She was too pretty for me. I was too inexperienced. She was too crazy. I wasn’t smart enough.
There was the kind and patient girl who carried me beyond the threshold of virginity and accepted me as a friend even after I acted like the scared and awkward teenager that I was. I will forever owe her.
There was the beauty whose physical perfection hid a deep well of sadness. At first, I couldn’t believe she had chosen to spend her time with me. I thought I owed her, but after all the hours spent as boyfriend, psychiatrist, parent, and priest-confessor I came to believe she owed me.
One way or another, the concept of debt has weighed heavily on every relationship I’ve ever been in. I have loved well and been loved well, too, but inherent in each of those loves hid one ugly sentiment: “You owe me.”
It had never been quite so explicit, though, as it was in my most recent relationship. Every expense had to be carefully accounted for; we could never casually say “I’ve got dinner this time. You get it next time.” It was a constant cycle of debt and collection.
It was a competition between the two of us. Who could pull further into the lead? The fruits of that victory amounted to nothing more than a longer period of time without having to pay for dinner, or groceries, or the movies - but it also felt like power.
For these brief and precious moments I’m above the crude quotidian concerns of money. You owe me. You pay.
That vicious circle of indebtedness manifested itself in other ways. She complained that my friends were young and immature. I complained that hers were boring. She complained that I didn’t pay enough attention to her. I complained that she was too jealous.
But we stayed together. At the time we thought it was because we were in love with one another. In retrospect, though, I can see that it was merely because we were in one another’s debt. We had each sacrificed parts of ourselves to be with one another, so we owed it to each other and to ourselves to stay together.
The love felt real enough at the time, of course. I cared about her, was happy when I saw her, and a smile from her meant more to me than just about anything else. But every one of those smiles was hard-won. If I hadn’t earned it ahead of time, I had to take it on credit.
It was that realization, for me, that did us in. I was in our living room on a sunny weekend afternoon and I was looking at two bamboo plants that we had growing on our window sill. I had always thought of them - one large and one small - as perfect parallels of the relationship. I was the tall, broad-leafed bamboo while she was the petite and delicate plant that required my constant attention and love.
At that moment, however, it became painfully clear that the truth was the exact opposite. It was she who had thrived in our relationship and I who had withered. In the spirit of compassion and compromise, we had both given of ourselves and learned to do without certain things, but I had given far in excess of what I had received.
She had welcomed me into her home and adapted her routine, but I had changed a lot more. She learned to love some of the things that made me happy, but most I simply had to abandon — and she had shared no passions of her own. I narrowed my circle of friends in order to spend more time with her, but what she gave in exchange didn’t make up for that loss.
For a brief while, though, it was worth it. The pleasure had been in the giving and I hadn’t wanted anything in return. But, at that moment in front of the bamboo plants, everything changed. I realized how much I had given up - pieces of myself that I had and still loved but had somehow forgotten about while under the blinding eclipse of romance - and I wanted it all back. Looking at the bamboo I could finally see myself for what I had become: a withering plant weakly rooted next to a well-intentioned but overpowering taller plant standing between me and the sunshine I so desperately needed.
Coming out of that shadow, though, would cost me just as much, if not more, as staying there. There would be hidden costs. I knew that I was too emotional to see any more than my side of the equation, but I was aware enough to recognize that just out of sight were all the things I owed her.
It was like a mini-divorce. We had to go through every one of our belongings and ask, “Is this mine or is this yours?” If we had purchased something together, who would get to keep it and how would the other person be reimbursed? She took out pen and paper and started to add all the dollars up. I pleaded with her not to force us to end our relationship with one of us writing the other a check and thankfully she relented.
I felt like a homeowner walking away from a mortgage.
I feared that this debt would follow me like a storm cloud, casting a shadow over all my future relationships, like a bad credit score. Now that a few months have passed, though, I’m starting to feel more optimistic.
I spent some time out of town and when I got back I found my own place and started to build a new life for myself. I realized that, although they can be intensely personal, breakups are also completely universal. Everyone goes through them; people have lived with debts like these for centuries and I can live with mine.
Hopefully soon, though, I’ll meet a woman who will help me throw out the ledger book. We’ll still owe one another - there’s no getting around that - but we won’t need to keep track. That’s an idea that makes me hopeful about dusting myself off and trying again.
All the same, I’m in no rush to get into another serious relationship just now; I’m still paying off what I owe from the last one. Seriously. My ex emailed me this week to tell me a shelf that I put up had recently fallen down in the middle of the night and landed on her computer.