I stood alone in an empty apartment. Actually, it was my apartment now, but my brain hadn’t absorbed that part yet. I don’t even remember signing the lease.
The floors of the apartment were scuffed hardwood. I was one of many tenants who had walked on these floors over the years, and it showed. I had no furniture, so my steps echoed throughout the apartment. I’d been mumbling to myself under my breath, talking myself into my life, and I stopped because hearing my own voice repeating in the empty rooms was too strange and jarring. The apartment was tiny – kitchen, bathroom, closet sized bedroom – so I’m not sure why it echoed so intensely every time I moved.
There was almost nothing in the apartment. When I decided to leave Bruce, I did it in a hurry. It was now or never. I woke up one morning and saw the huge bruise on my arm and I knew I had to go. I did not stop to think about it or mentally debate it or make a pro/con list. I ignored the part of my heart that told me to stay, and told me that things had been difficult but they’d get better, of course they would, why wouldn’t they? This is temporary. Only it never was. Everything always stayed exactly the same.
That morning, I waited for Bruce to leave for work, pretending to be asleep, facing away from him while he got ready. Once he’d gone, before I even put my glasses on, I checked our bank account balance from my phone. I got out of bed, turned on my computer, and went to Craigslist. I found the cheapest piece of shit apartment within walking distance, called the landlord, and told him I wanted it. “Don’t you want to see it first?” he grumbled. “Usually people like to do a walkthrough before they put down a deposit.”
“No,” I said.
I offered no other information, and the landlord didn’t ask for it. He didn’t even ask for references or for my social security number so he could check my credit. I thought this was weird. It was too easy. Shouldn’t this be hard? Shouldn’t this be such a pain in the ass that I said screw it and decided to stay with Bruce because it wasn’t worth the trouble? At first I thought that the grumpy, gruff, bearded landlord somehow knew what I was doing, but logically I knew that there was no way for him to know.
That morning, I threw some stuff together, including my sleeping bag because I didn’t have a bed or a moving van or a car because Bruce drove our Corolla to work. I pulled one of the big camping backpacks out of the closet and stuffed it with clothes, but as I packed I wasn’t fully aware of what I was taking and what I was leaving. I took what I could carry, left my house key on the coffee table, and I walked to my new apartment. On my way, I stopped at an ATM, and I withdrew enough money to cover my first month’s rent, security deposit, and some extra for food or groceries. I’d been apprehensive about having a joint checking account, but now it served me well. Bruce would be furious when he noticed the money was gone, but I didn’t worry about that now.
The problem was that in my haste, I hadn’t packed very much or very well. In my bedroom, I laid everything I had out on the floor. For clothes, I had what I was wearing, plus three pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, a bra, a hoodie, an oversized t-shirt, a pair of Bruce’s pajama pants, and a pair of faded blue jeans. I had a facecloth, but not a human sized towel. I brought my toothbrush, but no toothpaste. I forgot deodorant and shampoo. I brought a book and a notebook and a pen. I’d thrown my cell phone in the garbage when I walked over, because I didn’t want Bruce to contact me, but I packed my phone charger.
After looking over what I’d brought, I decided to go to the store. I picked up my bag, made sure that I had my money and my wallet, added my new apartment key to my key ring, and walked out, locking the door behind me.
The store was within walking distance, which was part of why I chose this apartment, for the location. As I walked, I remembered that I still had our joint credit card in my wallet, but I knew Bruce would suspend it as soon as he realized that I wasn’t coming back.
I’d never lived alone before. I’d never been alone. I went from my mom to college to Bruce. I never had that beautiful, tumultuous period of time that we’re all supposed to have in our twenties to be alone and find myself and learn how to be a person without anyone attached to me. I used to feel fine about this. Bruce and I were in love, so I hadn’t needed it. Why would I need to be alone when I had him, when we had each other? Now, though, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t know what I needed. I didn’t know what to buy or who to call to turn on the electricity or what to do when I inevitably found a mouse in my apartment. I didn’t know how to fix anything. My future, when I thought about it, felt like a black hole. I’d never held a real job, and I had no idea how I’d pay my rent next month.
