by Lucas Murphy

photography by aliana mt

It was a soupy August day when Ash sat me down and broke my heart. 

Perched on the armrest of the ratty Ikea chair I’d hauled in to our cave of an apartment, they told me they had made a decision about their future and I, still slick with sweat from the bike ride home, wasn’t included in it.

“It’s the light.” They told me. That’s why they were moving out. Ash revealed they had spoken to our landlord in secret, expressed their discontent with the apartment we shared and had been sent a listing for an identical unit two floors above. Ash had already signed the lease.

“I didn’t think you’d want to move.” They were right. I’d put time into the apartment, had stayed there when my last roommate Hayden had moved out, and had years of decorations engrained in the walls.

“The second bedroom is still open, if you want to…” 

The silence said it all. We’d been roommates for only a year but I was hurt, far more than I thought I would be, considering that Ash had previously been a stranger, an Instagram friend-of-a-friend who had reached out to my ad. And when I thought about our lives post-move-out, I wasn’t sure what we would be to each other next. 

“We’ll have beers on the roof,” we halfheartedly promised as Ash began the move out — our intimacy was unraveling before our eyes. We had not been friends, had not been lovers or family, but we had still shared something together, something that neither of us had the words to locate and, potentially, save.

I could understand Ash’s intentions and came to begrudgingly admire the choice they made. Why, in the end, would Ash compromise their best life for a roommate of one year? The bond between us was only as solid as the lease we signed. So why, in the end, did I feel far worse than any romantic breakup I’d had before?

As I tried to explain this to my friends, fellow transients of Brooklyn, it felt like there were no words to ground my feelings. They were just a roommate, right? We had banded together for a simple reason: skyrocketing real estate prices. 

And at times, that was what our relationship was: Ash and I circling around each other, waiting for the other to leave the bathroom or vacate the kitchen, curt waves on bleary Monday mornings as we both prepared for commutes across town. But then there were moments of intimacy, shared meals, TV shows co-watched and breathlessly discussed, days spent working on our laptops side by side, Slack chirping away. Was that all simply ephemera, gone in an instant?

Everyone I know has a story like this — a roommate who got too close, who broke our heart. In some ways it’s easier to get dumped; we have words for it, an emotional lexicon and an array of media from the last two thousand years lamenting romantic loss.

None of this language exists for the roommate. Few ever speak of these relationships as more than circumstantial, something one suffers through or vaguely enjoys. But like myself, most of my friends have found themselves in an increasingly absurd array of living situations: the guest room of a bickering married couple, a converted hallway tucked between two hard partying ravers. Houses of best friends, houses of enemies, houses of ex’s, lovers, future lovers.

It’s been one of the strange facts of my life, doled out at parties, that my parents have been together for over 50 years, a seemingly perfect, placid relationship.

When I was younger, their 50-year-strong relationship was both a standard and a challenge. Every year I got older without finding a stable relationship was a year I strayed further from the Oedipal model of my family. Each time I told them about someone I was dating, they would pry for months, long after whatever avoidant, conditional relationship had long since faded. It grew into an imposition, an impasse, as if I was missing something that had made their lives functional.

When my mother asks about my dating life, what terms can I possibly use to explain the fundamental disrepair and shattered expectations of a sexual culture dominated by apps and instagram memes? When my father asks about my career, how can I explain to a man who fell into a successful career selling metals by the ton off an ad in a newspaper that I am forced to piece together a series of part time jobs while trumping up my resume for some vague future of a creative career?

The reality is that their lives were defined by structures they have witnessed shatter. The marriage they have was defined by a world I never had access to. Sometimes, it feels like failure.

I have not led the most stable of lives. I’ve rarely stayed in the same job, same apartment or same relationship for more than a year. I’ve moved across the country twice, changed friend groups, taken up and abandoned hobbies, passions and philosophies. Precious moments in time lost to an ever-churning cycle of crises, with few remaining with whom I could share memories.

Recently, it’s become hard to properly remember much of my life. What was I doing the spring of 2019? Who was I spending time with? How have so many of them become Instagram acquaintances?

It is the roommates who often bring me back to a time and place. Would I be the same person I am today if Hayden had not walked into the coffee shop on Mulberry one fateful, sticky July evening and told me she was desperately looking for housing? Hayden, a friend but not a close one, through a chance encounter became something akin to a foster parent (even though she was my own age), guiding me through some of the hardest years of my life, a first heartbreak, a changing of career.

