have given. He didn’t. But he’d thought about it. And when he began to tear me down over it with a snicker and a head shake and a shaming tone in his voice, I began to explain that in that moment, I had been begging him for my life and my sanity.
For most of this terrible year, there was nothing I wanted more than the love and company of this particular man, and I would have given anything to avoid the pain that came with losing the idea that he could save me from everything I feared. But he was vile, and I was delusional. That night, when I sent him a text telling him he had been unkind to me, he responded by telling me he took no responsibility for my feeling that way and never to contact him again.
Barbara Hutton did marry for love at least once. Or at least close to it, according to Shawn.
Cary Grant. He didn’t take a penny from her.
Grant was the only one, Shawn Levy said, who showed her genuine affection.
He must have been quite a man. To not be threatened. To not hate her. To actually be with her for her, and not for the luxury of her fortune or the pleasure of cutting her down.
I wonder if Barbara Hutton didn’t know what to do with that. If being loved for who she was instead of what she had felt foreign to her. If she’d have preferred it if he’d asked her for things. If she knew the act. If the act felt familiar enough for it to give her, in some twisted way, a sense of security. If she had long ago abandoned the idea that she would find true love in the end and so the store-bought version had to be enough. If what she wanted was excitement and drama and feeling low and paying for the pleasure of the company of men who wouldn’t have given her another look had she not been Barbara Hutton. If the thought crossed her mind, as it did mine: what good is money if you’re dead?
But men are men and money is power, and most men won’t give up their power, whatever power they have, to a woman. Especially a woman who holds the particular power of money, that cold, loveless beast that kills people with impunity, that defines so much of our lives. A woman like that upsets the balance. A woman like that must be deprived of something.
Cary Grant didn’t take a penny from Barbara Hutton, but she still wasn’t okay. He was his own man; he might’ve even loved her. Maybe he saw in Barbara Hutton her worth beyond being a perambulating wallet and a sad tale. But she didn’t.
I think often about my grandfather’s funeral. It was a spectacle—over seven hundred people crammed into the sanctuary of the church that he himself had built. Some were there to pay their respects, but a good number of those who crowded those aisles that day didn’t know him at all. They were there not to honor the man but the money he made. My grandfather was, to some of the people there that day, little more than the dead guy in the box who won the American dream and was paying for the prime rib luncheon.
We are nothing but disposable under capitalism. All of us.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers free, confidential crisis counseling twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. You don’t have to be suicidal to call (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline also offers services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing (1-800-799-4889) and people who speak Spanish (en español: 1-888-628-9454). People who are transgender can also call the Trans Lifeline (U.S.: 877-565-8860; Canada: 877-330-6366). – Ed.