My race began…
with a trip to Ikea. It was September 2008, I was 30 years old and I had just broken up with my boyfriend of 5 ½ years. We had been living together for more than three years. All of our books and music were mixed in together, we had bought furniture jointly, and we had booked flights for a friend’s wedding the following month. It wasn’t going to be an easy break-up but I was embarking on the greatest accomplishment of my life in New York thus far: living by myself. In my own place!
Everyone who moves to New York as a young person knows how it will work: you will pay most of your paycheck for a tiny apartment, which you will share with 2 to 10 roommates, possibly from your early 20s well into your 40s. You may have to find these roommates on Craigslist. You may be stuck with the middle room in a floor-through with very little privacy. You will suffer roommates who work night shifts when you work during the day. An insomniac who watches Law & Order marathons all through the night at top volume. A bicyclist who parks his dirty tires right on your most expensive shirt (grrr, I’m still steaming about that one, you know who you are, CLINT).
But all of this will be worth it to live in the greatest city in the world. It will all be worth it to get up every day and take the subway to a job you love. These roommates will push all your buttons; but they will also share mango margaritas with you (many, many pitchers of deadly mango margaritas, looking at you again, Clint); they will mercifully empty the mousetraps when you can’t bear to; and they will occasionally leave town for the weekend and gloriously give you the place to yourself.
Then what always happens when you get settled into the flow of sanguine roommate life. Right when you get in sync with your roomie’s morning routine, sharing the bathroom on a timetable that gets you both to work on time. When you have a lovely I’ll-cook-you-clean system worked out. You.Get.A.Boyfriend. You start spending all of your time at his place, much to his own roommate’s chagrin. Your clothes are there. Your groceries are there. You can’t remember the last time you went back to your own apartment. And every month that goes by, that rent check gets harder and harder to sign. So much money to spend on a place you never see. “Wouldn’t it make so much more sense if we moved in together?” So you both break your leases, dump your roommates and find a cozy one-bedroom on a tree-lined street. You throw out all your decor that could remotely be construed as girly. And you never get margaritas with your old roommate anymore.
And when that relationship ended I became emboldened with a sense of purpose that I’ve rarely experienced: move into my own apartment. It was a rite of passage I needed at that moment. Really, really needed. To be on my own. To prove I could do it.
I picked a neighborhood that I thought I might be able to afford on my publishing salary, and I went to every real estate office in the area asking about studios for $1,200 or less. I was laughed out of every single one. Until, as I was scouring the internet, I saw a small studio in Clinton Hill for exactly $1,200. I was the first person to call, the first person to see the place, and on the spot, I said I’d take it. My own place!
After the painful separating of the books and splitting hairs over who-gets-what (goodbye brown couch with missing cushion buttons!) and haggling over the airline miles, I packed up my stuff and I moved out. And into the tiniest little studio imaginable (it looked A LOT bigger empty), that also had one of the biggest bathrooms I’ve ever seen in a NYC apartment – a shower AND a bathtub?! Everything was this great retro lavender color – the sink, the toilet, the bathtub, the walls and the floor. I took a trip to Ikea and bought the girliest things they had, because I could. I will admit I went full-Southern with my décor and the quilts came out of storage.
My friends were a little shocked at how small the studio was (and then shocked again at how big the bathroom was), but I didn’t care. I loved it. It was home.
In some ways it felt more like a rooming house, given my small space, and that there were three other women living in the three other tiny studios. The landlords were a married couple, probably in their late 60s or early 70s. I came to really love the husband, William, who would sit on the stoop with me and smoke cigarettes and drink Courvoisier. He seemed to know lots about everything so we’d talk for hours and he kept me in good company when I needed it.
Occasionally when I passed him on the stairs, he’d ask about the publishing world – the death of which was often being touted in 2008 – and making sure I was doing okay. When the financial markets really took a turn, I got a note under my door telling me that because of hard times, the landlords were LOWERING THE RENT. I don’t know anyone else in NYC who shares that experience.
Even the less-fun parts of living alone – no one to share dishwashing duty, or emptying my own mouse-traps – weren’t bad. I could bring home a baguette and a hunk of cheese and call it dinner because no one was looking. I could binge-watch anything I wanted without sharing TV time. Best of all, I could read a book undisturbed while soaking in my dope purple bathtub.
I live with my husband now, which has been one of my greatest joys, but gone again are the feminine decorations, the days of cognac on the stoop with a septuagenarian, and (sigh) the bathtub. But also gone are the mice (knock wood), the bikes are parked in the hall, and my husband is always down for a mango margarita. I look back on my days in the little studio with such pride. Living alone felt more like “adulting” than anything else has. Living by myself taught me that I could be alone, could savor it. Living alone taught me that I could make it in New York, pay my bills and take care of me. Without a net. It’s helped me be a better partner, and its helped me make leaps in other areas of my life, knowing that I can always catch myself.