A Rent-Stabilized Room of Her Own

It’s I Think We’re Alone Now Week at Autostraddle — a micro issue dedicated to being on your own, whether on purpose or by chance, and all the ways we’re out here making it work.


I had long been clear on my need to move away from home. My need to get out of Memphis was a refrain I’d voiced since roughly the 8th grade. I imagined myself free and unencumbered by the weight of people who knew me from “back when,” of people who would have examples of my former agreeable, mild-mannered self for reference. I wanted to be a person I couldn’t imagine living fully/thriving/existing without constant critique in my hometown. There was a grammar to my thinking that I used to guide me, a state of conditional existence: If this, then that. If I leave, then I’ll finally have the space I needed to find my own way.

While living alone might seem like the inevitable means to this opaque end of independence, I actually couldn’t imagine the prospect. Hyperconscious of what I didn’t want for myself, I outright refused anything I thought might hem me in, barely committing to an outline of what I might want this new self to be: a writer, an artist… that was pretty much all I knew. So in college, when I befriended my then best friend, we fell hard for each other. This is the one I told y’all about — let’s call her Monica.

Monica and I became an even more interwoven unit, a tangled, knotty mess of insecurity, dependency, and desire.

She was the first person I’d met since my childhood best friend who also dreamed fierce and big about being “away” and free, those nebulous concepts I was too scared to pin down. I didn’t even mind that the outline of my future freedom started to look like hers. I needed the bolstering that comes from someone cosigning your desires for yourself. If I’m honest, I’d say it was around this time I realized I was more than a little susceptible to any influence that wasn’t my own.

After college, after an ability to shake the same people-pleasing, respectable person I’d always been, I decided it was once again time to start over, this time with Monica in Chicago. We were attempting to manifest a two bedroom for a few pennies a month. We were writing a book together, building a life where we made art and lived side by side, with matching rockers on a wraparound porch. When my grandmother called to tell me a family friend had a house sitting empty that we could move into, I shrieked in her poor ear that OF COURSE WE WOULD MOVE IN ARE YOU SERIOUS. The house was, is, an historic mid-19th century home with an amazing history I’ll have to tell you about later. But yes it was definitely haunted.

As it goes, those (mostly) friendly spirits weren’t my biggest issue. Not even in the Top Five of biggest issues. Monica pissed off the other roommates, a straight couple, almost instantly. Within two months, our foursome became a twosome but I ended up shouldering more than 75% of the rent. She wasn’t really working, only bringing in small amounts of money every six weeks or so. So who were we to discriminate when a lovesick acquaintance flew in needing a place from which to swoon her fuck buddy?

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As one friend might say, this person was not the brightest star in the firmament. The house came with a detached garage yet, when she came to view the place and I was showing her the extra loft space in the garage, she asked me if the garage was her bedroom. I paused as we stood BETWIXT the house and the garage. I pointed out how they were two separate buildings, how her bedroom was upstairs IN THE HOUSE and that the loft area IN THE GARAGE was simply extra storage. She again looked at the garage and fixed her lips to ask, “So that’s my bedroom then?” I didn’t know what to do or how else to say it. I just said yes. About a week later when the three of us were making a Target run, with more innocence than I’ve perhaps ever seen in an adult, she asked if we were purchasing wet wipes because we don’t wash ourselves. During the time we lived together, she would go on to interrogate us on why Black people ate fried chicken and watermelon. I felt it was my divine right and duty to fuck with her. I explained that there are enzymes in chicken that enhance our ability to perform well in sports, a secret which we don’t often share with the Whites but one I could let her in on. She nodded, clearly excited to be in on the secret.

Needless to say, that didn’t end well. The boy who fucked her a couple of times indeed grew tired of her and she decided to move back home to Minnesota, stiffing me for a month’s rent in the process.

In the midst of all this, Monica and I became an even more interwoven unit, a tangled, knotty mess of insecurity, dependency, and desire. Having long ago professed our love for each other — ”I don’t just love you, I’m in love with you” — our relationship was tinged with an erotic that, stifled for so long, eventually turned bitter, then poisonous. For the entirety of our friendship, I never dated anyone. She found ways to quell any budding relationship between me and anyone else. I saw it, clocked it early on, but would look the other way. She had a steady stream of lovers, going so far as to call one over to have sex in the middle of a gathering when my family was in town.

Way back when in college, I told Monica about my plans to write the next great American novel (is there any other type?). She enthusiastically, vehemently, supported my dreams. So much so that the book became our shared dream. All of a sudden I was inviting her to write it with me. My self-actualization novel became a novel about the transformative power of friendship loosely based on… wait for it… our friendship. But in the span of two years and countless drafts, she somehow wrote me out of the second half of the book. And out of the play she was writing based on the (still unfinished) book. I had actually, in real time, become a foil, a supportive character in my own story.

