I Wouldn’t Necessarily Recommend This

I have always had roommates.

A few of them were wonderful, like the one who would drive us to the library so we could get more books than we could carry home in our arms.

Many were not, like the one who would come across a piece of my hair in the bathroom and, instead of throwing it away or asking me to be neater, would drape the individual strands over my shampoo bottle as a kind of scarlet letter.

But even in the worst versions of sharing a living space with someone, having roommates was a through-line of security. If something went wrong—if the pipes froze or I got sick or I’d just had a spectacularly bad day or a bat flew into the house (all of which happened, some of them regularly, though luckily there was only the one bat)—I didn’t have to deal with it alone. Someone else was there brainstorming the solution or making the decision along with me.

When I left my job in New York at the start of 2018 to backpack Latin America and write, I replaced lease-sharing, legally-defined roommates with temporary ones. I stayed in hostel dorms or rented Airbnbs and got used to sleeping three feet from someone else and chatting up bunkmates over breakfast. I was alone for hikes and bus rides and meals, but at night, I’d return to a communal space.

Photo by Steven Lewis on Unsplash

After a few months of travel, I met Diego, and after several more months of us talking and falling in love, I moved into his Buenos Aires apartment. I’d never lived with a partner before, and while it was a different form of cohabitation—less passive companionship and chore charts, more purposefully building a life together—I felt the same sense of safety. This time, it was safety combined with romance and trust and passion and admiration and partnership, and it was especially lovely.

Nine months into living together, Diego and I packed up and left Argentina to travel. We spent the better part of a year exploring North and Central America, with stints living in Mexico City and Antigua, Guatemala. It was here in Antigua, under the onslaught of a pandemic, our differences seemed to eclipse the love we had in common and I needed a break. We needed a break.

It was here in Antigua, under the onslaught of a pandemic, our differences seemed to eclipse the love we had in common and I needed a break. We needed a break.

I moved out of the hostel we’d been living in and into a little cabin on a plot of land on the other side of town, two blocks south of the supermarket. It’s a glorified studio, with a big bed and a small dining nook and a kitchenette and a bathroom. Little brown specs accumulate on the floor near the kitchen table—I think termites are eating into one of the wooden beams holding up the roof—and I’m constantly finding bugs in the shower and the sink and on the floor, but aside from that, it’s lovely. Fruit trees bloom directly outside my front door. The one on the right has shiny dark green leaves and delicate white flowers and produces little burgundy bombs that look like pomegranates and smell like plums and reveal, when torn open, sweet-and-sour translucent white flesh and flaxen seeds. The one on the left has a long, spindly trunk and branches coated in yellow-green leaves from which tiny clementines too sour to eat emerge in clusters. It’s here, in their shade, that I’ve been learning what it’s like to live alone.

The Inside of My Mind Can Be a Rather Scary Place

Remember being a kid and waking up in the middle of the night needing to vomit? You’d run to the bathroom and hurl, crying as the bile rose in your nostrils. It felt disgusting and terrible and part of you thought about staying there crumpled on the tile in a pile of self-pity and puke until death came to take you. But you knew that if you got up and pushed open your parents’ door and stood there in the dark and said, “I threw up”—or even yelled that loudly enough from the bathroom floor—someone would come and help make it better.

Living alone, I quickly realized, meant that no one was coming to help make it better.

I couldn’t stop thinking. I’d sit in my studio and barely hear the birds trilling during the day or the crickets pulsing at night over the painful deluge of my thoughts whirling around in worried patterns.

That realization was, at first, not so bad. I am a planner, and having a shiny new problem to focus on that wasn’t my relationship was almost a relief. Despite the growing pandemic, I invested in my new solo occupancy status with Pioneer Woman resourcefulness. I made vegetable stock and filled my pantry with nonperishables. I ran by the pharmacy and picked up boxes of over-the-counter cold and flu meds just in case. I settled into my fully-stocked little home and started to explore the boons of living alone: sleeping in the middle of the full-size bed, skipping the chores I’d always hated, making breakfast for dinner three nights in a row. I left dishes in the sink overnight, with breadcrumbs hardening on broiler trays and carrot peels wilting on cutting boards and blooms of pancake dough—clumps of buttermilk and flour—loosening in a glass bowl. Because they were my dishes and not those of an inconsiderate roommate, they took on a patina of luxury and self-indulgence versus unfulfilled social contract.

One afternoon, as I tried to fit another bag of homemade empanadas in my too-full freezer, I realized that I’d finished all my preparations and played out all the fun parts of solitude.

And I was still alone.

