All in the Family
When I moved out from my parent’s house to live on my own, it wasn’t the first time I ever moved out. That had happened a couple years earlier when I dropped out of college to live with a girl I’d met through work and who had once been the Fotomate of the Month. Ours wasn’t a long affair (but I did meet her parents and annoyed her father each time he called and I answered the phone), and I soon moved back to my parent’s house, picked up my education, and stayed with mom and dad for another year or so before moving out permanently.
I should have paid closer attention to that time, to that first decision to move out and live on my own, because it’s come to describe my life. I had friends at the time, but it never occurred to me to live with any of them and instead I found an apartment and moved out to live on my own.
To be honest, there was a woman involved, but that’s not the point. What *is* important was that even though I had no furniture or much of anything else, it was so important to me to move out and begin my life that none of that mattered.
It was me, all by myself, and other than a few years when I found someone who’d let me try out marriage with her, I’ve lived alone, on my own, ever since.
What that says about my ability to get along with others is something I’d rather not think about. In all the years since I first moved out, it’s clear to me that I’ve learned how to live by myself, with no one looking after me, telling me what to do, or with whom I’ve needed to compromise. It’s entirely possible this has not been good for me.
From that first apartment, when I began acquiring such necessary things as a refrigerator, a couch, some chairs, and a television, I slowly had most things that were necessary for a modern life. No, none of it matched and much of it were castoffs from the parents of friends of mine, I did spend a summer liquidating a credit union and ended up with some of the furniture you’d expect to see in the lobby of a financial institution.
Following the ending of my marriage, I once again moved into an apartment to live by myself. I was doing all right there all things considered, but then my dad called me to offer my sister and me the family home for an incredible price, and my sister and I decided to live together, fix the place up, and then sell it and go our separate ways.
We were going to flip the house, but back then no one spoke in those terms and it doesn’t matter, anyway, because after a year or two of frentic activity, we just lived there together in that huge house with a mortgage payment that could be met by going through the cusions in the couch.
After living with my sister, I soon felt worse about myself than at any previous time in my life. She found all the hateful things about me and, maybe to try and make me a better person, brought them up fairly often. I knew it wasn’t me doing me any good to be constantly questioned, challenged, and dismissed, but I put up with it for financial reasons. What I hadn’t expected is the toll it would take on me, even after I moved out and again found a place far away where I could live on my own.
I can heartily recommend living on one’s own, but can’t say very many good things about living with someone (other than the obvious financial ones).
The Joy of Housemates or the Lack Thereof
It has been a lot of years since I've had any housemates, and unless I have some major life change, I don't intend to have any for a while. I really enjoy my own time, my own company, and the freedom to know that I can close the door to my apartment, turn off my phone, and shut out the world, whenever I want to.
I've never been the type to get lonely. I have a large circle of friends and many people I enjoy spending time with, but not typically at home.
There's a line in Evelyn Waugh's "Brideshead Revisited" where the main character's father-in-law, who has chosen it live in self-imposed exile in Italy, says of his Venice home: "This house seems to have been designed for the comfort of only one person, and I am that one."
That's how I feel about my apartment. I have what could be the world's only one-person sofa—basically a chair with an attached chaise lounge—it’s perfect for one person, and uncomfortable for two, and impossible for any more. I only added a dining room table within the last year or so, and that was primarily as a space to practice magic tricks, rather than a place to gather around at meal time.
That said, the experiences I've had living with others weren't negative ones. Prior to moving in to my current apartment, I shared three different apartments with my girlfriend at the time.
Each one reflected where we were in our lives, and in our relationship. Going from a large but one-room Studio in DC's up and coming U Street area, to a split-level place in DC's Logan Circle, to a rather rustic bungalow-style apartment on the West Side of LA.
Thinking back on those years calls to mind a line from Sondheim's "Sorry, Grateful": "You don't live for them, you do live WITH them."
I remember after we went our separate ways, we went through the always delightful task of dividing possessions, and I found myself without soap dispensers for my bathroom or kitchen sinks.
I went to Target, found the appropriate section, and spent an inordinate amount of time picking one out. They are small and inexpensive, of course, but it had been a long time since I had to make a unilateral decision. No one else's needs or taste needed to be consulted.
I decided in that moment that my next home would be “designed for the comfort of only one person,” and I think I have succeeded. Many of my friends (both male and female) who are in marriages or long-term relationships walk into my place and have that glimmer of envy that I think we all want people to have when they see our homes.
