Doing It Alone

Doing It Alone

When I was 20, my boyfriend broke up with me because I lied about quitting smoking, and he did not move across the country as he said he would. It was my senior year of college. To live in that apartment, which I could not afford alone, my dad took out a loan to help with the rent. For a year, I lived there with 12 mice and a sorrow so large I spent a lot of time in my own bathtub, fully clothed, because it was the only place that didn’t feel like my emotions were ping-ponging around the apartment. There was a lovely eat-in kitchen and a balcony from which I dropped the keys down to friends, like a recurring bit in a sitcom. It was the only time I’ve ever lived alone.

The four years I spent post-college—in pre-tech bro hell San Francisco—were idyllic because the rent was very cheap. My first adult apartment was a strange and narrow little house down an alley in the Outer Mission before it became a shopping mall. I shared a bedroom with a coworker whom I grew to despise so much that when my friend and I saw her on the street about three months after I moved out, I dragged him by the wrist into the Union Square French Connection to make sure she didn’t see me. My second and final apartment in Alamo Square Park was a dream. There was a garbage chute in the kitchen, a Wedgewood stove, and I could watch the fog roll in past Sutro Tower from my bedroom window every night at dusk. My first roommate there was a woman I went to college with who told me kimchi made the kitchen smell like socks. When she moved in with her boyfriend, I found a wonderful man on Craigslist whose first move as my roommate was to install a clear shower curtain in the bathroom. He introduced me to a woman who was my best friend for years until one summer, she decided that I was no longer a part of her spiritual journey and severed the friendship completely.

Living an adult life with roommates is excellent preparation for living alone because after doing so for 15 years, I have an intimate understanding of other people’s boundaries, which, in turn, has set me up for understanding my own. Having roommates felt like an inevitability in my twenties, but as I continued to do so well into my thirties, a part of me wondered what it was I was so scared of.

In 2009, when I moved to New York with a man who would never find the temerity to sign a lease with me, I found roommates. The first was a hairdresser from Connecticut with a cat that threw up every time a new person came to the house. She was home very rarely on the weekends and once yelled at me because the bathroom didn’t smell like bleach after I finished cleaning it. When three rooms opened up in my current home, my sister, her then-roommate, and I moved in.

The apartment is above a funeral home in the center of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where Sephora, Whole Foods, Madewell, and the Apple Store have opened over the last decade. I’ve lived in my apartment for so long because the rent is a miracle—the building is rent-stabilized, and people who live here have done so for at least ten years or more, loath to give up a central location and under-market rent while dealing with all the quotidian bullshit that comes with. The front door to the apartment building itself sticks in the heat, requiring the strength of two people to open it. There is a button on the mailbox that opens the middle door, but not the front. For a time, part of the ceiling in the hallway caved in. In one of the rooms I’ve lived in over the years, a mysterious waxy substance dripped down the heating pipes, collecting in a viscous pool on the windowsill and my duvet cover. I still have no explanation for where this substance came from; we joked that it was ephemera from the spirits of the dead below us, traveling up the pipes on their way to freedom.

Over the years, we have had eight roommates, but my sister and I have remained its steady constants. At the risk of sounding like Carrie fucking Bradshaw, my relationship with both my sister as roommate and my apartment has been the longest one of my entire life. We have lived together well past the expiration date for what is “acceptable,” and the opportunity to leave has never really presented itself in a way that has been appealing enough to do so. (Also, I have convinced myself that I do not have the strength to be alone in the way that I’ve fetishized—going for weeks at a time not speaking to anyone—for so long.) 

Living with my sibling has been arduous and revelatory in equal measure. Niceties that would normally occur with a stranger you found on Craigslist are out the window; a sibling as your roommate is someone whom you can ask to wash the fucking dishes and then put them away without worrying about the repercussions or modulating your emotional response to meet the other’s expectations. I understand now that these modulations—the minute daily calculations we make in order to avoid unnecessary conflict—are boundaries. The trouble with family is that setting those boundaries is often difficult.

