I did not want to be in college and be a mom. And I’m not talking about having a baby, I’m talking about dating one.
Tom and I were just barely in our 20s and our wants were few. Most of the time, just being together was enough. So when he told me that he going to quit working as a NYC bike messenger during in his fifth year of college, I just thought that meant there would be more “us” time.
We were entering the fourth year of our relationship as well as our senior year — my first, his second because he changed his major as a junior. His mother agreed to subsidize his basic needs in the absence of his minimum wage job. He lived at home anyway (meals included) so she would be providing pocket money for lunch, train fare, the occasional magazine for the ride home and snacks should he get hungry between meals.
If we wanted to go to a movie, someplace nice to eat (aka Sizzler) or join a group outing to somewhere like Great Adventure, well, I would be sponsoring that. Oh, and his car had died, so I’d be chauffeuring him around.
We didn’t live that far from one another in the Bronx, perhaps 20 minutes without traffic. And I had to admit that in the first three years of being boyfriend and girlfriend, he paid, not just for films or food, but when the previous summer a bunch of us spent the weekend at the Jersey Shore. His car was working then as well.
What kind of partner or person would I be if, when he was no longer in the chips (even minimum wage ones), I bailed? And so I gladly chauffeured him around and shelled out dough for outings from my after school job at a clothing store.
By the time December rolled around, the question of Christmas presents came up. Tom let slip that his mom had paid for our Jersey Shore sojourn and many of our meals at Sizzler. It turns out she had been subsidizing our social life all along. Not only that, but he had been passing off the generosity as his own. Tom then explained that my gift would have to be small, as he would be borrowing from his mother and he didn’t want to take advantage.
I started to take an inventory of our last four months. On my dime, we’d seen more than our share of movies, gone ice-skating and eaten in a better than usual restaurants. All of this and I was not talking of downsizing when it came to his holiday present.
Call me bitchy or perhaps hopelessly romantic, but I was envisioning something along the lines of one of those O. Henry moments where the guy sells his watch to buy to girl a fancy hair comb and she sells her hair to buy him a watch fob. I thought at least he’d have set aside a dollar here or there from his “pocket money” (you know, give up his Kit-Kat one afternoon) to save up for something. I also knew his mother was not lending, but giving him the Benjamins. If I’d wanted her to give me something I’d have gone out with her.
I told him we should just forgo presents entirely. Our gift to each other would be to have quality time; perhaps spend an evening walking around Manhattan, seeing the tree at Rockefeller Center, the store windows and holiday lights. I hoped the “no money fun” would get me back to that place where I just liked sharing his company.
As we strolled arm in arm down Fifth Avenue, we talked about how we would both be graduating in several months; Tom was heading for grad school (but was secretly harboring a dream of being a performer) and I was hoping to work on Madison Avenue.
“You’ll be an executive in no time,” he said.
There was something in his tone that gave the impression he was more hopeful about my success for his own benefit than for mine. I knew I needed to do something to distance myself.
As we began the New Year, I made excuses not to see Tom. “I have a big test!” “A paper due!” “I don’t feel well!” But I knew excuses would only work for so long. When his birthday rolled around in February, I knew I had to face the music. Literally.
In Tom’s fantasy life, there was a singing career on the horizon. He thought we might celebrate his birthday by me treating him to a Broadway show.
I planned on heading down to the box office after class (I had no credit card with which to get them electronically), but I was anxious and unable to focus, blaming it on an impromptu quiz and a paper that I felt hadn’t been marked fairly. So distracted was I from academic angst that I left the building, hopped on the train and headed home.
About two stations away from my stop, I realized that I’d forgotten Tom’s tickets. I had absolutely no remorse whatsoever. In fact, I was glad. I didn’t want to buy one more thing for Tom. The realization felt liberating.
I called him and ‘fessed up. “We’re not going to the show. And I don’t know when I can see you again.” At first blush it may seem as though I had just gotten tired of playing human ATM, but it was more than that. He wanted me to be his mother. No, not portly with gray hair and a pixie cut, but willing to pick up where she would soon leave off in his care taking.
But I was a woman now, of legal age and about to have a career and my own money. I wanted a man who was an equal. I envisioned us each taking care of ourselves and each other. Then perhaps, someday, an actual baby.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl is the author the novel, FAT CHICK, and a columnist in NYC.