I wanted the apartment so badly that I called the landlord and begged him to let me sign the lease, sight unseen. “I don’t need to see it,” I said. “I know I’ll love it. I love it already.” He was skeptical. He told me I should drive the four hours to see it in person. I told him I couldn’t do that, but I could be sure that I would love it—because of the yellow cabinets in the kitchen. Yellow cabinets! I’d never seen anything so adorable. They gave the place light, hope, a buttery year-round glow, everything I needed for the sort of move that was going to take me four hours away from my life and my boyfriend. I had been foaming at the mouth to that same boyfriend—I want those cabinets, I want that apartment!—but on the phone I managed to sound sane, and eventually the landlord let me sign the paperwork.
When I stepped into the apartment for the first time, I realized I’d made a huge mistake.
The cabinets were yellow, sure. But what none of the photos had shown were the low, dark wooden ceilings. They had the effect of a half-lowered eyelid: a menacing, unwelcoming look. In my previous apartments, I’d never considered the ceilings—never had to. You don’t notice a good ceiling, you just notice what it creates: lightness, space to breathe. But this place felt claustrophobic. People say it takes time to know a place but in my experience that’s not really true. I think the body knows right away, even if the brain takes some time to catch up. And the body remembers.
But I believe in the power of a good deep clean and so after confronting the ceilings, I went to Target for cleaning supplies. I was hoping for transformation and joy, and so I bought organic cleaning products with pretty labels. The sort of thing you can leave out by the kitchen sink to impress a houseguest. Mrs. Meyers Clean Day, said the label. Basil Scent.
I scrubbed that place with the organic basil-scented cleanser, the smell of which eventually permeated every room, because I never stopped cleaning. I had real basil growing outside, too, in the yard where the bike my dad bought me when I was in middle school was eventually stolen. The very first day, I lost a scrap of lace that my mom found for me years ago in North Carolina, a scrap that I used to tie around my waist, over jeans. I learned that I’d be making significantly less money than I thought and so I ate baked potatoes for dinner, which are a blissful meal because they cost pennies and are something I’d eat anyway, piled high with butter and cheddar cheese and black beans.
In search of lightness, I taped squares of decorative paper onto the walls. I moved the lamps around. But even on sunny days, the apartment remained sullen, airless, in thrall to some other master. It was the sort of place that always reminded you that someone else owned it. Eventually I tore down the heavy drapes that the owner installed, but that was its own sort of mistake, because then I felt like I was being watched, constantly. (Knowing that someone had walked through my yard at night to steal my bike didn’t help.)
Once, desperate for cash, I let a strange girl stay there for two weeks while she did research at a nearby library. She paid me $200 for the grim pleasure. The two of us barely spoke. She slept on an air mattress in the empty second bedroom that I had planned on making into an office, until I realized that I was too scared to sleep in a bedroom with only a bed in it and needed to fill the room with a desk and a bookshelf in order to feel like I wasn’t floating through an abyss. When the library girl moved out I discovered that her room was full of cereal bowls. She would take them into the room, eat them on her air mattress, and leave them there, too nervous to bring them back out. Still, I liked having her there. She was a simulacrum of company but it did the trick.
Today, I live in a cheap apartment that’s more or less falling apart. One day I will probably plunge through the floor and onto the heads of my sullen downstairs neighbors. Sometimes guests shriek when they come out of the bathroom, because there’s a broken tile and if you step on it wrong, it shoots out from under your feet, leaving you at risk of a dreadful death-by-clunking-head-on-the-ancient-tub. I have never, ever, ever loved a place so much. Every single day, I walk through it and marvel at how the light falls. The windows are huge, the ceilings are so high it feels gratuitous. Their height is ridiculous excess, irrational joy. The boyfriend is still around—he lives here now, actually. Paint falls off the walls when you hammer in a nail. But that’s not the point. I really didn’t mean to get into any of this. The detail I wanted to tell you about is this one: the other day my love went to the grocery store and came back with a new sort of organic dish soap and began washing the dishes. In the other room, with my mind on something else, my body suddenly shuddered with loneliness. It was the smell of basil.