To whatever poor, tortured soul occupies this apartment next,
You will earnestly swing open the heavy front door, gleaming with a streaky coat of clinical, blueish-purpleish-greyish paint, and you will smell mold. You’ll learn to grow accustomed to the scent — no obscene amount of Febreze or air freshener plugs will ever succeed in masking it — but it will make you flinch upon entry. Unfortunately, this will be only the beginning of your torrid love affair with Apartment #1.
You’ll walk into the bathroom and look up at the ceiling, only to find it sloping downwards to greet you, slick with an impenetrable coat of orange stains and stray hairs embedded into the paint. You’ll wonder if you had come to the wrong address; this is not the shiny, pristine apartment you were advertised through the realtor’s photos. It’s on you, after all, for not questioning why they weren’t willing to let you tour any units prior to your arrival.
Do not expect the fridge to always work. Or any of the lights, for that matter. Your apartment is prone to power outages, water shut-offs and a plethora of other issues that are just enough to begin eroding your already wire-thin nerves. Your “sent” mailbox will become cluttered with emails filing for countless work orders so that you can shower or wash your laundry or repair the flooding toilet that had you and your roommate ankle-deep in dirty water for an entire evening.
Apartment #1 is, for all intents and purposes, a hellscape. Your roommate will joke that it isn’t meant to sustain human life: it’s the seventh circle of hell, or a cosmic joke or some bizarre purgatory you’ve been condemned to as penance for 20 years of bad karma — it must be. No other explanation seems to make sense. But if your experience is anything like mine, Apartment #1 is not just a subpar place for you to reside during your sophomore year. It will prove to be so much more than that.
It might be the place where you have your heart shattered into a million pieces.
You’ll get the call on an unassuming August morning, rousing you from a deep sleep. (If you’re like me, you’re curled up on a mattress pad sans mattress, resting atop a half-built bed frame). You’ll know what the call is about before you answer, and you will never hate being right more than you do when you hang up the phone a brief twenty seconds later. You come away from the call with no flowery summation, no eloquence or profundity or understanding, nothing at all except the truth: your world is heavy and someone you love has just died.
Your family will leave the country the next day for the funeral, and they will be gone for months afterward.
Your room will be cold for weeks.
You will lie in your bed, finally sporting a mattress, one October night. Your body will be tugged in and out of sleep, eyes heavy from the day’s exhaustion and body heavier from the weight of your bones and the world and whatever else. They’ll flutter open and peer up at the window situated over your head, and behind the slits of your shutter blinds, you’ll be met with another pair of eyes.
Pressed against the glass stands a man, and you’ll realize he has been watching you sleep. You will not know how long he had been there, or why. But you will never forget the shape of his boots, with tattered laces and fresh dirt clinging to the worn leather, the eerie stillness of his stature, the dark shadows cast over his face and the unplaceable coldness behind his unblinking eyes. He will not move. Neither will you.
Then you will scream. He’ll vanish just as soon as he realizes you’ve seen him, and your roommate will storm out of the apartment minutes later in search of him, only to find a blanket of darkness.
You’ll write it off as a harmless peeping Tom. You’ll blame it on the basement-level apartment, call yourself silly for daring to place your bed near the window. You’ll tell your friends the story, elaborate and humorous, frantic hand gestures and laughs masking the discomfort that lays beneath it all. But you will have nightmares; rolling in your bed and strangled by an indiscernible sense of dread, you will fight off the insidious understanding that you are a woman and that means being watched while you sleep, that you are the property of everyone but yourself and that even your own bedroom cannot belong to you.
You will buy blackout curtains.
The kitchen has just enough counter space for a microwave, and you will have to suck in your breath to slide past your roommate each day, narrowly ducking towards the fridge or cabinets.
In the months spent shrinking under the grim fluorescent light, you will have to eat again. Winter is fierce, nipping away at you with unrelenting cruelty, and the gnawing pangs of hunger will slowly subside into a dull nothingness that sits in the pit of your stomach for weeks. You will have to relearn the hard-wired, evolutionary underpinning of survival, and you will feel silly and incompetent and heavy, so heavy. You will want to melt into a pool on the cold linoleum, to be mopped up and wrung out into the sink, to swirl and swirl and swirl down the drain until you are anywhere else but here, now.
And yet, you will use your stubborn matchstick fingers to clumsily assemble a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and you will feverishly nibble at the bread until the room stops spinning. It is a little victory, but you will have eaten, and you will feel a sense of gratitude for your tiny kitchen and the triumphant, pale-yellow light shining overhead.
Perhaps at some point, you’ll make the same realization I did, and recognize that the apartment was not the cruel, inhospitable hellscape you’d made it out to be. Instead, it was a conveniently placed scapegoat, an unassuming mess of support beams and drywall and stained carpet upon which you could cast all the blame for your own dissatisfaction with your life. A meaningless structure, lacking sentience and a pulse, that you could hate, just to avoid admitting you hated everything else.
