Some things in life are constant: death, taxes, and a strange smell that's either coming from your kitchen or the old guy in the apartment below you who's just died.
Being in your 20s is good, isn't it? It goes in three phases: a bubbling sense of I'm-destined-for-greatness euphoria and excitement for the years to come that quickly melts and folds to ugly first-job apathy; a bad breakup at 25 that either makes you go full gear-and-beer off the rails or turns you into a yogic health nut who makes your own yogurt; and then that acceleration toward the "30" milestone, where you start realizing you haven't done enough to justify adulthood yet and might never truly live up to your potential. And then, just like that, your 20s are gone.
And you'll live in seven shit apartments while you do it. Sorry, but it's the rules. Just as Scrooge was visited by three ghosts, so you will be visited by seven hair-gelled real estate brokers twirling keys and asking you for $500 cash to do some simple photocopying. This is the second puberty we all unknowingly go through: switching from apartment to apartment, leaving behind a book here, a lamp there, a TV stand yonder, a good pot that still lives four neighborhoods over with an ex. And then, lo, you are shaped and smoothed by them like a stone in a river. Here they all are. Figure out which one you're currently paying $300 too much a month for!
Leaving behind that yearlong Red Bull–headache feeling of living in the dorms, your first entry into the rental market would most likely have been your student house. First thing you notice: Apparently not all properties these days come with storm windows. Second thing you notice: The landlord is either on some I-don't-live-in-this-town-so-I-can't-fix-it missing person shit, or is some guy who lets himself in with a massive keyring and an abrupt knock on the first of every month asking for the rent in cash.
Student-apartment living always goes one of two ways: If it's all male, you all end up spending 17 hours a day playing video games in silence while the one of you who is least psychologically capable of maintaining a weed habit develops a really big weed habit, and there is a single traffic cone always in one corner. If it's all female, everything starts out with selfies and #SundayBrunch and getting into one another's beds to watch Netflix, and all of this inevitably descends into a screaming match and four months of silence over who used whose razor to shave their legs with.
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Off-Campus Housing: Part Two
It's junior year, and everything in the first house fell apart, so you and a couple of others from your major decided to find somewhere different, only you decided too late—you started all optimistic that you could steal in ahead of the sophomores and get that one good house right by the bar and the bus to school because you went looking nice and early, but now it's May, and you're all looking at places two miles out because it's all you can find for $700 each—and just like every off-campus house, it's inoffensive with beige-colored carpets, heavy fire doors painted white in every possible corridor, and a garden where you all throw beer cans. You draw the short straw and get the ground-floor room with all the mold in it. So it is, and so it always will be.
That First "Real World" Apartment
People keep talking to you about the "real world," now that you're no longer a student (and your tongue has bled from all the time you bit it and didn't try to explain that this concept was totally arbitrary), and that apparently means two things: You have to get a "real place to live," and you have to start tucking your shirt into your pants, for some reason.
A brief interlude at your parents begins, though you'll need a job to stop the interlude from becoming the main event of your life. At home, routine settles in: You're back to fighting with your parents, playing phone tag with your old school pals, and getting unnecessarily drunk on Mondays.
Anyway, it's been 14 months since you graduated now, and armed with the resolve that the post-college drop is well behind you, you go back out into the rental market to get yourself an actually decent living space in a big city—probably in New York, but Boston can do it as well.
You quickly realize you can only afford somewhere quite small either in Queens or the Bronx, and you need all of your saved birthday-card money from your grandparents to get you over the 12-week deposit. Your mom also has to co-sign your lease, and the real estate agent was rude to her when she signed and said that she had to guarantee the whole property and not just one person, and she got a bit flustered and signed, and you sort of gently coerced her into doing it—a bit, not a lot—but you didn't exactly stand up to the estate agent when he changed the contract to do this, and you tell her you're sure Tariq, Harry, and Joe will be good for the money, and it'll never come to that anyway, you promise her; anyway, you're taking the little room on the smallest rent, so you won't ask her for any more money favors, promise.
The shit apartment turns out shittier than expected: Outside, shit pipes leak, and water from the bath upstairs pulls off the living room wallpaper within two weeks. You call the estate agent, who never answers his phone. You call him again. A week goes by. You email and call to see if he got the email. This is who you have become. You notice the estate agent seems to have two fundamentally divergent personalities: One is the calm demeanor of a methodical serial killer tabloids describe at his trial as being "charming," with all the warmth of a python trying to figure out how to take you down; and the other is this flustered guy who pretends to work his ass off for you, even though nothing has happened, and you've been ringing and emailing all week, and it's taken over your brain so all you can think about is him. You've even started giving him little pet names (the "Dickhead," "Lord Fuck") to take the edge off in your house WhatsApp group.
