A friend as your mortgage holder? It seemed like one of those things you should never, ever do.
Let me tell you about my coat. It is a distinctive color, somewhere between lilac and lavender and gray. The cashmere is so light and soft it feels like a kitten, and other women stroke it instinctively. It is chic in a Paris-boutique-whose-name-I-forget way, my coat, with a hood, and toggle closures and French seams. I wear it only when conditions are perfect: clear skies, temperature ranging from forty-eight to sixty degrees.
I’m frequently asked where I got it, and sometimes I say, “Paris,” because that’s what the label says, but I shouldn’t really say “Paris,” because the coat is a hand-me-down, from the back of a friend’s closet. It’s a garment I could never afford to buy.
It’s not the only expensive gift my friend has given me. I did her a favor once and got a pricey handbag as thanks. She planned a wedding for me in her home, which got cancelled—another story, another time—and she sent me all the champagne she’d ordered, with a shrug. When, over the course of a couple of years, I had ticked off six or seven of the top life stressors on the Holmes and Rahe Scale and was in a terribly low place, this friend handed me a check big enough to pay off urgent medical bills and move my family from the beloved house I could no longer afford to a more manageable apartment.
I met my friend in 1998, in a business context. I was a communications consultant, and the company she worked for hired me to develop content for executive presentations. I met with each of the top dogs in the firm, a dozen men and one woman, to help them create successful narratives about ventures, opportunities, results. My job was to make sure the PowerPoint slides and the people delivering them told a powerful story. But the men were didactic, sure of themselves, and could afford to be dismissive about their need for improvement. They’d already made a lot of money being the way they were, and so with them I basically took dictation, more a stenographer than a consultant.
Working with W, the sole woman in leadership, was a relief. I looked forward to it. She was candid, self-aware, unflinching in her quest to improve herself, and determined to excel. She solicited my expertise, which the men certainly did not do. She would probe my thinking thoroughly, so that I had to keep my thinking sharp. Our collaboration was challenging and satisfying.
W and I were business colleagues for months, but we bonded over jewelry in an instant. I owned a pair of downtown designer earrings which I wore every day, and loved, first, because of their organic elegance, and also first, because I could afford the smaller, non-precious styles. One day, W was wearing the same earrings, and we became friends. We had lunch, we told each other our own stories. Friends. That simple.
But women’s stories are always complicated. I was a well-paid consultant, yet in truth, I’d invented that version of myself out of desperation. A catastrophic reversal of fortune designated me as my family’s primary breadwinner after years as a stay-at-home mother. I had entrusted—or abdicated, I guess, although that’s not what it felt like at the time—the “business” part of our family business to my entrepreneurial husband. My marriage was rocked by the aftershocks and then everything collapsed. I’m good on paper, so I ginned up my resume and did what I had to do, got a job. Home life, previously my proud purview, became unstable without me at the helm.
I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer, too, and I was still reeling from the sudden deaths six weeks apart of both my parents a few years before. In what felt like daily surreal performance art, I put on my consultant’s costume and waited for the train on a suburban platform with a cell phone pressed to my ear, telling the kids where to find the Neosporin, when to head out for the school bus. I had barely enough money in my wallet for the commute.
When I try and visualize myself then, I can’t do it, I’m blurry, as if hiding in memory under the camouflage of chaos. I can’t picture myself back then, but I can see W. She dressed in a kind of costume, too, to fit in, somber navy and grays, jackets buttoned, a reassuring, feminine blouse peeking out, skirts to mid-knee, and unthreatening shoes, not too high but not too sturdy, either. W was serious, maybe a bit stern, but if something struck her as funny she’d let out a sharp yelp of a laugh, definitive approval.
W had always been the primary breadwinner. She was self-made and so, always working. Her money expanded, making space for nice things and memorable vacations and beautiful houses, but it took up space, too, a lot of space, and W had to give more of herself and her time. She was never not under pressure, and she was away from her own home and family more than any of them liked. It’s not my story to tell, but her marriage was in trouble at the same time mine was.
Both our marriages ended. Our kids bore burdens. We talked each other through it over many evenings.
W ignored the income disparity between us. She paid without hesitation for the activities that marked our friendship: five-star meals, a spa vacation, courtside seats, theater tickets, a weekend at a beach. We wanted to hang out together, we counted on each other, but for me the gap was widening and getting harder to navigate. I was earning a modest income, I was still tunneling out from debt, my health care was expensive, and the only way I could reciprocate was to cook dinner at my place, or pick up the check for our pre-dinner drinks at the bar, or bring her a small gift when we met.
I worried about the financial gulf between us. I didn’t want to lose W’s friendship, but I didn’t want our relationship to be based on her bounty. Over time, I didn’t pull away from W, but I didn’t initiate contact as easily as I did with other friends. How could I? Even though I needed W’s particular counsel, her particular laugh, her friendship, I couldn’t suggest getting together knowing she’d have to pick up the tab. I let W take the lead on making plans. In a sense, I let W take the lead on keeping the friendship going.
On the last day of December 2013, W called. “What are you doing tonight?”
It was New Year’s Eve. I had nothing on my calendar except worry. I’d been feeling unwell and having familiar pain, and I was scheduled for scans on January 2 of the new year, and I knew what the scans would show.
“I’m not up for much, but come over. I’ll cook.”
I was living in a dark apartment on the ground floor of a rundown rental building in a good neighborhood. It was getting more expensive every year. And while the loss of my house years before to settle a business debt was a gnawing resentment, I’d learned to stifle it. Too much was good: My disease, up until then, had been insistent but slow-moving. I had a job and medical insurance. My daughters were thriving in young adulthood. I was finally writing at dawn every day with commitment, a lifelong dream no longer deferred, and a draft of a novel was in the hands of literary agents.
W arrived that New Year’s Eve in thigh-high Chanel boots, carrying champagne that cost—oh, who knows. I didn’t have to give her my health news. She easily read it on my face.
She made me an offer. At first, I refused. I couldn’t possibly let her help me buy an apartment. It was too much, too generous, too . . . weird. We weren’t even related.
She shrugged and said, “Think about it. It’s no big deal. Just a lot of paperwork.”
The scan results were exactly as I expected. After my first bout in 1999, and a number of recurrences in the years thereafter, here I was, in the breast cancer big leagues: bone mets. I couldn’t stop thinking about W’s offer, the “no big deal,” about something that was a very big deal to me: a place to write with light, room for the kids to stay, and yes, a home to be sick in, in some comfort. But, a friend as the mortgage holder? It seemed like one of those things you should never, ever do, that can only end in disaster.
Five months later, an agreement had been drawn up by W’s accountants, and my offer on a nice little place had been accepted by the seller. In the way of things, the apartment’s price was, nearly to the dollar, what my old house sold for, a nod from the money gods. The next hurdle was the co-op board interview.
It was the most stressful hour of my adult life, and I have metastatic breast cancer. You sit in front of strangers, your potential new neighbors, and account for your financial self. I was a single woman in my late fifties with modest savings, a retirement account, no other investments, no real estate, nothing. I shared a beat-up Jeep with my daughter. All I really had was a relatively secure income and the hope of selling my manuscript.
Oh, and I had my friend, W. W was in Dior that day, a pink and silvery tweed dress. She was wearing totally threatening Valentino high heels, the ones with the spiky studs. She emerged from her car and I said, “Those shoes need their own driver,” and she yelped her laugh. We headed into the interview together.
As I walked the co-op board through my numbers, I left the landscape of loss behind. Near the end of the exhausting hour, the board president turned to W and said, “One last question. This is an extraordinarily generous gesture on your part. May I ask why are you doing this?”
I dropped my head in embarrassment. The room was so still it roared in my ears. The silence was measured by clocks ticking in other rooms. We waited for W’s answer, and waited.
I looked over at her. She looked back. Her eyes brimmed and mine did, too. She turned to the co-op board president, crossed her legs to show off her shoes, and delivered—with just one word—a power presentation of successful ventures, opportunities, and results.
“Love,” she said. “That’s it. Love.”
Yesterday, the sun streamed across my desk as I struggled through another draft of my second novel. I refilled my coffee mug and thought, for the thousandth time, Someday, about the un-renovated state of my kitchen. I’m on a serious cocktail of meds, and they are working for now. I teach writing workshops for breast cancer ladies, which helps me square off against the disease. My youngest daughter just decamped after a visit, and the tiny guest room is a mess. Yesterday the temperature was fifty-five degrees and the skies were clear. I wore the lilac gray duffle coat.
W is well. She reorganized her work life to enjoy real life more fully, and is taking care of her family, her dogs, her friends, as ever. She is a photographer who seeks natural beauty wherever she goes, and she posts stunning images. She supports causes and people that resonate with her, and is honored for her philanthropy. She mentors young women. She is taking care of herself, too. There is always a lot to discuss when we convene at my place or hers, or at a restaurant I can’t afford, but not once has the mortgage come up since that June afternoon three years ago, when she answered the question with love. No big deal, just the biggest deal of all.
Stephanie Gangi lives, works and writes in New York City. Her acclaimed debut novel, The Next, was published in 2016 by St. Martin's Press. She is at work on her second novel.