You Live Alone
by LUCY MORRIS
For many months, here in New York, we lived each day like it was the last week of summer. I trust you know the kind: the late August nights when you stay up until dawn, as though – all knowledge to the contrary – it is the last time you will ever do so, cradling a glass in your hand as though you will never hold a drink like it again, and confiding to your friends like it’s the last chance to get it all out before winter arrives. Only winter did not come. Yes, the days got shorter. I stood some lone, dark evenings in the flashing lights of First Avenue Indian restaurants, pretending they were the full-spectrum lamps used to treat seasonal depression, but it was by no means wool coat weather.
In late November, against all better judgment, I found myself steering someone home through Houston Street’s aisles of Christmas trees. But the branches were snowless, and I took this as a sign that I could act without consequence: even nature doesn’t know what’s happening tonight. Suspended as we were in perpetual autumn, no ice in sight, it all seemed slightly intangible, like some Hollywood director's vision of winter – delirious on beer and promise, I told myself we were touring a movie set, not my own neighborhood.
Our sense of summer had never quite ended. I wondered if maybe it never would.
I was in no rush for summer to end, because it had been a constructive one for me. The apartment I had moved into with my older brother was finally complete after months of renovations. The walls were a pristine white, for at least a few weeks before bikes and boxes and daily life scuffed them up. The floors were so shiny I felt actually, deceptively, rich in a way I had not thought possible – considering my account balance.
Fixtures and furniture started to arrive. A crew from P.C. Richard came to cart the thirty-year-old stove away and, a few hours later, another team arrived with the new one. I greeted a locksmith late one night when our front door surrendered to age and humidity and simply refused to open. If I had been in another kind of mental space, the kind I’d been in for much of the preceding year, this might have seemed like a metaphor. But, I was finding, something happens when you are genuinely content: you spend less time thinking in figurative language. The literal suffices.
By the end of May, I had an apartment where I was happy to wake up, a room where I was thankful to fall asleep. I wondered how just having my own bed might have altered the last few years. The majority of that time had been spent living in the homes of boyfriends. I phrase it that way because I mean that I moved into their lives with heaps of boxes and duffels. The homes were not mine to make, but ones to try to make my own. This was not a task I ever accomplished, perhaps because I was never quite confident that the payoff would be worth the inconvenience of packing it all up again. That I was right to be hesitant about digging in – to hang onto my dingy college-era sheets, to keep my books on separate shelves, to hold onto the boxes I came with – does not bring me the same satisfaction that intuition proven correct usually does. When I left – and I always did – I had no furniture to take with me.
The last delivery that arrived was a new bed. It was the first one that I could say belonged strictly to me. The first night I slept in it, I thought it was the most restful sleep I’d ever had.
At the same time as I settled into my new apartment, I returned to my office translation job after months of telecommuting from other cities. It took just a few weeks of long days ticked away in a windowless room while summer erupted outside to convince me I had to quit. Something had changed: it seemed that this was no longer what I wanted. It was still months before Zuccotti, when the sentiment appeared in op-eds and Times Square protests and tents in the park, but it had begun to dawn on me that there might be some alternative to spending the majority of my waking hours helping other people get rich.
Living especially frugally seemed like a reasonable tradeoff for being in control of my own time. I was acutely aware that this is a privilege of my age, a privilege of someone without real responsibility but with the reckless conviction that one day I will be able to make up for what I am deficient in now: for a lack of sleep and unbalanced diet and utter absence of savings.
But as it turned out, I picked up one freelance client, and then another, and still one more, until I could afford greens and happy hour drinks again. The sense of poise and control I felt perched at my living room desk with Cyrillic texts on my screen, even as early summer sweat dripped down the crevices of my back, was one I had never before experienced. No relationship I’d ever been in had brought me the same sense of command.
You see, I had for some time been using my youth and the presumed shortsightedness that accompanied it as an excuse for dubious relationship decisions: I’m twenty-two was the fundamental justification for everything I did in 2010 and then, even when I was no longer in fact twenty-two, for much of 2011. Although little of it was productive, the pursuit of romance above all else was, to my constant surprise, accepted by almost everyone around me. The common narrative is that doing anything for love is okay, provided that it works out, even if it doesn’t last forever.