My living room with its wall of books, one-person couch, desk perfectly positioned to look out the best window, my bar (built painstakingly out of pieces from 1920s through 1950s Erector sets) filled with all of my favorite libations. It’s technically a living room, but it really feels more like a private study, which in a way is what it is.
The Glue That Binds Housemates Together
After college, I am back in Boston with my best friends from high school, Alan and Phil. We’ve been friends since junior high school, and we easily decide to share an apartment. We settle for a tenement with a bay window facing Massachusetts Avenue, a busy, noisy, main drag in Boston. The heroin crime epidemic of the early 1970’s is in full swing and there are a lot of break-ins in our grotty building. The traffic is relentless and one day we see a woman hit by a car and flung almost the length of the block.
Phil works at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in “data processing.” Alan is an insurance adjuster for Liberty Mutual, and I am a first year law student at Boston University. The apartment is above a sandwich shop and we can smell the cooking odors. In our kitchen we fight a trench war with the roaches. The place is small—Phil and I share a bedroom—and I spend most of my time studying in the library. Whenever I am home, I usually find a party in progress.
But the following year we get lucky. Some friends of ours live in a spacious penthouse apartment on Beacon Hill, at the top of the hill on the corner of Grove and Revere Streets. With a two-story living room, balcony, and outside porch with a panoramic view of the Charles River and the Back Bay, the place is spectacular. Our friends are leaving and offer it to us. We can barely afford it. But, we manage to get the job of janitors for the building—a bunch of simple weekly chores—for a discount on the rent. By now, Phil is also a graduate student at MIT and we both are challenged by strenuous academics.
The new place invites partying so I still spend most of my time at school, as does Phil. When I arrive home at 10:00 PM, there is usually a crowd of friends and another world apart from school.
A plus is that we each have our own bedroom. But, there is a flimsy wall between our rooms, and one Saturday Phil and I decide to add decorative cork on top of ceiling tiles to heavy it up for more privacy. We buy all the materials and are brining them into the apartment when we drop the gallon can of industrial glue in the apartment’s small entryway. The glue quickly covers the floor of the entrance, and we frantically scoop it up with pieces of cardboard and put it back in the can. It is just viscous enough so that it looks like we are going to get away with it. But, it takes awhile and we have to work in that one confining spot in the apartment.
After we finish cleaning up, we both start feeling weird—disoriented, dizzy and stoned out of our minds. Phil calls the poison number at Mass General, with an emergency room right down the hill. He reads the contents from the back of the glue can to the guy on the line. Then I see Phil chuckling, and he hands me the phone. I hear the guy say, “. . . the old time glue sniffer’s high,” and that we should just go outside, relax and breathe.
A complication was that just before we spilled the glue, we had smoked some weed and so we began in an altered state. The unintended heavy glue sniffing really sent us on a trip. We follow the advice and camp out on the porch, talking non-stop, and experiencing the tranquility of a warm fall weekend day in Boston. And we stay there, talking well into the evening and night. We’ve laughed about it ever since, and we don’t agree about which one of us actually dropped the glue –we each believe it was our fault and think the other was innocent.
I have been married for nearly 20 years. This means I have shared my living quarters with another human being for slightly less than half my life.
The first half of that life was as an only child. Now, I wasn't feral or anything - I had parents and dogs. Lots of dogs. But my room was my own. Other than my mom coming in to tidy up and yell at me about my room cleaning strategies (put everything either under the bed or down the laundry chute) I got to do what I wanted, and have things where I want them.
When I was first married, during that blissful honeymoon when your loved one can belch at the table and you still think it is adorable, we were able to exist in sync. He liked what I liked, or at least didn't protest too much about what I liked. I tried to keep his thoughts and preferences in mind and did not decorate the whole house in shabby chic, pink and yellow, although I do so love a shabby chic in pink and yellow!
Sharing a space with another person you are not blood-related to is an interesting experiment. When you live with your parents as a child, everything pretty much moves in concert. Siblings, I would imagine since I have not experienced it first hand, know and understand each other even without speaking about it, discussing it or planning it out. The merely 'get' each other. This is not the case when you bring someone from the outside, in.
Does he like the windows closed at night and you like them open?
Do you insist on getting the dishes out of the sink before you go to bed and he's fine waiting until morning?
Is his aim just a little bit off and he misses the hamper when the throws his socks toward the closet at the end of a long day?
How do you both feel about clutter?
What side of the bed do you prefer?
Are you okay with popcorn for dinner every now and then, or is the expectation there will be a hot meal with meat, starch, and green vegetable every night?
