That Time I Had a Secret Affair With My Roommate

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Photo: J.V. Aranda

Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to itscomplicated@nymag.com.)

I knew almost as soon as I moved in to my new apartment that I was going to have a problem.

I was subletting a room in a place near Prospect Park with two other roommates, one of whom was a man. I hadn’t thought this would make things complicated for me when I’d agreed to move in, of course. But on my first day as an official resident, he took a roll of paper towels down from a high shelf for me, and the realization hit: He was cute, he was single, and he and I shared a wall. I was screwed.

A thing I’ve learned over the course of many crushes is that proximity is the easiest way to cultivate one. In college, my crushes were my study partners; in adulthood, they became my co-workers. Always being around them allowed me to notice and fall for their small habits and mannerisms, like how they closed out a register, or signed an email, or inexplicably always wore jeans in the dead of summer. It also made them safe: We were too close for anyone to make a move, so I could pine for them without having to fear they’d find a way to hurt me.

And so, here I was, living one room over from what I knew would soon become a full-blown crush. Indeed, a few months into our cohabitation, I started silently seething when he recapped his dates to me and our other roommate. I liked his hair, and his laugh, and the fact that he listened to classical music when he cleaned his room. But what I liked most of all was that he existed in the periphery — that nothing would ever happen because we lived together, and so I’d never really lose him.

Or so I thought. One night in August, just a few weeks after I’d signed onto the lease and committed to a full year in the room next door, I invited him to go dancing with me and a friend. A few hours later, we were making out in a balcony. How we got there is hazy — we’d chugged bourbon before heading out — but when we eventually got home that night, I remember yelling at him that it could never happen again. Even though, of course, I very much wanted it to happen again.

For the most part, I returned to my habit of sulking when he mentioned other women — until the night Donald Trump was elected president. He was still at work, drinking away the Florida returns at his desk, and I started texting him from a watch party that had transformed into a wake. “I guess I’ll go home,” I wrote. “Me too,” he wrote back. I took a cab back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side and we sat on our couch watching the news chyrons confirm the win. “What do we do now?” he said, even though we both knew.

We kissed and moved into his bedroom, where we slept together —quietly, since our other roommate was sleeping just two doors down. “Well, that was a good distraction,” he said when we were finished. I tiptoed back to my own room right next door, streamed Trump’s victory speech, and went to sleep alone.

From there, a regular arrangement was born. We started sleeping together in secret, with me sneaking into his room after our other roommate’s light went out. We were often alone on weekends, and we’d order in dinner, get drunk, watch bad movies, and hook up somewhere between Zoolander 2 and South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. We never spent the night together. We never once spoke of feelings. Things seemed simple: He was there, I was there, both of us were lonely, and I reveled in the fact that I could get a constant stream of attention right in the comfort of my own home.

This went on for a few months, and it fell into a comfortable rhythm. We got closer. We transitioned from containing our friendship in the apartment to talking all day at work, and to hanging out with groups of mutual friends. We discussed mundane things — household chores, dinner plans, broken radiators — like roommates, but also like a couple working through the details of a shared life. At the end of January, he went on a trip for a week, and he sent me texts every night and every morning. I stood in his room for a minute one evening while he was gone, which was certainly a violation, but I missed him. At least, I missed having him around. And since he was always around, he’d fallen into a space in my head that told me he belonged to me, even though he and I had neglected to discuss such possession.

But things tend to fall apart when they’re held together by nothing but alcohol and convenience. Shortly after he got back from his trip, just as I’d started to convince myself that this could maybe be something real, he met someone he liked who was not me. On Valentine’s Day, I watched Fifty Shades of Grey with my other roommate and waited for him to come home — not to spend a Hallmark holiday together, but just so I’d know he wasn’t with anyone else. He came home late. He told our other roommate where he was, but he didn’t tell me. And so began the end.

So I got my affairs in order: I filled in my other roommate, who wasn’t exactly surprised, but also wasn’t particularly happy that we’d been sneaking around behind her back. I told him I was angry, and that I didn’t want to talk to him anymore, without bothering to explain why. Non-communication, after all, was kind of our thing.

The proximity that had brought us together in the first place soon became my torment. When his light woke me up when he turned it on at 3 a.m. — our apartment was shaped so that our windows faced each other, as if he weren’t thrown in my face enough — I knew who he’d been out with. When it didn’t, I knew he wasn’t there. One night, not long after Valentine’s Day, I came home to find his new paramour in the room next to me. I could hear them giggling through our shared wall. It can’t get worse than this, I thought, which was more or less true. Over time, his keys hung by our door less and less, and then, for months, they weren’t there at all. At first, when I saw they were missing, it felt like a hammer had thwacked me in the stomach. But eventually, I got used to it. I didn’t speak to him out loud until June, a few months before our lease renewal date, when I asked him if he was moving out. He was, he said. And he did. I stayed.

I didn’t get over him for real until he left. It’s hard to let someone go when they’re so physically near, and even though he mostly disappeared in the last few months we lived together, he was still there. His couch was in our living room. His coats were by our door. His bills and catalogues were in our mailbox, next to the invites to weddings he’d bring his new girlfriend to. As long as he lived there, everything was still ours.

Once he was gone, though — taking with him his couch, coats, and most of my good knives — I could begin to forget about him. It’s easy to fake closeness when you are literally close. But when we didn’t share a wall anymore, we didn’t share anything.

It’s been over a year since the bottom fell out. I still live in the same apartment, but now I watch my bad movies alone. I retrieve my own paper towels from the high shelf. I miss the companionship, and the thrill of knowing something I want is close by. But I don’t remember much of the details about what made him him. He loved the Fast and Furious franchise and took German in college, but beyond that, he could have been anyone. And now he is no one.

Then again, some bonds are hard to break. I’m still on his Spotify family share plan.

That Time I Had a Secret Affair With My Roommate