I was realizing, in my own slow way, that if you are going to use age as a pretext at all, it might as well be for more interesting risks than dramatic, costly gestures and the kind of absurd late night declarations you make just to see if you can. To my surprise, waking up to a job I love is on the whole much more satisfying than waking up next to someone I loved once was. When you are young, it can be alarmingly easy and not even especially scarring to forget someone with whom you once spent every night. But I can say now with some minor authority that it is significantly more wrenching to forget, even just for a little while, what it is you want to do, and who it is you want to be.
Working from home changed everything, including my schedule. I awoke not to a succession of alarms that ensured I make the train, but to e-mails from courteous clients in Moscow whose faces I had never seen, whom I came to know only through pleasantries and requests and invoices. I adjusted to daily deadlines not of five p.m. but of one a.m., the hour at which Russia starts waking up. I began to live eight hours ahead of myself. But rather than feeling rushed, as I had in my old, harried office life, time started to seem open and infinite. There was my entire New York day, and then there was my Russian day, too, if I wanted it. And I often did, because in the daytime it was too hot to do much of anything besides work.
Our apartment had one ancient air conditioning unit left behind by former tenants, but its very hum made me anxious, a constant reminder of an escalating ConEd bill, so I refused to turn it on. When it got too hot to think, I shut my eyes for a while. When it got too hot to sleep, I slipped on my shoes, stuck three $1 bills in the waistband of the boxers I slept in, and went to Ray’s on Avenue A for frozen yogurt. “I’m going to have to order more chocolate just for you,” ancient Ray himself told me late one night, but his lopsided grin told me that he didn’t mind. During the day here, when the heat is pressing in from all sides, the actions of every fellow inhabitant feel like a personal affront. But at nighttime, when a slight breeze starts to blow in from the water around us, a kind of broad generosity returns: you remember that nobody really minds much of anything when it is night and it is summer and it is New York.
In those moments, weaving gingerly, cone in hand, between towers of trash bags and tipsy, tottering women, I could see how different things can be when you live alone. In the presence of someone else, a two am ice cream run might have seemed at best indulgent; at worst, embarrassing. But now I could come and go at any hour I pleased. I wasn’t obligated to text anyone my whereabouts. I no longer experienced that tug to leave the party early, to go home to whomever was waiting. No boyfriend had ever explicitly asked this of me — it was no fault of theirs — but like many people, and perhaps women in particular, I had for a long time been unable to distinguish between habit or expectation and actual desire. As is also common, I had not felt the weight of this unvoiced obligation until it was lifted.
Lying on my bed reading with the windows open to the roar of St. Mark's Place, on winding late night walks home alone through Greenwich Village, on jogs along the East River and standing still in the rush of a cold shower afterward, my mind kept returning to a piece of a poem in Eileen Myles’ Inferno. I turned it over in my head and lobbed it in emails to friends scattered around the world, recited it aloud to an audience of just myself:
I don't think
I can afford the time to not sit right down &
write a poem
I don’t write poetry, but I was beginning to spend the hours I no longer wasted commuting writing instead. Something unexpected was happening: in the relative absence of men, who had staked out space in my brain for so long, there was new mental real estate opening up. It was as though when I had moved my belongings out, I had cleared way for the psychic space to think seriously about writing the poem – in my case, a metaphorical poem – to which Myles referred.
I hauled my laptop to Think Coffee on Fourth Avenue, where the conversation of the NYU summer school students around me proved sufficiently uninteresting as not to distract me. I couldn’t begrudge them their revelatory undergrad discoveries of Foucault and Marx: I, too, was undergoing internal transformations, and like them I wanted to espouse it to everyone I encountered. I wanted to tell the friends holed up at home with their boyfriends, the ones who still left the party early, to resist the impulse, to stay out just a little longer, to see what might be available if they did – a bevy of rooftops, new people, glimpses into other apartments and psyches and lives that, too, could be theirs, if only they allowed for it.
