I left LA after 11 years, just as I had arrived — alone and quietly, without any fuss.
As a single woman in my 20s, I fell in love with the city, reveling in the endless experiences that come with existing independently amidst 10 million strangers. I skimped on living costs, gladly settling for a small apartment with a futon that hurt my neck and no dishwasher or dedicated parking spot in order to save for a life of non-renting someday. And while I allowed myself to acknowledge the possibility that I might eventually leave the city to settle down with a partner and maybe a kid, part of me also dreamed of staying forever, spending that squirreled-away down payment fund on one of the charming bungalows I ran past every morning, with looming arches and bougainvillea creeping up the salty, bleached stucco.
And yet, once I turned 30, I finally heard the faint but persistent death rattle of my LA life. It sounded like this: You are in a city where financial survival feels tied to finding a romantic partner. You want a yard. You want a home. You might even want a family. You’re too old for roommates and dating guys with coke habits and psychosomatic gluten sensitivities. You are exhausted. You should have picked someone when you were 25 and stupid and started living in dual-income glory. For God’s sakes, you just want to see a Zillow listing that doesn’t make you aspirate your breakfast.
Three years later and still single, I decided I would be responsible: move back to my native Northwest, conquer a new city, date nice guys. I knew my parents were interested in potentially contributing towards a down payment investment, and that, plus my savings, might even enable me to buy a house in Portland, although LA was still out of reach. Even if things were a little out of order, they could still go according to plan. Build it and he will come, if you will.
At first, I felt afraid and anxious to leave my old life behind. I had spent 11 years cultivating the person I am — I weathered crushing losses, found a job as a creative director that let me travel the world, and I became resilient. I worried that leaving wouldn’t be the balm I’d hoped for, and wondered who I would be outside of this sunny slice of angeltown that I had made my own.
I presented my family with a no-nonsense, terribly unromantic business plan of taking whatever future gift they may, say, contribute to a wedding or child care, and instead putting it towards this move. Their contribution finally made the numbers I needed within reach, and although I was being given a parachute to jump out of the LA renting trap, I still feared I was blowing up everything I had built for no good enough reason.
But as I began to tour homes (and I realized how much farther my down payment fund went in Portland, compared to LA), another emotion wove its way in: confidence. It felt like I was making (literal and figurative) space to prepare for “adulting.” And in many ways, that also meant space to accommodate a partner. As I viewed homes, I kept asking myself, “Could a family be here one day?”
I toured for what felt like an eternity, and then there it was. Perfectly preserved in all its 1940s glory, with a warm, red facade that caught every shadow, a thriving garden, a wood-burning fireplace, endless charm, and cozy, peaceful, creative, light-filled energy. The attic had been somewhat finished, but still had endless potential. Would it be a yoga studio? A library? A nursery? The house was mostly cleared out, but during my first walk-through, I found an old kite, still in its wrapper dated 1962, along with a gorgeous, antique ottoman and a delicate turquoise ring. These felt like talismans from inhabitants past, offering some sort of message. I was in love. This place was mine. It was me.
When my offer was accepted, my realtor brought over a bottle of champagne and a rickety old ladder, and we giggled and thrummed with excitement about what lay ahead. Those ended up being my last few, relatively carefree moments before the world fell apart.
I had hoped to throw a housewarming-birthday soon after moving in. Instead, I turned 34 two days after people in my state first began sheltering-in-place in March 2020. What was supposed to be the beginning of my new chapter quickly morphed into the scariest, loneliest time of my life.
At first, I convinced myself that this was just a pause, and everything would soon continue according to my plan. And while I was happy to have a home and be insulated from the virus, when it became clear that we were not “going back to normal,” I, like many others, began sinking into an existential abyss.
I spent half my time trying to tune out the news reports, and half my time feeling as though my eyes were being Clockwork-Oranged open to the dizzying blur of my phone screen: talking heads calling for bloodshed or waiting for salvation, pyramid scheme momfluencers trying to sell me their essential oils, and the everyday sadism of internet trolls. My flourishing social life consisted of waving to my mailman while eating corn on the cob in my bathrobe at 10 a.m. I convinced myself that humanity is doomed. Romance was decidedly not on my mind.
