After college, I landed in an apartment that my father once, memorably, called “a warehouse for twentysomethings.” Warehouse is generous: it was a converted four-bedroom with a single, decrepit bathroom and no air conditioner. I found my room on Craigslist shortly after arriving in New York where I discovered quickly and to my chagrin that, at the beginning of 2012, there were no jobs to be found for a shiftless 22-year-old with an English degree and that I was living dangerously beyond my means. (“Beyond my means” meant, in this case, one of two bedrooms in an apartment where the heat and hot water worked on occasion and mice eventually drove out the lessee only a few months after I abandoned here. That’s New York, I’m told.)
My three roommates were an actor, a costume designer, and a girl whose claims of being an attorney I deem spurious based on her living in an apartment where the only dishware was four IKEA bowls we shared between the four of us. The actor, whose name was on the lease, played the same lick from the same Bright Eyes song day in and day out for the four months I spent there. The kitchen was a stove, a sink, and a sliver of counter, and I lived mostly on hummus and pita and two-dollar frozen meals from Trader Joe’s that I ate in my bedroom.
I had a boyfriend for a few of those months—no, not a boyfriend; “We’re dating, but we’re not… boyfriend and girlfriend,” that kind of noise I found glamorous when I was 22—who lived alone in an apartment that felt like a palace. There was an air conditioner and very clean sheets and a sofa, which were all things that I probably could have had if I had tried a little harder but seemed, then, out of my reach.
Much was out of my reach then: a job, personal space, cleanliness. A bathroom shared by four people will never be clean. (No place is clean when you can opt out of owning your mess. The year before I lived with my four best friends in what was essentially a double-wide on the outskirts of our college campus. We cleaned out our refrigerator one afternoon and I decided that there was really no point to claiming the celery that had turned to—I’m sorry, but it’s true—black sludge in the back of the crisper. After all, C______ had already picked it up, and would it really have shifted the karmic balance of the universe far enough to justify both of us touching it?)
I wanted space most of all. I find it impossible to feel comfortable when I know that another person is present, even if they’re rooms away; there’s something about someone else breathing my air that disturbs my equilibrium. (I want to know at all times that I can go to the bathroom pantsless. More to the point, I want at all times to be pantsless.) During those months that I lived in New York with three roommates and four bowls and no air conditioner, I grew claustrophobic. New York suffocated me. I squeezed into the middle seat on the R train, waited for my roommate to finish showering, stole the covers in my boyfriend’s bed.
I grew desperate for space. I moved to California and rattled around in a one-bedroom apartment that I couldn’t find enough furniture to fill. I practiced pirouettes on the hardwood floor. Pantless. I moved again to Virginia, where I lived in a thirteenth-floor apartment with plush carpet and a balcony that felt like everything I dreamed of when I was 22 and sleeping on a mattress that I’m fairly sure was made of cardboard. I could sleep in my spacious bedroom and invite a guest to sleep in my spacious living room and if I timed my trip to the Jack-and-Jill bathroom right, I still didn’t have to wear pants. I had a party and invited 20 people and everyone had somewhere to sit.
I loved that apartment. I had a boyfriend then who was abjectly horrified by how much I liked living in a building that he described variously as soulless or utterly lacking in character, but I was too enamored with the carpet and the windows and the central air conditioning to care that every one of the hundreds of apartments in the building looked like mine. It was space and it was mine and I could wash my sheets every week (“could,” which is different than “did,” because all the space in the world couldn’t turn me into someone I’m not, which is a hygienic person).
That apartment swallowed me, ultimately. I spent so many hours alone in that apartment during my monthslong nadir, as my body wasted away and the proportion of human to space shifted troublingly in the favor of space. I lay on the carpet sometimes when I didn’t have the energy or the wherewithal to do anything else and it was soft on my face and I didn’t get hookworm, which I certainly would have if I had pressed my face up against the floor in my apartment where I lived with three strangers or in my college house where the celery shape-shifted in the back of the fridge.
It occurred to me then that it was when I had the least space to myself that I occupied the world in the most satisfying way. I spent the bare minimum of hours in my room in Queens, alighting only to sleep and shower and swap out the book I carried in my purse. I spent the rest of the time rattling around the city on subway cars making eye contact with strangers, drinking cheap margaritas at Blockheads, crying in the Frank Lloyd Wright room at the Met, getting lost in Brooklyn, begging someone to give me a job so I could move into an apartment where I could walk around barefoot without catching diphtheria.
I moved into a studio last year in Queens, a few minutes away from where I lived in 2012. I pass the old apartment when I go see my therapist and once I saw my guitar-playing roommate through the window at a Starbucks on Broadway. I ride two trains to the office because it felt to me like if I moved any closer, I’d risk being discovered and summarily ejected. Queens felt safe.
I took away from 2012 that Manhattan isn’t a place for girls like me who grew up on cul-de-sacs in the Southwestern suburbs. We can’t pretend away our instinct that a home is only a home if it’s got a backyard. It’s like in “Goodbye to All That” where Joan Didion writes that nobody from the East can “appreciate entirely what New York, the idea of New York, means to those of us who came out of the West and the South.” New York was, for me, something of a metonym for adulthood in general, and that disastrous first month in Chelsea set a bizarre tone for me, like I was trying to attend a party that I hadn’t been invited to.
I wondered if that was what went so wrong in Virginia, too, if with my carpet and my balcony and my elevator I had tried to live beyond my means again, and the universe had said No, you can’t have your cake and eat it too, you can either live in an apartment where you have to listen to somebody practicing a musical instrument or you can be heartbroken and miserable. Pick one. “To think of ‘living’ there was to reduce the miraculous to the mundane; one does not ‘live’ at Xanadu,” wrote Joan Didion of New York, and I extrapolate this to mean, in general, alone, self-sufficient, in an apartment where one can walk to work and fit one’s belongings in a closet without having to store a few pairs of shoes in the oven.
I signed a lease on a studio in the West Village two weeks ago. I feel like Eliza Dolittle at the Ascot Races, like at any moment all of the trappings of this job and this paycheck and this bizarre set of circumstances where people take me seriously are going to fall away and I’ll have to skulk back to Queens, to a room that overlooks a grocery store, to two trains that are both, invariably, delayed. But the apartment has two windows and, mysteriously, a skylight in the bathroom, and I’ve been promised that if I let the exterminator in once a month then the cockroaches won’t bother me. If they do, I’ll buy some Raid, maybe, and I won’t take it as a sign that I’m living beyond my means.
“I had hoped the apartment would go to you,” the previous tenant wrote me in an email last week. He lived there for ten years and I can’t imagine that the place was ever less immaculate than it was on the day he showed me around. He filled the closet with books instead of clothes, a collection that spilled out onto the floor next to a couch that doesn’t face a television. It reminded me a little of the apartment where my ex-boyfriend lived in Haight-Ashbury, spotless but for the piles of books littered in every corner. I wondered what the tenant saw in me that made him think that I’m the kind of girl who should live in a studio apartment in the West Village, but nobody’s told me before that they thought I belonged where I was.
I think perhaps now I’m confident enough to make my own decisions about where I belong, to reject notions like a building having insufficient character to deserve my presence or my presence being unworthy of a city. I don’t need too much space to fill to feel like I’ve successfully carved out a corner in the world. (And I’m responsible for my own rotten celery.)