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Dollars and (Common) Sense

dollars and common sense

Estimated reading time — 9 minutes

“Good morning, darling! Rise and shine! We’ve got a big day ahead of us! We’re going to Sydney.”

Julie had always loved travel. Everything about it – the packing for the airport, the little rituals with her passport, the way that the McDonald’s in Dubai or Costa Rica was similar but different (always a little better, always in a unique way). It was her thing; she believed it made you a better person, a global citizen. And it was fun. Before we’d go on a trip, she’d make flashcards with common terms so that she could mumble a few platitudes – a “thank you, have a good day.” I never bothered with that, it seemed so ostentatious, forcing some Prague barista to feign delight that you knew one sentence in his language.

But it was part of her bouquet of travel rituals, and she loved travel, and so along for the ride her flashcards and I would go. It had upshot. I liked telling the stories (but Julie told them better), showing off the photos (but Julie took more photos, better). I definitely went places that I wouldn’t have gone, if not for her. I never regretted our trips, exactly.


But you have to understand: I came out of graduate school with $160,000 in student debt. I ended up an uninspired high school teacher at an uninspired high school. I made $42,000 a year. Twice a month, I’d get a direct deposit for just over $1,500, net. Our house was small, thank goodness – just a ranch in a quiet street on the edge of town, unfinished basement, just a bed, a space heater, and a little desk down there really – and the mortgage wasn’t much, but by the time I’ve paid my share, and the car payment, the light bill, the phone bill, car insurance, maybe one trip to the grocery store, student loan, student loan, student loan, I wasn’t getting ahead. I was trapped. I tried to sell plasma but, you know this economy, the place had too many donors. I tried to apply for jobs that paid better, but after a few years of teaching remedial English, I was never the best-suited candidate for, really, anything.

In terms of the sightseeing, I was able to keep up with Julie but only barely; skip this payment, make this phone call, transfer this balance, hold out for the birthday money from my parents. Somehow, I’d find the breathing room for a coach plane ticket, and my share of the hotel.

So, not only were Julie’s little vacations this much more of a drain on my bandwidth, but I wasn’t having fun like she was, when I was there. When you’re only confident that you’ve got ten dollars left until your paycheck hits in two days, you can’t actually enjoy Tokyo. You can make that money work if you’re at home, but not when you’re abroad.

I just didn’t want to let her down. She knew that I wasn’t getting rich, but it was important that she at least think I was getting by. She was so beautiful. I loved her from the first day we met. I was getting my masters and she was getting her bachelors, and I was in the English department and she was in poli sci, so we spent a lot of time in the same building. And the third or fourth time we rode the elevator to our classrooms, I said “hi.”

It took some time. A little DM on social media, a little party invitation, and eventually we realized that we were a couple. We had to backtrack in time, to designate the day we first started going out.

When I was in school, working part time, my student loans in forbearance, I was much better off financially than I would be out of school with a full-time job. Back then, I could afford the gifts, the chocolate-covered strawberries, the little necklace. She liked them and I loved her, and so I made it work. I was always able to gallantly cover our expenses when we went on some ramshackle little student date, going to a movie or something.


But after we graduated, she found a job making much more than I did; she was working for the court system in our city. Good job; stability. I found a job before I had to tell her I was out of money, but it wasn’t a comfortable living. You don’t expect to make less than all your friends, but I suppose that somebody always does.

I couldn’t tell her how bad it was, but I told myself I would never need to. You have faith, you try and try, and good things will happen, right? I wrote short stories and spec journalism, even, but my submissions never managed their way out of the slush pile. I did some freelance copyediting, but that’s not reliable.

So, the credit cards. I ran my first up to its $12,000 limit. I applied for another, expecting another twelve, but the second one only gave me six, so I needed a third. I told myself that three was the limit, reasonable people can have three, it’ll be fine. I had the bills go to a PO box (which cost another sixteen dollars a month, though, given everything, unquestionably necessary) and I was maxing out my fifth card when Julie got sick.

At the beginning, she says, leukemia felt like the flu. A little run-down feeling, a little “off.” She was losing weight quickly, and finally went to the doctor because her gums bled when she brushed her teeth.

The odds weren’t good, even with treatment. And it’s the chemo that really crushes you, the chemicals going into your body killing good cells along with the bad. She chose to avoid aggressive treatment. “I’d rather enjoy a year than suffer for ten,” she told me, once we’d both stopped crying. I honored her decision.

Neither Julie nor I believed in an afterlife; rationalists, we were confident that death was just a dark sleep, a quietude, a nothingness. Julie had felt that this was the extinguishing of your joys, so you best accrue your joys in your short life on earth. But this would also be an extinguishing of your sorrow, I realized. A blacking-out, an oblivion. No matter how much you’ve suffered, it disappears when you die. Just – gone. The only joy, and the only sorrow, are felt and lived by those still alive.

She told her doctors that day that she wasn’t going to see that much of them. Only the bare minimum.

Where to, then? Mexico City! We rented a car so we could climb the pyramids at Teotihuacan, no handrail to speak of as you’re climbing the pyramid, just a terrifying coiled wire that would probably cut your hand if you gripped onto it to break your fall. We prowled the Zocalo, we laughed at melodramatic Mexican soap operas even though neither of us knew the language (which didn’t stop her from, annoyingly, overpronouncing “quesadilla” as a running joke, “KAY-suh-DEE-ya!”), we took a million pictures, we toured the old haciendas, and even though we knew that our adventure was coming to an end, we laughed and laughed and laughed.

