My ex-fiancé made me cry on our first date.
Huddled together in my cramped Manhattan apartment, I learned that Michael graduated from UCLA, knew the lyrics to every Air Supply ballad, and had recently been diagnosed with stomach cancer for the second time. He brushed away my tears while citing his recurring symptoms and chemotherapy schedule. I added “strong” and “brave” to my mental checklist, along with “handsome,” “charming,” “funny,” and “sensitive.”
As colleagues, we saw each other often and quickly reached boyfriend/girlfriend status despite not having an actual courtship. He eluded intimacy and serious conversation, instead opting for small talk, Solitaire and ESPN. Not every girl’s fantasy, but I enjoyed being with him and he promised to have some hot dates lined up once the pain subsided. Meanwhile, I secretly pouted and anticipated the day we could cease the house-arrest routine.
Insurance-less, Michael struggled to pay his mounting prescription and doctor bills and my role as his ATM commenced. His requests were small and sporadic, followed by pledges to reimburse me when he received his commissions. “I know just where to find you!” I teased, handing over another $20.
The totals accumulated rapidly and, eventually, without my consent. Upon arriving home from a co-worker’s wedding, I rambled off a list of errands before conking out. I had two dollars in my bag; he ventured out to replenish my wallet and his nicotine supply.
He returned, money and Marlboros in hand. “Damn! I stopped at the garage to get something from the car and left your ATM card there. You’ll have it tomorrow.”
Tomorrow came. And the next day. And the week after. Had I transitioned to online banking sooner, I would have detected seventeen $400 withdrawals.
The whispers among my colleagues amplified; some had also lent Michael money and since he had disappeared like a Witness Protection Program participant, the inquiries turned my way. “Are you sure he has cancer? Have you spoken to his parents? His oncologist? Have you seen his pills?” No. No. No. No.
I had no answers but one big question myself: “Who lies about having cancer?” My generosity and naivety made me look like a complete buffoon who opened up her heart and wallet to a fraud. I visited the NYPD but charges couldn’t be filed since I gave him my pin number.
Four months later, Michael phoned. I agreed to meet, hopeful to retrieve my stolen funds. Over Starbucks’ hot chocolates he confessed that “cancer” was a cover-up for a 15-year cocaine addiction that left him high every day since his Bar Mitzvah. He had spent the past 120 days in rehab, fighting his demons and righting his wrongs.
“Please read these,” he begged, ramming crinkled pages brimming with apologies, pleas for reconciliation and an infinite number of “I love you” and “Can’t live without you” declarations into my clenched fist.
A schmaltzy poem or Hallmark card is one thing. Receiving a notebook smattered with declarations of love is another. He had me at “You are hurt, confused and scared. So am I. I will tell you everything and show you the real me. No secrets.”
He worked out of the apartment selling timeshares to wealthy clients and it was agreed that I would control the money, dispensing him a weekly “allowance” to curb temptation. We dined out, visited museums and strolled in Central Park like the normal couples I hoped we would one day emulate.
He displayed his devotion by branding my name on his bicep and proposing. I flaunted a four-carat Asscher-cut platinum circumference of perfection. Like a Disney princess, I was finally going to get my happy ending.
Despite the tat and promises on paper, his love for cocaine trumped his adulation for me. Drugs — 2. Susan — 0.
His old vice resurfaced and our battles grew vicious and vulgar. He unleashed hateful, offensive comments and I retaliated, calling him a liar, thief, criminal, and psychopath. We were a far cry from “happily ever after.”
My decision was easy.
Hours after I had tossed him out, I retrieved my mail, baffled to find several envelopes stamped “Past Due” jammed within the J.Crew and Victoria’s Secret catalogs.
The adage “A day late and a dollar short”? I was 30 days late and $65,000 short. Michael had managed quite the shopping spree in a month and even charged his work’s expenses to me while pocketing the reimbursement checks. He had abused my one active card and opened additional ones using my info.
I scanned the blur of calculations and slammed my fist on the (newly Susan-purchased) dining room table. Gambling website fees. Cash withdrawals. Office furniture for his at-home set-up. Clothes. Groceries. Jewelry.
Diva diamonds: $25,000.
I had bought my own engagement ring without even knowing it.
I asked my parents for my “wedding fund” since that wasn’t going to be used anytime soon, but I’d still need another $30,000 to cover the remaining balance. My cousin’s friend was a bankruptcy lawyer; he filed my paperwork and accompanied me to my hearing, but not before I handed him his $1,500 fee. His name was also Michael. Damn. Was every guy named “Michael” trying to get into my wallet?
Hoarding money became a hobby, a goal — an addiction of my own. I saved, scraped and sacrificed and in the four years since, learned how to manage my money and my heart.
A couple of months ago, Michael’s Facebook profile pic was an image of Lance Armstrong’s sunshine-yellow Livestrong bracelet. Perhaps it is in honor of a loved one? Maybe he “has” cancer again. For a minute, I couldn’t help thinking that he’d returned to his duplicitous ways. I tried — and failed — to change and help him, but ultimately I changed and helped myself.