When it came to money, NJ was aloof.
He was, as he used to say, above it. It didn't matter that he couldn't find the money to hang out with friends at times, and that he often chose to walk because it saved him some. When it came to money, nobody could fault him for his carelessness. After all, he lent money to friends when they were in need, gave his parents allowance, and even managed to spare a few bucks for charity. In short, the only person he mistreated for his lack of money was himself, and there's hardly anything anyone could have said if he chose to be masochistic.
It's a matter of personal choice, of free will, in short.
But when NJ fell for a woman of modest means and immodest lifestyle, everyone mourned, quietly.
* * *
Tabitha was, at first sight, the antithesis of NJ. She never had cash for those in need, often borrowed from her parents, and was shabby towards everyone but herself. Yet her aloofness towards money was matched only by NJ, and when they were together, the whole institution of money seemed to have lost its stand.
As foreseen, NJ's material life turned for the worst from the moment they exchanged fluids. His money, never much to begin with, found itself such a wide channel that most flowed out by middle of the month. Friends had to act fast and private, or they would miss out on his financial aid. Even his father was grumpy, when his wife downgraded his morning coffee from Vietnamese to local produce.
But neither NJ nor Tab (as he used to call her fondly) was repentant. In fact, he began to take perverse joy in the way she poured truckloads of money in a single buy, something he never imagined could be done. Tab, on the other hand, indulged in the sea of love that warmed her each time he suffered for her. And just as a prisoner eventually has to find comfort in his cell, the couple learned to survive this unusual state of cooperative squandering.
It was a struggling director who brought NJ out of his financial disorder. They met at a party thrown by Tab in celebration of their anniversary (something which amused and pained NJ a great deal). The director was the friend of Tab's second cousin's boyfriend, and turned up at the party uninvited, in order to save a meal.
"You know, my friend told me I could just come, even though I don't actually know the hosts." The director sniggered. "Apparently the couple is quite easy the way they spend money. Like, I think the guy paid for everything here with his entire month's pay." NJ was obviously uncomfortable with this kind of uninvited confession, and quickly made up some excuse to leave.
"And you know what?" The director gripped his wrist before he could go. "What these rich jerks have, if l can just have some. Then I don't have to budget every single fucking day of my life just so I can afford those damn actors. I don't blame nobody, but sometimes I wish I don't have to do what I do, with like money on my mind all the time."
There was this disgruntled bitterness in his voice that compelled NJ to stay. If he had the money, he would have lent some to help his directing career, but already he was so drained by his relationship that all he could lend was a listening ear.
The director whose name NJ could no longer recall was a man of meticulous character. Since he could only count on the occasional funding of others and refused, mostly, to take on other paying jobs, he had to plan his budget carefully. Not only did he project well into the year ahead, but he broke his allowance down into thirty one parts, one for each day. He categorized all expenses from filmmaking to private ones, and ensured he never exceeded his budget per category, per day. (Even if he did, he had contingency funds to make up for it.)
What left the deepest impression on NJ was, by his calculations, the total losses he suffered over his card bills. "Those assholes, they suck off your money before you realize it. Every month you can't pay, they smile at you in this professional phony way, like, 'No problem, sirre. You can always pay the rest next month. Or next month. Or next.' And every fucking month you slog and you pay and your money just go down deep in this fucking pit and one year down they still smile and say, 'Well done, sirre, you paid half your interest and your principal is still the same. Good luck paying for the rest of your life, moron.' Bastards." He had, at the beginning of his career, taken a few loans to make what he believed would be the ground breaking film of the century, and was still paying them off three years from then. NJ, contrary to what the director had heard, had then taken a five year loan to celebrate their anniversary.
* * *
The conversation was quickly forgotten. NJ continued to work hard and Tab continued to spend hard. Although the loans they were taking were finally so strenuous, they had to start reducing their spending. Even Tab, as a sign of good will, sold off her handbag to pay for their anniversary dinner.
"See? That's just how much I love you." She smiled, her heart filled to the brim with love for her man, and respect for herself at her willingness to give up on the essentials for love. NJ was pleased that Tab had sold off something for him, but for some reason, he didn't feel loved. With his fork, he poked absent-mindedly at the steak, wondering what's wrong.
