At our Birchbox editorial team meetings, we go around the room before getting to any business, and each person shares a “smile”: it has to be good news or something that he or she is excited about. “My smile…is that I paid off my credit card debt for the first time since opening both accounts when I moved here,” I told the team in January 2015. That got plenty of oohs and ahhs, and a few people expressed that they, too, would use their tax return and bonus check to pay off debts. I had moved to New York in December 2011 with $1k in the bank, but it was really my Visa that got me stationed: I had to purchase furniture, winter outerwear, nicer work clothes, monthly transit passes, expensive groceries, even more expensive takeout, even more expensive alcohol….That was all on salaries of $29k, $22k, and $39k for the first year and a half, so my Visa was soon joined by an AmEx, and my debt rose as high as $10k while maintaining just $1k in savings. Never mind that my student loans were still piled high; those would be much more manageable without the $800 monthly payments toward credit. When I paid off both of those cards in early 2015, I felt very adult. Like this new version of me had arrived—the one I knew would clean up the mess of Adams past, the one who finally had control, despite still only having $1k in the bank.
That same month, I noticed a cramp in my stomach. It got more painful as I ate, and persisted for a few days, growing heavier and heavier. My appetite all but disappeared, because food would go in, and nothing would come out. I was uncomfortable doing anything: walking, sitting, sleeping—it all hurt. Soon, I had a series of doctor appointments, as one generalist would refer me to a specialist who would refer me to a separate specialist who would refer me to another specialist who would have no answers. Unfortunately for me, I had just gambled on my deductible at work, following a very healthy 2014, and within the first few weeks of 2015, accrued nearly $3000 in medical bills, prescriptions, and co-pays, all after insurance. I hated that I also had to decide which credit card to put it on: the Visa with lower interest rates, or the AmEx with better mileage perks. The AmEx won, because I was planning a trip to San Francisco. The month ended with a colonoscopy—at my ripe age of 28—and the doctor found nothing wrong. Nothing. “I think you body’s just being weird,” he said. “I’m sure this will pass in a few more weeks. Just drink lots of water, get plenty of fiber, and eat green vegetables, ok?” I wanted a refund. I got charged $800 after insurance for that procedure, and my solution was vegetables? Sure enough, the pain dissolved a couple days later—I had eaten few vegetables—and my doctor laughed at “the crazy things the body can do.” For a few minutes, I thought of all the stuff I could have bought with the $3000 I paid doctors, all for nothing. Then I realized: That money never existed in the first place. It’s just a fake number, a constant debt, one that always reminds me of my limitations.
Winter wasn’t all bad, though. I was getting settled into my new home in Fort Greene, content with the much higher rent since I again had a home that I loved; the extra hundreds of dollars was worth my sanity, even if it put me further into debt each month. A very handsome, very charming distraction came my way, too: let’s call him Cold Hands. We had weekly dates, and it seemed that each one was plagued by a blizzard. We’d be sprinting through the freezing wind and snow, from a bar to a restaurant to a theater, and the dummy would never wear gloves. He’d have to run with his hands tucked away, wobbling like a penguin as he sprinted for warmth. Cold Hands overlapped my dating Romeo, so now at least two nights each week were filled with dates, and I was doubly enamored. Where Cold Hands won out, though, was that I saw myself mixing in with his friends, and he with mine. On top of that, he let me take him on dates to Whole Foods, where I could pick at the salad bar and bland chicken, in accordance with the doctor-prescribed diet that I had to follow. (No restaurant would offer anything so plain.) My weird diet endeared me to him, and his indifference to it endeared him to me. The entire month was sexless, too, with both men, since I was so agonized by stomach cramps. It further endeared Cold Hands to me that he respected this compromise , though not without a friendly joke or two; I kept a good humor about it, too. Most importantly, our worlds felt even-planed, and it was a much more public courtship than I could ever have with Romeo; it felt full of potential, reminiscent of a certain architect I let slip away. I decided I would finally end things with Romeo, and instead invest in what I knew was worth my time and energy.
