Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I’ve heard rumors that there is such a thing as an amicable breakup — unfortunately, I’ve never been lucky enough to experience one of those for myself. There was a time toward the end of my last relationship when I thought Kyle, my soon-to-be-ex, might be that unicorn guy — the one who, even though we needed to go separate ways, would remain the same person I had loved for over three years. Three years in which we spent countless holidays with each other’s family, attended at least a dozen weddings, supported each other during several job changes, moved in together, and eventually adopted a kitten.
All of which explains why I fought so hard when he told me around Thanksgiving that he thought we should break up. And again at Christmas. And again at New Year’s. By St. Patrick’s Day, he had said it so many times that I could no longer justify fighting for a relationship that only I wanted.
Though I knew the decision was the right one, I was scared of the transition, of navigating the unfamiliar as a newly single 30-something. The one comfort I had was that I’d keep the kitten. I imagined my future looked something like a less glamorous version of Breakfast at Tiffany’s: a girl in a mostly empty apartment, alone but not entirely alone, with a nameless cat to keep her company. At least I had a buddy in all this, even if it wasn’t a human one.
That idealization of our breakup was shattered when, in the process of finalizing the logistics of our split, Kyle did something so cruel, so manipulative, that it completely overshadowed the view I’d had of him — he tried to shame me into letting him buy our cat.
There were two things that made this especially egregious: One, we’d already agreed, long ago, that the cat would belong primarily to me. And two, he was using our economic differences as leverage — something that he also did while we were dating, and that always stung even as I tried to shrug it off.
Breaking up is always painful, and having pets together only adds another layer of difficulty.
This was not the first time I’d shared an animal in a relationship, so I knew the challenges going in. I’d gotten a dog with a prior serious boyfriend, and when things ended, the dog rode shotgun in his U-Haul headed west. Years later, I was completely devastated when he called to tell me that she’d died of cancer. I grieved the loss of this animal at least three times: when we broke up and I moved out, when he actually moved, and finally, when I got that call.
So I’d long ago decided that, in any future co-parenting of furry children, a breakup plan would be established from the outset.
Last summer, Kyle purchased a BMW and wanted to drive out to Chicago for a music festival. My college roommate who lives there had recently rescued a litter of kittens, and since we’d driven, we had no good excuse when she insisted we adopt one and take it home.
As Kyle and I made the 14-hour drive back, I made it clear that, should we ever breakup, the cat would go with me. He agreed the cat was mine, just as the car was his. The only difference is that the cat was one of the few things we shared in our relationship that I could actually afford on my own.
Kyle always made more money than me: He had a great job in the tech industry and, though he’d changed jobs several times while we dated, each one was better than the last. He never seemed to look far for the next opportunity; great six-figure jobs always seemed to find him.
In contrast, I worked in corporate fashion wholesale, an industry plagued with volatility. I always managed to stay on my feet, but I’d dealt with my fair share of setbacks, including a brief stint of unemployment that resulted in a subsequent brief stint as a part-time nanny. The fashion industry can also be extremely competitive, and the pressure I felt to make sales goals pushed me to work long hours and gave me anxiety that affected my sleep and general health. I was always jealous of Kyle’s flexible hours, ability to work from home whenever he wanted, generous bonuses and overall work-life balance.
While both of us made an above-average salary, Kyle had a unique way of making it feel like I wasn’t financially responsible. He preferred to save as much as he could, and spoke to his wealth using words like “assets” and “net worth,” whereas I always thought of money as something one used to create life experiences. I’ve never hesitated to use my disposable income (within fiscally responsible parameters) on a new outfit that made me feel amazing, or an unforgettable vacation with my girlfriends. I hadn’t managed to build up the kind of savings that would allow me put a down payment on a real-estate investment in the near future — something that Kyle was actively pursuing — but I had very little debt, and an emergency nest egg that could serve as a safety net, and that was enough for me.
These differences eventually contributed to our relationship’s demise.
When we finally broke up, both of us understood that I’d have to move uptown nearly 90 blocks because my salary wouldn’t allow me to take over our lease on my own, and Kyle would stay in our apartment.
I’d left the cat with Kyle the first week after I moved out while I unpacked my belongings in my new place. I wanted her adjustment to our new home to be as easy as possible, without the chaos of moving, and I trusted Kyle to look after her. When I’d finally finished unpacking everything, I buzzed myself in to what was now Kyle’s apartment to pick her up … and noticed that none of her things were packed.
Kyle noticed me noticing. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “and I’d like to buy the cat from you.”
My first instinct was to laugh. There was no way he was serious.
“I’m serious,” he assured, wearing a facial expression to match.
And then he unleashed the barrage of questions he’d apparently prepared: Could I actually take care of this cat on my own? Was I going to scoop the litter box every day, and remember to feed her? Was I going to be out all the time? What about when I worked late?
“I have more flexibility with work, and live really close to my office, not to mention I can work from home at anytime,” he concluded. “I just think I’m more set up to take care of her”
Until that moment, It had never occurred to me that I couldn’t take care of her on my own. Couldn’t I? It was just a cat, not a child. Or even a dog.
And then I thought of the succulents. The only living things I had ever attempted to care for completely on my own. All of which had died, in two to three short months of my care. Was Kyle right about me?
He seemed to sense my moment of weakness.
“Everything has a price, Mel. How much do you want?”
In a brief lapse of succulent-induced panic, I blurted out a ridiculous number, the first one that came to me: “Twenty thousand dollars”
This would be an absurd price for any domestic animal, in my opinion, especially one weighing under five pounds. There was no way Kyle would actually consider it. But what if he did?
As soon as the words came out, though, I started to realize how little they actually meant. I’d managed to secure a studio apartment in Manhattan that I could afford on my own. I’d put down a deposit and paid the first month’s rent. I could afford groceries, subway fare, and utilities. I didn’t have a ton of extra money lying around, but I had enough; I didn’t need money.
The cat, on the other hand, provided things that I did need: comfort, emotional solace, security. She was something to come home to, something that relied on me. I would need to be needed in those early post-breakup months ahead. Not to mention we’d agreed on this a long time ago, and Kyle knew it.
I searched Kyle’s face for a response. He appeared to be stunned into silence by the price I’d named, or maybe he was actually considering it. Either way, I didn’t wait for his reply before I regained my grasp on the moment, and said with the firm, confident voice I’d been searching for: “The cat goes with me and she’s not for sale. It’s not open for negotiation.”
I scrambled to gather all of the cat things, my last belongings in the apartment we’d once shared. As a parting gesture, Kyle offered to drive us uptown in his BMW. We said good-bye and he left me in my new, quiet apartment — heartbroken, but not alone.
The cat sat perched in the window as I drew back the curtain and watched him drive away.