The unkempt woman with missing teeth said she’d show us the available ground-floor, one-bedroom apartment. Strike one: The apartment wasn’t upstairs, and I swore I’d never again live under late-night, lumbering footsteps. As we passed a grubby man changing a tire on a crappy car in the oil-stained parking lot outside my would-be apartment, I already knew I’d never sign a lease there. The stairs led down to the ground-floor living space. The woman from the leasing office made an offhand comment about it, as if gloomy basement dungeons were standard “first floor” rentals.
The apartment was akin to other empty apartments we’d seen that day—and those I would subsequently trudge through multiple times that week, feeling increasingly distraught. It was dismal, weathered, and claustrophobic. With three large steps, I was able to see all 675 square feet. (And that was larger than the other one bedrooms.) Depressing shades of decades-old brown covered every surface: brown outdoor paint, brown carpet, brown cabinets, and a brown fireplace. I nodded, thanked the leasing agent, and thought this is the place where sad, lonely people like me go to die.
I glanced at my uncle with big eyes, and we shook our heads hell no behind the lady’s back.
My uncle later said, “If it’s that dark in the summer, imagine it in the winter.”
Yes, and imagine all the rain I’m not used to.
On the way back to the leasing office, where I would retrieve my California driver’s license and escape this white trash refuge of misery on the outskirts of Seattle, we witnessed a young couple in another beat-up car parked with the hood up. They were screaming at each other. The leasing agent pretended not to notice. Instead she reminded us of the small, unclean gym and leaf-strewn, vacant outdoor pool. She said parking wasn’t “too bad,” and rent came with all-night security.
“The rent on the one bedroom is $1,325,” she said.
I lived in my last apartment for 15 miserable months. When a slick, chatty landlord says, “Trust me,” don’t trust him. When you never meet him, even though his mailing address is a block away, don’t trust him. When he says the building is brimming with other women of a certain age—a readymade coffee klatch—don’t trust him then either.
I moved into a large downstairs studio in a vintage building with eight other studios on the border of Alamitos Beach and downtown Long Beach four blocks from the ocean. Tons of light, wood floors, a full kitchen, an extra vanity space adjacent to the bathroom, two giant closets, and a do-able price tag of $1,075—not including $45 for parking from 9:00 PM to 8:00 AM at the sketchy laundromat across the street.
My windows faced an empty building, an inviting backyard with a picnic table, and a high fence. On the other side of the fence was the patio of a day spa. It seemed I’d struck cozy and convenient housing gold. The landlord said, “If you don’t sign the lease by tomorrow, it will be gone.” On the spot, I decided this would be my new home for at least a year.
Within three weeks, it was clear the 27-year-old whose floor was my ceiling was nocturnal, and although the landlord promised one individual per unit, her glassy-eyed, Medusa-haired boyfriend with no ostensible employment unofficially moved in. I determined she worked in more than one bar to fund their questionable lifestyle, and when they’d return late on weeknights, it wasn’t with the intent to sleep. The first time I heard the repetitive slamming of her solid wood headboard against the wall, I was at my desk working in the late morning. At first, I thought a new tenant must be hammering nails. But then the same noise awakened me in the middle of the night.
The volatile lovebirds developed a maddening routine. They’d barrel through their front door between 1:00 AM and 4:00 AM, their brash, indecipherable voices echoing through the hall. Within 30 minutes, he’d be pummeling her. From my limited memory, the jackhammering was what I could only assume was terrible sex. You’re doing it wrong, I thought. My apartment was an earthquake at least four nights a week, until my landlord convinced them to move her bed. Her scrawny boyfriend trampled a nonstop path to the bathroom with his apparent elephant feet. Muffled pillow talk lasted for a couple more hours before they’d finally fall asleep just before my alarm went off.
