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The unexpected gift of couch arrest

Sitting at home all day every day, I noticed the small ways my apartment had changed

My life is a sequence of three-point turns. My right knee rests on a thin leather pad while my left foot propels me from one side of my apartment to the other. If my needs demand anything other than a straight line, navigating around the coffee table to the couch, say, or, God forbid, to the bathroom, I need the concentration of a teenager at her driving test—turning forward, then back, then forward again, until the wide radius of my knee scooter reaches its mark.

In the 12 weeks since I broke my foot jumping for a balloon on a holiday-party dance floor, I have barely left my apartment. (Some might say I deserved every bit of my immobility, and I wouldn’t disagree.) Apparently, it was a particularly troublesome break, something called a Jones fracture. The knee scooter is too heavy to carry outside and my foot swells immediately on crutches. I have to keep it elevated almost always, so even simple tasks like showering or making coffee are a challenge. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but neither is it the best.

When I moved into my modest one-bedroom apartment two years ago, I was thrilled. I had only ever lived in small studios or shared spaces. The idea of walking from one room of my own to an entirely separate room of my own felt like all I would ever need in life. My bliss lasted for about a year, until I declared to a guy I was kind-of-dating that I would probably live there forever, and he replied by letting me know that was the saddest thing he’d ever heard. As is the case with so many thoughtless remarks from men I have kind-of-dated, this shattered me. Did I not realize how sad I was? Was I still holding myself to 20-something standards while everyone else had upped theirs long ago?

I always imagined I’d take the same path as most of my peers, who, at 36, are generally married with children, buying up real estate and settling down. But a few years ago, I started to veer off that track. After studying engineering, then business, climbing one corporate ladder after the next, I quit my job and decided to throw myself at the exact opposite of everything I’d done thus far. I started writing. Though I always imagined adulthood involved a partner and children, dating, too, was proving to be a waste of time, so I quit the apps and doubled down on traveling, writing, and new friendships instead. While everyone else seemed to be settling into their lives, I was reinventing mine. Needless to say, this did not lead to the acquisition of fancy real estate.

In New York it’s easy, almost mandatory, to look around and feel insufficient. Every walk through the city—back when I could walk—was a chance to second-guess my decisions. Each passing handbag, compared to my shabby promotional tote, made me wonder if I should go back to a steady job. Every new eyebrow salon made me wonder if I should finally learn to “do” makeup, let alone figure out why an entire establishment would be dedicated to eyebrows. I wondered, looking through the gigantic brownstone windows of my wealthy Brooklyn neighbors, if maybe I should move upstate, get a real house, and not confine myself to the tiny square of my two-room rental.

It was in this what-the-hell-am-I-doing-with-my-life mindset that I wrote my New Year’s resolutions just days before the break. According to the most optimistic version of myself, who visits once a year in late December, I was going to put myself out there, increase my daily runs, dress nicer, invest in my hair, be more social, try harder. I was going to live.

Instead, starting the morning after that fateful holiday party, I sat. I hibernated. I never left my house. And then something strange happened: I liked it.

From my small, overheated room, I watched the snow roll in and the trees shake against the gray sky. Running? Out of the question. When social invitations rolled in, more often than not, I was thrilled I had an excuse not to attend. I invited people over instead for small, intimate dinners. On nights alone, I had phone dates with faraway friends I hadn’t spoken to in years. And I wrote, constantly.

I’ve never been a decorator. There are few things I find duller than perusing placemats or considering curtains; minimalist ads with angular coffee tables and a single succulent give me anxiety. When I moved into my apartment I allotted 48 hours for Craigslist hunting and Ikea schlepping and haven’t thought about decorating since. But sitting on the couch all day every day, I noticed the small ways my apartment had changed. Postcards from friends taking over my fridge. Inherited prints and writing inspirations scattered around like Easter eggs. Colorful baseball caps that looked terrible on me but represented cities I’d been to and never wanted to leave. Pieces of fabric from garage sales strewn on surfaces like mismatched placemats. And books—along the walls, piled on dressers, stacked on the coffee table. Journals from conferences I’d attended, signed copies from new mentors, dog-eared favorites, each very specifically placed. Sloppy and chaotic as it was, I had, in fact, been decorating all along, and it felt good, cozy. It felt like home.

In the small square of my one-bedroom, strangely, shockingly, my life felt full—even more so, in many ways, than it had before. Of course I got stir crazy every now and then and craved the thrill of post-run endorphins, but when I wasn’t out in the world seeing what I was missing, when it was just me, there was no denying that I didn’t need much.

When my doctor told me, after 13 weeks of couch arrest, that I could start walking again— the moment I’d been waiting for since the diagnosis—my first reaction wasn’t joy, it was fear. Gone were my excuses not to attend whatever party was too far away, to answer without shame that I’d just sat on my couch writing all day. I would have to enter real life again, to confront how insufficient my little life seemed compared to other people’s, and that was terrifying.

But on my first trip outside, with the help of a cane, I couldn’t stop smiling. The city was alive with the energy that’s distinctly New York, everyone doing their own strange thing in perfect, chaotic harmony, the awareness that even the most mundane routines in this city are laced with an element of unpredictability. A million versions of life on display, overwhelming or fascinating depending on which way you squint. I peeked through a brownstone’s large window at an almost comically ornate chandelier. The envy trickled in, as it does, as it probably always will, but on that particular afternoon I admired its beauty, laughed at its extravagance, appreciated the glimpse into someone else’s life. I knew that, a few blocks away, there was a different version of a life, one far less shiny, with much lower ceilings, but one that, at least for now, had everything I needed.

Emily J. Smith is a writer and tech founder based in Brooklyn. Her work focuses on relationships, gender, and technology, and she has been published on The Rumpus, Catapult, Slate, Vice, Medium and elsewhere. Follow her latest on Twitter at @emjsmith or read more at emjsmith.com.

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