Throughout my 20s, when I was in a bad place emotionally, I often blamed it on being in the wrong place physically.
I could set up camp anywhere and disburse just as quickly. I spent the decade in dorms, in hostels, in rented rooms and once in a former vicarage. My friends and I partied at our parents’ places, in badly run basement bars, in cramped one-bedrooms and at state parks. I worked in library carrels, cramped cubicles and at any available seat I could find in a coffeehouse. I conducted a few relationships that began at happy hours, gallery hops and concert halls, and eventually moved on to couches, cars and hotel rooms. I also spent a lot of time alone in my dingy apartment. I traveled at least once a year, but I never moved out of my small Southern home town.
I often wondered where I belonged.
I kept telling myself I would move to a better, more exciting, more compatible city as soon as my lease was up. When the time came there was always some reason — a job, a man, an empty bank account — to simultaneously stay put and stay unrooted. I expanded my online dating profile, first to statewide, then regional and eventually to encompass the whole country. I imagined what life would be like in a blue state with good bands and someone to see them with — perhaps living in the soft woods of Vermont or the funky dampness of the Pacific Northwest.
At 26, I met someone new. He didn’t like to spend time at my apartment, or even in the city where I lived and we worked. Instead, I often drove 40 minutes to spend nights and weekends at the house where he rented an attic from friends. These friends, who were engaged to be married, were slowly fixing up the place. The renovations mapped on the joists and studs of the house anticipated the trajectory of their lives, setting intentions for a life they would share.
That year they tore out the kitchen tile and paved the back driveway in heavy stones. Two more old friends moved in, finding their feet after several years abroad. There was always enough room. The house held large potluck dinners, holiday fetes and, on one memorable occasion, a basement dance party. By the end of the year, it contained a new baby.
It was the first time I’d known anyone who had that kind of space to offer. I also knew there wasn’t remotely the same square footage in my relationship. He made a point of not sharing the key code to the house, despite how often I was there. He disappeared on holidays to attend other parties a few blocks away. Once, at a concert we planned to see together, he sat a couple rows ahead, having purchased a ticket in a more expensive section.
The weekend after we broke up, I flew to my grandfather’s house. It’s the one place I’ve always been able to go back to; the houses of my childhood and high school years, by contrast, have long since been sold. I felt a pang knowing I wouldn’t be spending much time at that big old house where I’d spent the better part of a year. And in those pangs, I knew for the first time what I really wanted. It wasn’t the men that I missed. It was a place to call my own.
A month later, I bought a house.
I was lucky to have money left over from my college fund. My parents had turned it over to me a few years earlier with instructions that it was for graduate school, a down payment or a wedding. “Don’t pick the wedding,” my mother advised. “It’s just one day.”
Instead, I bought a small century-old bungalow with a monthly payment I could manage on my modest salary. I painted the walls and invited friends over for dinner. I repaired the plumbing myself, arranged my furniture and removed hair from the drain. I pulled up the bushes in the front yard, putting flowers in their place. When friends needed somewhere to land, there was a room to offer. I slowly stopped looking toward the future, wondering who I would be if I were only somewhere else. I chose the person I am over the men I might meet. Instead of haunting borrowed places, waiting for an invitation, I made space for the friends and family I loved.
In the years that followed, I often felt lonely but never entirely alone. There were pets, a roommate and constant visitors. But there was also the house itself, which gave my life a new sense of certainty. Of course calamity could strike. Boyfriends or husbands could walk out; companies can fold; buildings can burn to the ground.
But for the first time, I became confident that I could care for myself. That I could create my own place instead of searching for it in others. That for once, I was exactly where I needed to be.