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The Good Dark
We called it "moving out together"
We talk so much of light, please let me speak on behalf of the good dark. Let us talk more of how dark the beginning of a day is.
Maggie Smith, How Dark the Beginning
It was the first apartment in New York City that was all my own. The first time, at 34, I was earning enough to sign a lease without a partner or parent vouching that I was a fully-formed adult. First time marching down to Sherwin Williams with paint swatches and staining Midnight Sky across my great, big dream of a living room wall.
The apartment was a 250-square-foot studio in the East Village. I could walk the full length of it—from stove to barred windows—within the stretch of a yawn, and I loved it because it was mine. I loved its compact, tiny kitchen with its too-small microwave, the faux marble countertop I’d meticulously glued on one frigid December night while reruns of Bridgerton played on my propped-up iPhone in the background.
My fiance and I found the apartment that first pandemic winter, when the streets of lower Manhattan were sedate with snow. Everyone in the city was still huddling in wooden booths that jutted into the street then, eating meals under heated lamps, grateful just to be together—the memory of refrigerated trucks still fresh in our collective memory. Those who’d left had yet to return, and the rent was so criminally low, you could’ve nabbed a penthouse for the price of an efficiency.
You could’ve nabbed two apartments for the price of one. So that’s what we did.
We called it “moving out together.” After being polyamorous for three years, we decided to graduate our experiment in unconventional relationshipping from living in a shared one-bedroom apartment on 14th Street to separate units near one another. The plan was to live together for half the week. Give ourselves space to etch out separate identities, see our other partners, and miss one another in a way that felt impossible while embroiled in arguments about who left the dishes in the sink (me) or hair in the shower drain (also me). We were fighting almost weekly, and secretly, I needed relief.
Besides, we’d seen it done before—my other partner of two years had never lived with his spouse and seemed perfectly thrilled with it. When we described the potential scenario our friends—especially the married ones—their eyes lit up. That’s like, the dream, they’d say.
So when the lease for our one-bedroom came to an end, we looked. And on one December evening, I found two units on StreetEasy—a ground-floor studio in my price range, and a two-bedroom on the 5th floor within his. All in an elevator building. I texted the broker.
These go fast, she texted. Come tonite?
We tossed on our wool coats and were out the door in a flash, our 5-month-old puppy in tow, dashing ten blocks South toward Tompkins Square Park.
The two-bedroom was perfect for him. The office overlooked a quiet, shaded yard with enough room for a dining table, maybe even a cat tree.
But when we walked into the studio, I balked. It was a thimble. Barely a closet to speak of. My fiance stood in the center and outstretched his arms, nearly touching both walls at once.
Tall man for scale, I joked. I’d always loved his height, how he towered over my 5’10’ frame, even in heels. It made me feel small, protected.
But the thimble was cheap, and we had to clear out of our not-so-cheap one-bedroom apartment within a few weeks. I squinted just hard enough to imagine a wardrobe in the corner, and a secretary’s desk where I might write late into the night, or early in the morning, or at 4pm in the afternoon when my fiance liked to blast Talking Heads at full volume.
The landlord insisted we apply separately. I’d never imagined I could do that on my own—my salary was half his—but I did it anyway. The next morning, we were both approved.
I told myself we were progressive, like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, with an elevator separating us instead of a footbridge.
But where that bridge led, I couldn’t tell.
Before I met my fiance, my therapist and I would talk in circles about whether I’d ever be able to afford my own place. I was touring half the year, teaching guitar lessons and working as a virtual assistant, just barely cobbling together enough cash for Trader Joe’s every other week. I would walk the streets of the Upper East Side en route to babysitting jobs, just gawking at people in their business suits, wondering how on earth they paid for them. What seemed so simple for everybody else felt unattainable to me. The possibilities for my life felt like a jar shut tight then—I wish I could tell you why.
Then I met a tall man with firey red hair and a roaring laugh, and I told him I might want to stop doing the one thing I thought made my life special. The tall man did not flinch, and I fell in love with his not-flinching. And with his help, I went to task loosening that jar; chasing down 10-year-old transcripts, applying to schools, scholarships, internships, a stable job with benefits that I knew I could love.
Until one day, it was no longer true that I couldn’t afford my own place.
