My boyfriend and I are in a long-distance relationship. He lives in Manhattan, and I live in Brooklyn. We take turns ferrying back and forth on the F train, carrying our computers and stashes of clean underwear. We have been doing this for five years. When people inquire as to why we still live apart, I struggle to answer. I feel like my response will seem only to imply a deeper issue that we’ve yet to acknowledge. The truth is I can’t stand my boyfriend’s apartment.
By New York standards, my boyfriend’s apartment is a gem of a place. It’s a rentstabilized one-bedroom with a sunken living room and four big closets in Murray Hill. He has a doorman, an elevator and a sweet Siamese cat. I live in a fourth floor walk-up in Park Slope and have to haul my laundry and groceries up 50 stairs. I have a landlady who only speaks Italian and wags her finger at me when my boyfriend sleeps over. I fantasize about having what he has: a washer and dryer in the basement, pre-war mouldings and a one-block walk to the subway. I spend every weekend in his apartment, but I feel compelled to return each Monday to my brownstone in Brooklyn because my boyfriend’s apartment is home to a mess so chaotic that I feel I will disintegrate if I stay in it too long.
The mess is mostly paper. There are stacks of it on every available surface. The stacks are made of bills, junk mail, magazines, manuscripts, poetry, novels and notebooks. There are stacks on the kitchen table; stacks on the floor by the desk; stacks on the couch; stacks on the dressers in the bedroom; stacks on the back of the toilet. Sometimes I try to organize the stacks: books in one pile; magazines in another, unopened mail on top of opened mail. But if I shuffle the stacks my boyfriend can’t find anything, and it inevitably leads to a fuss. Each weekend he clears a small space for me at the desk by his front door. And each week when I return the desk is covered with a new snowfall of paper.
When I’m in the apartment, I become very drowsy and lethargic. I sleep for 12 hours at a time, eat chocolate and watch The Real Housewives of Miami in bed with the cat. It’s as if the apartment repels discipline of any sort for me. My boyfriend, however, is very productive amidst the chaos: He writes for hours, creates art, reads stacks of books and numerous newspapers daily, and unwinds with some Turner Classic Movies. He seems to need the chaos, protests when I suggest we agree upon a place to store the scissors, the screwdriver, the tape. Couldn’t we just agree, I’ll plead, that the stapler lives here? We can agree, he says, but I can’t promise I’ll put it back there the next time I use it.
You might think that the mess bothers me because I am a neat freak. You would be wrong. I have my own swirling mess at home. Mine consists of clothing piled upon chairs, a dresser strewn with coins, pills, coffee cups and unopened mail. The fact that I leave my empty cereal bowl in my bedroom for weeks at a time is evidence to my boyfriend that I am messier than he. Dishes, he claims, trump paper any time. But for me, the mold on his shower curtain and the grime in his refrigerator trumps my slovenliness. As my boyfriend is quick to point out, we all can tolerate our own messes more easily than we can tolerate anyone else’s. So he functions in his mess and I function in mine, but neither of us can function in each other’s. And I fear the marriage of our messes. I fear that I will cease to be able to function if his collage clippings are mixed up with my prescription receipts, and his ab-cruncher becomes a fixture next to my enormous paper shredder.
By now you are probably thinking that this is not just about the apartment. And you would be right. My boyfriend and I have some growing up to do. Did I mention we are in our fifties? Our bedrooms are the bedrooms of rebellious teenagers. The inability to keep an ordered home is adolescent. I long for an ordered home. Maybe this is what stops me from cohabitating, maybe it’s a refusal to mature on both our parts. So how do we grow up?
I know it has to start with me cleaning up my own mess. I’ve got to pay my taxes, file my insurance claims, get a mammogram, settle my debts and make amends to anyone I’ve harmed. I can’t clean up my boyfriend’s apartment. Only he can do that, and only if he wants to. I know I can’t hope for a relationship with no messes, but I’d like to be able to orient myself, to find the things I need. The solution may lie in a new apartment, an empty apartment where we could slowly, thoughtfully and successfully construct our late adulthood together. I have my sights set on Queens.