I woke the other morning and thought my mother’s boyfriend was rustling around in the hallway. It felt early, like seven. It took another few seconds of consciousness for me to realize it was one of my roommates. I was in Brooklyn, in my new apartment, but I thought I was in New Jersey. I’d been homeless for seven weeks. That time has taught me, among many other things, that homelessness doesn’t have to look like sleeping on the street and that it’s disorienting no matter how it looks. Preceding the homelessness, my fiancé and I broke it off. We’d been together six years, engaged four. We were never going to get married.
At that time, in February, I swung into action. Friends showed up at my casita in Santa Fe with flowers and snacks to fold clothes into boxes, sit with me while I sorted scores of papers into piles, take bag after bag of trash to the curb. Their husbands came to move the boxes into my friend’s storage room, offered out of love. It was well-affirmed: we’ve got you. Whatever you need. You are loved.
The homelessness started right away. I couldn’t sleep in the house we’d shared for four years for even one night without him. The first night, I stayed at the custom-built home of my married friends in a town just outside of Santa Fe called, fittingly, Eldorado. Then I spent three nights on the couch of my other married friends in town, who have an almost-two-year-old I adore beyond measure. He woke me up every morning by sing-songing my name from his bedroom, rushing out to beam at me and make art together with crayons and watercolors. Then I hopped a plane to the East Coast, where I’m from.
This started a back-and-forth that lasted six-and-a-half weeks. A few nights in New Jersey in my high school bedroom. A week in the West Village with my best friend of twenty-three years, a fifteen minute walk from my childhood apartment. Back to New Jersey for a week. Back to New York for a week. And on and on.
There is a particular flavor of this kind of homelessness: each home I inhabited was a reflection of what these people had, and, inherently, what I did not have. In Eldorado, my newlywed friends in their newly finished bungalow underlined married bliss in a shocking, sickly-sweet way. My friends with the baby had a more modest but no less cozy home, and the baby, while he healed me in an infinite and marked way, only made my womb ache with the knowledge that I was that much farther from being a mother myself.
My friend’s place in the West Village was an immaculate studio, shared with her commercial-director boyfriend, who was away in Capetown on a shoot for the month, which left a temporarily available spot in her dreamy white bed for me. And my mother’s—that was the worst. I promised myself when I moved to Santa Fe that I would never live with her again. I’d done that for a few years after dropping out of college. But there I was. I love her more than anyone else in the world. It has nothing to do with love. There’s an innate failure in living with one’s mother. It’s like walking around with a sign on your forehead that says, I can’t take care of myself.
I moved around constantly. I was never in the same place for more than a week. It got so I could pack a suitcase in under an hour. Everything I needed was in tiny bottles. Little piles. I knew which toiletry went in which bag, and how to Jenga everything into each compartment so it would all zip. Packing is a science.
I wasn’t sure where I wanted to be. At first, I thought I’d find a sublet for March 1st, a little over two weeks after the breakup. But I felt ambivalent about New York. Could I be alone in the big city? I pictured myself crying uncontrollably on the bedroom floor of a stranger, surrounded by weird roommates in their respective cubbyholes. It seemed too much. So I steeled myself for a month of depending on the kindness of family and friends.
After a month of that, I’d had all I could take. It was a long month. Truly: March has thirty-one days. They couldn’t pass fast enough.
Also, I was healing infinitesimally each day. I couldn’t tell, but now I can. It’s Friday afternoon and the sun is out and it’s in the high seventies but Accuweather’s Real Feel puts the temp at eighty-two. Bon Iver’s Bon Iver plays and I’m wearing perfume that smells salty, like the beach, and my rings and necklaces and bracelets like armor.
In other words, today is a very good day.
To have my own space is to fully inhabit my own body. I think of things I need: Q-tips, lotion, more toothpaste. I can think of ordering these things, think of being home to sign for them—think of being home at all, in the truest sense of the word—because I am no longer a vagrant. And that is, verifiably, what it is: vagrancy. To have no official address is disconcerting more than anything else in the world.
