Sharing more than a space

Sunday, October 11, 2020 - 1:31pm

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Illustration by Eileen Kelly

The nerves reminded me of the feeling you get before a job interview. With a light flutter in my stomach, I swung my backpack over my shoulder and walked into the East Quad dining hall. I spotted the girls almost immediately, the five of them giggling over half-eaten pizza and shredded brussels sprouts, their close friendship apparent. Approaching them, I jokingly thought to myself, Should I have brought a resumé?

It was fall of my freshman year and these five girls, all already friends and one of whom lived in my hall, had invited me to dinner to “get to know them better,” before we all decided to sign onto a lease for a house on East University Avenue the following year.

At the time, this process seemed only natural — of course, before deciding to live together, one should make sure anyone joining in who isn’t your friend is at least somewhat compatible with the group. But it’s difficult to escape the uncomfortable social dynamics that occur among college freshmen trying to find their people while living out the prophecy listed in so many movies and TV shows about young people: The need for a big group of friends with whom to get drunk, share deep heart-to-hearts, cook dinner and have board game nights. Like many freshmen, I wanted this kind of relationship, and I thought the easiest way to achieve it was through shared space — I figured, if we were living together, the prophecy would simply fulfill itself.

Yet, it was only November, and I had barely been on campus long enough to foster the kind of connections necessary for the Best Girl Group Ever experience. Enter the pseudo-vetting process that made me doubt if I was cool enough to warrant living with.

Ultimately, I lived with those girls during my sophomore year, and while we shared some of those movie-magic moments of tailgating on our front porch together or watching The Bachelor on Monday nights, we also shared moments of arguments over politics, tension over chore responsibilities and the genuine irritation that comes with constantly sharing a space, especially in a high-stress environment like college. And whatever friendship we had somewhat forced upon ourselves wasn’t enough to make those negative moments worth working through.

It’s not uncommon for people to jump into leases with people they don’t know very well; it’s part of the nature of the Ann Arbor housing market, whose compressed timeline basically demands you sign a lease very early in the fall semester. What follows is a type of forced commitment to people who you may drift away from by the time the lease actually begins. While this may not seem like a huge deal in the face of so many other housing issues, having a home on campus where you feel comfortable, supported and safe is crucial to happiness as a student and person.

The year after my seven-person East University house, I lived in another big house with six girls, only two of whom I was originally friends with. While my relationship to these girls ended up stronger than the others, I still faced the same uncertainties as the year prior. I was still invited into their space; it was still on me to be worth befriending. Both years I felt I had to juggle the pressure of getting close with my roommates and wanting ownership of the spaces that we shared. This created an odd contortion: I couldn’t be fully autonomous in the space, because it wasn’t mine to begin with. Maybe it was just a poster in our living room that irritated me, or maybe it was the constant pile-up of dirty dishes and browning sink water. Maybe it was the feeling of being a stranger in my own living room, since none of the furniture was mine or the guests were never familiar. These were things I felt I couldn’t change, or even ask to change, because as an “add-on” to the house I didn’t want to jeopardize our roommate-friendships. There was an unspoken hierarchy and, as a naive college student, I blindly followed it. 

A home is supposed to be a place of peace and comfort; it’s supposed to allow reprieve from the stressful, drama-filled world of college. It’s meant to be the place you return to after a long day of trudging from classroom to library to club meetings. It’s meant to comfort you after a tense conversation with an ex or a first date gone wrong. It’s meant to be a private place to cry, think, sleep and recharge. In pre-coronavirus life, there were seldom places on campus where you could be alone — I once had a breakdown about a bad economics exam grade in a supply closet in the Ugli, and once tried to take a quick nap on the colorful couches in the Fishbowl. These moments, while funny in hindsight, are not normal — I should have been able to process those emotions freely and in my own home. I should have had the time and space to work through my feelings in a healthy, private way.

The need to decompress from the stress of life is only one aspect of a positive home experience, and the opposite is just as important — that the home does not cause more stress. It’s not just a challenge to live with people you might not be close with — at this age, cramming a big group of people in a small space is almost asking for conflict and drama (we’ve all seen enough variations of reality TV shows like Big Brother to know this). Of course, conflict is a natural aspect of adulthood and learning how to deal with it in the context of roommates is important for self-growth. But chronic or reemerging unresolved tension within your own home means you have no place to unwind. Anytime issues arose between my roommates and me, I would either escape to my parents’ house for the night (they live in Ann Arbor) or to my boyfriend’s apartment. This form of escapism never solved the reason for the conflict and redefined my house as a place to be avoided, a place of stress. It made me reliant on other people’s spaces for comfort — again, I lacked autonomy.

Now in my senior year, I finally found this autonomy. It took two years of both trying to fulfill the friendship prophecy and scrambling to secure leases to finally settle on a two-bedroom apartment with a close friend, my own room and ownership even over our shared spaces. It took two trial runs to learn that the idea of the close girl group that does everything together while never having issues is exactly that: just an idea. Friendships come naturally; they can’t be doctored just through sharing a home. And like many other aspects of college, from dating to partying to professional development, there is no single prophecy that one should aim to fulfill because rarely will we achieve it. In actuality, the beauty of college is tucked between the mistakes we make and those who help guide us through them, including ourselves.

I don’t blame myself or any other student who feels naive for entering a living situation with acquaintances based on social or timing reasons. The systems, both that of the housing market and that of the American college experience, which puts immense pressure on students to have 100 close friends and constant fun, are responsible for the awkward maneuvering we must do to both have a place to live and one that we enjoy. College is stressful and wonderful and full of so many changes, and a safe home is the one constant we so desperately need. And while it would be nice to raise a glass with five other familiar, loyal faces, it’s even better to break the prophecy in half, paving way for your own messy, unpredictable, breathless, beautiful path.


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