What Else Is There to Talk About Besides Money?

Photo-Illustration: by Stevie Remsberg; Photo: Getty

Get That Money is an exploration of the many ways in which we think about our finances — what we earn, what we have, and what we want.

On Friday, I get an email and I know from the subject line (“Large Purchase Approved”) what it’s all about — an installment toward the kids’ summer camp — so I delete it without even a small prayer of thanks to American Express because it’s the day after Valentine’s Day and summer seems as distant as the moon and also because I’m tired.

I’m in San Francisco in the beautiful home of one of my oldest friends where there’s a bona fide guest bedroom in which my husband and I share the bed and our boys share an air mattress on the floor, which would normally be chaos but yesterday we got up at five in the morning and flew across the country so the kids were exhausted and spent the night snoring companionably instead of punching one another and laughing.

Today they woke up at four in the morning and I felt bad for them, guilty lest they wake our hosts, and took pity on my husband because when we’re on vacation I make him do all the driving and that is tiring, so even though I’d only been asleep for four hours and had two glasses of wine and two glasses of whiskey at dinner the night before, I took the kids down to the basement to play.

I’m shivering in the Bay Area damp as the kids lay siege to the playroom, leaving books and Legos and old Halloween costumes in their wake, chatting excitedly because both of them are monologists who don’t require an audience, and even though I know I’m supposed to be a mindful parent, it’s so early in the morning that I feel I have earned special dispensation to just sit in my friend’s beautiful, almost-perfect home and look at my phone, which is what I do, and delete that email from American Express before settling into my familiar worries.

Last week I spent 45 minutes with my literary agent telling her about an idea for a book, and she agreed that it had merit but when talk turned to money the conversation got so sobering that I left our meeting feeling adrift, so I went to a restaurant that belongs to a good friend of mine and met another writer and drank four whiskies and ate her order of French fries and we discussed our kids and writing books and money — because what else is there to talk about besides money? — and when the check came we were only charged $5 because clearly my friend who owns the place asked his staff not to charge us and I left the restaurant feeling optimistic again or maybe just lucky.

I assume everyone looks at their phone with that same deranged hope I do (I’ve won a six-figure grant for gay novelists of South Asian descent; some editor wants to commission a 10,000 word piece that will pay $4 a word), but I don’t get much email at all, mostly exhortations to buy things from Mr. Porter and Barneys Warehouse and reminders that I have already bought things from our health insurer and the electric company and the gas company or at this moment from American Express and so that little chime of an email having arrived is kind of like the sound an old-fashioned cash register and looking at my phone is both an escape from and a sobering reminder of reality.

A bit later, we drive south to the home where my husband was a boy and it’s a vacation so I try to use my phone mostly for photographs and to not think about the $16 we spend at Starbucks or the fact that I stupidly went to the doctor whilst in a hazy area, health-insurance wise, and I now owe this doctor $700 though she found nothing wrong with me, which is good news though also I wonder if what’s really wrong with me isn’t some nebulous anxiety disorder that I know I cannot afford to address though perhaps spending $16 at Starbucks is a form of self-medication.

In the part of California where my husband grew up, we go to the boardwalk and play video games, we visit the pond in search of heron, we eat corndogs and Korean food and burritos and ice-cream, we go to the movies with all of our sons’ cousins, we lie in our Airbnb bed and drink wine and watch semi-prestige television and to some people these will seem like modest luxuries and to some they will seem like impossible-to-imagine excesses, and we know we’re lucky and we know that we have enough, even if we don’t have enough to be free from the accounting that reminds us that yes, sure, for now, for this stuff, we have enough.

We come back to New York and though we’ve been gone only eight days it feels we’ve been gone weeks or months, so it’s a betrayal that it still feels like winter outside and it’s not that surprising that the bill I owe that doctor has gone past due and so I take out my credit card and deal with it and it turns out that it’s not so much money that American Express has to email and advise me that they’ve approved the purchase.

But we have enough; and then I’ll spend some, and then I’ll earn some, and it will still be enough, and maybe I’ll spend some more, and then worry about whether there’s still enough, and there will be — or maybe there won’t be — and then perhaps there will be again, enough is great, enough is a blessing, enough is grace, enough is something, enough is something I think is elusive but in fact already possess.

Rumaan Alam’s most recent book is That Kind of Mother.

What Else Is There to Talk About Besides Money?