You will feel a bizarre sense of guilt for hating the roof over your head. You will feel guilty for using it to try making sense of the hate within your bones. You will feel everything you’d forced yourself not to feel for the months you’d been its tenant, and because it is an apartment, it will feel nothing at all.
During the last few months of your stay in Apartment #1, things will start looking up. You will fail to notice that spring has made her gradual, quiet arrival until streams of sunlight begin to miraculously break through the bushes outside your window and pour into your living room, warming the lush carpets and coaxing you out of a year-long slumber.
You will start to go outside, letting the sun warm you up too. It’ll thaw your bitter discontent and restore the pink blush in your cheeks, and the crisp air will relieve your weary lungs. You’ll find out that the Huron River is a mere six-minute walk from your apartment, and it’ll serve as an invaluable amenity, one that was not disclosed in your apartment listing or rent fees. You will spend your days sitting wordlessly on the flat rocks jutting into the clear water, watching as college kids in tubes and kayaks drift past. Their boisterous laughter will linger in the air long after they’ve disappeared from view, and you will love them the same way you love the passing ducks, the towering canopy of leaves or the teasing breeze that tugs at your hair. It will feel good to love things again.
Your apartment will begin to host weekly sleepovers with your best friends. It will serve as the sanctuary you return to after 1 a.m. trips to Joe’s Pizza, and your nights will be filled with music and laughter, secrets and stories. On those sacred nights, some of your best memories will be forged in that apartment, graciously making a distant memory of the bad ones.
You’ll receive good news. You’ll finish a grueling semester. You’ll clean your room. You’ll eat and sleep and laugh and feel like you can breathe again, a luxury once hindered by the iron-fisted anxiety that squeezed at your throat for months on end.
Just as Apartment #1 had watched you come undone, it might just watch you get pieced back together.
On July 26, you will move out. Your best friend will drive half an hour from home and dutifully assist you in loading boxes into your respective trunks. You will feel untouchable, flexing your arms and basking in your own ability to erase things. You will remove the nails and spackle the holes in the walls. You will get coffee and dance to “I’ll Always Remember You” by Hannah Montana, twirling in your now-empty apartment. You will hear a knock on the door.
You’ll swing it open, anticipating the slightly annoyed face of a landlord telling you you have an hour to leave before the painters get here. Instead, you will be greeted by a face you’d hoped you’d never see again. Your heartbeat will rise into your throat, get mangled in the barbed wire of your hitched breath. You will feel a searing, red-hot-something burn you from the inside out. You will say nothing.
They’ll lean against the doorframe and manage a meek greeting in a now unfamiliar voice. You will wonder when exactly you forgot what their voice sounded like. And for once in your life, you will not care to remember. You will realize that their words, the ones you once mistook for scripture, no longer mean anything at all.
You will slam the door.
You will realize this apartment is the place that taught you to let doors slam shut. It is the place that taught you to say things as incomprehensible as “no” and “goodbye” and truly mean it. It is the place that taught you that you deserve anything at all, any shred of respect or dignity or peace. You will love how easily the door clicked shut, the finality of it all. For once, you will choose to love yourself, too.
You will pull out of the parking lot thirty minutes later, and leave everything else behind for good.
A few months later, you’ll be sitting in your new apartment, gluttonous with its hardwood floors, sleek cabinetry and natural sunlight. You’ll pin up the same fairy lights that once twinkled in your old place, and you’ll find comfort in the glimmering newness.
But you’ll remember Apartment #1. The way the carpet learned your footsteps. The nights spent crying until your throat was raw, your bedroom walls cradling your sobs like a secret, insulating you from the world and asking for nothing in return. The evenings spent joking with your roommate, laughing until your ribs ached under the cool blue LED lights of her bedroom. The thrill of having a place to call your own for the first time, sweet with newfound autonomy and unrestrained possibility. The days on the Huron River and the nights on your couch, your best friends sleeping soundly against your shoulders to rest bodies worn out from hours of dancing.
You won’t remember the mold or half-functioning appliances, nor will you remember the unyielding, bleak days that melted together into weeks and months of malaise. You’ll just remember that a home somehow emerged in its midst, and feel awestruck by the magnitude of our ability to create home anywhere at all.
Apartment #1 is magical for that. I’ve come to realize that any place that is able to carry the weight of your grief, to watch you crumble and ache and get mistreated and battered and hollowed out into a shell of what you once were, and then provide you a set of walls wherein you can rebuild yourself entirely, is nothing short of a miracle. Apartment #1 was never inhospitable at all; it was holy ground.
When you move in, the apartment will hold you the same way it held me. Do not expect its lights to always work, but do not let yourself resent it. Let it learn your footsteps, too. Let the duration of your year-long lease be a time of pain and growth, of love and healing. When you inevitably move out, say “thank you” and come away from it stronger.
Even if you don’t get all of your security deposit back.
The former tenant of Apartment #1
MiC Columnist Yasmine Slimani can be reached at email@example.com.