You also notice, but decide to worry about later, the fact that all you and your group-chat friends ever talk about now is house stuff—there used to be banter in here, didn't there? There used to be memes. Now it's just photos of sinister-looking wall mold and 300-word rants about waste in the sink.
Parent's House: Part Two
Back again, but with a sense of gratitude for the simple things. You gave up the shit apartment—prompted by a lot of boyfriends and girlfriends moving in and taking about three months of complaining before begrudgingly deciding to chip in a bit toward bills in return for the now insane shower pressure in the only bathroom in the whole house—and now you're home to mommy. The whole vibe had changed there, anyway—you had all agreed this was at least going to be a party house to make up for the problems, but one of the newly moved-in boyfriends regularly puts you into apoplexy when he asks you to turn down your music at 10:30 PM, and there's a screaming match one night about the right way to do recycling, so you move out, and someone's boyfriend takes your room as a study. You still haven't confided in anyone on your anxieties about the outdoor shit pipe, but you figured they'll probably find out about it sooner or later.
Thank God for House Sitting
Some pal needs you to house sit his parents place for the summer—she has a real job already so can't do it herself—and after four months at your mom's house, you are now transported to heaven: freedom, silence, full control over the TV, a dog to look after. You love a good well-stocked fridge. You start thinking about how you'd like a place like this one, one day. What you'd really love is to live in an actually nice apartment and have a good job. Alone. Like this. Like it was possible to imagine you could do, back in the old days. After six weeks, you begrudgingly hand the keys back with an envelope posted through the front door, but that feeling of longing—that deep, fundamental urge to have a door and a ceiling and a house to yourself—only grows and spreads throughout the whole of your 20s.
Fuck It: I'm Moving
You say this with a steely glint in your eye. Only this time, you mean it: You've read all those online articles, and you've got a friend up there who says it's brilliant. You've got another pal who feels the same about New York—"Shit city," he says, scrolling through Tinder with his phone screen set to a picture of his ex, "Shithole"—so you both decide to fuck it off and party it in some other city. YOLO ISN'T OVER, DUDE: 26 IS STILL YOUNG.
You get an apartment off a direct landlord on Zillow as soon as you arrive, somehow. You can't believe your luck: You don't have a job, but he doesn't seem to mind. He has a lovely accent and looks like the type of guy you could really get along with. And plus it's… like… actually nice, here? The first place you've paid money to stay in and not utterly loathed.
Turns out this apartment sucks, too. Again the shower leaks into downstairs. Again your pal Dan's bedroom wall is way too soft for a structure that has pretensions to solidity. Again you learn that having no central heating is actually quite a big problem when September rolls around. It's at this point you realize that finding the previous tenants' burnt pizza crusts in the oven is the true tragedy of all shit apartments everywhere.
Your Final Destination
You've been in this place three years—God, has it really been three? At this point, it's a Choose Your Own Ending. Either you accepted, the previous deal, or you're moving to a bigger city. And so you get the van back down again.
This apartment's not so bad. You sort of wistfully remember the outdoor shit pipe, and your apartment's incomparably nicer now. Well, the landlord's still a bastard and is still pretty absent, but you earn money now and the real estate agents now at least pretend to treat you as an equal. Even when they were back-combing your previous earnings, demanding a LinkedIn as well as two character and two former employer references and asking for a written assessment of career trajectory from your current boss, who did you a solid on that one and said you were a "go-getter kind of guy," they still said they'd only do apartment inspections once a month, as it was procedure, which doesn't seem too bad. And they only said that one time about how you were breathing too much and causing all the condensation on the windows. Well, at least these days you don't have to vaguely trick your mom into covering for you.
The apartment's good: You've got a balcony now, but you've never ever met your neighbors, not once in three years, not even when your alcoholic friend Anna and you played "Witness the Fitness" really loudly at 2 AM in a desperate—to your surprise, failed attempt for—a bit of conversation around the place. You've got a partner now, and they live with you, so considering where it is, it's pretty cheap, and you can put all your books just there, and that cartoonist's impression of you two that you bought together on vacation goes over the comfy sofa. You can consider yourself pretty lucky.
One thing you've learned, though, you smile wryly—older and wiser and heading into your 30s, looking over the cranes and the concrete foundations of another new building just next door—you never, ever, ever get your deposit back.