I Lived in a House Called Beowulf And Also a Country Called Kyrgyzstan
by Jia Tolentino
Charlottesville, Va., $565/mo (my one-seventh)
A midcentury firetrap with wood-paneled walls that we sprayed messages on with canned snow, the house was called Fuckingham Palace by its previous inhabitants but was renamed by us (three boys, four girls) as Beowulf so that we could get an email list-serve from UVA’s English department. We toyed with a few decor schemes — “Wizard of Oz,” “Desert Into Oasis,” “Mattresses and Hammocks Only” — before settling on a theme of “Dried Beer Spills and Whose Homework Is This.” (The homework was usually my roommate Juli’s, who lived in the living room after we spooked her with an obviously fictional story that a beautiful young girl — also named Juli — had, 100 years ago, been killed by a ghost in her own room upstairs.)
In November of my junior year, we found a rat in the dryer, then nests of them, their little poops dotting our drawers and cereal boxes. They ran across our kitchen counters and launched themselves at our faces. The hippie Charlottesville exterminators offered us a “slow-acting enzyme that’ll just slow down their metabolisms, making them lose the will to live.” This gradual starvation took three months, a period in which we named all the rats Baxter and descended into insanity.
Brooklyn (Bushwick), N.Y., $0/mo
My college boyfriend moved in with me when I was seventeen and stayed for two years; he kept his own apartment, but we only ever slept there during the Rat Period. Our cohabitation was wonderful and problematic: I made us cinnamon rolls, he taught me about cognitive science, and together we struggled through Gravity’s Rainbow and resolutely avoided discussing the interlocking resentments that had begun to bind us together like vines.
The summer before my senior year of college, I flew back from Venice to New York City, where my boyfriend was interning at Gawker. His place was in Bushwick, a warehouse apartment facing east with floor-to-ceiling windows and no AC, and despite the thick blackout curtains, the place got infernal by 7 a.m.. I was completely drained from my internship and the summer emerged as what it was: a last gasp. Just a few blocks away, at the Morgan stop off the L, a police car was always idling, blinking red, white and blue.
London, U.K., $0/mo.
I’d graduated and was waiting for my Peace Corps assignment while interning (unpaid) at the UK office of the literary magazine Granta, housed rent-free by a dear family friend named Maria. Maria, a banker with a two-bedroom in the posh, ethnic part of Earl’s Court, lived with her life partner Elena, who she’d met at an all-girls Catholic school in the Philippines. During my internship, I turned twenty-one, spent Thanksgiving at Stonehenge, and got a call from someone who pronounced it “Keergeezstan.” I told Maria and Elena; they gave me big high-fives and told me to keep traveling and put off having kids for as long as possible.
Talas, Kyrgyzstan, $35/mo.
Two months after the government coup that had welcomed the new volunteers into country, I took a taxi deep into the mountains, to a gray house where my young, beautiful host family came out to meet me holding a platter of freshly fried doughnuts. Behind the house was a layer-cake vista: pale birch trees covering deep green foothills, leading to the snowy mountains, then the sky that burned pink and gold each morning. The land was covered in wild marijuana, broken glass, donkey shit, and poppies. $35 was supposed to cover my rent and food, but within a week I was cooking for myself. By winter I’d lost my appetite completely; I made sugar cookies every morning for max calories and choked them down throughout the day.
Houston, Tex., $475/mo. (TOTAL)
After getting sent home from Peace Corps, I went straight to Houston, where my family lives. My boyfriend was finishing his master’s degree at Rice and I told him I didn’t want to pressure him into moving in together. “I’m not trying to call you stupid necessarily,” he said, “but I did just date you long-distance from f — -ing Kyrgyzstan.” We found a tiny place in a grungy, gay-friendly neighborhood; our one-bedroom rented for a dollar per square foot, had a cockroach infestation and a bedroom filled with sunlight. We painted the walls deep blue and got a dog, who ballooned to enormity and cost more than the apartment itself.
Ann Arbor, Mich., $527/mo .(my half)
This is where I live now, in a faculty neighborhood just west of the football stadium, where the leaves blow around in big gorgeous piles. I bought a piano off Craigslist for $50 and went to IKEA for a white sofa that hides Luna’s dog hair but nothing else. The neighbors have block parties, bike parades and outdoor movie nights; there’s a nursery school next door, and toddler noise drifts incessantly through my open windows all day. Andrew teaches at the University of Michigan now. We didn’t qualify for a mortgage on the red house, but we drive by it every time we’re anywhere close.
Jia Tolentino is trying to win a contest so that she can donate $1000 to one of her former places of residence (not Bushwick).