I am by nature a solitary person. I prefer my own company to that of most other people. The periods of my life when I had a roommate, in boarding school and college, I despised the person I was forced to live with and concocted schemes to rid myself of their presence. I’ve lived alone since I was twenty, so I’ve never really needed to learn to be accommodating to anyone else.
Unsurprisingly, I have never been in a romantic relationship that’s lasted longer than a night.
For the past two weeks, one of my closest friends has been staying with me in my 700 square foot apartment. We share one bedroom and one bathroom. We sleep together in my queen-sized bed at night. We have two dogs between us. Suddenly I find myself living in what looks a lot like married domesticity, the fact that she is a lesbian and I am a gay man matters little. It is the most intimate and longest period of time I’ve spent with another person.
We find ourselves naturally adopting certain responsibilities without having to communicate them. She does the laundry and cleans the bathroom. I load and unload the dishwasher, take out the garbage and make the coffee. It’s an arrangement that seems to work pretty well for both of us. And the fact that neither of us has had a fight and still like one another is a remarkable feat.
“I wouldn’t mind being married to a gay man,” she told me the other day. “I think you could do better than that,” I replied.
This live-in arrangement, while temporary, has been excellent practice for that possible day when I might be in a genuine romantic relationship, one in which I cohabit with someone I love.
These past two weeks, I’ve been forced to think about someone other than myself. I find myself thinking about ways that I choose to react to things. There are always two ways to respond to things we don’t like: with anger and frustration, or with acceptance and compassion.
This must be why they say that marriage, or maintaining any committed relationship, requires a lot of work. There are times when her presence frustrates me and I wish she’d go – when she leaves the bathroom a mess of makeup and hair appliances, when her dog pees inside and I have to clean it up, when she asks me advice about what she’s wearing and I couldn’t care less. But the tradeoff is that she’s also there if I need help with something, picks up more toilet paper when we’re out, and is a welcome presence at the dinner table.
Relationships are full of these unspoken compromises. She didn’t want to hear a Tibetan mantra I had been playing on repeat for hours anymore, and I didn’t want to hear a song by Mariah Carey she wanted to play. I turned off my mantra and she turned off Mariah.
Anyone’s presence, even that of a lover, can become overwhelming and nagging with too much intensity of togetherness. When I was in Goa, I hooked up with the most gorgeous Russian man. He was so beautiful I felt like I could have spent an eternity just looking at him. We spent the afternoon together, and then the night, and then the next morning. After nearly 24 hours together, intertwined, I began to feel suffocated. I needed some alone time again to recalibrate. Also he really needed to brush his teeth.
Through the closeness of another, I’m learning how to be more compassionate and thoughtful. When I run out to Whole Foods, I ask if she needs anything. When I’m making eggs, I ask if she wants me to make her some as well. These are not my natural reflexes – I have to consciously think about the other person and what they might want.
While I am not alone in fantasizing about domestic bliss filled with morning cuddles, impromptu afternoon kisses, and evening sex, living in such close quarters with someone has awakened me to the basic realities of cohabitation: unpleasant odors emanating from the bathroom, the sound of someone else crunching food across the table, endless amounts of glasses that need cleaning.
If this over exposure is detrimental to friendship, it’s toxic to romance. I am convinced that separate bathrooms are essential for a successful, long-lasting relationship. When there is no mystery left to the person, when you’ve watched them floss their teeth and clip their toenails, sexual desire starts to whither and die.
But living alone for long periods of time one loses the ability to relate to other people. Eccentricities become engrained parts of the personality. Living with someone else is a bit like practicing yoga. It teaches you flexibility, removing the rigidity of your ways. You become more caring, compassionate, aware.
I can choose to grow and open my heart to another person, or I can choose to live like a crabby old man at twenty-five.