Stepping out of the shower, the last day of our trip, I saw her writing a list. I saw it as I was swooping in for a kiss. It was the list of the places she wanted to go before she passed. Buenos Aires, Singapore. Six or seven other places. Sydney, a cruise to Antarctica. (There was a question mark by that last one, indicating more research to be done about the environmental impacts of antarctic tourism.) Her list was long but not impossibly so, I must say, to my credit; we’d already been all over the world.

I started to cry, when I saw her list. I almost gave up as a failure. It was simply out of reach. I wouldn’t be able to earn the money in time; my credit was maxed out. I had no savings to speak of. I looked at the list, sick in my heart. “We’ll do this. We’ll make it work,” I promised, audibly unconfident. My heart was a broken bird.

She laughed, she could tell exactly what I was thinking. She already had a plan, though. “Honey, honey, darling, relax. Here, let’s put up a fundraiser online while I’m still beautiful, send me some of those pictures you took at that hacienda…”

I knew what GoFundMe was, but it just wasn’t something that I’d ever thought would have any applicability in my life. Asking for money seemed so… tragic, so sad. I was muddling through; I had health insurance, so I didn’t really see that much of a need for an online fundraising appeal.

It worked magnificently, of course. By the time we had left Mexico, our appeal had circulated throughout our friends, family, her coworkers, my coworkers. “Help Julie see the world!”.

It was money enough for first-class trips to Buenos Aires and Singapore.

And in Buenos Aires, I saw a beautiful woman at our tango class. Dark hair, black dress, her voice shapely and exotic. Quick to laugh. I’ll never see her again; I never even got her name, but she’s the one who helped me to realize.

I realized then that Julie would be leaving me, that I would have a whole long life to live without her. I realized that life is a race between money and time; I’d have to spend the next thirty, forty, fifty years without my Julie, for good or ill. We were barely 30; there was no life insurance to speak of, and that wasn’t an option now. But there were beautiful women in far-flung tango classes, and the thought of continuing to live my current life wasn’t acceptable. I wasn’t going to go back to Buenos Aires, but there might be some other beautiful woman, somewhere down the line, and even on my measly salary, I’d never want to tell her “no.” I had to do what I did.

By the time Julie realized that we weren’t going to Singapore, I’d put up another fundraiser online.


So, it’s been six months. Her doctors have told her that it won’t be long. No more follow-up appointments have been scheduled. Everyone admires my courage.

“Good morning, darling! Rise and shine! We’ve got a big day ahead of us! We’re going to Sydney.”

I tossed her a light green floral shift that I had found in the Goodwill. It was a little bit large, granted, but I hoped that it would make her look like she was trying to conceal how thin she was getting. Having context like that, a human story, was important for a successful fundraiser.

GoFundMe was slowing down; people had already given what they could. To fund Sydney, her parents had taken a collection at their church. Julie didn’t have a lot of time left, but I was talking to her elderly parents about borrowing money on their home. Antarctica would be wonderful, if they would be able to help us make it happen.

Julie groaned and rolled away from me, facing the green dropcloth against the wall. Her wheelchair sat at the foot of her bed, across the room from a small desk with a mirror, some makeup, a tanning light.

Maybe the tanning light was a bit too much, but it made sense to me at the time. She got so little sunlight.

Now, you wonder, maybe we could have made more money if she were going to live longer, but the treatment itself is just money money money out the door, and if she recovered, we might have had to go on some of these trips, and all together, this was clearly the most sensible option.

“Get it together,” I hissed at her. “Get up, jesus. We’ve got a zoom call scheduled with your mom in twenty minutes. Our plane landed a couple hours ago. It was a bumpy flight, we watched movies. There were some kids near us, but they were well-behaved.”

She sat up in bed, silent. I helped her into her wheelchair while I continued to explain how our first day in Sydney was going. I wondered if locking the basement was strictly necessary anymore; she needed the wheelchair to travel, now. All the same. Better safe than sorry.

“Beautiful city. Our hotel room is fine. We saw the Opera House for a second, on the way from the airport, but haven’t gotten a real good look yet.”

She rolled over to the mirror and started brushing her hair. I didn’t enjoy what I was doing, exactly, but it was just logical. Sometimes you have a job to do. After she passed, I’d be very sad, of course, but it would be silly and sentimental to regret setting myself up for the next chapter.

I used the opportunity to fiddle with the Zoom background on the greenscreen, hotel room, balcony, two beds. It would be sunset in Sydney, I brought down the light, threw in a little more orange. As long as she didn’t move around too much, it would be good enough for her parents. There are services, remailing services, so your postcard can even have a real Australian stamp with a real Australian cancellation on it. I wrote out the postcards and told Julie what they said.


“It’s more than twice the size of New York, you might want to mention how that’s an interesting surprise.”

She looked at me and glared. “Fuck you,” she spat.

I was used to these little outbursts. They were part of the reason that her relationships with most of her friends had to flicker away. I made sure her family knew that some of her palliative medicines caused delusions, anxiety, outbursts. I patiently put up with her, though. “Hey, hey darling. Just do things the right way, okay? No more of that negativity.” I hated playing bad cop but sometimes it just had to be done. “You want food today, right?”

She didn’t respond.

“Tell me that you want food today.”

She glared at me.

“Say it.”

“I want food today.”

“Good. Take your time getting pretty. If you’re a few minutes late, that’ll be okay. But not too late. I got the background just right.”

She went back to brushing her hair, a little deflated. She was still beautiful, despite the cancer in her blood. I put my hand on her shoulder and I smiled. She should want this too; it’s error and confusion that she doesn’t. She and I had been on a long journey together; I’d miss her when she was gone. But I thought about the beautiful woman in the tango class, how nice it was paying off my student loans, getting out of debt, having a nest egg. The banks would have had me for the rest of my life, if not for this. I just wouldn’t have to worry all the time, I guess. I really was the luckiest man in the world.

Credit : _no_children_


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