Till $3.50 Do Us Part
I’m at a free outdoor salsa dancing event with Matt, a recent Tinder match. He’s cute and high-energy, and I can tell how hard he’s focusing on not messing up the turn combinations, and he has the broad chest and shoulders that get me Every. Time.
In between dances we talk, and I learn that he studied political science then public policy, speaks Japanese and some Spanish, lived in Tokyo and New York before California, and plays the guitar.
Within ten minutes of parting ways I get a text from him. “Hey Vanessa, I had a really nice time today. If you’re up for it, I’d definitely like to get together again soon.”
As I read it my smile grows. In a dating landscape where the norm has become ‘playing it cool’ by, say, waiting five days then vaguely mentioning “maybe grabbing a drink sometime,” Matt’s confidence and directness are refreshing.
Our second date, a week later, ends up lasting ten hours. Our third date takes up most of a weekend, and by the end of it I’m completely smitten. Matt is attentive and sweet, and smart and dorky in the most endearing way, and I love how his whole face crinkles up when he laughs.
He has a strong value system that includes not eating meat because of the way animals are treated. He eats seafood except for octopus because, he explains, they’re incredibly smart, and it even bothers him when other people eat octopus, or foie gras, or inhumanely-raised beef.
Some of his most prominent qualities are ones I lack: Stability. Decisiveness. Precision. Level-headedness. I’ve never really tried the opposites attract thing, but it feels like there might be something to it. I think of that saying ‘if you want something you’ve never had, you have to do something you’ve never done.’
Best of all, there are no mind games, no wondering or waiting. I don’t need to decode ambiguous messages or stare at my phone willing a text from him to appear, because his communication is consistent and direct. He says nice things and he wants to spend time with me, and we like each other and we both know it.
For the first time in a while I start to get that giddy infatuated feeling, and I tell Matt that I’m excited but nervous, because he’s great but we’re moving pretty fast.
He embraces me and says,“This feels like it’s going to be something. I like you, and I want to keep getting to know you.” He taps a fingertip against my temple. “And I want to find out more about what’s going on up here.”
This makes me feel so wanted, and so safe, and I let myself sink into him, inwardly agreeing: this is going to be something.
In a month of dating we’ve gone salsa dancing and hiking, cooked at home, gone on walks, played frisbee in the park, and stayed up all night talking, but we haven’t gone out to dinner. On a Friday night I suggest we do so, and he chooses a by-the-slice pizza place.
We’re standing in line to order when he asks how many slices I want.
“Just one,” I say.
“Okay, I want three, so we can get a half pie,” he says. “I’ll pay for it then you can give me $3.50—that’s the cost of one slice.”
I giggle, uncertain whether he’s making a joke, then go to nab us two spots at a picnic table.
He appears with the pizza a couple minutes later. I’m two bites into my slice when he says, “Yours was $3.50.”
I stare across the table at him, incredulous. “You want me to give you three dollars?”
He stiffens. “That’s how much yours cost. You can Venmo it to me if you don’t have cash.”
“It’s three dollars,” I say.
“We could start keeping track of the costs that correspond to each person, then settle up at the end of each month,” he offers.
I stare at him again, trying to wrap my head around what sounds to me like a college roommate arrangement. My face must be contorting (I’ve never been great at hiding my emotions), because he quickly adds, “It’s to make sure things are fair. I eat a lot more than you, and I don’t want you to end up paying for my food.”
“I’m thirty-five years old,” I say. “I have a job. I’m not worried about it.”
He looks the way I feel—vastly uncomfortable and with a desire to escape, as if this picnic table is inside a tiny room that’s closing in on us.
“That’s how it’s always worked for me in past relationships,” he says.
We sit there in excruciating silence, and I rack my brain for a topic that will lighten the mood. I ask him about his week at work, and that gets him talking, and eventually the tension dissipates. After pizza we go to a bar and get Polynesian drinks that make our mouths go numb, and I pick up the tab, and we end up having a lovely evening.
But the $3.50 exchange needles me. I’d already been assuming Matt and I would soon be a couple—but what will it be like to constantly do calculations and hand each other bills, making sure neither of us pays even a dollar (or three) more than corresponds to us? What if we’re out with a group, or with our families? Is this a gigantic red flag, or is it just a function of his precision and attention to detail?
The thing about modern dating is, there aren’t many rules left, and that includes rules about who’s supposed to pay, and when, and how much. Worse yet, there are numerous ways to offend one or the other party by doing the wrong thing, payment-wise.
Some women get offended when men try to treat them, because it’s anti-feminist.
Some men get offended when women insist on paying, because it’s emasculating.
Other men get upset when women don’t pay their share, because men aren’t cash machines, damn it.
Many women don’t like to let men pay too much, because then it feels like we owe them something.
