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Room to Grow

SARAH Z. WEXLER gre wup in Fairfax. Her book "Living Large" is due out next year.
SARAH Z. WEXLER gre wup in Fairfax. Her book "Living Large" is due out next year. (Courtesy Author)

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By Sarah Z. Wexler
Sunday, March 8, 2009

Despite roughly 9,125 nights of practice, I've never been good at going to bed. Tonight I simply can't do it. Clearly, I need to call my friend in Philly and see how her MBA course is going. I could load the dishwasher. There are a few boxes of sweaters to unpack. And how can I possibly expect to sleep, in good conscience, without watching just one more commercial-packed rerun of "The Wonder Years"?

Tonight is a surge of excitement tinged with terror: my very first night in my very first parent-free, roommate-free, boyfriend-free apartment. A few months ago, when I walked through the place with the real estate agent, I could barely keep from squealing -- though the look on my dad's faced suggested this wouldn't be a good bargaining technique. The apartment sprawls over two levels, with the bedroom on the top floor, an expanse of cathedral ceilings, skylights and crystal doorknobs. The building sits on a tree-lined street, in walking distance of a 7-Eleven, a movie theater and a coffee shop -- all a 20-something needs for sustenance.

When you're a kid, there are supposedly helpful books to encourage sleeping; my parents read me a variety of stories about all kinds of animals that went to bed for the night and didn't miss a thing. In the years since then, I've grown into a better sleeper, though some nights I still find reasons to stall. Tonight I'm trying to remind myself that though change is scary, these on-my-own digs are a step to being the kind of grown-up I want to be: an independent, boss-of-myself superhero. A superhero able to put herself to bed. First, though, I need to finish the crossword puzzle in People. And when was the last time I went online to check my retirement account?

During the day today, with items to arrange artfully on the built-in bookshelves, I was excited about my big new life in my big new apartment. I adored the place's quiet, vintage charm and all the space I'd have to host parties, dance around in my underpants or tussle with the dog I'd one day adopt. But now, everyone who helped me schlep the couch up the stairs is gone, and I'm on my own. The darkness and silence are making some of the most endearing things about the apartment (the fire escape covered in potted tomato plants, the two walk-in closets) shape-shift: What if someone climbs up the fire escape? What if a burglar is lurking in a walk-in closet, waiting to watch me sleep?

In an apartment with more square feet than I need, my fears are expanding to fill the space. I can't get myself to walk up the 10 stairs to the glorious, beautiful bedroom. Instead, I decide to sequester myself on the main level, sleeping on the futon in the living room, the same place I've been watching TV all evening. I throw my comforter down and fall asleep, out of sheer exhaustion, to the droning voice of an infomercial.

When I wake up and the apartment is glowing with the soft white light of morning, the upstairs doesn't seem so scary anymore. But for the next few nights, I retreat to the futon. Instead of taking my meals to the blond wood table in the dining room, I sit on the same damn futon and eat while I watch the permanently-on TV. I'm ef-fectively rendering my 800-square-foot apartment into a studio. It just seems that the more space I have, the more it reminds me of how alone I am in it -- single for the first time in years, starting an intimidating grad school program in a city where I don't know a soul.

Over the next few weeks, I make great friends who fill my apartment with warmth until I don't need the constant hum of TV voices. I get that dog, a lumbering St. Bernard mix, whose toys litter the floor. I take on projects that normally my dad or a boyfriend would do for me: replacing the shower head, using an electric drill, exterminating a well-organized army of ants. As I get more confident, I feel as though I'm taking ownership of the space -- and the grown-up life that comes with it. About a month after moving in, I spend my first night in my real bed upstairs -- where I fall asleep, stretched out and happy, thanking my lucky stars through the skylight.

E-mail: XXFiles@washpost.com.


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