His blonde head cast a golden halo on my pillow. His steady sleep-breathing lulled. The hum he’d left in my body spread. I was a liberal East Coast Jew with a penchant for radical social justice and a back-to-the-land lifestyle. He drove a silver Audi and I could tell his haircut cost more than a month’s worth of my groceries. I shot up in bed with a horrified gasp and shook him awake. “My god!” I wheezed, “Tell me you’re not a Republican.”
“Let’s talk about it later,” was his pillow-muffled reply, and he turned and went back to sleep.
I lay on my back and sorted through the evidence I’d been subconsciously gathering over the week I’d known him—he was a young entrepreneur, 28 to my 33, who’d recently sold a company he founded, then started another. He invested in modern art, luxury real estate, hopped seaplanes and private jets for weekend excursions. He was the most financially successful person I had ever talked to, let alone dated, the type of business-minded entrepreneur I usually dismissed as intellectually vapid and morally lacking. Confident, charismatic, and aggressive, I was drawn to him at a party I’d attended with a friend and her business school classmates. I noticed his intensely sparkling eyes, how they settled on me, confirming what we all believe or want to believe: I am fascinating, I am unique.
I liked standing close to him, holding a sweating glass of seltzer, and the intensity of his interest as I told him about writing and teaching. My head tilted toward his smooth-shaven face as he described his work and travel. I liked the sleek fabric of his high-end shirt and the hard ball of muscle beneath it I felt as I squeezed his arm in response to a joke. With his confidence and charisma, his bravado and wit, he was a far cry from the men I was usually drawn to—broke and soulful poets and musicians sporting creative facial hair and draped in flannel.
As a writer and teacher, I led a slow, simple, frugal life. My pleasures lay in reading and writing, going for evening walks, drinking tea. My values were introspection and creativity, and my friends were teachers, social workers, farmers, and non-profit humanitarians. We were happy living on the cheap, shopping in bulk at co-ops, storing our grains in repurposed tomato sauce jars, entertaining at each other’s homes over shared potluck meals on mismatched plates and silverware scavenged at yard sales. We lived outside of Boston, in Somerville and Jamaica Plain, where rent was cheaper.
This entrepreneur, let’s call him Ray, lived in downtown Boston in a brownstone on Beacon Street. Ray and his friends danced and dined in trendy restaurants and bars; dropped thousands of dollars on a meal, traveled to islands for long weekends, summered in other countries. Suddenly, the life I’d created for myself looked frumpy and frayed around the edges. Was I selling myself short? Was there so much more to experience in this world than I’d let myself see? Maybe the point was to live fast and hard, and all my introspection and existential wonderings and do-gooder tendencies were misguided, lonely ways to pass the brief time allotted me on this earth.
Ray and I were exotic to each other. For him, I was a refreshing break from the norm. I wore weird clothes and said what I felt, not what was proper. I didn’t care about make-up, hair, or pilates, but I did care about feminism, climate change, and social justice. I brewed my own kombucha and spent entire weekends in sweatpants, reading and writing and not spending a dime.
He thrilled me by showing me what fun was to be had out in the physical world. We went out dancing, to bars, to restaurants with glinting walls. Meanwhile, I tried to bring him closer to my more internal world of feelings and intellectual wondering. We were both entrepreneurs—creating products that no one asked for and convincing the public that they need them—his were physical products and mine were composed of words. Perhaps it was this spirit that led us to each other—a hunger for the new, for risk-taking, for seeing our internal convictions manifest in the world.
I pushed aside the problematic values I associated with conservative politics. I ignored what I feared might be moral bereftness if I scratched the surface of some of his relationships and business dealings, and the entrepreneurial way he acted in bed, as if I were a commodity to be explored, devoured, conquered.
I know this isn’t novel—a woman falling for a man with money and magnetism—I just didn’t think it would happen to me, an intelligent feminist in her thirties. I was shocked by how much I wanted him to swoop in and take me out of my life, like I was sleeping beauty and he was some flashy prince in a gilded penthouse.