Worst-case scenarios rushed into my head and stayed there. I imagined a permanent rupture with a partner I deeply loved, despite everything, and border closings that kept me from my family for months.

I missed Diego intensely. My heart hurt with the missing. I wanted him to be there to hold my hand and hug me and tell me that it would be okay—that we would be okay.

But he wasn’t there, and it might not be—we might not be.

The glamour of living alone, something new to me that needed tender care, got crushed under an anxious torrent of worries: I was truly alone, and alone in a foreign country where I knew almost no one. Every decision, from what to eat to what time to go to bed, was mine and mine alone to make. Every hour was mine to fill, and I could only spend so many of them with faux community, on family Zoom check-ins and phone calls with friends. Every problem was mine to solve. This was not a regular kind of living alone, of curating a space, of space as sanctuary, of hard-won independence. This was living alone in a foreign country during an extended quarantine in a rented accommodation I couldn’t leave after curfew and couldn’t alter even if hardware stores were open.

Photo by Kira auf der Heide on Unsplash

I couldn’t stop thinking. I’d sit in my studio and barely hear the birds trilling during the day or the crickets pulsing at night over the painful deluge of my thoughts whirling around in worried patterns. I’d always been able to distract myself from them before, bombarding my brain with information: podcasts, music, conversations, books, work. Before, the only real period of deep thought I regularly allowed myself was the few minutes before falling asleep. Now thoughts were sneaking into every minute, every hour, newly immune to distraction. I fought them at first, trying to wrench them into empowering forms. You may be surprised to read that that did not work.

Over days and weeks, I learned to start letting the thoughts come. To acknowledge them for what they were, note their presence, and let them be.

I claim no zen status; I still struggle to accept my thoughts, to process the hurt, the worry, the second-guessing. But I am learning how to coexist with them. And that’s something.

Strangers Don’t Have to Stay That Way 

I was laying on the left side of my bed one afternoon—the left side is my “work” side and the right side is my “sleep” side; this division has let me convince myself that I’m not messing up my sleep by using the bed for things other than rest—failing to focus on an email when I realized that I missed being around other people.

I felt that way in college often, when it seemed like there was so much to discuss about the world and philosophy and mutual acquaintances that my friends and I would accompany each other to the dining hall when we weren’t hungry and would sit on the toilet while someone else showered as to not have to stop talking. I felt it less in New York, but when I did, I’d knock on my roommate’s door and ask her about her last date. I rarely felt it traveling, but when I did, I’d find a stranger and chat them up.

I’d been feeling extra alone in Antigua, missing Diego, and having no strangers to chat up and no friends to invite into my bathroom. Then I remembered Celine, the Belgium woman who lived in the cabin across from mine. We’d talked a few times; I had her number saved in my phone and texted her immediately: “Do you want to do a puzzle or something? I have cabin fever.”

She invited me over. I sat on her porch and we talked about relationships, travel, and therapy, and I walked back across the yard an hour later feeling less alone and sure of two things. One, I could text her if I was vomiting and she’d probably bring over a homeopathic remedy (she’s big into that, I learned during our porch chat). And two, being on my own didn’t have to mean always being alone. I could find a way to get the support I needed even while living alone—I just had to ask for it.

The Only Way Out Is Through

Learning to coexist alongside my thoughts, even the worst of them, combined with knowing that I could ask for (and then get) the support I need allowed me to lean into the everyday domestic joys of living alone.

I am a person who loves rituals. I like the orderliness of repetition and the trustworthiness of the meaning derived from it. Especially this last year, where I moved cities every few days, rituals made every new place feel like some semblance of home. Many of my old rituals were for two, like rolling over and spending the first five minutes of every morning fitted against Diego for lechugín, or little lettuce, our made-up word for spooning, our legs curled together like romaine ribs.

Learning to coexist alongside my thoughts, even the worst of them, combined with knowing that I could ask for (and then get) the support I need allowed me to lean into the everyday domestic joys of living alone.

I no longer spoon in the morning. I do, however, go outside and water my plants, seedlings grown from scraps, and thriving. I go for a walk and then work out on the cool red tile of the pergola in the garden. I make my bed, which I never used to understand the appeal of before. I cook a late breakfast and leave the plates sprawled out on the counter with yesterday’s dinner dishes until the early afternoon when I take a work break to wash them all.

My rituals have expanded beyond my mornings to fill my days. As I complete them, moving from one corner of my little home to another, cooking and writing and folding down sheets, I let each one grow big with meaning. Here I am, making my space more comfortable. There I go, learning how to be alone.

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