Still, I stuck around for a few more months, until she accused me of stealing the money that my mother gave me to help me move out. Rather than use it for that purpose, I tried to put some of the money aside to support our book, using the rest to pay our *collective* debt — past due rent and astronomical heating bills for a three story, drafty historic house. She spread the story of my “theft” to all of our friends who, not coincidentally, were really just her friends who hung out with me. Everyone distanced themselves from me, with one person bold enough to say she wondered if I “was actually trustworthy.” Hurt, I crashed on couches for nearly a week, even driving to stay with a cousin in Madison for a long weekend. The thing was, I couldn’t figure out how to do it on my own. When she wasn’t cutting me out of the dream I’d shared with her, Monica was publicly blaming me for not finishing my portion of the novel. A friend once observed, “It’s like Monica throws so many darts at you that you don’t even feel it anymore.” That wasn’t true; I felt them all. But it felt far more painful, still feels painful, to admit that I was so mistrusting of my own beliefs and desires that I was ready to accept Monica’s abuses as the truth about me.

While my personal and creative life crumbled, the house started to mirror that sense of disrepair. The fridge broke and my landlord, thoroughly sick of us paying our rent late every single month, decided she wouldn’t fix it. We’d also ruined some irreplaceable antiques in the process of making some art in a way she’d explicitly asked us not to do. She was fed up with us and she told us she was done. At the time all I could feel was anger, but I realize now I was playing at angry when I was actually just grateful. I needed someone else to pull the plug because I couldn’t. I could not detach, no matter how much debt, drama, and heartache I accrued. I didn’t know who I was if I wasn’t failing at being a writer. I didn’t know how to fail on my own, how to only have myself to be accountable to.

Our landlord finally kicked us out in October. By mid-November, a week after my 24th birthday, I’d packed up my one suitcase and my many boxes of books and moved in with my mother. Monica and I would talk on the phone for three weeks after I left, until whatever we had quietly fizzled out. Any one of the “friends” Monica had introduced me to faded along with her.

I’ve learned that I have the strength to recognize what’s no longer serving me and to let it go.

I moved to New York not too long after for graduate school. In the nearly seven years I’ve lived here, I’ve waded through a subletter named “Tempest” who was in fact a tempest and who once passed out on the couch from a chicken wing induced coma, the half-eaten evidence strewn on the couch, the table, and the floor; “Andrea,” a closeted hoarder who stuffed her room so full of junk that she half-lived on the futon because she couldn’t fully open her bedroom door; Julia, a person who didn’t pay rent for two months and lied about it, yet found the money to go to Iceland and somehow got mad when we asked her to leave; and “Melissa,” a friend of a friend of a friend whose idea of having a roommate meant having someone else foot the majority of the bill while she ate my food that I hadn’t planned to share.

Trust when I say there were others. But now, nearly seven years into New York living, I live alone. Alone in a studio, in a quiet Harlem enclave. After Monica and The Chicago Experiment, I’d all but given up on attempts at community. In many ways, the deluge of hilarious, shitty, and hilariously shitty roommates all offered the same thing Monica did, which was an excuse to not have to face myself. I detected this tendency and have fought like hell to get a space to call my own. It’s an uncomfortable thing to address in oneself — let alone write about — to acknowledge that the distance I always sought was a way to keep from facing myself, from standing alone. Choosing instead to remain porous and easily affected by others’ energies and antics. There’s plenty for me and a future therapist to sort out. What I can say for now is that, less than six months into living alone, I already feel and see a difference. I’m accountable to myself, for myself, in a way that terrified me for most of my twenties. The things about myself that make me most uncomfortable don’t recede into someone else’s mess or bullshit — it’s all my own to ignore or to face head on and clean it the fuck up.

A reminder I return to often is to “not hold onto outdated notions of yourself.” On the one hand, I am indeed a writer and an artist. On the other, the sort of masculinist, boot-strapping resiliency I once idealized is something I never really cultivated. And I’m okay with that. I’ve learned that I have the strength to recognize what’s no longer serving me and to let it go. Living in New York, and in particular living alone in New York, is a continuous spatial negotiation. And for that I’m grateful, because I’m forced to make sure that everything entering my home — every item, every person, every energy — is intentional.

Jehan is a writer, artist, and editor basking in all things Black and queer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Apogee, VICE, Public Books, Teachers & Writers Magazine, and Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory where she is an editor. She currently lives in Harlem but remains in a committed LDR with Brooklyn.

Jehan has written 17 articles for us.

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