Do you squeeze the tooth paste from the bottom up or simply grasp it in the middle like an animal?
Will you lose your shit if someone moves that pile of crap you left on the side of the table?
These are the things one should go over during marriage counseling before the big event because it is things such as these that will drive you out of your mind and make you want to go to the woods and live among the trees.
People are complicated. People sharing space are even more complicated because while we are social creatures by nature, we are also creatures of habit and routine and bringing another person into your domain throws off all sense of that routine.
Our current space has the added challenge that it is smaller than anywhere we have lived before. Like two butts cannot cross paths in the hallway small. Like, you are sitting lengthwise on the sofa and there is literally no place for anyone else to sit down you selfish twit small. But he has learned a few things; when it is 7:05 and I am rushing around like a crazy person trying to get myself and the boys out of the damn house before school and work, just stay the hell out of my way. When I am trying to make dinner, I will not take kindly to you needing to do anything else in the kitchen and if you snack on the food I need to use to cook dinner, you may very well lose a finger. I have learned that if I behave like the freight train I truly am, I will get my way, but will very likely alienate the rest of the family and that feels icky.
It has been twenty years, or nearly, that I have shared my space with another human. We happened to bring three more humans into that space, and they bring their own host of chaos and mayhem, but sooner rather than later they will all be gone and it will once again be just the two of us.
I may find his socks ever so annoying, and why in the name of all things good and holy can't he just throw them a tiny bit further and into the damn hamper, but at the end of the day, it is nice to know there is another breathing entity in the house, someone who brings life and variety into a space otherwise predictable and isolated.
My first year in graduate school I got the lead on a basement apartment owned by a local high school teacher who was divorced and rented it out and another room in her house -- but only to graduate students. My basement place... it was like living on a boat -- long and narrow with wood planks on the ceiling. The bed was basically in the kitchen. I saw my landlady and the other woman who lived upstairs sometimes, but I was self-sufficient in my little underground boat.
But I gave that apartment up after three quarters because I was done with all my required classes and had internships in Cleveland and Washington. By then I thought I'd be nearly done with my thesis too. I lived at home and plucked away at my thesis for a few weeks until I thought I'd go mad living a three-hour drive away from my girlfriend.
So now it was winter and the middle of the school year and I needed a place to live. But I saw an ad for a room in a house for $300, and that was right in my budget. I actually don't know where I got the money for rent, but I did write a few freelance articles, so maybe that was enough.
I went to the big farm house, which probably had been a farm house until the little town of Athens had gotten just big enough to reach it. It was old and drafty and my primary role as tenant was really to subsidize the insane heating bill. I met the woman living there, Patti I called her, but she's Dr. Patricia M. now.
Patti was 10 years older than me, which put her in her mid-30s at the time. She and her husband had both decided to go to medical school, but that required that they actually go back and re-do a bunch of undergraduate science stuff too. He'd had enough credits to get out one year ahead of her, and was not in medical school in Dayton and she would follow a year later. The knew that the debt would be crushing, and had decided in advance not to have children as the only way to afford the loans they knew would loom over their futures.
I liked Patti immediately. She was at least six feet tall and built like an athlete. She'd been a competitive martial artist of some kind, maybe karate, and perhaps had been a weighlifter. Maybe I'm making that last part up. Anyway, she was no-bullshit too.
My first night in the downstairs bedroom that was just off the dining room, I had over the girlfriend who I'd been so pining for while living with my parents. To get to the bathroom, she had to cross the dining room, which was also the main thoroughfare for the middle of the house, like to get from the living room or staircase to the kitchen. So out there in her underwear and a t-shirt, of course she ran headlong into Patti.
I went into the kitchen a while later, and said, "So, I see you met Kate. So you probably figured out that I'm gay."
And she said, "I was gay once." Beat. "I didn't work out."
I laughed and said, "I dated boys one, but that didn't work out."
And then we had coffee.
We lived together just one quarter before I got a job and moved to L.A. But I swear, I could be roommates with Patti today. I see her on Facebook all the time. She and her husband -- he's an ER doc last I heard, she is a psychiatrist -- moved back to Athens and live in a much more modern and well-heated house. She has SEVEN rescue cats. And two strapping blonde children, school debt be damned.
It's not you, it's me. Or is it you?
This is either the worst housemate experience I have ever had in the best apartment I will ever live in, or a righteous case of sour grapes. You be the judge.