It wasn’t just the money that intrigued me, it was also his fiery drive. This man was passionate for the outer like I was for the inner. As a writer, I was always fascinated by what it would feel like to be someone else, and was mesmerized with this other life of wealth and risk and action. I stuck to warm sweaters and jeans in the winter, even hats inside the house to keep the heat low, while the women in his crowd wore tank tops and high heels year-round because they looked good, because they took cabs instead of the subway, because of the lavish heat rising from radiators in their deluxe apartments and the warmth of crowded rooms packed with bodies. They straightened their hair, lined their eyes thickly, and wore designer clothes of the thinnest materials that hung just so. Could I be a woman like this? As Albert Camus said, “It’s a kind of spiritual snobbery that makes people think they can be happy without money.”
I’d often dismissed such women as intellectually uninteresting with questionable values—why doll yourself up for the male gaze? Why cause yourself discomfort in heels? Why put your time, energy, and resources into the outer when it’s what’s inside that matters? But I was starting to learn that these folks had substance under the flash, more that I’d thought. It wasn’t the psychological or literary kind I had always respected, but a social and business savvy; a quick wit and power through sex-appeal.
Who was I to say which was better or worse? I knew plenty of awful people who bought in bulk.
My hippie parents instilled in my brother and me that life was to be lived with a sense of personal and emotional satisfaction, and that money always came second. My parents (who met in Berkeley buying local organic eggs), were a writer and a social worker, and I was born on Medicaid and raised in early childhood on food stamps. But with the help of their families and working full time, they’d quickly joined the ranks of the upper middle class and my brother and I grew up with a safety net around us that enabled their philosophy that work should be something meaningful and enriching, that money is a nice thing we needed to live, but should never drive our choices or come before our health or happiness.
The longer I dated Ray, the more I loved losing myself in his world of pleasure-seeking rich boys. When I went dancing with him and his debaucherous friends, I felt a kind of thrill and lightness I wasn’t able to sustain on my own or with the people I’d dated before. One night, I was stunned when his friend grabbed my ass on the dance floor and stuck his tongue in my mouth. I twirled around to see if Ray had seen, but he was dancing in the middle of a circle of ten women, staring into their eyes, throwing his chiseled arms around their necks and whispering into their ears. My instant outrage turned to thrill—I’d never gotten to be careless with people’s hearts or so reckless with my own, to date the young, impulsive and rich. When others did this in high school or college I was camping in the wilderness, making tinctures and teas and sewing quilts, happily reading Dillard and D’agata on Saturday nights.
There were glimmers of deeper humanity in Ray. He had briefly flashed a tender spot when he talked about the death of a close friend. I saw the way pain had carved out a space in him. But ultimately, he didn’t share that space with me.
One evening he declined a dinner invitation, the next he said he couldn’t meet me at a friend’s party. I got the hint and we never saw each other again. No conversation, no explanation. I’d never before, or since, been ghosted the way I was with Ray, but it made sense. I think I was fun for him for a while and then wasn’t. I think before he dropped me he’d mumbled something about getting back together with an ex.
Perhaps what drives a man to be so successful so young is an insatiable appetite for the new, for more, for better, always something fresh around the bend. With his charisma and charm, allegiances are easily won and easily tossed aside. This makes for an excellent businessman but a lousy partner.
I got to dip my toe in the waters of the one percent, and it wasn’t as shallow as I expected. The people in Ray’s world, who make up that elusive, elite class, were complex and multi-layered, like we all are. I still think it’s irresponsible, given the state of the world, to focus on one’s personal wealth and happiness despite the cost to the environment and the human rights of others, but I am fascinated by the lives of the very wealthy and their worlds of shining surfaces and cashmere. More than anything material, I liked the freedom and agency that money seemed to offer. Backed by capital, it’s easy to shirk bad bosses, leave sketchy living situations, and put health before all else. I respected the way Ray took his life into his hands (he did not come from wealth) and created what he wanted out of it. And I appreciate that about myself, too, though my richness comes from time and freedom—not dollars.
Dating Ray was like taking a trip to a strange and exotic locale—ultimately not for me, but a colorful jaunt that allowed me to experience a new facet of life. I see him on Facebook sometimes, in pale pink button-down shirts, drinking at trendy bars, dancing with black-clad blondes, smiling clean-shaven and shiny on gorgeous beaches. I’m back to comfortably dating musicians, academics, and humanitarians, men who walk or bike to my house, buy me a burrito if I’m lucky. And I’m making a decision to have even less money than I do now—to teach less in order to write more. I have plenty of hopes and resources and enough salary to live a humble life comfortably, but I’ve come to appreciate Henry Miller, who once wrote, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
Gila Lyons' work has appeared in Salon, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement.