Sticker Shock

“You’re feeling what?” my friend asked.

“Sticker shock,” I repeated, as if the phrase were its own explanation. “You know, when you’re shocked at the price of something.”

I was holding a mango and gesturing to the sign behind it: “MangS” (what?), $3.49/each.

“This is what mangoes always cost here,” she replied, eyeing me quizzically. Meaning in New York City, at this time of year, in this particular Manhattan bodega, which was in Flat Iron, where rent hikes have always shown up in the price margins of boxed salads, bad fruit, and Odwalla juices. Her point was valid, but my distress was adamant.

I was two weeks back from of a five month trip in southeast Asia, where it wasn’t just mangoes that cost a penny, but — factoring in the favorable currency conversion rate — practically everything else under the sun. A taxi ride home from the dive bar by the old fishing pier in Koh Phayam? That’ll be ten cents, ma’am. A four course meal at a four star restaurant, with a view of the Mekong, in Luang Prabang? $8, please.

It had been five months of $5 rooms, $2 motorcycle rentals, free beaches, and pennies for fresh coconuts. Five months of good-natured bargaining, two-for-one deals, and living for weeks on a single $100 withdrawal from an ATM in some remote province of Borneo.

Yes, life there was rich, but it had cost next to nothin’. Now, reality was killing me.

In my right hand I held the mango, palming it carefully for signs of ripeness. With my left hand, I ticked off a list of my most recent expenses: deposit on a new apartment in Bed Stuy ($400), an unlimited MetroCard ($100), Mother’s Day present ($20), health insurance ($200), that stupid rice salad with the fermented hot sauce ($12 — what the hell was I thinking?!).

I’m a naturally frugal person, but it dawned on me, suddenly, that I was desperately out of practice. I had spent so long spending no money, without even trying, that I had forgotten how to say “No” to certain expenses. (The damn rice salad.) Real life, I now remembered, was often about making tough choices — tough choices defined by rigid financial boundaries. And my boundaries were crystal clear: A freelancer making minimal income, spending more than she’s making on rent alone, who has not yet determined what her next meal ticket would be.

I set down the mango.

Cassie Marketos is a writer with currently insufficient funds.

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