The text message was unexpected. “If you’re not doing anything important,” it read, “why don’t you come over for some wine.”
Sure, it was getting late, and I still had students’ papers to grade. But I selected a bottle of wine (not terribly expensive but not too cheap, either) and made my way to her place through a light rain.
We had met a week earlier, our first date over beers at my favorite neighborhood dive bar. Looking a bit too fashionable in her dress and heels, she asked me to choose the drinks and laughed throughout the evening at my witticisms, which I took as a good sign. She recently had divorced her corporate-lawyer husband, she told me, and was currently working in high-end retail.
So maybe I shouldn’t have been thrown when, while hanging out at her place, she turned to me and said, “You can’t afford me, Trotsky.”
It was a casual remark, dropped without context. I tried to determine whether it was an insult or an awkward attempt at flirtation. This was not the kind of thing I’d ever expected to hear on a third date.
“Well,” I said, my stomach beginning to churn. “What exactly do you mean by that?”
Although I knew what she meant.
“Oh, honey,” she said. “Look around you.”
I hadn’t had the full house tour yet, but it promised to be impressive. A baby grand took up one corner of the room where we sat. Real artwork hung on the walls. I imagined her bedroom was large and airy, her bed covered with plush pillows and sheets with a 1,000-plus thread count. From across the room, her cat eyed me warily, suspicious of my intentions.
Compared with my small, cluttered one-bedroom bachelor pad, this was a lovely, bourgeois home. I tried to calculate her monthly payment.
“Do you rent,” I asked.
“I own,” she said.
And then there were her kids, whom I had not met yet and knew about only from another casual remark dropped earlier in the evening.
Even though she lived only a few blocks from me, our households were worlds apart.
“Interesting,” I said, pouring myself another glass of wine.
“Don’t take it personally, Trotsky,” she said.
She called me that not on account of my politics, which are admittedly left-of-center, though far from revolutionary. Rather, it was because of how I looked: the small, wire-rimmed glasses, wavy mess of hair, short beard and overall rumpled appearance. I suppose I bore some resemblance to the man.
“I’m not,” I said. “It’s just, well, an interesting thing to say, that’s all.”
She kissed me, but I was too distracted to reciprocate.
“So you’re slumming it,” I said.
“Yes, Trotsky,” she whispered in my ear, then bit the lobe.
I tried to let it go. Soon, we finished off my bottle, and she brought out a California pinot noir that I found unpleasantly brash and fruity.
“I prefer this one,” she said.
It was clear that she wasn’t impressed by my prospects as a college professor. Until this moment, I had never worried much about my being able to afford anyone. I was still feeling prickly, so I got up and fussed with the fire for a bit. Looking up at the mantel, I saw the framed pictures of her children, who were at their father’s for the night.
“Sit down, Trotsky,” she called from the sofa.
But I was busy surveying photos that tracked the growth of her daughter, from a pudgy, little infant to a pretty grade-schooler. I wondered how she was taking the divorce of her parents, how she was dealing with being shuffled from house to house, how she felt about them dating new people, whether she got along with their boyfriends and girlfriends.
“What are you thinking?” she asked.
“What’s her name?” I finally asked.
Toward the end of the second bottle, she asked whether I wanted to go upstairs. It was a school night: I had to get up early, and I still had a lot of work to do. I’d take a rain check, I said. I declined her offer of an umbrella and slowly made my way home along the darkened, drenched streets.
When I got home, I was wet, half-drunk and too irritated to get back to grading papers. Staring dumbly at my computer, I typed in the word “afford,” as if the Internet’s collective wisdom might offer guidance or solace. I clicked on the first definition that popped up.
“To be able to pay for something,” it read. “To be able to do something without having problems or being seriously harmed.”
I was then struck by the second definition: “to make available, give forth, or provide naturally or inevitably.”
“To provide naturally or inevitably.” I again considered those children, wondering what it would be like to enter their lives casually, to begin to be a presence in her world and then fall out of it just as causally.
It’s one thing to be involved with the feelings of an adult, quite another to have an impression on a young child. Given my carelessness in past relationships, I wasn’t inclined to take the risk.
Her mother was probably right. I couldn’t afford them at all.