The House We Live In: A Series on Building the Sustainable Home in Tucson, Arizona
Perhaps you know the expression “Who’s he when he’s at home?” I came across it recently re-reading Joyce, but I suppose it’s an idiom in general use in the UK. It’s surely mostly used in jest, but it’s a good question, and in a way, a rather specific one. It gets at something essential, not bound up in the accommodation of others.
I’ve been living alone for just over a year. This isn’t the first time I’ve lived alone, with my own bathroom, my own kitchen, none of my space shared with anyone else who has equal rights to it. But the only other time was brief. It was a sublet in Cambridge, Mass, when I was there for a summer working in a psychology lab. It was tiny and perfect for what I needed. The bathroom was almost as big as the other room; overnight guests who crashed with me because of my central location were known to actually sleep in the bathtub.
And it was glorious. The radio on the desk could easily be heard anywhere in the apartment, even in the shower if I left the bathroom door open. Everything in the fridge would be where I left it. I could plan the perfect ratio of meal to leftovers. The level of bathroom grime that was acceptable on any given day was entirely up to me. I never had to move anybody else’s dishes out of the way to wash mine.
But then I went back to college, where I shared a house with four others. After graduation I rented a room in a D.C. townhouse where I had a crazy roommate who actually got the physical TV guide and went through it and highlighted all the re-runs of law and order, which she watched religiously. The next house was shared with a boyfriend, and then a husband, and I was never on my own again until I moved, alone, back to the desert.
Living alone is its own experience. It’s qualitatively different from sharing common space, even if you also have your own private space. It allows a kind of selfishness that doesn’t come at the cost to someone else. Only now, thinking about it, do I realize that many people, including many of those closest to me, have never done it.
I found, last time, that it helped me know what I really wanted. If no one else was around, I didn’t think about what or when anyone else wanted to eat, or when it was bedtime or quiet time. I ate when I was hungry and slept when I was tired and watched every episode of Sex and the City and came home from yoga ridiculously sweaty and waited a whole hour before rinsing off. I drank a beer in the shower. I got in touch with my own rhythms and tastes. Of course, one can do these things when a co-habitant is traveling. But now, the arrangement of the furniture, the art on the walls, the insistence on the spinning bike in the living room, the books overflowing the shelves—things that make up the character of the space are mine. When people come over, they see a reflection of me, not of some amalgamation of people.
And now designing a house for just me, where other people may advise but they don’t get to vote, it’s the same thing magnified. Which feels appropriate, eleven years later. I wouldn’t have known what to ask for, or how to insist on it, then. It is a step into self-possession that I don’t think I could have achieved before thirty, nor if this had been my first experience at paying attention to the specifics of what I require for myself alone.
But there’s also the risk of going too far, too deep into one’s own preferences. I could lose touch with compromise and evolution and the unexpected. I can’t count the number of times I’ve learned of a new band because a roommate was listening in the kitchen, or flipped through a book I’d never have read because a lover had left it in the bathroom. I’d never tried baba ganoush until the law-and-order-obsessed roommate’s visiting family left some out for me in the shared kitchen.
Of course you can get all these things from non-co-habitating interactions, but it has to be deliberate. You don’t pick up other people’s interesting clouds of tastes and ideas the same way when they’re visiting or you’re in public together as you do when at home. The choice to live alone, for me, also requires a commitment to putting some effort into togetherness.
Who’s she when she’s at home? That’s the question I had to have some answers to before I could take this on—and as I refine the plans, I learn more and more of the answers.
Amy Knight is the fiction editor for Terrain.org. In this weekly blog series, she chronicles the process of designing and building an eco-friendly house in Tucson, Arizona. The series will explore both how it’s done and what it means, from the perspective of someone who wants to do the right thing but knows almost nothing about sustainable building. Look for new posts every Monday. You can email Amy at [email protected] or leave a comment here.