Name any major U.S. city, and I can tell you what a two-bedroom apartment goes for. Tell me you’re looking for a new place in Brooklyn, and I will give you specific examples of what’s currently on the rental market. No, I don’t work in real estate, nor have I ever. It’s just that for most of my adult life, I have resorted to one weird trick for quelling the ever-increasing moments of anxiety and existential despair: browsing apartment listings online.
When I mention this habit to friends, it’s generally met with one of two reactions. The far more common and admittedly very rational one is a look of horror that starts in the eyes. It’s a look that says, “I have had to find apartments before, and it is a punishing process I would not wish on anyone.” But on rare occasions, I meet like-minded people who know what I know — that while actually looking for an apartment to live in is an unrelenting drag, browsing through listings for the mere pleasure of it, with no real-world purpose, is like sinking into a hot bath or whatever it is normal people do to relax.
The fantasy of the me who lives in that apartment is cultivated and maintained by the persistence with which I will never realize it.
At one point in my life, this involved lazy Saturday afternoons wandering through open houses or the classified section of alt-weeklies. Then my searching moved to websites, and now I use apps like Zillow or, my personal favorite, StreetEasy. These apps streamline the process, allowing me to filter by neighborhood and price point and pet policy, which is certainly efficient. How funny that all our modern desires (for spaces or things or each other) follow the same trajectory, from real-life encounters to websites to apps; how unsettling that they all bend toward efficiency. Anyway, I check the boxes and tell the app what I want, but I still feel a little thrill of insurrection knowing the app doesn’t understand why I want it. What I cannot yet explain to an algorithm I will try explaining to you.
I have sometimes been accused of running away from my problems, to which I respond, “Why, yes, that’s terribly clever of me, isn’t it? As you’ll notice, I’m now here, and the problem remains back there.” Running away gets a bad rap sometimes, and you should never underestimate how effective it can be to simply pack your shit and start over. But once you reach a certain age, it gets harder to ignore the things that you always unpack on the other side. The inescapable ways of being you that no amount of distance can dislodge. So, instead, I increasingly stay put and take comfort in imagining different ways of being me.
As I see it, there are three established methods by which we fantasize about leading other lives. The obvious one is imagining what we would do if we won the lottery or otherwise had some major material interruption. This is fine for an occasional daydream, but more often than not it just reminds me how paltry the amount of money needed to change my life truly is. This is a bummer and defeats the purpose of fantasy. The second option, and one I have at various times regularly indulged in, is imagining where we would be now had we made one or two major decisions differently. I wonder what my life would look like if I had gone to Georgetown. (Probably worse.) If I had driven to Edmonton to meet that guy? (I have a firm belief that nothing good happens in Edmonton, so maybe a draw.) If I had stayed married? If I had never gotten married to begin with? Here is where this sort of willful fantasizing gets more fraught the more decisions you have behind you. All things considered, I will take my longing unburdened by regret, thank you very much.
That’s where the apartment listings come in — the fundamental appeal is the plausibility of it all, it’s your life slightly different, and worlds can be built on slight differences. My preference is to find places I could probably afford, mainly in neighborhoods I know, though sometimes to switch it up I look in cities I’ve never visited. What matters most is that I look at apartments I could under very conceivable circumstances live in — should I choose to — and also that I will absolutely never choose to. Because, and this is the important part, there are few disappointments more terrible than getting what you think you want.
When I browse these apartments, it’s to find a kitchen bigger than the one I currently have so I can tell myself that in that kitchen I would make soups from scratch like I see friends doing on Instagram. In that kitchen, I would bake; it gets good afternoon light, and I could spend a Sunday reading a novel while waiting on my pie to finish cooling. This apartment is around the corner from a yoga studio where I would attend classes regularly. In that bedroom, I would wake up with fewer hangovers, next to someone who wanted to stay. He would make coffee in that kitchen, and we would eat pie for breakfast.
And I do this all, often nightly, just before I go to sleep, safe in the knowledge that I will never have that kitchen, near the yoga studio, with the great light. I will never have to confront the fact that there is no kitchen in which I will make pie; the fact that my inflexibility has nothing to do with the relative inconvenience of my yoga studio; the fact of myself. The fantasy of the me who lives in that apartment is cultivated and maintained by the persistence with which I will never realize it.
Me, but slightly better. Maybe that seems like a small and pitiable fantasy. Maybe it is. But so much of life is toilsome, and so many online habits encourage us to imagine or unleash worse versions of ourselves. At the very least, looking for apartments I could but won’t live in is an act of imagination in a better direction. Perhaps I’m still running, but now it’s toward some version of myself rather than away. And it’s definitely the healthiest thing I do on my phone.