On ‘Dating Up’

by Ruzielle Ganuelas

He told me how much money he made around our third date.

Over chips and salsa at an overpriced Mexican restaurant, the guy sitting across from me told me he made six figures a year. I know that for some people six figures a year isn’t a lot of money, but I had a habit of dating people who were usually broke. Everyone I knew was unemployed, underemployed, or terminally underpaid, so meeting someone who made six figures a year was practically unfathomable.

The only other person I dated with some link to money came via my ex-boyfriend. His father owned a TV station in Utah and his mother clearly enjoyed the privilege — she dripped with jewelry and talked non-stop about their money.

Mr. Six-Figures is a senior electrical aerospace engineer with an undergraduate degree in computer science. He’s lived and traveled in and outside of the United States working for the biggest aerospace and defense companies in the world — the U.S. Air Force, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, amongst others.

His company at the time always ordered in from the coffee shop I worked at, and the girls at work made me deliver the food to his office. I was embarrassed to go up the sexy high-rise with deli meat stuck on my clothes and smelling like toasted cheese. I was the shop girl, and I was also the girlfriend of one of the highest-paid engineers in the building. When I visited him at work, his co-workers — my customers — never quite knew how to treat me. Do they treat me like the shop girl, or the girlfriend? It was awkward all around except for him; he treated everyone from the valet to the VP of Engineering with the same level of respect.

I wanted out of the coffee shop. I liked the hours, tips, and customers, but I didn’t like knowing his co-workers were maybe thinking he dated down. Some bro he did business with, who was born into a wealthy immigrant family, told him to dump me because I was “working class” (his words). The guy said I didn’t belong in their world — a world where $55 an hour is a low-paying job.

What most people don’t know is that Mr. Six-Figures was born and raised in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Washington D.C. His parents didn’t have high school diplomas, and neither did their parents before them. His mom was on disability and his dad was an exterminator — his siblings and their children would all end up on welfare. He joined the Air Force right after high school. He took the easiest way out of town, and hoped he never had to go back home.

An electrical training course in high school was his salvation — he scored exceptionally well in the electronics section of the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test — and landed an airplane technician job in the Air Force. He almost didn’t make it out of the military; he was too rebellious and too untrusting of authority. All he wanted to do was become an electrician, and he wanted to leave his technician job. His mom told him to stick it out, and luckily he did, not just for his imminent stratospheric success, but because it led to us meeting each other.

For my graduation last June, he bought me two dresses to wear. We were at Macy’s and I could not find a dress for my budget of under $20. I saw two dresses I liked with $50 price tags and he paid for them — this was an important day, he had said, and I had better not think about the money. A few months prior, he bought me a navy blue Nordstrom suit. Even on sale, it was still a few hundred dollars for the ensemble. Early in our relationship, he took me out shopping at the mall. Remember that scene in Pretty Woman when Julia Roberts was out shopping and Richard Gere paid for everything? It was sort of like that; except we were minorities and I didn’t enjoy shopping at all.

But he knew the power of the power suit — a year after he bought it for me, I was at a huge event with over a thousand people. I went on stage, and I was so, so grateful I was wearing that suit. I felt fabulous in it, empowered.

I call him the Rainmaker. When we go into a restaurant, I get the tingles knowing that it would be a lucrative day for an oh-so accommodating server. As a longtime hospitality manager, I have a special fondness for customers who tip well. Regardless of your point of view on tipping, those in the service industry earning sub-wages still need to make a living, and he understands this concept well. He liked to say, who’s to decide that an engineer’s job is more valuable than a cleaning lady or a waiter’s? We all have to eat; we all have to pay bills.

Once in a restaurant, my boyfriend greeted our waitress and asked for her name. The waitress scowled, went to the back and powwowed with her co-worker. A few minutes later, her co-worker introduced herself and said she would be our server. Big mistake, I thought. She thinks you’re a creep, I told him, that’s why she got the other girl to wait on us.

By the end of the evening, he slipped our very friendly waitress a $100 bill. She asked him if it was okay to hug the two of us. She looked like she wanted to cry. This became an oft-repeated scene. Although I could never leave a $100 tip without careful budgeting, I still felt good watching him make someone’s day/night with the money he earned and could afford to give. Random acts of kindness were his thing.

I read somewhere that service industry workers should never date their customers, because the tectonic plates of economic disparity will inevitably shift the relationship to its demise. One of his closest friends is a brilliant electrical software engineer who authored two engineering patents. His wife is a card dealer working the graveyard shift in a run-down casino. He was a bit of a gambler so we deduced that they must have met in a casino where she worked. They were the versions of our older selves and their love was dazzling. It gave me hope that true love and mutual respect trumps societal expectation.

It’s hard to say what makes our relationship work. I think it partly has to do with the fact that our interests and financial lives are separate, but we share the same moral code. Also, I’ve never looked at his money as a means to an end. I’m just happy to find someone who didn’t spend all his money on weed, cigarettes, and beer. For him, he’s just happy to be with someone who laughed at all his jokes and let him be himself.

Previously: “The Things About Money We Hide Behind Our Doors”

Ruzielle Ganuelas is a recent college graduate and board member of Seattle Education Access.