Despite repeated attempts to reason with her, and my landlord’s stern threats to evict her, there was a mental disconnect between her actions and consequences. It was baffling. I tried to remember if we were like that in our 20s and thought if someone had ever threatened to evict me, I’d have been mortified. But I did recall oblivious shared-wall parties and close-proximity screwing and thought payback is a real bitch. In a constant sleep-deprived stupor, my anxiety and anger spiked to epic, sweat-producing proportions. I stumbled through life in a bitter haze.
She finally gave notice to move in with her boyfriend officially elsewhere and packed her belongings. In the middle of the night. Then they broke up. She swore he was out of her life and begged our landlord to let her stay. He said, “Okay, but you have to be as quiet as a church mouse.” She agreed. That night she unpacked and moved furniture. In the middle of the night. At that point, I was convinced she was a cokehead or a speed freak. Two weeks later, the boyfriend was back, and their regular habits began anew, just as I’d promised my landlord would happen. I came unglued.
I’d lie in bed, my heart pounding with dread, my stomach twisted, questioning every decision I’d ever made that led me to the point of being 44 years old living in the equivalent of an off-campus dorm, with no prospects for love of my own. My incapacitating loneliness, however, did not translate into jealousy of the girl getting regularly fucked upstairs. I didn’t wish I was her; I just wished they’d shut the hell up.
By the time my neighbor was officially asked to vacate the premises, I’d survived a year of agony, frequently retreating with a backpack and a pillow to my parents’ peaceful home an hour away to regain my sanity. On moving day, the sound of a dresser being lugged down the stairs was joyous. Get out. Get out. Get out! I thought, jumping up and down.
My landlord screened possible new tenants with supposed care and then chose another 27-year-old girl who worked weird hours in the food and beverage industry. She’d heard the story of the prior nightmare and appeared sympathetic to my plight. She warned me she was having a housewarming party one night that might last until 11:00 PM, and another night I drank wine with her, lounging on her bed. I was sure my life was about to improve. It didn’t.
Within six weeks, she had a new boyfriend, and all rules of etiquette dissolved. There was no headboard, only a broken-down mattress that was surely housing small, squeaky rodents and full cans of sloshing soda. Precious sleep continued to allude me.
I kindly mentioned we lived in the same house and asked her to be considerate in the dead of night.
“But I’m dating now,” she whined. So, fuck your ability to function during business hours.
This time, I’m the one who left.
I’ve found temporary refuge. My belongings are in the same storage facility as when I went on an extended Pacific Northwest road trip two years ago. I chose to leave a previous problem apartment in favor of living out of my Honda Civic, Airbnbs, and my uncle’s serene four-bedroom house in Maple Valley, Washington, the mortgage of which is the same as my sister’s current two-bedroom place in Long Beach, where I now sleep under a staircase in a tiny room that used to store my nephew’s toys before I rolled out a beige rug and moved in my mattress, an IKEA nightstand, and baskets of clothes. It’s fewer than 60 square feet of tranquility, complete with a built-in bookshelf, a glass door, and a window that opens to fresh air. My generous sister allows me to use her living room as an office, and my five-year-old nephew didn’t squawk when I acquired his walk-in closet. Every day is a “sleepover,” he says. The three of us have been sharing a bathroom since March, and it’s the most at home I’ve felt since I lived in my childhood home, where my parents still reside.
But if home is where the heart is, home is no longer a place but a longing. When I started looking for new apartments before escaping entitled neighbor hell, I made a list of what I needed to be baseline happy: the ability to sleep uninterrupted in a larger bed than I currently possess; my desk and bed in separate rooms (no more studios); no non-family roommates—unless romance is involved; a companion puppy (in lieu of a boyfriend); a gym in close proximity, since the one I used to go to closed; and a parking space. (Adding 30 minutes to every drive-time makes me insane.) This list doesn’t mention a literary community, excellent restaurants, close friends, and decent hiking spots, all important too. (I’d also someday like to date again, if I could only remember how.)