My symptoms were still plaguing me one night as Cold Hands and I watched a movie in his apartment. I didn’t much feel like having sex, but it seemed inevitable given the location of our date. Luckily, because of his predilection, it mattered for nothing that I had a stomach ache. So, after an hour of foreplay in the living room, we consecrated things in the bedroom, then finished our movie before staging a sequel. I left his apartment enamored, and our communication in the days following cemented the fact that I needed to break up with Romeo. So, I called a summit, and went to Romeo’s apartment a couple nights later for what we both knew was our last hurrah. We ordered dinner, and had our talk while we waited for the food to arrive. It was the single nicest breakup I will ever experience: We professed our love for each other, admitted that we could never get to higher ground despite that fact, anchored by our own guilt. We had both been dating around for the seven months of our togetherness, and promised to stay friends, to remain very close, to support one another in our separateness. Lucky for me, my symptoms had dissolved in the days following sex with Cold Hands—maybe he had magic hands, too—because my predilection with Romeo required a healthier disposition. The food arrived, but we set it aside to fully appreciate each other one last time. In the morning, he skirted away early for a flight. I woke alone in his apartment, and stole a final glance at every angle of the place, taking mental photos and a few actual ones; I wanted to have it all in my memories. I soaked up his scent, studied his adorned walls, kept the sticky note he left on the espresso machine (“All set for you bub. Just push. xx”). After cleaning up, I latched the door and escaped to work, grateful for our union, but imagining another.
A late-January blizzard kept much of New York indoors. I texted Cold Hands to see that he was safe and sound, worried mostly for his fingertips. He was indeed fine, but was also nursing a fever. He confirmed my own refuge, then signed off for the night so that he could sleep away the ailment. While cleaning, I found a pair of extra gloves in my apartment, and thought it would be cute to give those to him on our next meeting. The following morning, I checked in again, to see how he was feeling. I never got a response. Initially, I thought maybe he was actually very sick, certain he wouldn’t just drop interest so suddenly. However, Instagram confirmed that he was alive, as he was posting photos with friends and looking healthy as ever. I wanted a refund on my expensed energy, and I wanted Romeo back, too. I would get neither. I also wanted an explanation, but had been down this road plenty of times—on both sides of it, too—and knew I wouldn’t change his mind, and that there might be no explanation at all. These things often end after sex, after all mystery is removed. I chalked it up to him losing interest, to dating other people and being through with me. Even then, I mailed the gloves to his office, with a note: “You need to take care of your hands, kiddo. xx” I didn’t sign the letter; he’d know it was from me what with all the grief I gave him over his exposed mitts. Part of me hoped those gloves gave him some grief over his cold feet, too. Then, a text from him upon receipt: “You sent me gloves! That’s so sweet. Thank you!” I responded politely—“You’re welcome. You really should be more careful with yourself…”—hoping the cold-hearted subtext came through: “…and with others.”
I coasted through February and March with no substantial pursuits—light fare only, open to more, but not needing it—somewhat defeated by the Cold Hands conclusion. I also wanted to save money by not going on as many dates, and hoped to spend more time at home, more time cooking, more time writing, more time at the gym, less time wondering how I’d make it to the next paycheck without over-drafting three days after payday. I got home early one night in early April, lit a couple candles in my room to send some calm into the air, then went to the kitchen to make dinner. I returned to my bedroom with plate in hand, and noticed the candle had been snuffed out, despite it being fairly new. At first it didn’t phase me, but when I grabbed the lighter to reignite the wick, I caught the wooden gypsy Heather’s gaze from her perch beside the candle. “Are you responsible for this?” I asked her aloud. “Very funny. You’ll recall that I’m in charge around here.” I lit the candle again, and faced her toward the flame, just to prove my point. The next morning, I woke up with a walnut-sized welt on my left shoulder. It itched like a hive, and throbbed all morning, before being joined by two others on my right hand and elbow. “Terrific,” I thought to myself at work. “Now I’m allergic to something and I have no clue what.” I decided not to involve doctors just yet, seeing as I didn’t want to waste more money on their supposed expertise. “This will subside,” I convinced myself each day, as more and more bumps began to appear. “I’m totally in control. I have complete control and this will subside.”