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Heather here. As we’re interviewing couples for our book, I often promise them that I’ll be airing myself out. The microscope isn’t only focused on you. We all have our shit - here’s some of mine. Let’s have the courage to normalize talking about our complicated history with money. I’ll go first.

Doug and I went to Atlantic City two weekends ago. The purpose wasn’t to cosplay an episode of Jersey Shore, though I did refer to him as Big Dom and wear glitter pants with a top that was an inch too short. A couple good friends invited us along for a parents-only night away. We’d have some drinks. Eat red meat. Hit the tables. Good times only.

I have many great memories down the shore—that’s the beach, for those of you not fluent in the culture. Every summer, we found our way to the same strip of island, where I dug sand bunkers and ate Fudgie Wudgies until they melted down my hands. On the Ocean City boardwalk, I thought I owned the arcade where I famously tilted a Skee-Ball machine for scoring too high. Then, my dad and stepmom moved down there full-time, giving us a home base and the associated title of “locals.” They threw me an epic 21st birthday party at the same casino we just visited, tearing up the dance floor in the same exact nightclub. I lost a shoe. Doug lost his dignity. But we try to only remember the good parts.

Not all my time down the shore was so nostalgic. 

I come from a long line of gamblers. So you know, I struggled with which adjective to place before the word “gamblers.” “High-rolling gamblers” feels too elite and gives the connotation of winning. “Degenerate gamblers” is too harsh; though admittedly, I’ve used the word before. Not to describe my dad or his dad, but to describe the behavior: the intensity. The waste. The reckless abandon of common sense.

Most people take road trips to visit grandma and grandpa at home. My dad’s parents had us meet them in Atlantic City. Holed up in a suite at Caesar’s or Trop World, I understood young that this was a place where more dreams die than live. This was a place kids didn’t belong.

My mom tried to find things for me to do, but we weren’t there for my entertainment. We were there for my dad to gamble with his dad—for them to fortify their bond by taking risks together. I spent most of my time tracing the perimeter of the casino floor in search of them, my head throbbing from the smog of cigarettes. What a nuisance I was just for being there; yet, the overarching message was for me to be grateful for being there. How lucky a little girl was to taste the spoils of artificial luxury amongst the highest level of players and their closest friends, their casino hosts.

I was perceptive enough to realize they weren’t our friends. The relationship was transactional. Nothing was free: We give. You owe. You play. You owe.

The environment also spoke a gendered script: one of women asking their husbands for money. Women seeking permission to enjoy themselves. We were mere spectators of the fathers and sons, the breadwinners trying to feel big.

I am so intimate with this world. It bred my earliest feelings of rejection. And yet, I feel connected to it in ways I can’t erase.

Pop died when I was a teenager, several years after my parents divorced. My dad took it hard. I watched him lean into things they used to do together, like moving to the shore and buying a fishing boat so he could speak to him on the water. I do believe that in part, he continued gambling to feel close to his father, each visit a tiny act of destruction for the world being unfair. I’ve shared in the fun with him often, though I question now whether I ever had fun. I’m starting to think I was just hoping to fill the vacant seat at the table.

I interviewed a brilliant psychologist last week about inheritances, and our conversation veered into grief. I learned, the reason such money weighs so heavily on people is because they expect it to fill the holes of time, memories, and feelings they never can receive from the person who is gone. 

We are always looking to fulfill our wishes from childhood—even the ones we never will.

When I walk on the casino floor, my hands begin to sweat. My impulses ring. Some of my girlfriends can sit for hours playing penny slots for the amusement of it all, but to me, it’s not that. With each wager, my brain asks: What would you have done? What would you think of me—am I enough for you now? This is a game I’ll never win.

My husband sees it. He knows when I’m beginning to sink.

Which brings me back to two weekends ago. We’d sipped some drinks, eaten red meat, and were hitting the tables with our friends. I was down $400. I don’t know if it’s stress or what the process of writing this book is unveiling about my deep-rooted feelings around money, but I just didn’t feel good about it. I felt worse than usual.

He looked at me and said, “You’re not playing anymore.”

In money and life, our choices shouldn’t be in service of the things we cannot change. There’s too much good right in front of us. There’s too much good to lose.

We went for a walk. We spoke to a promoter at the nightclub and negotiated bottle service for us and our friends (at an age-appropriate distance from the DJ booth). We laughed our faces off as a group of millennials being served tequila with strobe lights and a bubble machine. Doug drank too much and lost his dignity once more. I guess we were cosplaying Jersey Shore after all because that night, he fell on a grenade for me. That’s just what you do for people you love.

I assure you, we’re going there. Join us: [email protected].


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