When I moved to San Francisco in 2007, I knew it wouldn’t be cheap. Ever since I’ve been conscious of phrases like “cost of living” and “quality of life,” I’ve understood that this is an expensive city. But I had been living in Los Angeles and was coming up here for research on a novel that I was writing, and I fell head over heels in love with the city. There was no going back. So I found a job, packed up, and took some crappy apartment in the Lower Haight that pushed the boundary of my nonprofit salary. The place was beyond gross. There was cat food stuck in the old, dingy carpets. Human feces often greeted me at the front gate when I left for work in the mornings. Instead of borrowing things like eggs and sugar, my drug addict neighbors borrowed strips of aluminum foil and small Band-Aids that could fit in between toes.
But I was glad to be here, and in 2010 things started to look up for my living situation when my boyfriend and I decided to move in together. He made a great salary, and combined with my paltry one we’d be able to build that San Francisco home I’d been looking for. We found a place just before this latest boom: a beautiful flat in an old Victorian with two bedrooms, pristine wood floors, a fireplace, and a kitchen bigger than my Lower Haight apartment. Once again, it pushed the limits of my budget, but it was time I had something nice. I was ready to sit squarely on the three-legged stool of life – with a job I liked, a partner I loved, and a house that could easily become a home.
And then, of course, life reminded me who was boss. Less than a year in, my boyfriend and I broke up – right around the start of this latest rental crisis. I was now a recently single nonprofit employee with no savings who had to think about competing with wealthy techies (including my ex) for apartments. The rent on that crack den apartment I rented in 2007 was already 50 percent higher. There was no way I could move, and our landlords made it clear they wanted a couple living in our current place. A one-legged stool is really scary to sit on.
This all sucked even harder because I had finally found a home. I was one of those kids who got passed around a lot. Though there were lots of different houses in the small Texas hick towns I grew up in, a steady, solid home was hard to come by. Fortunately, as I became an adult, I realized home is more about choice than circumstance, and how you make that choice depends on what is important to you.
Except for some occasional bickering, my boyfriend and I lived pretty well together. Our issue? The sex was as abysmal as that Lower Haight apartment. The love was there, the mutual respect was there, even the we’re-best-friends-as-well-as-lovers was there. The mad attraction to each other’s bodies was missing, though, even from the get-go.
I think we had both hoped that we’d figure it out over time, that unlike most relationships where the sex is great in the beginning and then wanes over time, we were the lucky ones who would grow in the opposite direction. With enough time, patience, and exploration, we thought we’d totally get “gettin’ down” down. But we didn’t. We even blew our savings on a romantic trip to the Greek islands where we slept chastely each night in full pajamas. It was time to call it quits, which was going to ruin everything.
So, like others having to deal with San Francisco’s rental crisis, I had to get creative. I wondered, did breaking up really have to mean living apart? We were fantastic roommates and looked out for each other; why did that have to end because we weren’t having sex? Then again, was I totally oversimplifying our situation in order to make things easier for me? Probably. But fortunately we had the foresight to get a two-bedroom place, so continuing to cohabitate was worth a shot. I convinced my ex to give living as roommates a try, and I moved into the guest room.
I’m not going to lie and say that moving down the hall was a party. No, it was awful and depressing as hell. That first night, I slept alone for the first time in ages and played through all my failed relationships, scared that I’d end up a spinster. But I could hear my ex snoring in the other room. The same snores that were totally annoying when I was next to him in bed became strangely comforting, reminding me that I wasn’t alone. The next day, we went and bought a grill together, a testament to our intention to make this living arrangement work – of course, as we were putting it together, one of us (I won’t say who) broke down in sobs.
People thought I was crazy. When you break up, you move out. That’s the tried and true formula for this situation; that’s how you move on. Other people thought that it must be some strange homosexual thing they just couldn’t possibly understand. Just gays being all gay again.
Over time, living together became less sad and sleeping apart became easier. Although we didn’t start out completely mature and positive about things, we were there for each other as we dealt with our breakup, and we struggled to find a way to redefine our relationship. There aren’t any manuals for rooming with your ex, so it took a lot of negotiation and a lot of hurt feelings, but we tackled each topic as it came up. We had to discuss stuff like, When are hugs OK? How does dinner work now that I’m not responsible for feeding you? And of course the big one – what happens when one of us wants to start dating again or brings other people home?
My ex and I are a year into this arrangement, and some of these questions we’ve successfully figured out. Others, especially that last one, we’re still working on. We’ve both had our one-night stands, but no significant relationships yet, so we’ll work on that part when we get there.
Early into this arrangement, we tried to have sex again, just to make sure we’d made the right decision about breaking up. Five minutes in, we both agreed that we’d definitely made the right decision, shook hands, and called it a day. But somehow, through all of this, we’ve moved into something even stronger than friendship. We’ve become family. When he gets stood up, I make him dinner. When I write articles about our breakup, he proofreads.
I’m well aware that this arrangement can’t last forever – one of us is going to want to move in with someone else at some point. And I still struggle with how to come out to potential dating prospects that I still live with my ex. But for now, I have that home I’ve been looking for, a place that offers warmth and comfort with rent I can afford in a city that I love. I also have a roommate who is a great friend, who has seen me at my worst and still has my back. I may not have the romantic partner, and that three-legged life stool might not be so sturdy, but two legs is a hell of a lot easier to balance than one.