The pants-shunning, dish-piling, vinegar-boiling cat lady in the mirror.
By Kristen Martin | I’m a 24-year-old woman who lives alone in New York. The 275 square feet of my Brooklyn studio apartment provide just enough space for my rather fat tabby cat, Suzy Creamcheese, and me to live comfortably. Almost. When I swing it open, my front door bumps into my bed. And though I love cooking, my cramped kitchen, with its miniature stove (which won’t close all the way when I shove in a sheet pan) and 1.6 square feet of usable counter space, often turns dinner into slapstick comedy.
I do not mind these inconveniences much because living alone affords me still greater conveniences. I set the dress code and the cleanliness standards. (Pants optional; bathtub bleached weekly, but kitchen table left at the mercy of an entropic scattering of papers and books.) There is no roommate to complain when you boil vinegar for your homemade pickles, no one to watch when you stand in front of the open freezer eating ice cream out of the carton, no one owed an apology when your cat begins her daily wailing at 4 a.m.
But in choosing to live alone, I’ve gone against the narrative that the cultural zeitgeist has set for my milieu. Twenty-something unmarried women who move to New York after college are supposed to live in groups or pairs, to share clothes and bottles of wine, to decorate their apartments with framed chalkboards they made with the instructions of Pinterest tutorials, upon which they scrawl inspirational quotes, like “Many people will walk in and out of your life, but only true friends will leave footsteps in your heart.” We young women are meant to share the travails of our coming-of-age with our roomies, to stay up late piled in one another’s beds, hashing out the details of job interviews and OKCupid dates.
All these expectations were taught to me early—and reinforced often—via pop culture. I grew up watching Friends’ Monica and Rachel conquer boyfriends, the boys next door, and the original Friendsgivings from their mythically large West Village apartment. By the time I was old enough to apartment-hunt in New York, I was watching Hannah Horvath and Marnie Michaels, my peers on Girls, cheekily dance around their Greenpoint apartment together to Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own.” Now, there are BuzzFeed lists that tell me about the “19 Ways You and Your Roommate Are an Old Couple” and the “27 Signs Your Roommate is Actually Your Significant Other.”
Though I’ve maintained close relationships with other women that almost fit the roomies bill (hashing out the details of OKCupid dates late at night over text message), I’m still a dedicated loyalist for single living.
See, I don’t choose to live alone just because I hate wearing pants. I’ve learned many important lessons about myself by, well, being alone with myself—a condition I had never truly experienced for regular and prolonged stretches of time until I signed the lease on my first studio apartment.
That apartment was a lovely unit in Center City Philadelphia with high ceilings, southern exposure, and an original fireplace in a prewar building. I was about to start my senior year at Penn. Most everyone else in the Class of 2011 had scrambled to cram into one of those Pine Street Victorians that are passed down from Penn senior to Penn senior, but I shuddered at the prospect of squeaking across kitchen floors sticky from last week’s slicks of beer, and of having to pretend to love my roomies like the sisters I never had. I’d elected to live off-off-campus in a grown-up apartment largely due to the semester I’d spent in Italy the previous year, from which I had returned feeling quite worldly and so over the American collegiate lifestyle.
That was how I entered into a pact with the most trying roommate I’d ever been confronted with: myself. I had lived alone before—as a freshman in a single dorm room in the Quad—but back then I was only inches away from my peers, had a dining hall to feed me, and the campus janitorial staff to clean the bathroom. In my Center City studio, on the other hand, I was a mile away from my friends and responsible for doing everything myself.
When you have roommates, you have ready targets for all your analytical energy. When you don’t, the critical gaze is forced inward. When the dishes pile up or you find a forgotten bell pepper deflated with rot in the crisper drawer, you have only yourself to blame. When you run out of toilet paper, you don’t get to complain about how you’re always the one who remembers to buy it. And when you realize on Sunday evening that you haven’t gone outside or interacted with another human being for 24 hours, you wonder if maybe, just maybe, you’re a misanthropic cat lady.
Living alone introduced me to the sides of myself whose existence I had long denied: the slovenly side (I had always billed myself as a neat freak), the forgetful side (I of the constant reminders to others), the socially inept side (so much for thinking I was outgoing). And that was just the start of the self-reflection.
Once I was really alone, with no one to gab with after class, no roommate steaming up the kitchen with lentil soup at the end of the day, I realized that I’d spent virtually all my young adult life avoiding my own company. I had unconsciously spent years trying to ink up every inch of my day-by-day planner, so that I wouldn’t have a spare moment to myself—or at least not one that wasn’t occupied by homework or sleeping.
I avoided being alone because I simply didn’t know what to do with myself when I was by myself, and that filled me with great anxiety. Now that I was living alone, how was I meant to pass those extra hours without other people to soak up my idle attention?
At first, I tried filling the void in stereotypically spinster-like ways. I adopted a cat. I took up crochet. I cooked elaborate dinners for one.
The frenzy to keep myself occupied during my alone time only made me more aware of my innate desire to be busy—a desire I started questioning. What was so great about being busy? Why does our culture validate busyness and reject idleness? Why does busy spark positive connotations and lazy negative ones?
A few years ago, around the time I was getting comfortable with living alone, a New York Times Anxiety column took up these questions in a way that seemed to be speaking only to me. The article began, “If you live in America in the 21st century you’ve probably had to listen to a lot of people tell you how busy they are. It’s become the default response when you ask anyone how they’re doing: ‘Busy!’ ‘So busy.’ ‘Crazy busy.’ It is, pretty obviously, a boast disguised as a complaint.”
“Yes!” I said to my computer screen, feeling both righteously in on the assessment and guilty of such humble-bragging. The column proposed an answer to why we love being busy: “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”
By living alone, I have in effect removed myself from being in demand every hour of the day. Sometimes it does feel like I’ve stripped myself of existential reassurance, and that’s pretty scary. But I’ve also slowly gained an appreciation for being by myself and I am a more whole and confident person for it.
When I was in high school, one of my teachers, exasperated with what he saw as a group of teenagers far too distracted by television, the Internet, and iPods, assigned the following homework: “Sit in a silent room for an hour by yourself and do absolutely nothing.”
I didn’t do my homework when I was 15, but I’ve made up for it since.