First, the apartment: imagine the most picturesque 1960s garden apartment, complete with a brick exterior, stairwells painted that perfect mid-century pink, and built-ins in all the apartments. For 18 months, from 2013-2014, I lived in a corner 3-bedroom apartment in Pasadena, south of Colorado (so you know you are getting to the fancy part) for my very affordable portion of $1800/month. It had a wet bar. It had a porch. It had a living room so large it may as well have been 2 living rooms.
It had 2 official roommates, which became 3, and then eventually 4 (unofficially). Which was this housing situation's largest offense, and no amount of mid-century charm could counteract it.
I lived with Maddie and Rachel (not their real names), 2 girls I had met through a friend of a friend when we all needed housing. I suppose my first red flag should have been when we all went to sign the lease and Maddie suddenly balked and thought she was going to be cheated by the lovely older Latino couple who had managed the place for 18 years, because "the owner of my old building was basically a slumlord and I have renter's PTSD." But we needed the place, and she eventually came around, and what can you do?
Maddie was a very tiny girl with a lot of big emotions and anxieties--which on its own would not be a problem, except for the development that it was really only her boyfriend who could calm her down. So, we welcomed our first unofficial roommate. Who, 8 months later, became our official roommate when he ran into work visa troubles (he was Canadian), and he and Maddie (now engaged) decided to move up the ceremony and get married by a Justice of the Peace to get a spousal visa, and could we just live here for a while? He basically already does and anyway we are poor.
Feeling like I had little say in the goings-on of my living space was one thing--even though I was annoyed and a bit rattled, far be it from me to not do what I can to help people in a tight spot--my alienation in the house was taken to a new level when Maddie and her fiancé-cum-husband froze the rest of us out and didn't socially engage when in the common parts of the house.
Rachel, on the other hand, dealt in high drama that would have fallen in the "you do you" category, if it hadn't continually overflowed into my life as well. If it wasn't breaking up with her bf of 5 years because "he didn't know who he was" and then getting regaled with hours-long stories when she ran into him in line at the sandwich place and "he looked at her funny," it was endless opinions on the friend of hers getting married to a man she'd only know for three months, or endless late night talks counseling her platonic guy friend who she'd known for 10 years to finally and permanently break up with a girl who "was crazy," and always trying to get me to join in.
The final card was delt when she became caught in the thrall of a grade-A narcissist who was simultaneously trying to get a book deal by blogging his way through a journey into atheism, and butt-hurt that the Christian colleges he used to teach at would no longer employ him due to said blog. Not to mention he was 14 years her senior, and had teenage daughters she got to play "cool mom" with.
And because of his "courageous" religious deconstruction, he was also unemployed and broke, and it was everyone's fault but his. He moved in unofficially soon after.
I wish I could be pithy and say that it was then I finally began to look for a new place to live, but I was not so plucky in those years, alas. It took until that October, when Rachel set up a GoFundMe page and moved to Belgium to work with a social justice non-profit, where she was always short on money, and yet always taking unrelated fabulous trip to places all around Europe and Southeast Asia.
My first set of roommates when I moved to California were, I realized later, the embodiment of the state: people from all over the world with varied backgrounds who meld together well, whose kind co-existence was unremarkable except for the fact that we fit together remarkably well.
I rented a bedroom in a four-bedroom house with Amy, Yvette and Mervin. A friend of a friend knew they were seeking a fourth to share the house and expenses.
Amy was blond and blue-eyed. Yvette was blond and blue-eyed. Yvette's boyfriend, Mervin, was Filipino and from California. Amy was in love with Herb, a first-generation American who visited often but whose parents were Chinese and expected him to marry a nice Chinese girl.
We lived atop a mountain with beautiful views of San Diego.
The experience stands out in my mind because of my impressions when I moved in versus my thoughts as we parted ways.
I expected the blond, blue-eyed girls to be cliche annoying and from California. Amy was from Indiana and Yvette from Australia. They were distinctly wonderful, sharp and funny.
I was used to seeing blacks and whites in D.C., but not as used to seeing Asian Americans. For a while, I realized later, my limbic region would send up tiny flares around Herb and Mervin and for the splittest of split seconds it would register that they looked unfamiliar and that I was in California far from home, and they were the Others. It was a matter of days, of course, that they became Merv and Herb, familiar, my roommates and friends.
Every memory I have of that year of shared expenses and warmth is nice, up until the end, when the owners came back and gave us a month to move out and made their presence clear by parking their RV into the driveway. But what has lingered is the realization that the expectations that I did not know I had about California and Californians disappeared soon after I moved into that mountaintop house with Amy, Yvette, Merv and regular visitor Herb.