Everything was a lie, and he’d bought and paid for every one. Not because he ever needed to, but just because he could.
At first, I thought he was like me. He grew up, he said, in a working-class neighborhood with a father who Anglicized the family name to make a better life for his kids. It worked for Ralph: scholarship to a private high school, scholarship to college, straight to law school. Two decades and one divorce later, we were having drinks at a Tex-Mex bar, talking about how weird it is to be lobbyists, surrounded by people who never had to work for all the money they had.
It wasn’t a date—at least, that’s what I told the woman who asked Ralph to light her cigarette, then cornered me in the bathroom to see if she was allowed to ask him out. I was 25 and in a relationship. He was 44 and looked it—even his clothes screamed standard-issue middle-aged businessman. It takes more than two years in a city for a small-town girl to start to recognize high-end menswear.
When he tried to kiss me in the parking lot, I demurred because of the boyfriend. When he found out several months later that we had broken up, he didn’t waste a second following up. After our real first date, we made out on my sofa. He didn’t stay the night. He said he wanted to wait.
So I waited—two weeks, until he surfaced from a series of business and personal trips that took him from New York to Miami and back. He returned with stories of limo rides, champagne, and the type of women who glom onto you when you have those things. I only half-listened—I figured he was spinning some wild story to tease me, to compete with the fun of being 25. I was busy wondering when he would kiss me again and nervous about being naked with someone new for the first time in more than three years. At the time, I didn’t think my H&M finery would be more of an oddity to him than my little pooch.
As we got more serious, there were a lot of things I didn’t think about. I didn’t think about the rooms in his house we never entered, or the pictures of his niece and nephew that peppered the walls (he wasn’t baby-crazy, but he wanted kids someday). I didn’t think about the fact that the house was in a tony D.C. suburb (grownups all have houses, right?) I didn’t think about the swank hotels he said he frequented on his company’s dime, even as I was trying to find room in my company’s budget to afford a night at the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania Econo Lodge. I didn’t think about how someone like me, even 20 years later, would ever end up popping bottles in limos in Miami.
Meanwhile, Ralph put a lot of thought into our relationship. He thought about where we could grab a drink without being seen by people we knew from work (for our privacy, of course) and what kind of restaurants I’d feel “comfortable” going to (since I wasn’t very glamorous). He thought about why we shouldn’t talk when he was on the road (he was always working), and about how my vagina wasn’t as tight as some of the rich, thin women he said he’d had sex with (fat girls, you know).
Sometimes, I knew enough to feel slightly insulted, though I wasn’t quite sure how to articulate it. Other times, I got angry and fought back. But he had a way of turning every accusation back on me: He just wanted to take me places he really liked, or for our sex life to be as satisfying to him as it was to me. Arguing with a good lobbyist is like trying to hold a snake coated in Astroglide—it feels slightly gross, and you’ll never get a decent grip on it before it slips away. I could never pin down why I felt crappy before he’d convince me that I didn’t really have any reason to. Then, he was gone again—there was always a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, a bag in the hallway, some place he needed to be that wasn’t with me.
I knew what it felt like to be the smart kid who had to work for everything surrounded by privileged rich guys who climbed their connections to the top. Now that he had some money of his own, I understood the impulse to want to play around with it a little. But every time he dropped a bunch of cash on another fancy hotel, I’d remember how excited he was to buy a Perdue Oven Stuffer Roaster on sale to make me dinner (he served it with canned corn). Rich people were this alien species to me. Ralph had just enough of the blue collar left in him to fool me into thinking we were alike.
But the longer we dated, the more the details failed to add up. I asked to meet his friends, but he advised that we take it slow—he’d already lost a marriage and a serious long-distance girlfriend because he was ultimately committed to work. When I called his house on a Sunday, a kid picked up during what sounded like a party—it turns out Ralph coached a kid’s hockey team for his nephew, but he hadn’t wanted to brag. He was in it for the kids, not to impress women.
In the end, it was my supposed bad behavior that ended things: After months of him telling me how he wasn’t ready to be monogamous and disappearing from my bed for two weeks at a time, I slept with someone else. Unlike him, I was honest about it. His ego couldn’t take it. We broke up. But we kept spending time together in a kind of limbo state, making out but not having sex, telling ourselves we were friends. I waited around stupidly for him to tell some version of the actual truth, anything to break through the story I’d built up around him.
Then he got a job across the country— It turned out his “ex”-girlfriend was more of a present-tense situation. He wanted to say goodbye. He picked me up in a Lexus (somehow, I hadn’t even realized he’d owned one). When we arrived, I found he hadn’t just picked a bar, he’d rented it. Surrounded by coworkers I’d never met and friends I’d never heard of, I was nursing my second cocktail as he chatted with a friend behind him. “So are you selling the house here?” he asked Ralph. “Nah, I don’t need to,” Ralph replied. “I can get one there and keep this one in case things don’t work out.”
“Right,” his friend replied. “Plus your kids are here.”
Kids? I watched them in the mirror behind the bar, saw Ralph acknowledge the statement while looking at my back. Everything slid into place. There was the Ralph I knew, and then there was the real Ralph—the one with two kids and an age-appropriate girlfriend half a continent away, a Lexus and enough money for two houses and future college tuitions. He had hidden his life from me at every turn when the truth wouldn’t have changed anything. Everything was a lie, I decided, and he’d bought and paid for every one. Not because he ever needed to, but just because he could.
I turned around, shaking. “Your kids,” I said. He started up with another story, this one with another alternate ending. I cut him off with a hand motion and marched to the bar to pay for my drinks.
“You can’t pay,” he hissed. “I’ve seen you naked. I owe you.”
Just as the conversation in the room went silent, I shoved my credit card at the bartender and said, louder than I meant to: “Well, I had more orgasms.”
Heads swiveled. The bartender stared at us but I didn’t blush. He took my card and said, “I think she wins.” Two drinks were $23, before tip. Everything has a price, even the truth.