This is not necessarily permanent. I have a lease for six months. But I can always take part in the game of musical chairs that is the New York housing market. There will always be a spot for me to sit when the song clicks off. Right now, the song is ebullient, buoyant. It’s the song that has inexplicably been going through my head through all of this: Drake’s “Hold On.” No mistake there. I’m coming home, indeed.
And I’m at a big blonde wood table in the kitchen by the fire escape and one wall is painted royal blue and there are golden picture frames with no prints inside, no portraits, just the blue wall singled out by antiqued rectangles. They seem to say, this space is for you.
It is. For six months, and maybe more. If not this, something better. That’s been my mantra, for the past seven weeks and until further notice.
I’m just happy to have a home. Life is bountiful. When I fully release the thing that has me stuck—the belief, the job, the city, the cyclic thought pattern—space opens, and that thing is replaced with something better. I get to find out what happens next. And to my mind, there’s nothing better than that.
I’d never experienced homelessness before. As an adult, I always paid rent. I lived alone, and then I met my to-be-affianced and we moved in together. I did very little couch-surfing, except while traveling, when it feels exciting and fun.
There I was, for the past two months, almost, relying on the soft sheets and rumpled pillows of friends and family.
I don’t want to diminish the plight of those homeless on the street by calling myself homeless. I know I am beyond blessed to have such a wiry mesh of support to catch me during this transition. I did not have to spend a single night in a hotel, or a motel, or a shelter, or a cardboard box. I know the only thing separating me from that scenario is kindness. Love.
Technically, though, I was homeless. When acquaintances asked, Where are you living now? I would say, I don’t know. I’d wrinkle my nose and say, I don’t belong anywhere! It might have sounded dramatic, but it was the truth. I felt as though I had to ask permission to put my head down on a pillow at night. I had to follow various relatively arcane rules, depending on the house.
At my mother’s, I had to keep my shoes off on the stairs because the sound of my heels against the wood disturbed the neighbor. At my friend’s in the West Village, I wasn’t supposed to entertain a certain gentleman visitor. I disobeyed, and wound up banished from having that option again. I know: my fault, and I take full responsibility. But then I had one less option, felt even more hopeless, homeless. The only difference between those two words is one letter.
I am a privileged woman in a privileged, entitled country. I know it could have been much worse. I know some would say, come off it. Cut it out. You were never homeless. You want to see homeless? The Bowery, once upon a time. Skid Row. Tompkins Square Park.
Absolutely. My limbo could have gone a thousand more awful ways. It could have gone on longer. I could have had to move around more frequently than I did. My friends and family could have not intervened, or, scarier still, not existed. I could have found myself alone, sleeping on a grate on the street.
Not only did none of that happen, I was given hundreds of tiny gifts along the way. My fashion editor friend gave me a giant bag of designer clothing my first week in New York. Friends from around the country called, texted, emailed and post-mailed love. They asked how I was. They invited me to do things with them. They sent me things I needed.
My time as a homeless woman in America is laughable when compared to the straits of homelessness around the world. It’s not to be confused or denied, though: I was homeless. Now I am not. The difference between March 31st and April 1st was tangible, a presence large enough to take up the whole floor of a building in Brooklyn, this incredible three-bedroom space that has a full set of dishes and big open windows and a backyard and a roof and two dogs.
To be homeless, even in this somewhat benign way, is to be without purchase. It’s hard to coordinate simple things: mail, groceries, a rainy afternoon with a handsome man who wants to come over and kiss you. All of these things are complicated when you have no place of your own, when you are in someone else’s space. You have to conform to the dictates of that particular environment, and believe me: there are confines to every situation. Nothing is perfect, but this apartment feels pretty close. It feels like a reward. For being patient, and waiting until I was sure to commit to New York. To the city, I say: I do. For now.
Bibi Deitz has an MFA in fiction from Bennington College. Her work has appeared
in places such as Paper, Bomb and The Rumpus. More at bibideitz.com.