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How my apartment went from empty to full—to empty again

Kelly Tatham
Jun 12, 2018 · 11 min read
Photo: Julie Johnson on Unsplash

No one should buy furniture in their twenties. I mean it. Craigslist doesn’t count. Garage sales don’t either. Hand-me-downs from your relatives are totally acceptable too. Anything you can get for free or extremely cheap—I’d say $50 an item. Max. Even then, that’s probably too much. The most I’ve ever paid is $30.

Naturally, you can’t be too picky. Your living room is going to look—how can I put this nicely? Quirky. So what if the previous owner’s cat scratched all the fabric off the left leg of the couch, leaving its wooden frame exposed and pointy? You’ve just found the perfect place to display the handwoven blanket you picked up in the Northern Philippines. You wouldn’t have cool things like that if you spent all your money on useless totems of adulthood.

Who cares if the paneling’s peeling off the back of the TV stand you found on the side of the road? Rip that shit off! If the nails are falling out of your gently used coffee table, just pound those suckers back in. Any old rock should do; obviously, you don’t own real tools.

By age 25, I’d lived the adage “change is the only constant” profoundly enough that it could have been tattooed on my arm. I was about to move into my fifth place in 19 months, and I was desperate to sit still, maybe even nest. My bigger-than-a-box possessions were understandably limited at that point, so it was going to be up to my new roommate to bring all the tables and chairs and couches we’d need to furnish our garden-level two-bedroom suite. All I had to do was fill the space with my positive energy.

But the day we were supposed to move in together, she showed up empty-handed.

My friends were hanging out in the living room, sitting on boxes, eating their moving-day bribery pizza when she arrived. She said hi and that she’d bring her things over in a couple days. Then she disappeared back out the door. It seemed odd, but whatever. Later that night, she called to explain what she hadn’t wanted to say in front of my friends: She was expecting, aka pregnant, aka moving in with her boyfriend.


She paid her half of the rent, but I was SOL for furnishings—and, also, lonely. Besides a mattress box set and semi-broken chest of drawers, I owned a papasan chair, an office chair, a desk, and one-and-a-half bookshelves (half the shelves had sacrificed themselves to the moving-day gods en route). I put the mattress, desk, office chair, and chest in my room. Then it was just me, the not-quite-two bookshelves, and the papasan in the cold, tiled, sloping living room.

I began to wonder if maybe I was the problem in keeping a roommate. But no. It had to be the lack of furniture.

Did I not mention the slope? One corner of the living room was half a foot lower than the rest—like, straight-up sinkhole business. When I previewed the place, it had been filled with the previous tenants’ furniture. But now with just the papasan occupying the space, the slope could be seen in its full slopey glory. If I put my office chair on the high side of the room, it would roll easily and with increasing speed toward the sinkhole before bashing into the wall on impact. And just below the crash zone, in the lowest, farthest corner of the room, was an actual hole in the wall. A hole whence the spiders came.

I’d be sitting innocently in my papasan, reading responses to the roommate-wanted Craigslist ad, when out of nowhere, thick, black, golf-ball-sized spiders would emerge slowly and then shoot toward me, their eight legs toppling over each other in some sort of wall-to-wall, hole-to-papasan sprint to find out which of them could make it across the fastest without getting smushed. (They never got smushed. I was too busy shrieking to kill anything.)

I was alone in that apartment for a month until Michelle moved in. Michelle was a friend of a friend and, since she was coming from a different city, did not get a chance to view the place and its sparsely furnished insides before arriving one rainy spring evening. Michelle had short dark hair and a mildly emo disposition. She lasted 10 days. She claimed she’d found something closer to work, but we both knew she was lying. So again, I was alone. Rent paid, but alone.

I blame it on the spiders, but maybe it was the cold. For the first two months, I slept in pajamas, socks, knockoff Uggs, a housecoat, and a hat. The upstairs neighbors controlled the heat, and I didn’t work up the courage to ask them to turn it up until the following fall. While Michelle wasn’t into the whole frosty, spider-infested thing I had going on at the time, at least our mutual friend felt guilty about her bailing on me and paid penance by leaving a large yellow footstool at my doorstep. Now I had something to place beside the papasan! I could entertain guests! Well, a guest.