Before him, I hesitated to commit to much more than a month-to-month gym membership. And then I moved to Manhattan and sold the Toyota 4Runner that had ferried me across 39 states, propping the Texas license plate on our shared bookshelf like a headstone. We got engaged, and I scraped together my savings and signed an 18-month lease with my name on it and nobody else’s. I bought a velvet green loveseat and a compact desk and painted one-half of my living room wall a rich, teal blue—vast and filled with possibility. Proof that I could commit—to the apartment, to this entire experiment, to him.
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The day we moved out together, my fiance and I packed up the last of our one-bedroom apartment on 14th Street—the floor lamp, three cats, and a puppy—and hauled it in his girlfriend’s car to the new place while the moving truck followed. When we arrived, I stood in the entrance hallway like an air traffic controller, directing the Russian movers between floors: His. Mine. His. Mine.
They must have thought we were nuts. Were we nuts?
Once the furniture had been unloaded, I biked to our old apartment on 14th street to drop off our keys. The carpenter we’d hired to tidy up was still there, dislodging the anchors that had held my fiance’s graduate degrees and the artwork from my first published piece. The living room felt bare, as if it hadn’t held 24 months, 126 episodes of Parks and Rec, dozens of burritos, all those quiet Sunday mornings in bed with the cats. It felt as hollow as the feeling in my chest.
I understood at that moment where the bridge would lead: Our relationship would end. And standing in the middle of that apartment, with this man in overalls marching about with his hammer and his spackle, I broke down and cried.
I’ve since learned there’s a term for this feeling: Anticipatory grief.
For the first weeks in our new apartments, I could barely bring myself to unpack. The whole thing had been my idea, and still, I clung to my fiance in a way I never had before, kept asking if I could stay in his apartment one more night, secretly relieved when my new mattress was delayed so I had an excuse to sleep in his. I was like a wirey dog, sensing thunder on the horizon. It robbed me of my sleep, sent me into living room in the middle of the night, shaking. It’s terrifying—when you know a change is coming, but you don’t yet trust your capacity to hold it. Knowing that eventually, you will have no choice.
Eventually, my anxiety cooled. I retreated to the studio for two days at first, and then three, and then most of the week. I rode the elevator up to his apartment for breakfast, then back down with the dog to write or not write, or drape myself across my green velvet loveseat and read to the soundtrack of NYU students stumbling home from bottomless brunch just outside my window. I started listening to the music I’d stopped playing when we met, after I sold the car. The studio became a place to go and remember who I was before I became his fiance—or maybe who I remained in spite of it.
And then, a few months in, the elevator broke. We discovered the now 80lb puppy was terrified of stairs, so me and the puppy moved into the studio full-time. I discovered that I didn’t miss the fiance so much.
For a few more months, I kept myself tethered to him with a string the length of a 5-floor walk-up. And then it snapped.
I went on a trip to Texas and met a woman who reminded me what it was like to want to be with someone—really, really want them. And when I returned he was sullen and sad, and I asked aloud if perhaps his sadness had something to do with some deeper truth we weren’t facing. That our fighting couldn’t fix. That additional check-in texts and therapy couldn’t fix. That polyamory couldn’t fix. That three cats and one puppy and two whole fucking apartments could not fix.
When people ask me now what happened, I’m not sure what to say—it wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t mine. Sometimes I think it was mine. He needed more from me than I was willing or capable of giving him. He became more of a friend than a partner, and eventually, more of an adversary than a friend. We were in a relationship at each other, instead of with. That distinction is critical.
When the relationship ended, I drew up a dog-share schedule and planned to stay in the studio. Five floors was enough distance to grieve, I thought. The apartment was affordable and dammit we were progressive. But the timbre of our conversations quickly turned tense, I got needy and he got mean. I lost weight. Everyone around me said: Leave. Take the dog, find a new place, who cares about the money, just go.
So I packed up the loveseat and the dog and two cats and found an apartment on the opposite side of town, where I would go to task painting a new Midnight Sky. Commit to a new experiment. To myself.
This is a story about a 250-square-foot studio apartment, and it’s a story that takes place over 36 years, because our story is always finding its plot line, its center. It’s a 7-year-old girl watching her mother apply bright red lipstick and clip-on diamond earrings—the most stunning woman she has ever seen—who deserves so much more than she was given by a man too embroiled in his own pain to see beyond it. It’s a girl trying to undo the destructive beliefs woven into her bones like a birthright. She doesn’t quite know how, but she suspects it has something to do with a broken lease and a broken heart.
It is a story about surrendering what you imagined your life would look like, in service of what it could become.