A few months ago, I moved in with my boyfriend, Reese. People keep asking me how the new place is, and I don’t know how it is because I don’t yet know what it is. My things are scattered across a hodgepodge of poorly labelled boxes (I wrote “miscellaneous clothes and shit” on one, as if that would be helpful—it’s not).
Beyond a couple of mismatched knives, forks, and plates, our kitchen inventory is two champagne flutes, a rolling pin, and a sushi set my mom sent me for Christmas last year. We still don’t understand the AC, so the apartment is always too hot or too cold. We can’t decide where to put the couch. We haven’t labelled our WiFi network yet because we can’t think of the perfect name.
I attempt to answer that question (“How is it?”) by bringing up the stuff: “It looks like a bomb went off! I have no idea where anything is!” Which is answering a different question than the one asked. Nobody cares if the suitcases are unpacked; what they’re really asking is, “How is it together?”
I fixate on the maelstrom of clutter because it is concrete, something I can point to and track. Our mass and mess of stuff is familiar and nameable in a way that few things are right now.
The most unfamiliar thing has been working together, or trying to, and then knowing when not to. An example that comes to mind is from the weekend we moved in, when the bulk of the work was disassembling, heavy lifting, and reassembling. I was physically incapable of helping move our stuff in any significant way (this isn’t self-deprecation, but cold, hard fact: I have chronic back problems, early onset osteopenia, and am just plain weak). Reese knows this, so he asked a friend to help out with the physically demanding lifts.
As much as we were both prepared for my inability to carry heavy objects, the division of labor was striking. While the boys hauled closets and suitcases up and down Sisyphean stairwells, I made coffee, picked up sandwiches, and kept watch over the U-Haul. When Reese collapsed from exhaustion at the end of the weekend, I heated up Thai food and brought it to him in bed. In the moment, this dichotomy felt strange and unsettling—especially as a feminist who’s been taught that “my place” is as far away from the kitchen as I can run.
After the moving in part of moving in together was over, the role division of that first weekend came up in conversation. I don’t remember who surfaced it, but it was clearly something we’d both been contemplating. “We've done a really good job of working in complementary ways on different tasks,” said Reese. “You were doing the dishes and cooking because that was what was there to do. That was how you were supporting us.” We’ve always been a team, but up until the move, the stakes riding on our team efforts were pretty inconsequential. It’s one thing to work together on planning a Sunday afternoon museum visit; it’s another to work together on making a home.
The second most unfamiliar thing is the space itself, which somehow feels cramped and empty at the same time. The floor swarms with a miscellany of bags and boxes and yet-to-be-assembled IKEA furniture, yet every other surface is bare, bereft of ornamentation and purpose. The high ceilings—a major draw for us when we first viewed the apartment—are now a source of anxiety. “How are we going to fill them up?” Reese asked the other day. Addressing my recent (and incessant) Google searches for “tall storage solutions,” Instagram now serves me ads for faux-vintage grandfather clocks.
Art would seem like the obvious solution, but it’s not. It’s hard to make sense of the photos and prints we each own as one collection—there’s no aesthetic cohesion, no thematic throughline. My favorite piece from my last apartment is a giant still from Thelma and Louise: Thelma is pointing a gun at one of the film’s many male chauvinist pigs, and Louise is standing back with a satisfied smirk. I love that poster, and I cherish the aspects of my personality and taste that it telegraphs, but it doesn’t feel right to put up in my home with Reese.
Living with a significant other is a different kind of shared project than living with roommates. I am still getting used to this—and still unsure how to do it right. Dividing and conquering among roommates is, at least in theory, a purely mathematical exercise: you contribute evenly to shared spaces and activities, and whatever else is left is unequivocally private and individually managed. But it’s different now. I do things for him that I never would have done for my roommates (as much as I love them): clean up after him, remember things for him, prepare coffee for him. And he does those things for me, too.
Our teamwork is lovely and frictionless most of the time, but sometimes it isn’t. Reese is very particular about kitchenware: the make and model, how it’s used, how it’s cleaned. I am not. If you ask me, a serrated stainless steel knife is as good for cracking an egg as it is for chopping onions and flipping a chicken breast on a cast iron pan. When we lived apart, our antithetical cooking styles didn’t matter. Now that we share a kitchen, they do.
As stressful and exhausting as that first weekend of moving in was, we expected it to be that way. What we didn’t prepare for was the panoply of small yet persistent discrepancies between how we approach quotidian tasks (like the above-mentioned knife issue). These differences crop up daily, forcing us to reckon with the fact that we don’t know each other quite as well as we thought we did.
Just before we moved in, a coworker gave me one piece of cautionary advice: “Pick your battles.” I laughed smugly, thinking, We’re not that kind of couple. Well... We are. This revelation has taken us both off guard, especially since our decision to move in together was so natural. “It was just obvious,” recalled Reese. He can’t remember the exact moment when he decided he wanted it, and neither can I. All I remember is how necessary it felt.
“Necessary” is relative, subject to time, place, need, desire. What once felt so necessary to attain is now ours, all the time. That exigency to be together was burdensome, but it was a kind of anchorage, too. What, now, is necessary? I search for a next step, something to work towards that I know for sure is right, and all I come across is our stuff—or lack thereof. Is it necessary, right now, to build the IKEA bookcase, or should we first get a rug? Should we install drapes next, or prioritize towel racks?
I called my mom to complain about all the shit everywhere, and she pointed out that Reese and I have waited to unpack and set up longer than I have ever waited with my past apartments. “With the other ones, it wasn’t so important to you how things were set up,” she said. She’s right—in the past, when I was living with close friends, the furniture and layout materialized over one or two highly caffeinated weekends. Her comment made me think about why we’re taking our sweet time with this space, even though living in boxes is annoying the hell out of both of us.
Here’s why: when I imagine the rest of my life, I imagine it with Reese. That is incredibly scary to admit to myself, because I know that life is impossible to plan, and that young love is a fickle thing. Every decision about our home feels monumental, because this is (I think, I hope) the first of many kitchens, living rooms, bathrooms, and bedrooms. This is the foundation, and I want it to be strong.
How is it going? Here is the real answer: this is the biggest project we have ever worked on, and it is hard and humbling and also a lot of fun. We are moving tentatively, careful to protect what is mine and what is his—in the interest of what is ours.