By the end of that month, a love seat moved in—as well as a human person I’ll call Jan. (This isn’t some “name changed to protect the innocent/guilty” kind of thing. I just honestly can’t remember her name.) Jan was a sex educator from New Zealand, and the love seat was a green plaid from North Vancouver. Jan planned to stay for a while. The love seat took some planning to get. I’d finally caved and posted “Good home seeks free couch” on Facebook. An old co-worker bit. The love seat would be mine for free if I could just come and pick it up. I bribed a cousin with a six-pack, and we heaved the small couch d’amour into his parents’ minivan and drove “lil’ plaid” to its new home.

Despite the fact that Jan furnished only her own room, I was relieved to have her move in. Alas, the love seat ended up lasting 34 times longer than Jan, whose visa ran out. Apparently, it couldn’t be renewed as she’d promised. Whatever, Jan. So one month after moving in, she hopped on a plane back to New Zealand. It was then that I began to wonder if maybe I was the problem in keeping a roommate.

But no. It had to be the lack of furniture.

I knew I needed to fluff up the living room if I wanted a solid roommate, but I had, well, no dinero. I tacked up some prayer flags and taped a few pictures to the wall. A friend who’d recently broken up with his girlfriend and was moving out of their apartment offered me his coffee table, giving me something to place in front of lil’ plaid for feet-resting and/or beverage-holding. I paired them with a $10 garage sale TV and arranged the trio in the middle of the living room—a galaxy of companionship and entertainment caught in the orbit of four, low-ceilinged walls. In a corner, on the floor, I put a three-foot-tall statue of the Eiffel Tower wrapped in twinkly lights. It was sparse, but it was an improvement, and I hoped it would be enough to hook someone less temporary.

Wary of second-degree friends after Michelle but also disheartened by Craigslist Jan’s abandonment, I decided Facebook was the lesser of evils. Enter Alyssa, mutual friend numero dos. She was traveling around Europe at the time, so I Skyped with her while walking through the house, the feed breaking in and out, until she agreed to move in. Alyssa and I listened to the same music and read some of the same books, and she helped me shop for groceries when I broke my ankle. But she was busy with school and work. The only time we ever really hung out was on Tuesday nights, crammed onto lil’ plaid to watch New Girl. It was lovely, but not exactly the sitcom living situation I’d been dreaming of.

A tattered new friend arrived a few months after Alyssa moved in. Our upstairs neighbor had met a boy, fallen in love, and was moving out to live with him. To make space at his place for the dining table she was taking with her, her boyfriend’s bulky, faded, tattered green couch had to go. She broke the news to me with a smile, saying I could have it delivered to my door for $30.

“Deal,” I replied.

The living room had really come together: The tattered green couch, plaid loveseat, yellow footstool, and coffee table accompanied my faithful papasan and bookshelves in forging a cozy, welcoming space. So it came as a shock when Alyssa gave her notice. Had she not realized we’d each have our own couch for New Girl nights? But no. She said she wanted to live alone in a different part of town, and so I found myself with six weeks to replace her.

I figured I’d try Facebook again, at least giving it a shot before dancing el tango de Craigslist. I typed out a plea, posted it, and held my breath. Almost immediately, I got a notification. Could fate finally be on my side? I clicked the glowing red “1” and—oh. my. god.a real-life first-degree friend had commented that she’d just had the same conversation with her roommate and was in need of a place to live.

Nisha, a Saskatoonian attending the same screenwriting school as me, arrived seven weeks later with a wobbly coffee table, a flat-screen TV, and armfuls of scarves, fabric, paintings, and incense. I knew the roommate search had finally ended as I watched her unpack. You have coconut oil from Pirate Joe’s? I have coconut oil from Pirate Joe’s! You use lavender dish soap? I use lavender dish soap! Bengal Spice tea? Bengal Spice tea! She also had half a dozen duffel bags of marked-down DVDs from her days working at Blockbuster—it was a match made in film school heaven.

Nisha and I carried on the ‘New Girl’ tradition

With Nisha’s additions and the two existing couches, the house was so furnished and full that no one understood my need for more. When the opportunity for a third couch presented itself, Nisha laughed at me. My upstairs neighbors shook their heads. My parents politely told me I was deluded and that if I wanted the gorgeous buttery beige leather spoil of their divorce, I’d have to give up one of my other couches.

