It took several tries to settle upon the basement apartment that my girlfriend Abby and I would move into after graduating from Oberlin College in 2011.
I had wanted to live in the suburbs of Bethesda, a short bus ride from my internship at the National Institutes of Health. For me, the apartment would be a temporary shelter while I applied to graduate schools in other parts of the country. In contrast, Abby wanted to live 10 miles away in Washington, D.C., to make a home in the cramped heat of the city. She had found college too abstract and aimless, and was excited to enter the real world.
“Ever since I was a little kid, I just wanted to get a job. To work in a coffee shop,” she told me shortly before graduation.
Because Abby spent the summer harvesting strawberries on a farm in Oregon with limited internet access, the apartment search had largely fallen on my shoulders. Each morning, I would rise from my childhood bedroom in central New Jersey and stumble down to the kitchen. When my parents left for work, I prepared a bowl of cereal and opened the laptop.
I began by evaluating the cheapest apartments—even spending several days looking into government-assisted housing. Once, I came across an advertisement that seemed too good to be true. The sheen and gloss of the building shone through my grimy computer screen: a rooftop pool and concierge desk, interiors with dark wooden walls and lights that hung from the ceiling in long columns.
“Hello. I saw your posting online,” I said when I called the property. “Are there really rooms available for $800?”
“No sir,” a man’s voice replied. “It is $800,000 to buy.” The advertisement had left off the last three zeros.
“Oh,” I said. “Thank you.” After a few more seconds, I hung up the phone.
“Wow, I love it,” Abby said, walking down into the apartment. It was late August and we were carrying boxes of clothes and kitchenware through the back door.
“Really?” I said. “But it’s in the basement.” When the rental agent had shown me the apartment I asked her about the language of the listing. It’s called a garden-level apartment, she explained, because your head is at ground level.
“That’s the best part,” Abby said. “It’s like our own little world.”
The apartment, located near downtown D.C., had a quirky enchantment. It was one in a row of brightly colored townhouses, but even among the vivid adobe reds and sky blues, the pineapple yellow of our building’s facade stood out. Inside, there was a bedroom, one large combination kitchen and living room, and a small bathroom. Because the previous tenant had vandalized the apartment, the entire area had been retiled and painted. There was a new refrigerator, washer, and dryer. Each time I did laundry, I spent minutes entranced by the front-loading washing machine—it had a circular door, like a porthole, through which I watched my soapy clothes cycle through frothy water.
I liked nights in the apartment the most. As I fell asleep, the world became loose around the edges. Streetlamps filtered through the curtains, coloring the walls chalk blue. Just above my head, an occasional passerby, the jingle of a leash, the whine of a dog. My consciousness seemed to drift up through the building and back down again. There was at once the feeling of being part of a larger whole while also safely secluded away from the world.
My parents disapproved of Abby and I living together. Before we moved in, my mother sent a group email to both families describing her concerns. In it she had written, “I just don’t think Justin is ready to start a small family.”
Moving in accentuated the growing rift in our relationship. In D.C., my tendency to prioritize work over friends developed into a singular focus on laboratory experiments and graduate school applications, while Abby’s desire to be in the real world led her to stay out late exploring the city. The stress from work left me sullen and distant. I was always looking to the future, while Abby was grounding herself in the present.
In November, Abby ended our relationship by assembling an Ikea bed in the kitchen. I couldn’t help admiring her as she sat within the bed frame with piles of screws arranged in orbit on the floor. She had always been handier than me; at Oberlin, she built bikes and mended clothes. After the breakup, our apartment seemed to expand in size to accommodate our new living arrangement. Within weeks, it was no longer strange to open the door to my bedroom and walk into another bedroom. Her bed, with its teal comforter and pair of teddy bears, seemed cozy next to the humming refrigerator.
Over months, Abby and I learned to become good roommates. Without the pressure of a relationship, we enjoyed performing small favors—buying extra groceries or leaving small cards on the kitchen table. We were also lonely, for each other and the people we had been, and the favors were an acknowledgement of our past. Abby enjoyed sharing small dishes made from oats or lentils, which I considered delicacies because the ingredients had to be soaked overnight.
One evening it rained—an unexpectedly violent storm—and I trekked over to the cafe where Abby worked.
“Wow,” she said as I came, dripping, through the entrance. “I was just saying to myself that I wish Justin Chen would walk through that door with an umbrella. Then I looked up and there you were!”
In the summer, giddy with the heat and humidity, we acted like children, chasing each other around the apartment, taking turns trying to headbutt each other. Other times I would put my head up through her shirt so that we faced each other, sharing the same neckline. We contemplated renewing our relationship but decided instead on a blurry state between friends and romantic partners. It was easier to be together without thinking of the future. In the isolated, floating world of the apartment, it seemed like we could go on this way forever.
When it was time to move out, Abby’s mother came to spend the night. In the morning they would transport her belongings to another apartment in D.C., and I would begin my move to Boston to study developmental biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Emptying out the apartment felt like going back in time, back to when the basement was bare, our lives fresh and uncomplicated. While her mother slept in the kitchen, Abby and I laid together in bed, without touching, waiting for but not wanting the sun to come up.
In the eight years since I’ve left Washington, D.C., I’ve lived in seven apartments, all above ground. Abby and I still talk about once a month. We discuss our mutual college friends, her rescue dog (a Pitbull named Eloise), and magical realist novels. Occasionally, we reminisce about the basement. Perhaps because it was my first apartment, it is the one that has felt most like home to me. Those 600 square feet had the comfort and disorientation of a liminal space; they contained the transition from adolescence to adulthood, from romance to friendship.
Or maybe the apartment lingers in my mind because it’s where I began to realize who I was. Living in D.C. was the first (but not last) time my workaholism would hamper a relationship. It was where I first experienced the toll research took on my mental health and personal relationships—a cost that would lead me to leave science six years later, after completing my PhD. I’ve retraced all the missteps and winding paths of my adulthood back to that year in D.C. with Abby—to our fights, our inside jokes, dinner parties with the medical students upstairs, late-night conversations, our diverging hopes for the future, to that last morning, when I climbed up wide-eyed from my apartment into the glare of the morning and said goodbye to it all.
Justin Chen lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, and works in nonprofit communications. His writing has appeared in True Story, the New York Times Modern Love column, STAT, and Essay Daily. He is currently a writer-in-residence at Porter Square Books. See what he is up to at https://www.justinchen.space and follow along on Twitter @atJustinChen.