Months passed, then a year. I turned 35. Boxes remained unpacked, and I couldn’t even remember the plans I had, let alone how to bring them to fruition. I felt numb, trapped within the walls of this alien spacecraft festooned with mementos from my old life. And although I had never felt more grateful for my health and safety, I also felt far away from the home and community I’d built in LA. I wondered, more than once, if this whole move had been a mistake, and began desperately looking for a beacon to lead me away from the chaos of my own distress.
I grew up on a horse ranch, where physicality was a way of life. As a child, I’d actually loved being alone, and found peace in the rhythm of manual labor against the murmur of the forest. I decided to try approaching life now in that same manner, as a utilitarian practice of getting up, forgetting the screen, and just doing what needs to be done.
Slowly, tiny rituals became my salvation: I set the table, pruned the roses, lit the candles. These actions might seem comically small, but they helped me remember that the more time I spent doing and moving, the more I felt like me. I needed to remind myself of all the things I was capable of, despite a pandemic or my relationship status — to counter the allure of the destructive, to quell the perpetual unease within.
A new light began to shine on this little world I was building for myself each day, and I started looking around my house and once again imagining it as a blank slate with endless potential rather than an overwhelming mistake. Then, I decided to build a bookcase.
I had never quite taken on a project like this before, but I figured what I lacked in know-how I could make up for with my willful approach to problem-solving. On my way to Home Depot to get supplies, I felt a frisson of creative energy for the first time since before the pandemic. I had no agenda, other than just to build something to hold the things I love.
It wasn’t nearly as difficult as the HGTV tutorials led me to believe, and soon enough my books had a new home and I’d fallen in love with working with my hands again.
That one project unleashed something, and I began dreaming about what the attic could really be. I started making mood boards of tile, teak, and chrome, and reading about plumbing, electrical circuits, and permitting inspections. I found a contractor with a good vibe, who seemed into my vision and chill brand of rough work. I began learning about load-bearing grades and venting codes, which made me feel more capable than ever. At the same time, I started writing and painting again, the river of creativity always within me unearthed once more.
I soon realized that I had prepared myself for renovating the house, but only to a point. I’d expected the work, but not the emotions.
The whole process compelled me to unpack complex attachments and expectations that I didn’t even realize were there. I spent some days crying at the lumber supply yard because I had no idea what the hell I was doing. I was forced to work on my patience, my temper, my lifelong restlessness, and my ruthless perfectionism.
I was concerned that my painstaking designs wouldn’t turn out how I’d imagined, but more so I worried that creating a whole space to revolve around the things I love wouldn’t leave room to bring in anybody else. As I slowly worked on my house, I hoped that I wasn’t getting too set in my ways, too insular, too cemented inside this selfish life of only me. For months, I thought about just leaving the attic alone, so if someone new came along, they could have a hand in shaping it.
But ultimately, I reasoned that one of the things the pandemic had proved was that I couldn’t plan for what’s ahead, or for who may or may not come into my life. I couldn’t keep holding space for a phantom, just as I couldn’t keep building plans around an idea of what my future should look like. My life had already begun, and all along I’d known how to tend my own garden, even when there were flames beyond its walls.
I don’t like the idea of tearing down the old to make room for the cookie-cutter brand new. Even if I do end up living with a partner in this house, our shared life will be all the stronger for having been built off the authentic foundation of my experience — my fulfilled, spirited life. Tackling the big markers on my own timeline doesn’t mean I’ve done something wrong, or that my existence is somehow incomplete. In fact, there is extreme power in owning an experience you have chosen and shaped, alone, whether it is a massive flop or a shining success.
When I started the early renovations, I took my sledgehammer, turned on Alanis, and tore down a section of the roof to make room for dreamy green bathroom tiles, close in color to that beautiful turquoise ring I found on those same floorboards. I felt like a kid again, smashing the roof with the music blasting and being so fully free. Later, I went up and sat in the cavern I had ripped out, open to the sky on a shockingly clear day, and I felt for the first time that I was making a room of my own. I know now that whatever happens, I can build, and rebuild — even if nobody comes.
Welcome to The Single Files. Each installment of Refinery29's column features a personal essay that explores the unique joys and challenges of being single right now. Have your own idea you'd like to submit? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.