I tried to have a job after I graduated from college. I’d just moved back home after graduation, and Mom was struggling. She worked her regular job as a receptionist during the day, and at night she waited tables at the local diner, spending her evenings serving greasy cheeseburgers and fries to the people who lived in town. I already felt guilty about how much tuition cost at my fancy private college, even with the grants and scholarships I’d earned.
The job was as a bank teller. It paid very little, but it was better than unemployment. For the interview, I borrowed one of Mom’s old pencil skirts and paired it with a blouse and heels that were a half size too small for my feet.
I don’t remember the interview, but I got the job, so it must’ve gone well enough. I lasted three weeks before I quit. I couldn’t handle the constant interaction with customers. My small talk was awkward and forced, and I could tell that my coworkers thought I was weird. I bought all of my office clothes from a thrift store, and I didn’t look nearly as polished as the other women, with their manicured nails and silk blouses and perfectly straightened hair. I came home every night exhausted and defeated, and I knew I wasn’t performing as well as my coworkers. I cried myself to sleep at night.
It was around this time that I met Bruce at a bar. Bruce always claimed that this particular bar had the best selection of beer, and that’s why he was there that night, but I don’t know if it’s true.
As Bruce tells it, he saw me across the bar and it was the most magical moment of his life. He said I had remarkable hair, that it was every shade of blonde and gold imaginable. He came over and introduced himself. I was alone and sad, newly unemployed, and drinking a rum and Coke. After that, we were inseparable.
I spent nearly every night at his place, and sometimes I stayed during the day too. I did his laundry and cleaned his house during the day, and I cooked him dinner at night. On weekends, he took me to expensive restaurants for dinner, and we’d order lobster and steak and crème brulee for dessert, and we’d sit too close in corner booths, whispering and giggling like teenagers. I moved into his place after five months of dating. It felt like I was escaping.
Bruce was dreamy but angry. My mother loved him because he could support me. He had a stable, well paying job. She didn’t want me to struggle like had. As the years went on, he was promoted, but his new position was demanding. He often wouldn’t come home until after nine o’clock, exhausted and angry with the entire world, and resentful of me for not contributing more. If I made too much noise putting away dishes or watched a TV show that he found annoying, he’d yell and throw things. Then one day I forgot to buy milk from the grocery store, and he gave me a bloody nose. I spent the next three years working up to this moment. Here, alone in the grocery store, with my own apartment and taste of freedom.
I grabbed a cart and wandered around the store. First I picked up plastic cutlery, paper plates and cups, and paper towels. I bought the cheapest option of everything. That was easy, I thought. Food would be more challenging. After living with Bruce for four years, I felt like I didn’t know what I liked to eat anymore. I added a bunch of bananas to my cart. I chose crackers, mini donuts, Poptarts, a big bottle of water, and ramen noodles. In personal care, I bought soap, toothpaste, and shampoo. There, I thought, good enough for tonight. I felt proud as I walked to the front of the store to pay for my items. I’d successfully fed myself. I paid the cashier with exact change.
I walked home carrying my bag of food, feeling odd. Not happy, not sad, but something in between. Not calm, but not anxious. Not optimistic, but not cynical.
Back at my apartment, I sat on the bedroom floor, and I ate two Poptarts and drank nearly my entire bottle of water. I didn’t realize how thirsty I was.
When I was done, I stashed my food in the kitchen cabinet. Then I stood there, alone, in my apartment, with no bed and no furniture. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I remembered walking by a bar on my way to the grocery store. I decided I’d go there.
The sun was setting. I felt safe enough, walking by myself. I wondered when the last time was I’d walked somewhere alone. For a moment, I felt lonely. A bar would be good, I thought, to be alone amongst strangers.
The inside of the bar was unremarkable. It was a regular sports bra. It was Friday night, so it was crowded, but not so crowded that I couldn’t get a seat at the bar.
The bartender was a guy with a man bun who looked like he was around my age. “What can I get you?” he said as I sat down.
I hadn’t thought about what to drink. “Rum and coke,” I said, the first drink that came to mind.
“You got it,” the bartender replied. He poured my drink and slid it over to me. “What’s your name?”
“Alison,” I said.
“Alison,” he repeated, nodding. “Ali?”
“Alison,” I said again. Bruce called me Ali all the time.
“Nice to meet you, then, Alison,” he said. “You new around here?”
