Russell and I told this story the way we tell many stories, finishing each other sentences and laughing the whole way through. Someone who didn’t know either of us well asked how long we had been dating. We both laughed and I said: “No he’s not my boyfriend … this is my roommate.”
I’ve said that phrase many times. For someone who doesn’t know our situation, it’s easy to mistake us for romantic partners. Russell and I have lived together longer than most of our coupled-up friends have been dating or married. My life changed a lot in my 20s, but one of the few constants was making a home with Russell. In certain ways, our partnership had many aspects of a solid marriage — emotional intimacy, a shared sense of humor and a commitment to maintaining a home together. Our union began as an arrangement of convenience but grew into something much deeper.
It all started eight years ago, when I moved from my tiny home town in Pennsylvania to Houston for a graduate acting program. I couldn’t afford to live by myself, but I didn’t know anyone in Houston, so I emailed the students in my program to see if anyone was brave enough to live with a very messy, laid-back but occasionally high-strung gal. Two guys — Russell and Chris — accepted the challenge.
Over the next two years, the three of us survived a hurricane by hosting a party for our classmates; went on road trips; bickered a little and laughed a lot. When we graduated, Chris left town to perform with a touring Shakespeare company, and Russell and I continued on as roommates. We performed plays for children in small towns.
We lived out of cheap motel rooms and a car for six weeks, eating ramen noodles, having dance parties and watching all five seasons of “Six Feet Under.” When our contract was up, we packed our bags and moved to our first apartment in New York City.
During grad school, I considered Russell one of my closest friends, but it was during our time in New York that he became family to me. When we first moved to the city we were both working jobs with long and strange hours. We would hang out late at night and Russell would show me TV clips that would make me laugh; or we would complain about things that got us fired up (why is the MTA having a fare hike AGAIN?!). Even on days we didn’t see each other, it was comforting knowing he was on the other side of the wall we shared.
In the five years we spent together in New York, we lived in three apartments and had a rotating cast of at least 15 additional roommates. Our lives were often uncertain, filled with last minute bookings, auditions and rehearsals. But we had each for stability and security. We braved blizzards and survived a heat wave by freezing towels instead of paying for air-conditioning. We went on vacations together, became writing partners and even adopted a cat together.
Most of the time we lived together, I had a boyfriend and Russell casually dated people, so there was never a reason to examine our relationship to see if it could be more than platonic. Then, about a year and a half ago, my long-term boyfriend and I broke up. For the first time since we had known each other, Russell and I were single at the same time.
Over the next few months, as I was adjusting to being single, Russell became my person. He would text to make sure I got home safely; we would go to events together; we even visited each other’s home towns.
In a way, we were friends with benefits — rather than sex or romance, our benefits were about having a person to watch Netflix with at 2 a.m. and share stories about our days.
I could picture myself dating a variety of people, but I only had one Russell, and I couldn’t picture my life without him. It’s a valuable thing to have a friend that really gets you. But as two young single people who eventually wanted to be in romantic partnerships, our relationship didn’t leave much time or space for new people to come into our lives.
Last year, one of Russell’s best friends was moving to our neighborhood at the same time that my sister (my original roommate!) moved to the city. Ultimately, we decided that Russell and his friend would move to a nearby apartment with our cat, and my sister would move into our apartment with me.
In the past year I’ve witnessed lots of exciting moments in his life: He joined an amazing sketch team became an uncle, and fell in love and got engaged to one of the funniest, most beautiful and fiscally responsible women I have ever met.
In the meantime, I traveled a lot, enjoyed time with my sister and spent more time alone than I ever have. Our “breakup” as roommates was one of the more difficult things I’ve been through during my time in New York. But it’s comforting to know that Russell — and our feisty cat — are only a subway ride away.