My sister and I are two out of four. We all live in New York, by happenstance or by design, and for a time, the other two lived with each other, too—a fact that delighted and confounded friends, who have remarked over the years that we should have a reality show. Eventually, the other two sisters went their separate ways, but my sister and I held down the fort, infusing the space with our specific energy, which has occasionally resulted in nuclear-level fights that our other roommates have tiptoed around, learning over the years that even though it sounds like we are going to kill each other in the kitchen, in 15 minutes or so, it will be over. The novelty was fun at first, like a play for an audience of just us two. My sister and I have yet to have an argument that has reached the point of no return, but the urge to strike out alone is pressing.

Living alone has been a distant dream, dashed by a competitive rental market in a city where the rent is too high and getting an apartment, in general, requires a bucket of cash, solid credit, and the ability to present all of the requisite papers mere seconds after walking through a cramped studio apartment with a half-fridge and then signing a lease. Unnecessary frugality oriented in fear and a propensity towards laziness have made it so that I have never left, even though it became clear at some point that the situation was too good to leave but also too bad to stay. But after 10 years, my tendency to choose my battles wisely has led me to simply abandon the idea of war, to not rock the boat, simmering in resentment at my own inertia. Leaving by choice, as I am doing, feels a little bit like the actions of someone I truly did not think I could be.

Living with family has always seemed a little pathetic, while also feeling like second nature. The terror that strikes my spirit at the thought of my sibling hearing me having sex is acute; I have lived in every room of this apartment including, for a minute, the living room, and my sister and I have almost always shared a wall. Remaining in an apartment that I have fondly called a youth hostel has always felt like a subconscious display of delayed adulthood, even though rent prices in New York are configured in such a way that you have to make a fair amount of money to live alone, unless you are extraordinarily lucky or have stumbled upon a rent-stabilized apartment that is, in most lights, perfect.

In my current apartment, the kitchen is big enough for an island and the living room is full of light. There’s a chandelier in the dining room that flickers whenever the upstairs neighbor does their calisthenics in the morning, impressive in both its appearance and the fact that it has yet to fall. There is enough space that even with four people living here, it has never felt crowded. Laid out like a rabbit warren, each bedroom is big enough to feel like a private space; the walls are heavy, cracked plaster and thankfully, no one can hear anyone unless they want to be heard. “You can never leave this place,” people say after hearing the rent. “It’s such a good deal. Where else will you go?”

Where else would I go? This is home, I am here forever. But in March, the limits of “forever” were tested. In quarantine, my sister and I found each other trapped in the apartment like everyone else, two big indoor cats treading cautiously from living room to kitchen to bathroom and back in an endless loop. Hours would go by without either one of us uttering a word, a state that was like being alone in the most pleasant sense of the word. Companionable, placid, and underscored with varying levels of anxiety and despair, we Zoomed and House Partied and made a lot of food like everyone else. One night the cat managed to heft her rotund body to the top of the refrigerator and knock over a full bag of cat food onto the floor. It was 11:30 p.m. and we had been home alone, together, for days. My sister and I cleaned up the kibble in grim silence, as the cats reaped the benefits of their coordinated attack. “This is Grey Gardens,” I said to her as we swept—a joke rooted in my darkest fear. I saw myself in this apartment fulfilling the destiny that our other sisters always joked about: the two of us living above the funeral home forever, tending to stray cats and listlessly arguing over buying kitty litter. It would be easy to dispose of our bodies once we expired in our apartment—simply wrap the corpse of the sister who died in a throw blanket and drag the body down the stairs. Six months into the pandemic I understand now that if we are to live in lockdown for one more cold winter, I would like very much to do it alone.

Living alone feels like adulthood. Living with a partner is being an adult who also has to contend with another adult’s shit, 24/7—the ultimate exercise in being grown. For reasons that follow my own invented logic, living with roommates past the age of 35 violates an internal code that says an adult should have nice plates and glasses for drinking water that aren’t pint glasses or empty Bonne Maman jam jars. My aforementioned laziness and the nagging sense that there are certain things in this world that are not for me has prevented me from moving on—more evidence that my tendency to immediately judge my actions or emotions instead of accepting them for what they are will eventually break me completely. Nevertheless, this rule, which I unwittingly implemented two years ago, has started to feel more like an imperative that I no longer wish to ignore.