I’ve had the same quality job for 12 years; I’m not poor. But I’m also not independently wealthy, a doctor, lawyer, tech guru, or salesperson—the types of required professions to now be able to afford housing in desirable areas, I’ve learned. While in survival mode, combatting a contingent of self-absorbed Millennials, I didn’t notice I’d been priced out of the market in a state I’ve lived in since I was born, apart from a stint near Atlanta, where I’d have an ample dreamhouse if I hadn’t called off a wedding. (I still maintain I made the right choice.)
For the last couple years, I’ve debated the same dilemma with no answer: live near family and friends in a diminutive apartment that will never feel like home, stagnating in well-tread water, or move away from almost everyone I love to have a shot at creating my own life, where I run the risk of further isolation. It seems counterintuitive for a solitary person to become even more self-contained, so I promised myself if I did move, I’d force myself to interact with new people in new ways. (Online dating? Oh, the panic-inducing horror!) My excitement for a fresh start is tempered by the thought of missing out on my nephew growing up. What I want is impossible: to move and take everyone with me.
Scouring Hotpads, the exhaustive search for a new apartment in Southern California becoming increasingly futile, I zoomed out to look at a map of the rest of the country. In the back of my head, Seattle and Denver have always been options, so that’s where my eyes focused. What I found in and around Seattle gave me hope: one-bedroom apartments that were the same or less than the studios of Los Angeles. I made lists of places to visit, repeatedly returning to the photos of a newer building with an island in the kitchen and laundry in the unit. What I failed to remember while perusing these glossy, photoshopped photos of open space, staged, matching furniture, and rolling green hills was website photos LIE. Even the basement dungeon looked promising online. And the apartment I was most hopeful about was, in real life, a soulless, high-rise structure surrounded by nothing but parking lot. Plus, it was low-income housing, not mentioned on their website. I didn’t come close to qualifying. How does one who makes less than $44,000 a year even afford this place? I thought as I left the leasing office.
I put 16 apartments in the “no” column on my visit to Washington, some of which I only drove past, and one of which was a place I knew I couldn’t afford before visiting, with its rooftop jacuzzi and an expansive garden. By then, I wanted to see something spectacular, even if I couldn’t have it. The leasing agent asked, “What’s your budget?” after sharing the one bedrooms started at over $1,700. I stifled a laugh. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. She showed me a studio with a den. It was new, but it wasn’t bigger than what I was used to, and I wouldn’t have wanted to live in that fancy building anyway. It was a gleaming hotel in a shitty neighborhood.
One bright light that week kept me going: the neighborhood across the street from where my uncle lived before he bought his house eight years ago. It was grassy with a dog park, a lake, a high-ceilinged gym, and a large, sparkly pool. We were shown an already rented apartment that hadn’t been moved into yet. It was upstairs on a corner with tons of windows and light and a gorgeous green view. The rooms were bigger than the square footage suggested. The second I walked in, I had a glimmer of hope for a home.
“That one,” my uncle said.
If it had been available then, I would have signed a lease. Instead, the friendly woman at the front desk took my information and told me to call her on July 11th, when the next round of notices would be given. She had streaks of purple in her platinum blond hair, and her arms were sleeved with pastel tattoos. I liked her immediately. She lived there herself and had gotten a dog the previous day, an auspicious sign. When I returned a week later before heading to the airport to inform her it was the only place I’d liked all week, she said, “That’s what I like to here.” She put my name at the top of the list, emailed photos, and restored my faith in 27-year-old women.
One problem: The rent there fluctuates based on supply and demand and spans from “I can swing it if I don’t eat out as much” to “I’ll no longer be able to pay for my expensive bladder medication if I live there.”
It would be a stretch, but maybe a stretch is what I need.
I’m still unsure if I have the courage to move out of state alone, even though I continue to live in a treacherous state I know better than any other: limbo. Limbo is an internal home I’ve cultivated over many years of succumbing to fear. I telecommute; I don’t have children; my last real relationship ended 10 years ago. By all accounts, no middle-aged woman is freer, and yet I feel trapped. I can’t escape myself by retreating to a new landscape. The toy room is safe. In some ways, I’ve always lived in the toy room. But I can’t inhabit it forever.
So, what should I do?