* * *
It was a particularly bad month for NJ when he had to walk two hours home, because the manager took sick at the last minute and couldn't pass him his pay check. His - their - credit card bills were at a dramatic height, and Tab was removed from her job for reasons she refused to share. When he passed by the convenience store and saw a huge discount on instant noodles, he took out his last dollars to buy them, preparing to survive on them until his manager was back and he could walk back to the restaurant to collect his check (and borrow some till it's cashed).
The moment he opened the door, the fresh odor of alcohol choked him. Tab had gotten herself drunk again. These days, he felt like she was a patient - both physically and mentally - and he was the nurse. He noticed the pile of things on bed, mostly hers: tank top, scarves, shopping bag, towel. As he reached out to pick up the tank top strewn over the side of the bed, he was gripped hard on the wrist - and from the other side of the bed, climbing up from the floor was Tab. With bloodshot eyes that lacked focus, she looked at him like she couldn't figure out who he was for a second. And in that split second, NJ saw - in horror - the image of that drunk director overlapping hers.
"Oh, you're back. Let's get some food. I want some...what was that? Mexican. Oh, and a bottle of wine. Marks and Spencer's good. Don't have enough for Jerry's these days." She hiccupped, then giggled to herself in a girlish, self-deprecating way that first drew NJ to her.
At that moment, though, NJ was no longer charmed by her manners. He looked around the cramped room: an abstract painting hung above their hot pink iMac, both of which they bought from an artist friend; on the cupboard, vinyl records of singers from the 60s they bought at a whim from an old records store but which they couldn't play without a player; goody bags hanging from behind the half opened door from some fancy marathon they didn't run; on the floor, tens of handbags of similar colors and shapes; three tennis rackets they used exactly once and a golf bag containing a range of clubs whose difference he still couldn't discern. A luggage so huge he could stuff Tabitha in, currently packed full of unwanted clothes; a mannequin they bought from a bankrupt boutique owner for a night's fun.
And on the bed, Tabitha, already asleep with her buttocks still planted on the floor, snoring softly.
He looked behind at the week's supply of instant noodles on the dining table.
* * *
That summer, they had a divorce.
Tabitha never understood what happened. One day, he simply disappeared. She called his parents and they were ignorant. His friends she was never close to, and the only one she finally called revealed nothing. His phone was off, and his manager didn't have a clue. She quickly went hysterical, but there was nothing else she could do. Even the police told her to go back and wait, in that typically mechanical tone only they are capable of. She wanted to go back to her parents, but couldn't, in case he came by when she wasn't around. She didn't even go to an interview the next day, and for a whole week she was trapped at home.
She almost thought her eyes would bleed from exertion.
During that period of time, each day consisted of scouring online for his traces and calling his friends and family and waiting. Waiting for him to burst through the door in tears and explain how he was abducted; waiting for friends and family to bring her food and give her a scolding; waiting for the devastating, inevitable news of his untimely death.
When the divorce lawyer called and delivered the first concrete piece of news about him, she felt like her heart was drilled violently from the inside. Her hands trembled the first time since she stopped drinking, and a high-pitched tone reminding her of the cashier's scanner deafened her. She crumpled, as though her pencil-thin heels had snapped under the weight. Naturally, she failed to hear the rest of the lawyer's words.
For the first time since their marriage, everyone was on her side. No one remembered how she had robbed them of his money, and everyone was indignant over the way he treated her. It could have been a lovely scene of forgiveness and compassion, except that she hated their presence. Just as the belongings at home reminded her constantly of him, their presence only highlighted his irrevocable absence. One day, she stood up suddenly and walked over to the Chinese vase and toppled it. Amidst their horrified looks, she continued to destroy one item after another. When she tried to set the curtain on fire, they finally had to restrain her. In a fit of insanity, she bit her father-in-law's arm until it bled red, and sealed the divorce for them.
* * *
NJ moved back to his parents' after the divorce. He borrowed a few self-help books to manage his finance, but still found himself in deficit each month, thanks to his past debts and alimony. Still, he felt a lot safer than in those times when they were together. He went out with a few women, but didn't feel a thing for them. Oddly, when they opted for a cheaper cafe or restaurant or they didn't start wandering into boutiques, he started to miss Tabitha.
Once, he thought he saw her at a local mall, carrying a handful of shopping bags. Without thinking, he ran after her. Just when he was a few people away from her, he stopped himself. What am I supposed to say to her? After what I have done, what can I say to her? And as he watched the Tabitha look-alike walk away, he decided that she looked too fat to be her, and turned and strode off in the opposite direction.