I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that I would cram in every last piece available to me.

“Nuh-uh,” I said. I wasn’t going to give up anything.

My parents arrived early one morning with “big beige” and a few bonus items: a side table, shelves, and a lamp. We parked the furnishings outside and surveyed the living room. It already appeared to be more or less full, but I knew deep down in my heart of hearts that I would cram in every last piece available to me. And so it began—an entire day moving, reorganizing, erecting a shelf system for Nisha’s flat-screen, ditching bookshelves and lining the ledges with novels instead, and playing Tetris with big beige and the greens.

I could feel everyone exchanging looks behind my back, doubting the room’s capacity to hold it all, but I never stopped believing. We jigsawed for hours until, suddenly, it all fit. We’d made it work. Two couches, a love seat, the papasan, DVDs and books, a coffee table, a side table, lamps, fabric on the walls, and prayer flags draped everywhere. The living room was finished. Full. Comfortable. Home.

We’d smoke until there were clouds of marijuana, Nish and I, in our little hippie enclave, plumes traveling past my glittering Eiffel Tower and up her green fabric Buddha. The windows were rolling-paper thin; between that and the incense we lit, our habit wasn’t given away. Or maybe the upstairs neighbors noticed and didn’t care; we never asked. We had friends over for wine and bitching and tarot cards—always enough sitting space for everyone. Once a month, I’d host book club and serve homemade hummus and pita chips. In September, we read Your Voice in My Head and watched Colin Farrell’s sex tape.

In the summer, we threw backyard parties. I’d finally learned how to light the barbecue my cousin inherited from her parents but gave to me because she lived in a tiny bachelor suite with no patio. Lighting it on my own made me feel like a real adult. Until I realized I was cooking hotdogs for breakfast. Nisha would paint—psychedelic portraits of Jesus or Ganesh—while we watched movie after TV show after mini-series. We’d blast music as we cleaned: Vance Joy, Lauryn Hill, the Backstreet Boys.

It was perfect.I’m never moving,” I declared.

Then, suddenly, there I was again, standing on the cold, tiled, sloping floor, surveying an empty living room. When Nisha told me she was moving out, one beautiful year after big beige arrived, her announcement took me by utter surprise. What had I done wrong? I knew she’d never lived on her own before and wanted to try it, but… but…

But actually, as the tears of shock and abandonment ebbed, this change began to feel right, like maybe it was time for me to move on too. I certainly wasn’t going to stay there without her, playing roommate roulette again. Even with the living room finally bursting with furniture, maybe it’d be easy, maybe I’d find someone perfect right away. But it wasn’t worth the risk. Plus, I had tax money coming, and the Spanish I’d been learning was itching to get used. Traveling home-free was in my future.

Lil’ plaid went to a friend, tattered green to Nisha’s brother, big beige and the yellow footstool to my mom’s new apartment. All my books were sold or donated or boxed up with the prayer flags and Eiffel Tower and distributed to storage lockers. By the end, only the papasan remained; I offered it to Nisha to take to her new place.

I sat down on the cold, empty floor that last night and stared at the papasan and the hole—now filled with steel wool (your move, arachnids!)—and across the bare walls. All that time spent collecting, and now, everything was gone. When I came back from my travels, I’d have nothing: no couches, no love seat, no yellow footstool. I’d have nothing but stories and perhaps a new handwoven blanket. Maybe then I’d start investing in sturdy furniture pieces from Ikea or Pier One or even commit wholeheartedly, sourcing brushed suede Barcaloungers and handcrafted wine racks.

Or maybe not. Maybe change is what keeps me alive.

Or maybe my sense of home rests not in couches or things, but in people. People who help me move couches in and out, in and out, wherever I choose to go. What I do know is that cold, tiled, sloping floor will always have a place in my heart, right next to the papasan, Nisha, and all the other roommates and couches and scampering spiders before them. Because for some of us in our twenties, and maybe beyond, we’re all just looking for something. Something that feels like home. Or not like home. Somewhere to explore, disappear in, ex-patriate toward. Someplace to fall in love with. Some place, some where, some thing—we don’t really know.

But not knowing doesn’t mean we can’t have a full, comfortable, acquired-for-nearly-free living room for just a little while. Or maybe longer.

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