Aware that this would make me the most insufferable kind of friend, I said nothing, just as they had said nothing to me when I had been doing the same as them. I recalled that there was a hedonism to living with someone you loved: whiling away Saturdays in bed, goading each other into take-out, succumbing to the lazy pleasure of not even having to leave the house to see your favorite person. Meandering my own neighborhood paths on weekend afternoons, I spotted these couples: ice coffees in hand, limbs intertwined on the benches of Tompkins Square Park, adrift on planets of two. I readily recognized their happiness. But with a clarity that startled me, I recognized, too, that this was no longer – or at least for now – the kind of happiness I wanted.
Without a live-in companion, and after a day of working in the solitude of my apartment, I found that I was newly outgoing. I had my whole life identified as shy, perhaps even socially anxious in a clinical sense, but now I wondered if my sociability had simply been a gene late to come to fruition, much in the way my hair abruptly turned curly at age twelve.
When I met my daily deadlines, I closed my computer and went out. I walked to my budget gym, where East Village girls in harem pants and Converse sweated on treadmills. I came home and cooked collards in a partial state of undress, sweaty but aware that a chill was now in the air, that eating warm meals was again an option. I went out again after dinner for drinks, to readings, on walks around Alphabet City. “Headlines” and “I’m On One” were blaring on car stereos. I thought I might break into a sprint at any moment. It did not seem inconceivable that nobody would notice, and that in itself was comforting, a confirmation of the liberties of being alone.
What I felt for my friends, which had always been somewhat romantic in its profundity and complexity, was suddenly unconfined by the pressures of loving someone else. I went for evening beers with new friends and afternoon coffee with ones I hadn’t seen in years. With the serious friends, the ones I thought of essentially as long-term partners, the mutual infatuation was limitless: when we went home for the night, we texted; from our desks the next day, we e-mailed. It was unambiguously pants weather now, and I kept expecting the real cold to come and hibernation season to set in. But it never quite happened. We kept venturing out.
Many evenings I would go to Brooklyn and hours later careen myself home on the L, barely conscious of my own itinerary. On these subway nights alone, my awareness of where I was extended just far enough to know that I was glad to be there alone. I had been feeling some appreciation for this late night solitude for a while, six or seven months now at least, the knowledge that I had for a long time been by far my favorite person to go home with and wake up to and cook breakfast for.
I recalled a time when I lived with a boyfriend, and the subway rides home to the life and house we shared felt excruciatingly long, an MTA-contrived plot to delay the pleasure of his company, our shared dinner, a movie on the couch. Now the ride itself was its own pleasure. Each time I got on the train, I wondered how far it could take me.
Eventually, in barely perceptible ways, independent of the weather and the spirit in the air – that summer commitment to no consequences, that sense of urban invincibility – a real seasonal change began to manifest. The tomatoes at the farmers market gave way to squash, to Brussels sprouts; the greens I’d hauled home in tote bags all summer began to dwindle, the potatoes appeared. One by one, I took fans out of windows. The temperatures were in the fifties on Thanksgiving Day, but there were sweet potatoes all the same. The seasons had changed in spite of themselves; no matter how late we stayed out sharing our secrets, there was nothing we could do to halt the cycle entirely.
The morning I awoke with the guy I’d led home through the Lower East Side, I was hit with a sense of something new: this was what it meant to bring someone home. It was not that I was new to the practice, exactly, it was just that I had never before had the sense of having a home, Tolstoy prints on the wall, all my shoes, all my books, all my thoughts in one place.
There were already e-mails on my phone from the Russians. I walked the guy to the train and then I continued on alone, no destination in mind. With a gratitude that originated deep in my chest and swelled upwards, out into a wide smile, I felt the limitless promise that I had begun to sense when I woke up every day in that bed of my own: the promise of Lower Manhattan streets stretched out around me and a pocket full of songs to guide the way, of croissants and morning conversation with a friend at a café on Avenue A, of hours of translating – that special retreat into the world of words that both pleased me immensely and paid the rent on the place that I liked so much. The sun was pulling up into the sky over the East River, which I had come to think of, selfishly but in a mental effort to distinguish it from the Hudson, as my river. I had my river. I had a new book to read.
Images by Kurt Knobelsdorf.
"Juice of My Heart" - White Blush (mp3)
"Jolene" - White Blush (mp3)