The Scariest Part of Living Together
“Taryn’s moving out,” Jacob told me.
“So now what?” I asked, assuming he had already begun crafting yet another Facebook post looking to fill the second bedroom in his apartment.
“I don’t know. I don’t think I can do another roommate.”
By roommate, he meant living with anyone other than me, his girlfriend. Oh boy, I thought, we are already here. And by already, I meant two years into our relationship, a reasonable — textbook even — amount of time to spend with someone before deciding to share a space.
“FINALLY,” a lot of girls would say. But, I am not most girls. Aside from being a self-diagnosed commitment-phobic serial monogamist, I had already been down this road before, hit a dead end, and had to turn around. It had been a pretty long, sad walk back, and I was more than a little scared of the prospect of having to do it all over it again.
“Are you going to try to live in your place alone?” I asked, desperate for a solution that didn’t include moving in together.
“No, I can’t afford it. I guess I either find a cheap studio, or we move in together,” he said nonchalantly like it wasn’t the biggest deal in the world of my feelings.
There it was: laid out on a silver relationship platter and I really wasn’t sure I was ready for the next course. But, according to all my favorite romantic comedies, this was THE moment where I said yes to the key. Why couldn’t I just let myself be the leading lady in my own life á la Iris Simpkin in The Holiday?
“Why don’t you try looking for apartments? You’ve never lived on your own. It would be good for you to experience before we decide to spend the rest of our lives together,” rationalizing holding onto my freedom as long as possible.
I loved living alone — a lot. I loved all of it, including paying too much for cable and wasting a lot of produce I didn’t eat every week. I was hesitant to give up my right to fall asleep watching Sex and the City reruns without judgment on a tiny 15” TV and full reign over the parking spot and the bathroom.
Jacob started looking. I started freaking out.
In addition to studio apartments, Jacob began sending me listings to two bedrooms for us to share just to give us options. He was so sure, so ready.
“I love my apartment so much. I can’t imagine not living there. It’s my home. And what about his cat? I don’t want a pet. And, what about all his STUFF?! You’ve been to his place. I can’t live with that kind of clutter. And what if he never learns to clean?! Guys, you know I just can’t,” I voiced concerns to my best friends over high-end Italian food during my period of deliberation.
“It’s up to you, Heather,” they echoed. “If you’re ready, do it. If not, you aren’t obligated. He’s not pressuring you to do anything. It’s really all you.” Good friends stick with you through years of neuroses. This certainly wasn’t their first rodeo with me.
The real hive-inducing thing about this whole situation was that I only had a few weeks to make a decision on whether I was ready to start the rest of my life in a partnership, or continue living by my own rules — which mostly included sleeping in front of the heater in the hallway with my laptop and eating shredded cheddar 24/7.
Because that was the real thing I was grappling with: the rest of my life. Like I said, I had done this song and dance before in my previous long-term relationship. We moved in together after six months of dating, painted the walls, decorated with cheap art from the sale section of Urban Outfitters, packed up, moved again, painted more walls, bought more crap from Urban Outfitters and eventually ended it all with post-it notes with our names on them scattered on all the stuff we had accumulated in three years.
After the post-its, we fought over whose book was whose, cried in each other’s arms, became confused over sleeping arrangements, and broke our Facebook relationship on tandem laptops with a count of three, so that we could simultaneously delete the news before it hit our feeds.
When it was all over — like really, really over — I was left alone the apartment I had found for us and secretly chosen because I knew I could afford on my own if needed. I suppose that even though he had lived there for six months with the bad wall art we bought together, the apartment was always mine. Technically, there’s really no ambiguity; I was the only one who has signed for it.
With a slightly used lease on the apartment, and new lease on life, I carved a new identity that didn’t include being someone’s girlfriend by buying new couches from the cheap furniture place I had always passed on my commute to work, and putting too many holes in the wall to hang pictures of me on hikes, at bars, and with friends at Coachella. After three years in what I would now consider a restrictive relationship (to both our fault and credit), I finally felt free. I finally felt myself, and I knew that the apartment had given me the freedom and independence to do so.
I honored this gift the apartment had given me one night after a happy hour, about a month into living alone. As I walked up the driveway to my door, my two-drink haze made me take notice of my mailbox, and the label that still read both of our last names. I went upstairs, typed up a new label with just my last name, and returned to the mailbox. I took off the old label and replaced it with the new one by using the amount of packing tape (the only thing I had available) only an inebriated person would use, which is way too much. In my own special way, I had made things between my apartment and me official, even if the packing tape would eventually need to be replaced.
Like many before and after me, I survived breaking up a relationship and a home, while finding the strength to build new ones. Had I ever found myself in a similar situation, I knew the experience had given me what I needed to create the in-case-of-emotional-emergency survival roadmap I wrote and kept in the fortress of safety I had constructed for myself in my absurdly cheap one bedroom apartment with two bathroom sinks.
But, what if this current relationship didn’t end in a blazing glory of an agreement of how much I should pay Jacob to keep most of the stuff? What if this just…kept going — which I had a very strong feeling that it would. It wasn’t the possibility of another relationship crash and burn that crippled me with fear; it was the very real chance at forever. For THAT, I didn’t have a roadmap for emotional coping.
I called my best friend Marissa on the drive to work one morning as my time to decide was coming to a close.
“Marissa, I need you to be real with me.”
“Ok, I can do that.”
“Am I truly not ready to move in with someone again, or…am I holding onto something — a time in my life, maybe — that I don’t to be holding onto anymore?”
She didn’t waste a beat. “Heather, move on.”
I know she truly meant it because it did her no service to have her best friend, who lived a couple blocks away, move thirty minutes across town.
And, that was it. I knew I could no longer deny that the mature thing was to let go of my security blanket of a one-bedroom apartment and split the rent with my boyfriend so that he wasn’t forced into a living situation he couldn’t afford just so I could live like a young Miss Havisham.
I made the decision and didn’t look back, even when Jacob’s living room was still filled with all his stuff just three days before we had to move. Even the night before we moved in, when we foolishly decided to paint a living room wall without electricity, and I ended up sobbing for a half hour because the color came out Kraft mac n’cheese yellow. Even when we bought the wrong size rug and had to drive to a second IKEA that was far away to get the right one. Even when I had to sell my gorgeous couch before the cat ripped it up. Even when our building got bed bugs and we rallied the neighbors to get it tented so we wouldn’t have to move again. Even when our living room ceiling started leaking during a rainstorm. Even when we’re freezing our butts off because we have old slatted windows.
As much as I loved my old apartment, as much as I didn’t want to leave the home and identity I had built for myself in the wake of a difficult and consuming breakup, I am glad I listened to Marissa and moved. That apartment wasn’t the home I thought it was at the time; it was a halfway house where I got my life together enough to find my real way home.
It’s OK that we might never hit a dead end. It’s not as scary because I’m putting together a new survival guide and, this time, it’s much easier with someone to help me write it.