clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The roommates who taught me to love being alive

Their maximalist decor expressed everything I wanted to learn from them

In the two years after I graduated from college, my parents divorced, my relationship of two years ended, I quit Teach For America after a single awful month, I started and quit another job, and my therapist gently guided me to the understanding that I had an eating disorder. It was no wonder, then, that I wanted to move across the country, from New York, where I’d lived for most of my life, to California. In San Francisco, I would be new.

I had a few months before this supposed move, and a former coworker, Valerie, offered me a room in her apartment in the interim. One of the best parts of those two years had been the job where I met her, at a startup that exclusively employed people in their early 20s. The work was not inspired (it was an online college guide), but I adored my coworkers, who had become some of my closest friends—think overzealous happy hours and group Gchats where we planned elaborate pranks, like stealing other coworkers’ bags of pistachios. So I took Valerie up on her offer to move in with her, her older sister, Elena, and their two Italian greyhounds.

The apartment was on the Upper West Side, in the West 70s, and was bafflingly nice. It had three levels: the foyer area, with the kitchen and bathroom off to the right; the living room, a few steps up, which led to two of the bedrooms; and then, one more half-flight of stairs up, the balcony, which featured a small, windowless bedroom with saloon doors.

Valerie and Elena both had fine taste, and had remade the place into something both whimsical and decadent. Before she moved in, Valerie sanded and stained the floors; once Elena arrived from Oklahoma, where they’d grown up, they painted the kitchen a cheery yellow and green, made the lower level into a bar area, and put up a gorgeous painting of a woman and her dog in the living room. Valerie, an artist, painted a giant polka-dotted mural that hung behind the dining table; she covered a wall in her bedroom with rooster-patterned paper. In Elena’s bedroom, she’d hung a chandelier. Maximalist.

I moved into the small upstairs room, for which I paid $1,000. (It was 2009.) Valerie lived there the previous year and had painted the whole thing baby blue, except for one wall of thick black-and-white stripes. I would never do something so bold—to date, I’ve kept the walls in all other apartments white—but when she moved to one of the bigger bedrooms and I took over the balcony, I kept the paint. I hoped something of it would enter me through osmosis, and transform me.

And it did, though of course it wasn’t the paint. The decor only expressed what seemed obvious from a moment spent in Valerie and Elena’s company: They loved being alive. We ate dinners together and drank bottles of Ménage à Trois wine. We threw a theme party called “Prohibition: The Noble Experiment.” Two months after I moved in, I sent the two of them an email with the subject line, “Things I want to do that I’d rather do with you.” It was really long. We did a lot of the things: We went apple and pumpkin picking; we hosted my book club for an extravagant tapas dinner; we had our own mini-Roald Dahl reading group, for which we read Esio Trot and The BFG and made snozzcumber cocktails.

Elena was a medical resident, and though her schedule was obviously grueling, she managed it with a light touch—with perspective. Valerie and I were in transition, and spent long hours talking and dreaming about what might come next. Both of them seemed to know themselves in a way I wished I did, and frankly still do. And they did not subscribe to a self-punishing behavioral code. What a revelation. I have always been high-strung, anxious, and quite controlled, but in their presence, something seemed to lift. It was like being on vacation.

I remember trying to explain to my therapist the confusing emotions filling me up during this time. “It sounds like you’re happy,” she said. Happy!

I no longer wanted to leave. Why would I go to San Francisco when I was finding another version of myself right here? Since I had only planned to stay a short time, I hadn’t bought a bed; I’d borrowed Valerie and Elena’s air mattress, which deflated as I slept, so that I would wake up practically on the floor with the blue plastic swelling up around me. But as my tenure in their home dwindled, I found I was desperate to stay. One of our other former coworkers had been planning on moving in when I left and, selfishly, I changed my mind. I still feel badly about this—she was so upset with me, and I would have been, too—but I don’t regret my decision. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself. I did not move to California. I bought a bed.

I pretended to myself that I was Valerie and Elena’s third sister. My own family had recently fallen apart, or so it felt to me, and I took refuge in this new one. And they were so generous with me. I cuddled with their dogs. I ate oysters with their parents. The two of them came to Thanksgiving at my dad’s new apartment during a year when I really needed the company. They both could really cook—I started to try, too. My mother made delicious food throughout my childhood, but it wasn’t until that apartment that I understood that I could. I could even get a dog, if I wanted to. Life could be something other than what I’d understood it to be: It could be fun.

Of course, I wasn’t their sister. As our hair made clear, I was a Jew from New York; they were Christians from Oklahoma. The entire thing lasted just nine or 10 months: Once the lease was up, Valerie moved to California to go to graduate school, and I moved out, too, to Brooklyn. (I went bold: I furnished my new place with a bright red couch.)

But in a way, that’s just right. It was a gestational time. In that apartment, I tasted a different way of being. Even when I’m stuck in despair, I know there’s another possibility unfolding right alongside me. I call up that apartment—those vibrant women—when I need a touchstone, when I’m feeling adrift and alone and want to remember that feeling of home.

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

Curbed Is Moving to New York Magazine

Best Rent Deals

We Unearthed the 68 Best Rent Deals in NYC Right Now


Landlords Lose Fight Against Rent Protections, Hotel Chelsea’s Latest Tenant Battle, and Other News