In my mid-20s, I lived in a commune in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn; every night, I would bike home over the Manhattan Bridge, exhausted from my job at a vegan juice bar, hoping for the same thing: that there’d be a gleam of light in the basement window of our four-story brownstone. The window closest to the stairs, with a ragged white curtain hanging behind the bars. That shine meant my roommate Jamie (whose name I’ve changed) was home; if Jamie was home, there was a chance I might see him, smell his cologne in the hall, maybe catch him on the stoop smoking a cigarette. We might talk, laugh, or drink until we forgot ourselves and kissed. That was our pattern for about half a year before things completely unraveled.
But a light was no guarantee that any of that would happen—often, the light would appear, but Jamie wouldn’t, no matter how many hours I spent just upstairs from him in our enormous kitchen. My 12 other roommates would come in and out, make their meals, sit around to shoot the shit, split 40s, and he’d make no appearance the entire night, not even on Mondays, our sacred family dinner nights. Family dinner was mandatory, a time to discuss which sponges were for dishes and which were for countertops; to figure out whether the backyard could hold another chicken; to confirm people were doing their weekly chores; and to make gigantic vats of beans. Yet Jamie, who had lived in the house longer than almost anyone, was seemingly exempt from the usual obligations.
When I first applied to live in the house, I was invited to attend one of those family dinners as an interview to see if my potential housemates liked me—and if I liked them. I was immediately seduced by the action in the kitchen. Music blared from enormous speakers; people rolled up on their bikes while others rolled out homemade tortillas on the counter. That room was the heart of the house, pumping life into its sagging stairways and flaking drywall, and making up for its alarming electrical issues. One entire side of the building was powered by a series of intertwined extension cords reaching to distant outlets. The room that eventually became mine was actually one half of the master bedroom, sectioned off by the haphazard construction thrown up by previous tenants; poorly seamed drywall cut over the radiator, leaving a hole that the house’s semi-feral cats took full advantage of, digging up my plants and peeing on my clean laundry.
The kitchen made all the impracticalities, filth, and general chaos not just bearable, but immaterial. During parties, we pushed our long sectional dining table aside and turned the kitchen floor into the dance floor. Our friends and lovers would join us; dust from the floorboards would rise up under the DIY bicycle wheel chandelier. Jamie was usually the DJ, his tall, alarmingly lean body able to reach every button, lever, and wire as he played the top hits of the day, which surprisingly haven’t changed much in a decade—Rihanna and Robyn were as much in rotation then as now.
Parties were always a volatile time. Jamie’s girlfriend might come, and when she did, they tended to fight. Her friends would rally around her; soon the house would be split into factions, the living room dedicated to whispering and side-eyes, the front stoop to yelling and wide gestures with cigarettes in hand. Maybe they were fighting about me—she knew what Jamie and I were doing, though I never knew exactly what he said that was—but it felt more like an ongoing argument, a blaze where extra lovers were only kindling.
A few times, his girlfriend went home early, and we’d end up in his bed or mine, sneaking back to our respective rooms in the morning as the rest of our roommates slowly woke and gathered in the kitchen to deal with the mess. People would wander in and clear away cans, still in their thrift-store prom dresses, or eat cold hangover pizza with no pants on. We’d laugh and gossip about the night before. But I wouldn’t mention Jamie or where I’d slept.
Jamie’s window light started to correlate to his appearance in the house less and less. Then, one day, he didn’t have a girlfriend. Soon after that, he had a new one and she wasn’t me.
I wish I could say this ended my habit of checking for his light, but it didn’t. What finally stopped my window obsession was the realization that the light wasn’t coming from within the house—it was the reflection of the street lamp, which my brain had been hopefully misinterpreting as a person inside. I stood on the street and laughed at myself, actually wanting to cry.
A little while after that, I had a dream that I walked into his room when he wasn’t home and found it in total disarray. Food bowls stacked in the corners, garbage strewn across the mattress, filthy clothes piled so high they blocked all sunlight. When I woke up, I chose to interpret the dream as a criticism of Jamie and his position in the house, huddled in the basement cycling through women instead of clearing up his personal garbage. But it was my dream, and my hoarded interactions with him cluttering my brain. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get over it, but I lived there another year and a half, trying to make peace with it. Then a bedbug explosion created massive roommate turnover, and I moved out. No one can make peace with bedbugs.
Ten years later, I was celebrating my 35th birthday in a new city, Los Angeles, when I was tagged in a post on Facebook. I opened my phone while in a crystal shop, wearing a full-face Sephora makeover my mother had sent to me as a gift, holding an iced coffee in one hand. I lived alone, and I never biked anywhere. I’d become exactly the kind of person I avoided when I lived in that brownstone.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I was looking at. Then I recognized the building’s facade, all the windows covered with particle board, their brick edges charred. I scrolled through the comments, trying to glean information. Everyone was safe, but the house was destroyed. There was a link to a GoFundMe to help the house members who were still running the community. I clicked on it to donate and saw a picture of the kitchen, its floor-to-ceiling shelves collapsed, a familiar bean pot on the floor among the debris. Then I read that there was still one person I knew who had been living there: Jamie, in his basement bedroom.
It felt like it had been a long time since I’d thought of him and, simultaneously, like I was that girl again, wondering where he was, if he was okay, who was holding him. Wondering how he’d managed to stay in the same place while I was so far away. Wondering if I’d ever see him again.
As a child, I’d had a very clear vision of myself on my 35th birthday. It’s a strange age for a kid to fixate on, but that’s how old my mother was when she had me. That’s when I would be “finished” as a person, I thought, not realizing that life is more a series of cycles than a straight line. Here I was, literally thousands of miles from the person I was a decade ago, still thinking about the man downstairs. I grow and regress and grow, and sometimes the past is consumed in ways I would never have guessed.
Aimée Lutkin is a writer from New York City based in Los Angeles, and is currently working on her first book, The Lonely Hunter, for Dial Press. You can follow her on Twitter, where she mostly posts about birds.