Regardless of my broken definitions of adulthood, it is an irrefutable fact that I am one. Defining that status by my living situation is merely another way to process the quiet disappointment of getting older while existing in the tedious stasis of living with the same person for so long. Living with family means that there is often no need to explain my actions because they are already intimately understood. If a mouse died in the trap in the kitchen, I could certainly deal with it myself, but I know that my sister, who is far less squeamish than I am, would dispose of the body with efficiency. I do not feel guilty about this exchange of labor because I water her plants on the roof when she disappears for days at a time, usually without asking. This silent agreement works for practical matters, but when complicated and messy emotions enter the picture, the borders dissolve.

Sadness, anger, and disappointment are feelings I prefer to deal with alone. The freedom to burst into tears while making eggs and not having to explain why is a necessary part of those processes, but feeling obligated to provide an explanation can feel suffocating. The support that a sibling can offer is finite; they are not a neutral party. Being a part of a family means that when your kin is hurt, your priorities are not necessarily their feelings, but rather the unpleasant truths that they are unwilling or not ready to face head-on. No one likes to be told about themselves until they are ready to hear it, but the sibling code of honor is to repeatedly do so over and over again, in an attempt to demolish the wall of hardheadedness and raze a path towards clarity. Some would call this emotional terrorism or a lack of boundaries, but in my family, it is our unique expression of love.

Striking out on my own feels a little bit like defecting from the family, but it is my favorite empty threat that has finally come to fruition. I am itchy for personal space, yet that itch feels like betrayal. There is nothing in the social contract that states that living with family is a necessity or a requirement and so living alone feels like the natural outcome of solitude by choice. I pride myself on independence and have long resisted the natural inclination towards partnership because at the end of the day, the one person I know that I have to rely upon is myself. By that definition, living alone is the best way to test my own mettle.

Living above a funeral home with a person I have known since they were born has always felt like an unconscious means of warding off the quiet fear that I will die alone without the experience of sharing the ennui, elation, and sadness of an ordinary life with someone else. Everybody dies alone, as the old adage goes, but it seems like it might be nice to go out with someone you love in the room. Though I did not think that I’d actually die in the apartment above the funeral home, when the pandemic hit, I procured an overpriced N95 mask from Singapore and placed it on the dining table, telling my sister that we should probably hold onto it in case one of us gets sick and has to take care of the other. If both of us got sick, we joked, we’d have to train the cats to bring us Gatorade and take our temperatures. At the end of the day, we have always had ourselves, but also, we have had each other.

But living by fear rather than begrudging curiosity eventually sours, creating resentment that occasionally missed its mark and came dinging right back to me. I have always been capable of moving out and leaving the familiar behind, but the whiff of fear about having to really learn who I am and liking that person genuinely was strong for a long time. Now, I feel old and tired and would like to walk from the bathroom to the kitchen to the living room fully nude whenever my heart desires.

In a fun little twist, the same friend who lured me to the funeral home with my sister is the person whose apartment I am taking over in a few weeks. My apartment whisperer has bequeathed me a rent-stabilized railroad apartment with a bright kitchen, a window in the bathroom (a first!), and enough space for an office that is also a walk-in closet—a situation that is, unfortunately, Carrie Bradshaw-adjacent, but I truly do not care. The bedroom is spacious, and there’s room in the kitchen for a breakfast table and an island. I have spent hours looking at rugs and considering coffee tables, realizing that I will finally learn whether or not I have taste. Maybe I will buy a pink tasseled lamp and put googly eyes on it. Perhaps I’ll get a white rug and actually keep it clean. The opportunity waiting for me leaves me numb to excitement but open to possibility. Incredibly, this apartment is my oyster.

Senior Writer, Jezebel

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DISCUSSION

bourgeoismiddleman
bourgeoismiddleman

I’ve gone from parents’ house -> college dorm ->apartment with roommates ->married -> divorced in apartment with roommates -> married again. I’ve never once lived alone in 40+ years of life. I wonder what it’s like - I’m not sure I’d enjoy it at all.