New York isn’t typically known for its palatial living spaces. More often than not, you’ll find yourself squished into what feels like a broom closet, with all your earthly possessions, wondering why you bothered to accumulate so many damn things in the first place. I’ve been in New York for almost four years, and in that time, I have lived in exactly four itty-bitty teeny-weeny spaces, piling books, shoes, and clothes around me in varying creative and sometimes precariously balanced constructions in order to create what amounts to little more than the illusion of breathing space.
I’ve also always had between one and four roommates, making for some interesting and quickly adopted intimacies. The combination of small spaces and the presence of roommates make a lot of things tricky — solving the mystery of who ate all the eggs, for instance — but nothing is trickier than lumping in dating with these already high-tension elements.
Sure, when you first meet someone, it’s all fun and games, galavanting around New York from bar to bar and kissing on the Bowery at 3 a.m. But, what happens when you get settled into couple life and want to spend more time at home? How can the constant presence of other people coupled with the excruciatingly small spaces we inhabit in New York City be reconciled with a desire to snuggle on the couch, cook romantic candle-lit dinners, or generally nurture the intimacy of lovers?
For some, the awkwardness of shared living is overwhelming and puts undue stress on a relationship. When Jack, a 29-year-old banker, moved in with his childhood friend, Simone, he found the stress of his domestic situation to be too much for his relationship with his girlfriend of four years, Elenora.
“When I moved to New York, my best friend Simone already had an apartment in a pre-war condo building in Sunnyside, Queens, so I sublet her spare room," Jack says. "The building’s first floor always smelt like wet dog and curry. We lived on the third floor, and sunlight would only come into the apartment occasionally... The living room was about 140 square feet, and the kitchen was long and narrow — not even enough room for a table. And, if more than one person was in there, it would feel tight. Each bedroom was about 120 square feet, and the two bedrooms shared a thin wall.”
Jack could sense the tension between his girlfriend and Simone from the day he moved in, as Simone got antsy when Elenora brought her toothbrush to leave at the apartment straight away. The strain in the apartment grew as Eleanora, who lived in Westchester, but worked in Manhattan as a bartender, would spend more and more nights staying with Jack in order to avoid the commute. “The first trigger for Simone was that Eleanora would dirty up the common area with clothes and unwashed dishes, mostly left around because she worked late nights. At the same time, on the weekends, while Eleanora was working, Simone and I would go out and explore, because she was helping me get familiar with the city. This made Eleanora a little jealous — she wanted to live with me alone. These were the main underlying issues of tension.”
“As this tension grew, it would become more and more uncomfortable within the apartment. If Eleanora was in the living room, Simone would stay in her room and vice versa. I felt the tension trying to balance friendship and relationship in such a tiny area. Instead of home being a sanctuary, it became a heated tense battleground — it really felt like the Cold War, just two powers waiting to explode. And, then it did. One night, Eleanora and I came home from a night of drinking, and she noticed dirty dishes in the sink. She started screaming, and I had to get between them to make sure they weren’t going to swing.”
This was the first of many blowups between the three, and it became apparent to Jack that Eleanora had her sights on ditching Simone so that the couple could live alone. For four months, the tension continued in the cramped space until finally, Simone moved out. Unfortunately for Jack and Eleanora, the strain had already taken its toll on their relationship. “I decided that the way Eleanora acted was enough and that we should go our separate ways. Luckily, my friendship with Simone survived. It took some time to get over, but now it's just a funny story from our past.”
While Jack’s story puts a bleak spin on an already unpromising situation, I managed to track down a couple who made shared living in small apartments work for them. “Work” is actually an understatement — this couple is downright adorable. Tyler and Hanna, two 20-something publishing creatives, live together in Crown Heights with three other roommates. They were together for a year — living two hours apart and spending every other weekend together — before they made cohabitation permanent.
However, the challenges for Tyler and Hanna were different than those of Jack and Eleanora — their main concern was becoming too secluded. “We spent a lot of time trying to make sure we got out of our bubble, met new people, saw our friends during the work week, etc. In our circle, it gets called ‘love jail.’ We were trying our hardest to seem not stuck in it,” says Tyler. Hanna agrees that the start was “emotional and intense” and says, “We learned a lot about each other during our first months living together and that helped us overcome problems, like talking things through and understanding the logic behind our respective habits and compulsions... Finding out what the larger issue is when one of us is pissy about something small — like dishes or which cabinet something should go in — helps a whole lot.”
I asked them how it’s been living as a couple but surrounded by roommates, to which Tyler responded, “I think our last few living situations represented phases of the relationship. Each one was weird and perfect in hindsight, but I think I’m actually happy to be where we are now. Even if it’s not in our own place. People come and go at all hours of the night. We both have different schedules. Most of our romance happens via IM and well-timed retweets. It is not uncommon to plan ‘meetups’ over IRC. I think [autism activist and animal scientist] Temple Grandin once said that her idea of a romantic dinner was a candle-lit conversation about data-storage software. Our version is not too far off.”
Hanna agrees that it’s the unorthodox things that serve to keep their relationship a happy one. “We do unexpected sweet things for each other all the time," she says. "Like taking turns being each other’s maid and proofreading tweets. Also, for Valentines’ Day we watched the entire season of House of Cards.” She is also adamant that their living situation does not put any drastic restrictions on their relationship and how they live it, which Tyler agrees with. (These two agree a lot.) “I’ve been in collective-living situations my whole adult life, so I’m used to the ‘inconvenience of other people’ or whatever," he says. "I think one of the most unfortunate restrictions in this case is not having enough space to make the elaborate meals that we used to prepare together.”
There doesn’t seem to be a formula for keeping a relationship alive in the nooks and crannies of New York’s overcrowded apartments, but if I learned one thing from Tyler and Hanna, it’s that shared goals, patience, and a sense of humor are probably a good start.