But we're still men.
My professional life has been, by most measures, an exercise in small-bore self-indulgence: modest in scope and ambition, of arguable intellectual merit, meagerly compensated. The carcasses of two novels and a collection of awful short stories rot, as they should, in a closet in my mother's house. As the inspiration for my first book, she is understandably loathe to cast aside any potential hints of my early genius, so I can hope only that the ink will fade or the paper crumble before any of my children stumbles onto them. Sex Tourist, a satirical novel-in-stories set among the whoremongers loitering in Southeast Asia's backpacker districts, is a literary experiment about which I prefer they remain unaware.
There were the obligatory Los Angeles years and the doomed foray into screenwriting, which mercifully concluded with my application, at age 30, to law school. (I was rejected.) My resumé would not be complete without a quixotic career divertissement, mine being a journey to the fringes of reality television. The fiscal highlight of this venture was $500, for the sale of a bank-heist game show called Mastermind, which was no such thing. It was optioned and then forgotten by the same company that had elevated this nation's cultural conversation with American Gladiator.
When that fizzled, I vowed to give up creative pursuits and accepted a $25,000-a-year job as a secretary for an international non-profit. But who was I to keep a vow when an unpaid internship for a monthly magazine of fading literary glory was on offer? The magazine hired me as an editor not long after the internship, whence I embarked on a meteoric march to the middle of the masthead which halted when I was laid off while earning $45,000, the highest salary—by far—of my life to that point.
My book, of which I am proud, seems likely to prove an aberration. I found a reputable agent, who sold it to a good publishing house for far more than it was worth. Shortly after publication, I topped Amazon's "Hot New Releases: Jewish biographies" for a day or so, and even now I occasionally zoom past the 400,000 barrier on the website's rankings with a certain insouciant flair.
Did I mention that I have a master's degree in something called "professional writing"?
Never fear that I have confronted this catalog of unrivaled success alone. Women do in fact exist willing (even eager, at times) to immerse themselves wholly in the financial quagmire known as Theodore Ross, potbelly, balding pate, and paucity of retirement assets be damned! Yes—pick up your jaw, please—I have been married on two occasions, to well-educated, high-functioning, practical, hardworking, successful women who have never—not for a month or a moment—failed to make more money than me. Some might reckon divorce as evidence of interpersonal shortcomings, but not in this context. Consider that two, living, breathing, actual women consented to a relationship with me; perhaps I should end the current one just to prove I could again do so successfully.
Last year, I happened by chance into an editorial job at a national magazine that pays well by the standards to which I've educated my women to become accustomed. That, combined with a tidy little book payment or two, has swollen the balance of my semi-hidden-checking-account-for-which-my-wife-lacks-the-password to levels she had never dared dream, even when we were dating and I wanted her to think I earned a living. And yet she still outdid me, without breaking a sweat, if one's cold, hard cash could be said to sweat.
Which, leads, finally, to the subject I would like to address with my DadWagon colleagues. I understand, and am grateful for, my great connubial good fortune. To be blessed, as I am, with the affection of a woman who surfs and cooks, finds Jewish men attractive, and who will always make more money than I do and has yet to show signs of resenting that fact, would seem to preclude the possibility of complaining.
The gentle kiss of undeserved providence has not relieved me of a fair amount of, say, irritation, at my wife's enhanced procurative powers. I find it a little annoying that her bottom line is bigger than my bottom line (or whatever).
Before anyone overreacts, my spouse among them, let me be clear: I love my wife and I don't begrudge her the success she has achieved, particularly in those moments when I am without regret spending her loot. She's worked for everything she has, and she can hardly be faulted for having chosen a career—advertising executive—more pleasingly remunerative than mine. Likewise, she has never indicated any unease about my paltry earnings—although when my current job became available she didn't talk me out of giving up my plan to write full-time.
These character traits are superb, hard to find, and not easily replaced. Yet, still, I continue to wish I made more money than she did, even if only once, and merely so that I could brag of it, in public, perhaps at a cocktail party, child's birthday party, or some other peer-group social gathering.
I have only my uncorroborated word that I am not an inordinately competitive man, not blindingly macho, or sexist, or a misogynist. Yet these feelings persist. I suspect it has less to do with my relationship to my wife than with my chosen profession. For me, the writing life has been one of failure alternating with frustration mixed with dashed hopes combined, at long last, with a measure of success that I've never truly accepted as here to stay.
People who know me generally don't rate me a monster. I am as good to my wife as I know how to be. Like her, I have worked hard, provided for our children and our household as best I am able, and struggled for whatever success I've been able to enjoy. But it's never felt nearly enough. The question is why?
I am reminded of the concluding sentences of Ann Beattie's famous 1979 short story, "The Burning House," in which the husband, Frank, explains to his wife, Amy, why he will leave her:
"All men...I'm going to tell you something about them. Men think they're Spider-Man and Buck Rogers and Superman. You know what we all feel inside that you don't feel? That we're going to the stars." He takes my hand. "I'm looking down on all of this from space," he whispers. "I'm already gone."
I have no super-heroic delusions of grandeur, and unlike Frank, I intend to stay with my wife for as long as she will have me. But I feel a form of grim and guilt-ridden satisfaction when she worries, as all modern-day Americans must, about losing her job. I reassure her, tell her that we will be fine whatever comes. We can, I say, betraying no irony, get by on what I make.