When I was around eight, I came down with a case of Chicken Pox. A thing that no one seems to get anymore, that I’ve seen. I happened to be infected while I was visiting my dad and his wife, a woman who I’m fairly certain despised me. For most of my youth, until they divorced when I was in college, my dad and this woman lived in a house in a suburb of Austin called Pflugerville. But for a brief period they rented an older house in Austin proper, and this was where I spent my convalescence. The house’s foundation was lifted off the ground a good three or four feet, so an elevated concrete porch with steps leading up to it had been erected at some point. The garage, however, had no such assistance; it just ended in a narrow lip like a loading dock, never to be parked in. I spent much of that week of sickness alone on that narrow lip, covered in calamine lotion and sent outside to stay away from everyone like a pink-spotted leper, trying not to scratch myself and keeping my arms and legs gently spread to avoid patches of skin touching and making me itch (or sweat).
The opportunities to be alone as a child were few and far between. My mom worked two jobs - rising at 3 am to deliver newspapers and then heading to her day job as an administrative assistant in a doctor’s office. Even though I was what the era would call a “latchkey kid,” I rarely actually ended up at home alone before or after school. In between her jobs, my mom would deposit me at school much earlier than the posted start time, where a kind teacher who took pity on our situation would let me into the building and find me a desk to sit at quietly and read or draw until school began (by the time high school rolled around, I had early morning band practices to attend and spent my “bonus time” in the band hall or newspaper office in the offseason). After school, especially when I was young, we took advantage of low- and no-cost enrichment programs at school or, more often, of the kindness of family friends. I was particularly fond of my “Aunt” Bea, who lived a few blocks away and didn’t have much more than we did but somehow shared it all - cooking lessons and used books and handmade holiday gifts and plenty of hugs. There are worse people than Bea to aspire to be.
We moved a lot in a relatively short period of time; between the ages of 8 and 14, I think I can remember 6 or 7 distinct homes, included a six-month stint in a motel on the side the freeway with carpeted floors so disgusting I always wore flip flops indoors. But we had a pool! My favorite of the places we lived was the house at the end of the cul-de-sac, with the huge backyard filled with trees perfect for climbing, giant trees with branches situated like ladders that let me perch five stories above the street. My sister and her kids lived with Mom and I at this point, and my nieces and nephews and I would hop the fence separating the neighborhood from a nearby quarry and explore the rock piles, not nearly as freaked out by the doused campfires and used toilet paper we found as we would be now. We explored giant sewer tunnels that let us cross under the freeway to get to the closest convenience store, where we stole candy more than once (I think the owner knew we were doing it and didn’t care). The power was often shut off due to non-payment, so my memories have the constant hum of a gas-powered generator in the background. Another house backed to small cliff and the dried-up creekbed below, and weekends were spent scurrying up and down the cliff and exploring for hours, pretending we’d hop the next train we saw coming on the nearby tracks and going to so far as to pack a bag more than once. We never actually saw a train on those tracks, but we had top-notch picnics with the supplies we’d brought.
My sister eventually got married and moved into her own house, and then my brother moved in with Mom and I along with his infant daughter. He’d been overseas as a translator in the Army, married a Korean woman, and came home with a half-Korean daughter when he decided to leave the Army and his wife decided she’d rather be married to a serviceman and found someone to replace him. My niece arrived in the US speaking no English and eating only hot dogs and uncooked ramen. For many months, we vacuumed several times a day to avoid stepping on the spiky crumbs of noodle blocks she carried around and gnawed at; stepping on those crumbs was definitely more painful than stepping on LEGOs. The four of us shared a two-bedroom duplex; it’s definitely not every teenage girl’s dream to share a King-sized waterbed with her mom, but we made it work.
And… I was never really alone much again. I went off to college and lived in a variety of places with an assortment of roommates. My freshman year, I had the girl who had just moved back to the States from South Africa with her missionary parents and was best friends with the girl across the hall who liked to wander around naked except for a “dress” hastily made of Saran Wrap any time she got drunk (we attended an ostensibly “Christian” college). My sophmore year I started the year with an opera major with questionable hygiene who liked to rehearse at 3 am after I’d come home late from the journalism building trying to crash before my early classes. We didn’t make it to the end of the first semester, and I moved to a new dorm where I could have a room to myself but still live in close proximity to all my best friends. My junior year I had my own on-campus apartment (really just another glorified dorm room that came with a kitchenette); since I didn’t have a driver’s license to get me off campus and my long hours as editor-in-chief of the campus newspaper meant I’d be walking home in the dark, the school saw fit to bend the rules and let me live in the subsidized grad student housing, where the other residents adopted me and would come over to watch marathons of Felicity and other WB shows my mom had sent from home recorded carefully on VHS tapes because Abilene didn’t get The WB. I finally moved off campus my senior year and lived with two amazing girls in a what, at the time, seemed like an incredible house a block from campus (it was on the verge of tipping over in a stiff wind). And every summer in between, I was either at home in Austin or with an entirely different set of roommates.
After college, I moved back home for good and lived with my mom and brother. Jobs were hard to come by, and the only consistent work I had was as a cashier at Central Market, truly one of the best grocery stores on the planet. When they discovered my design aptitude, they moved me from the registers to the store office where I designed flyers for floral and produce sales and frequently left my desk to “front” all the products when the store was not busy - turning all the labels to the front of the shelf fed right into my love of organization. My brother and I didn’t always see eye to eye, but there were worse roommates to have. And that period left me with some pretty colorful stories - like the time my brother’s live-in girlfriend, an exotic dancer, came home drunk from a shift and dumped her tips out on the kitchen floor for me to count at 2 am. But I eventually was tempted to move to Dallas by my best friend Leia, and we shared the bottom floor of a house with another friend. The house had been split into two units and ours had just been remodeled while the other was vacant awaiting its finish, and our landlords lived in the house next door. It was a house that hosted many parties, and I paid extra for the master bedroom so I could have the soaking tub. I dropped my iron on the floor once and melted a small patch of the Berber just outside my bathroom door; when we moved out, the landlords kept a portion of my security deposit because of “something sticky” they couldn’t figure out how to remove from the carpet. And I moved from that house to an apartment in Colorado with my then-boyfriend, and then to a house we built after we got married. And then another house. And another. And that extended period of sharing houses brings us to the present day.
For the first time in my life, I don’t live with anyone. There is not a roommate in another part of the house, or a suitemate next door. At night, things feel impossibly… quiet. I don’t mind being by myself, but I was surprised at just how lonely it feels. Sometimes I find myself craving another person - not necessarily someone to talk to, or even be in the room with me, but just to be present or nearby or take up space (although if they wanted to watch a movie or something, that’s cool too). I’m not terribly social, generally, but I find myself wanting to invite people over - to see them as people but also to give my house some much-needed other-people energy. And I wait for friends who are assuredly busy with their own lives to draw me in; I’m not one to write myself into a story already in progress uninvited. I grew up watching sitcoms, and houses in those shows always seemed to have a perpetually unlocked back door and at least one character who would come over at will to raid the fridge and hang out for comic relief. In the present day, I give friends their own door codes and hope they drop by (one actually has, and found me on the couch watching a Boeing documentary - scandal!). I optimistically bought the giant sectional sofa with the queen-sized pull-out bed, hoping for houseguests. There’s something a little comforting about seeing someone else’s shoes at the door or coat on the hook, and cooking just for myself is a challenge. Right now the idea of finding a roommate sounds incredibly appealing, to help fill up the quiet corners and light the dark hallways. I don’t anticipate living alone forever, but I’m unexpectedly learning a skill I never thought I’d need - the art of living alone.