by Joshua H. Liberatore
A few months shy of thirty-two, and I’m staring down my final week of lean urban living in the latest in a series of small apartments that have kept me comfortable, efficient, and solvent for the past ten years. It’s a very warm feeling in some ways, and I look forward to all the benefits that owning a house (i.e. renting from a bank) and enjoying more space and more greenery will provide me, but preemptive nostalgia for the modest domicile I’m leaving behind tempers my excitement. And so I pause for reflection.
For all the months of rent money hemorrhaged away to landlords over the years, my small apartment, like its many predecessors, has offered the hidden value, a very un-American virtue, of keeping my belongings small, in the sense of both their individual size and their collective inventory. One simply owns less in a small apartment. That translates into less to organize, less to clean, less to maintain, less to lose or damage, less to worry about getting taken by masked thieves entering under the cover of darkness, and indeed – since I am bent this way – less to dispose of in the final move and commit to the waste heaps of postmodern consumerism. It’s a refreshing thought, this lack of accumulation, and the converse notion that more space imminent on the horizon – even just a little more – will lead to more stuff is a faintly depressing, if natural concomitant to middle class maturity. Will I get larger too, I wonder?
Beyond its material capacity, my small apartment has shaped my relationships, my marriage and friendships, in not insignificant ways. Family visits tend to be brief and involve air mattresses, nearly constant discussions about whether to turn on fans or use the air conditioner, and shared meals cramped around an expandable table serviced by mismatched chairs, minimal flatware and crockery. These inevitable features of life in a small apartment build character, foster patience, and because small spaces force us to rub shoulders and step over extended limbs more than perhaps we’d like to, they prevent us from avoiding the very human contact that keeps our feet firmly on the ground.
In our small apartment, my wife and I have learned to prepare dinner together with deft strategy: multiple cutting boards occupying scarce counter space, cupboards opened over ducked heads, dishes instantly washed as more are dirtied, all with the practiced, voiceless language of veteran dance partners in some delicate pas de deux. In short, we share space where logic and geometry point to its infeasibility as such. And even when these constraints frustrate, they strengthen our intimacy in a way that a larger space would not.
Our small apartment, of course, because ours, is just the first among equals in a building of many small apartments. Thus, our daily movements bring us into comfortably anonymous contact with others. The tremendous power in the sound of my neighbor’s nightly sneezes that resonate through our wood floors (or is it our ceilings, we can’t be sure) comes nowhere near cacophony. On the contrary, it always brings a smile to my face, and I shall miss this routine amusement in the quiet of the single-family setup that awaits me. (Will he likewise miss my throat clearing?) The simple and superficial niceties that take place near the mailbox, in the laundry room, outside the basement storage, among people of unknown name and occupation, will be replaced by whatever solidity shapes the relations of people who share yards and shrubs. The pleasure of meeting well-groomed dogs in the corridor, on their return from a morning stroll, as I make my way out the door to start the day will be supplanted by the smells of competing barbecues and the growl of Saturday gas mowers. Not necessarily worse, but not quite the same charm either.
Please do not mistake my nostalgia for regret, for I do not leave my small apartment under duress. As sanguine as I feel about the coming transition to house living and the promise of community, I merely hope to keep within me all that I have learned and gained from so many years in a small apartment, in the comfort of small things, and living among other small people with small overhead costs. Spaces may shape us, but only insofar as they become what we create of them, and the attitude we bring to their occupation, the way we fill them up with our bodies and possessions. In this sense, my move from small apartment to small house doesn’t seem so daunting after all.