I never wanted to save the world—just every stray cat, directionless friend, and single man I’ve ever met. This tendency started with my mom, a fiercely independent woman who tried to care for me in spite of her fading mental health. At the height of her bipolar mood swings, she extolled my beauty and smarts. At the depths of her depression, she called me worthless and almost choked me to death. I didn’t just learn to fend for myself—I learned to fend for her, too. l stole money, saved all my after-school income, and figured out how to stretch fast-food meals between us for days.
When I set out on my own, I soon attracted other people who needed to lean on me. My best friend in college was the perfect example. A former child actor and the eldest son in a Caribbean family, he was charming, handsome, and needy. He was a Bronx-raised nerd of color like me. I loved the way he shouted when he entered a room. He made the best chili I’d ever tasted. I had a romantic dream about him shortly before I visited New York for a baby shower. We hooked up once. Then he called me after a wedding and asked if I would be his girlfriend. Thoughts of biracial babies danced in my head, and I said yes.
We quickly settled on the logistics. Because I was living in Austin, he in New York, I volunteered my place rent-free for a few months in exchange for him leaving the city he loved to be with me. He quit his job and had no car, but promised to look for both. I tried to ignore the strange sensation in my stomach as his things arrived on my doorstep in box after box, and settled easily into our new routine.
Some days, I was happy joining him for CSI Miami and 24 marathons and taking turns trying new recipes. But most of the time, I was out working one of my three jobs and running to grad school classes in my limited time off. Back at home, my new roommate was managing nine fantasy baseball teams and spending his days testing the limits of my utility companies. After working a 10-hour shift, I’d come home to all of the lights on, every window open, air conditioner on full blast, ESPN blaring, both his and my laptop plugged in. “I sent out five résumés today,” he would always start, when I pushed him on our finances. “The Yankees are going to take it this year,” he’d always end.
I told myself the situation was temporary and did my best to lend support. Because he had never learned how to drive, I escorted him everywhere, including his spoken-word open mics, where everyone smelled like patchouli oil and sounded like the 1990s. Compared to the other poets in attendance, who gesticulated wildly with one hand while spewing bad metaphors about American politics and the moon, my boyfriend was actually a decent poet.
This wasn’t necessarily a good thing. Instead of chasing down job leads, he’d walk over to the library to check out old Def Poetry DVDs and watch them obsessively. I appreciated his commitment to studying his craft, but I labored to get him to show the same enthusiasm for more practical work. When I helped find him a temporary job as a substitute teacher, he was quickly fired for gossiping with students. It was like he got fired on his day off.
Increasingly, it felt like I was subsidizing his lifestyle, not our life together. We argued more than we cuddled. I gained weight and chain-smoked. He ate peanut butter sandwiches but bragged about losing weight thanks to his long walks to the library and leisurely jogs around the neighborhood. I wanted to break up with him, but the thought filled me with tremendous guilt. My mom and I had been evicted several times when I was a kid. I never wanted to be the girl who made someone she once loved homeless.
An out-of-the-blue call from an ex-boyfriend put things in perspective. “It’s your house and you pay all the bills,” he told me. “Turn off your cable. Stop buying groceries. Eat out. He’s a man, he’ll figure out a way to eat.” I looked at the stack of receipts from the local grocery store and reviewed all the money he’d eaten up over the past few months. I didn’t have to kick him out after all. Somehow, it seemed easier to just bring my lifestyle down to his level
I let my pantry atrophy to pasta, salad, and mustard. I called the cable company and switched plans. When the cable guy came in, my boyfriend pulled me aside in a panic. “I don’t have time to watch television, so I thought I’d downgrade,” I told him. “You know, to save money.” He raised his eyebrows at me. “Are you planning to go to the store anytime soon?”
He screamed, I screamed, and he moved out into the house of an older woman he’d met on the spoken-word circuit. But the time and money and mental anguish I’d sunk into this man still weighed on me. That spring, I claimed him as a dependent on my taxes, my last-ditch bid for compensation for our six months together. He called me, furious. “You acted like a dependent,” I hissed back.
He wasn’t the only one. As angry as I was with him for taking advantage of me, I knew deep down that he had not done so without my permission. I sent the biggest check I’d ever written in my life back to the IRS. In the scheme of things, it was a small price to pay.