Money, apparently, is the top cause of divorce. I like Matt so much, but it seems like we have pretty different perspectives on this topic, and I decide I need to revisit it before moving forward.
I ask him to meet the next day, and my palms are slick with sweat before I even start talking. I tell him I don’t like the idea of paying each other back at the end of each month, because I work hard for the money I make and I’d like to treat him and be treated. I tell him I’m in a stage of life where I don’t need to closely count small sums, and I’m looking for a partner who’s in that stage too. Besides the money itself, keeping track down to the cent feels like a line drawn in the sand, a stark you/me separation rather than a partnership, and that’s not how I want this to feel.
Matt listens with a completely neutral face. Then he tells me his rent is expensive and he’s paying off student loans, and it’s important to him that we make sure things are always fair. “But,” he says, “I’m willing to switch off paying for things without keeping track. It’ll be new for me, but I’ll try it because I really like you.”
I leave feeling reassured. If Matt’s really strapped for cash I can make sure to always pay for the pricier things. It’s going to be okay. This is still going to be something.
But in the following days and weeks, everything changes.
Matt stops texting me. He stops wanting to see me. When I reach out he replies, but coolly. When I ask him if something’s wrong he says no, he’s just busy. I’m watching my phone like a hawk and each time it dings I hope it’s him, but it never is. Based on what he said, our dynamic should be the same as before, but instead it feels the opposite of safe, and I feel the opposite of wanted, and a fist of dread starts to tighten in my stomach.
It’s more than two weeks later when we meet again, and Matt tells me that actually, something is wrong. During the money conversation I was condescending, and I made him feel bad, and I didn’t try to meet him in the middle.
I apologize and agree I could have handled things better. In fact, I could have pulled three singles and two quarters out of my wallet at the pizza place, handed them to Matt, and been done with it.
But the truth is that my own relationship with money is somewhat convoluted, and while other women may simply have raised an eyebrow at the $3.50 request—or not reacted at all—for me it was a trigger that led to full-on spinning out.
I tell Matt I do want to meet in the middle, and he says he does too and that we’ll work it out, and I again get the feeling that things are going to be okay.
But a couple days later I’m driving when I get a text from him: “I’ve been thinking about it and I don’t think we’re quite the right fit. It’s just the feeling I have, and I need to respect it.”
The message is unequivocal, and leaves no room for appeals (though he later adds that he’d “be happy to be friends”). Something inside me seizes and I start to cry, which quickly turns to weeping, and I pull over and turn the car off and sit there, letting my shoulders shake and my eyes spill over.
At first, in my grief, I blame myself for everything. I was harsh and controlling, and I should have sought understanding instead of putting down a hard line. I missed out on a good person whose quirks I was just starting to discover, and I tried something different expecting a different result, but it turned out the same because all I ever do in relationships is fuck everything up. Sure, Matt told me twice to my face that everything was fine then dumped me by text, but I must have brought it on myself.
A month later, in a last-ditch effort to re-ignite the spark or at the very least get some closure, I text Matt and suggest we get together.
We meet at a Korean restaurant, and the second I see him all the feelings come back—I want to rip off his clothes and also talk to him for hours, and he’s polite but lukewarm, and I know I’m done for.
He orders a seafood rice dish and I order bibimbop, and we chat about what we’ve been up to, and soon he’s making me laugh and it feels like we really are friends, and I’m happy because this is nice and sad because I miss him.
When our food gets to the table I immediately notice that along with shrimp and squid, there’s octopus on his plate. I eye the delicious-looking bumpy arms, wondering how inappropriate it would be for me to ask if I can have them, since he’s clearly not going to eat them.
But then he spears one with his fork and chomps it down like nothing, and does the same with the next one, and the next. I’m perplexed, but keep my mouth shut.
We split the bill, and on the sidewalk hug goodbye, and I tell him I’ve thought about him a lot and wish things had turned out differently, because it’s true.
The octopus helps me realize maybe everything wasn’t my fault, and maybe I’m not missing out on that much after all. It’s one thing to be short on money, and another to weasel out of a tough conversation, but there’s no way around a glaring disconnect between words, values, and actions—especially when it’s a pattern not isolated to the consumption of marine creatures.
In spite of everything, getting over Matt is hard. But on the plus side, he gave me some great examples of what not to do, and my experience with him prompts me to re-examine my own habits and behavior. When it comes to money, whether with friends, family, dates, and even myself, am I erring on the side of generosity? And, are my actions aligned with my words and values, or are there gaps I need to work on closing?
Weeks later, stopping into the by-the-slice pizza place for lunch, I notice a slice actually costs $3.25, not $3.50. Was Matt also, I wonder, not as precise as I thought…or did he charge me tax?