Secret Debt Threatened My Marriage

by Jordan Rosenfeld

For my first engagement, my ex proposed to me on a gondola in Venice, Italy, with the diamond solitaire I’d said I didn’t want, the entire thing a stage set to match the movie in his mind. Years later, with Erik — a Buddhist and an English teacher — there was no flashy proposal, just two people agreeing over burgers that we loved each other enough to marry.

A few weeks before our wedding, Erik came home from work, cuddled up to me on the couch and sighed heavily. “A coworker’s wife dropped a financial bomb on him today,” he said.

“Oh really?” I suddenly could not swallow.

“She had five thousand dollars’ worth of credit card debt she’d kept secret from him. He thought they were debt free.”

“Five thousand?” My cheeks could not sustain this blank expression for long.

“Can you imagine keeping such a secret?”

Could I imagine it? I was living it. I don’t know how long I sat there, silent. We were going to be married in less than a month. If he was scandalized by five thousand dollars, my own secret could be a game changer.

“I have some credit card debt too,” I said, my voice a shiver.

My fiancé pulled back and away. “What? How much?”

My voice had clamped down to a choked stream. “I don’t know, but I think it’s … more … than five thousand.”

“How much more?” His voice was tight, controlled.

“Maybe … twice that?”

“Ten thousand dollars?” His usually tender expression had evaporated, smile crimped into a grimace. “Why don’t you know how much?”

“I have … three cards.”

My fiancé’s pale skin flushed a scarlet reserved for anger he’d only displayed a few times, over power plays in his family. I shrank to atomic scale in my shame.

When I met Erik, him only eight months returned from the Peace Corps in the Czech Republic, he owned exactly one sleeping palette, a trunk that doubled as a dresser, a desk, an old Royal typewriter, and one shelf of books. Minimalist was an understatement. He balanced his checkbook every month in neatly printed ink and paid off his credit card at the end of every month if he used it at all.

“Debt is like living in the past.” His hands now flapped their emphasis in the air. “How can we move forward into the future if you’re stuck in the past?”

A sweeping terror careened through me, a breeze launching a wildfire. What was he saying?

“I want you to find out exactly how much debt you have.”

I was keenly aware of the emphasis on you, a dividing wall slamming down between us.

As I rifled through the statements in the box I had kept shoved at the back of my cluttered closet, I flashed on four years earlier. My mom had called, needing a safe place to stay after outpatient methadone treatment for a drug relapse after nearly a decade of sobriety. She was weepy and shaky, pale and soft-spoken. I wanted to witness this newborn thing in her in the hopes that it might birth a change in me, too.

At the ATM, she sighed and shook her head at the receipt. “Overdrawn. By a lot,” she said. “It’s just part of it.”

“Part of what?”

“Breaking through the denial.”

Now I faced a puncture of my own denial. With fingers so sweaty they skipped across the calculator keys, I tallied up my shame: nearly fifteen-thousand dollars. And fifteen-thousand dollars of what, exactly? I’d been racking up this debt bit by bit for the four years since I’d left my ex, who had controlled everything, from how I dressed to the color of our kitchen napkins. I carelessly padded my own hollow spaces, rewarded myself with material sprees to flesh out my own preferences.

I brought the tally to my fiancé, too hunchbacked in my shamed to look him in the eye. The skin of his mouth puckered white. “Wow,” he said, and then fell silent for so long I could hear blood pounding in my ears. “I need to sleep on this.”

He went to bed, but I stayed up hugging myself on the couch and shedding tears that followed visions of him storming out of our apartment, never to return. But beneath the terror and wet-muck shame was a strange calm, a twisted relief. I’d been caught.

Once, at age nine, I was caught stealing cash from my friend’s parents’ crack-motel till. Another time, was caught slipping more than a few twenties out of my father’s dresser drawer. His words echoed, “I think you wanted to be caught. To get attention.”

But this wasn’t the kind of attention I wanted from my fiancé.

The next day he answered me only in terse, one-word replies. Though I knew I deserved it, this was all painfully reminiscent of my time with my ex, who had used silence as a form of punishment when I did not conform to his desires.

Several days later, unable to sleep from a full-bodied anxiety that rolled violently through my dreams, I stopped my fiancé before work. “Please,” I said. “I can’t stand you looking at me like I’m a dog that rolled in shit. I know I betrayed your trust. But your silence is worse than anything you could say to me.”

His shoulders visibly slumped. “I will give you this.” He rubbed a hand roughly across his chin. “You were brave to tell me before we got married, knowing how I feel about security. But it’s really unsettled me. It makes me think twice about linking our financial fates.”

Hitching sobs escaped me. Was he saying he didn’t want to marry me?

“But I know that you had no models for taking care of yourself in this way. I just need a little time.”

In the remaining weeks leading up to our wedding, we tossed around ideas and solutions, leaning toward having a wedding ceremony as planned but not legally marrying until I’d paid off my debt. Meanwhile, I linked up with a debt consolidation company.

The week before our wedding, we met with the woman who would marry us, the abbott of a Zen Buddhist center in Marin County.

When we revealed our plan to withhold legal marriage, she suggested, “You’re in it together, no matter how Jordan pays off her debt. I’d just like to point that out.” My soon-to-be husband took my hand across her table and exhaled shaky breaths.

We married in his mother’s backyard on August 14, 1999, in ceremony and in the eyes of the law.

Two years later, I sent the final check on my debt, though it was only the beginning of learning how to speak our shameful secrets into the light.

Jordan E. Rosenfeld’s essays and stories have appeared or are forthcoming from: Brain, Child, Modern Loss, Rewire Me, Role/Reboot, The Rumpus, San Francisco Chronicle, The St. Petersburg Times and a collection from Shebooks. She’s author of the writing guides Make a Scene and Write Free, and the novels Forged in Grace and Night Oracle.

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