I took a sip of my drink and said, “Just moved in down the street.”
He nodded again, then moved away to wait on a couple that sat down on the other side of the bar.
I sipped my rum and Coke slowly, taking in my surroundings. Most of the people were couples or in groups; I was the only person who was alone that I could see. Not that it mattered. I wasn’t exactly dressed for a night out. My hair was in a messy ponytail, and I wore no makeup, jeans, and a stained hoodie.
The bartender looked over at me every so often, and I tried not to stare back. The bar was filling up, and soon it went from busy to crowded. The other women looked so glamorous to me. They wore tight, dark wash skinny jeans with heels, and tank tops accented with sequins. Their hair was freshly blow dried, and their eyelashes were thick with mascara. They held martinis or margaritas in one hand with the hand other on their hip. I looked down at my half empty rum and Coke. The ice in it was starting to melt. Suddenly I felt out of place.
I’d started to think about paying and leaving when someone sat down next to me and said, “Hey.”
I turned. It was guy with short dark hair and a baseball cap. He wore jeans and a t-shirt and a brown jacket. He looked older than me by a few years. “Hey,” I said back, trying to hide my surprise that someone was actually speaking to me.
He ordered a beer from the bartender, and after a few minutes he said, “Just so you know, you’re the realest girl here.”
I eyed him skeptically. “Realest?”
“You know. Real,” he said. “No fancy clothes or makeup or anything. You look like a normal person.”
“I am a normal person.”
“Well,” he said. “You want a drink?”
I held up my still half full rum and Coke. “I’m good, thanks.”
“Alright,” he said. He pulled his phone from his pocket and started texting.
A few minutes later, I asked the bartender for my check. As I took out my money, the guy next to me looked up from his phone. “Can I have your number?” he asked.
I had to laugh a little. I slid off my stool and stood up, putting my bag over my shoulder. “Why?” I asked. “We’ve barely said two words to each other.”
This time, he laughed at me. “That’s kind of the point. To get to know each other.”
I smiled and shook my head. I placed my money on the bar, including a generous tip to thank the bartender for my first night out. As I walked away, I said, “Have a good night.”
Outside, the air was cool. It felt good after being in the warm, crowded bar. As I walked home, I thought about the guy at the bar. Should I have said yes? Should I go back and tell him I reconsidered? No, that would make me look dumb and flighty.
On my way home, I noticed a fast food restaurant across the street. I went inside and ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and root beer. There was only other person in the restaurant, an elderly gentleman drinking hot coffee from a paper cup. I sat down by myself and ate my food slowly. Bruce hated fast food. I’d never tasted anything so delicious.
Back home, the apartment was cold. I didn’t want to turn the heat on because I didn’t want to waste money on it. I felt sweaty and weird, so I went into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and stripped down. In the mirror, I could see that the bruise on my arm had started to fade. I stepped into the shower. The water was frigid, but it felt amazing.
Bruce would be looking for me by now. He’d be home from work, he’d see that I was gone and that my stuff was gone and my key was on the table. I didn’t know how he’d react. I was immensely curious, because I knew him, and I knew he’d never expect this from me, but I had to accept that I’d never know how he reacted.
Goosebumps rose on my skin. I started to shiver. I washed my hair and body, rinsed, then turned off the water. I realized that I didn’t have a towel, so I put my clothes back on and wrapped myself in my sleeping bag. I also had no pillow, so I put all of my clothes in a pile so I could lay my head on them. I had no comb or brush, and my hair would be a tangled mess when it dried.
Eventually I started to feel warm. I was exhausted, like I could sleep for years, but exhilarated like I could stay up all night. I laid there, alone, surrounded by nothing. It’d been years since I slept alone.
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I have dealt with a similar situation in our family. This story shows the emotional and practical struggles of a person caught in this type of situation. Great read! Hopefully, this evokes compassion for those caught in those turmoils.
Oh-- one typo I just noticed, rereading. Of course it doesn't matter now that you can't edit, but: "Just a regular sports bra" when I bet you meant "bar." Anyway.
Lovely story. Genuine and compelling.
You hooked me for sure! I love this expression of freedom, that it's light and yet daunting. You have such a natural, normal voice, and you tell a normal story with a normal protagonist, and yet this is something magical. Very well done.