When I think of my post-college years in Brooklyn, I see Hayden, cooking in the two-foot wide kitchen, the smell of her one pan pasta emanating through the tiny railroad apartment, or the true crime podcasts blasted through the thin wood of the single thin door between our bedrooms, always shedding white paint. I think of my Adidas bag full of the objects returned by my first ex, sitting on the Ikea couch between us as I wept.

My friend Seth has lived with their roommate Sofia in the same rent-controlled apartment for going on a decade, a two-winged creaking floor of a charmingly dysfunctional Bed-Stuy brownstone. They were friends before living together but, bound together by archaic real estate laws and a lack of wage mobility, their relationship has evolved. They spend hours together nearly every night; they cook and eat the same meals most days of the week. Through their side by side doors, they can hear each other almost every minute of the day. They each know how the other snores, what TV they watch, what porn they masturbate to.

The last time I saw Seth, he told me Sofia was preparing to move in with their partner. Seth was upbeat, talking about another friend, Louise, whom he could potentially move in with whose apartment had ‘even better light’. But underneath this enthusiasm was a sense of foreboding that permeated the conversation. Seth had been 19 when he and Sofia moved in together. He had never been an adult without Sofia, and now it was all ending with a rented Uhual and a halfhearted promise of recurring Wednesday drinks.

Seth could justify it to himself as a simple change of circumstance. They would always be friends, sure, but something had shifted. Seth felt a resentment he could not justifiably place. He couldn’t quite claim an ownership over Sofia and her future, but neither could he fully let go of their time together.They joked about Seth’s off-hand cruelty towards Sofia’s new partner. Underneath was a level of real animosity. Seth was losing Sofia, and now there was no one to turn to for consolation. “Aren’t you moving in with Louise?” was all he would ever get.

For all its pain, I envied Seth’s tenderness towards Sofia. In many ways, their relationship was easier for me to imagine attaining than a marriage like my parents’. A relationship without strings and without projections, built upon a mutual survival instinct.

When I moved from New York to Los Angeles two years ago, I also decided it was time to find my first apartment without roommates. A milestone akin to buying a house for our generation. Like many, I craved a space I could build for myself as roommates, no matter how beloved, come with a requirement to accede a portion of your daily emotional capacity, to allow space for them in your life, whether you want to or not. They are a facsimile of a partner, a marriage without the sex (usually…). And as I began to imagine my own future, realizing that I would have to make it to middle age just like everyone else, it only felt right to clear space for more chosen relationships.

And yet what I found instead was an emptiness. Relationships began and failed just as they had. Jobs came and went. The only difference was that no one knew where I was and no one cared. A relief in many ways, but a hollow victory, like being the last survivor on a broken and bloodied battlefield.

Gone was the daily strain of living in view of another, of being called to wear pants around the house and having to quiet down my TV, of having to clean my dishes immediately. But also gone were those moments of quiet presence, of impromptu dinners, of a window into another life that I had not known before, of noises echoing from the kitchen.  My life has become more my own, and more alone.

Recently, I returned to New York for the first time since moving. I stayed with Seth, now living in Louise’s spare room. The light was certainly better, though Seth doesn't have the time to enjoy it anymore. He told me he didn't see Sofia much anymore. As we had all suspected, her relationship had come to absorb much of her time.

I got dinner with Hayden at a Nepalese restaurant in our old neighborhood. We caught up on the last few years of our lives, dramas spilled out from beginning to end, recaps in fast forward. We rarely speak anymore, save for a few Instagram DMs back and forth, a birthday text here and there. It felt tender, like seeing an old lover. As we parted, we made no promises, knowing they would only be broken.

I texted Ash. But after two days of silence, I received their text while rushing from one appointment to another. Their week was very busy and they would sadly have to miss my visit. I hooked myself down onto a stoop, heart racing. I gripped my phone tightly, read the text again. 

I typed into my phone: “I’d really love to see you even if just for a few minutes, I miss you”. Deleted it. Typed “Let me know if your schedule changes, would be great to catch up”. Deleted it, and sent “no worries!” alongside a meme.

What has become clear, as I sit here in my empty apartment, listening to the crickets and the hounds barking in the yard across from me, is that my life consists entirely of ephemera. The friendships that only last six months, the fleeting connections and side jobs. It doesn't appear my life will fit the model of my parents, nor would I want it to. The same is true of Seth, of Ash, of nearly all my friends. We have been left to create our own patterns within the ruins of a model of living found unsuitable, searching for something new, if only we had the language to build it.

What I miss now is the transience that makes those moments of connection feel so profound. I’ve become less sure I’ll ever achieve the stability of my parents’, and even less sure if I would ever want to. What did that stability really get any of us, except into this mess?

Sometimes it may feel like failure, but sometimes, it feels like liberation.