What we learn when we choose to live alone

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The first night in my new apartment, I lit an incense stick, pulled a butcher-paper parcel out of the fridge and took off my pants. While the heady, formerly contraband smell of Nag Champa wafted over me, I munched on twiggy sticks from the supermarket deli and watched The Nanny. Living by myself was going to be all right.

I slept a total of three hours. I closed my bedroom door, then opened it. I checked the locks. I stalked around the small space ensuring the appliances and gas knobs were off. I tried to self-soothe my thundering heart when my neighbour opened her front door and I thought it was mine.

I googled whether possums and bats ever fight each other after hearing a demonic scuffle from the tree outside my window. All I could think was: have I made a terrible decision?

Almost exactly one year later, I’m having dinner on my balcony. It’s a late summer night and the air is warm. I cooked with the door open, the sluggish breeze wafting in as I listened, uninterrupted, to a podcast. I made too much food, but it will provide leftovers for days. I sit with my bare feet on the rails and look at the sky. I have watered my tomato plants and the water drips slowly over the balcony. Bliss.

I’ve never lived alone before. I went straight from my childhood home to a string of dysfunctional, intense, glorious share houses where we cooked meals together, heard each other having sex and battled various rodent plagues. But, at the age of 27, after years in a five-person share house with one bathroom, something made me decide it was time for a change.

There are usually two groups of thinking about living alone. In the first, it’s basically one long, luxurious bubble bath – followed by wandering around in the nude to classical music while you swill a glass of the expensive wine you splurged on because you don’t have to share it with anyone else. The second version looks a lot more like Renée Zellweger singing All by Myself in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

My experience has been a fairly steady and uneasy alliance of both. I have had a number of bubble baths. The cost of paying rent and bills all alone has meant I don’t have much excess money for fancy wine, but I can blare angsty music (that I only occasionally sing tearfully along to).

I no longer have those nights when you come home from work so tired that your shins ache and your housemates have thrown an impromptu party for the Portuguese couch surfer who is about to depart for a van trip around Australia. But I also don’t come home to any spontaneous parties.

I do have to check every cupboard and shadowy nook as soon I get home to make sure that there definitely isn’t a murderer jammed in alongside my vacuum cleaner, but I also never come home to doors left unlocked by housemates who do not have the same level of security hyper-vigilance as me. Swings and roundabouts.

I have found that a surprising amount of the pleasure I glean from living alone is based around shame – or, more accurately, lack thereof.

Yes, this is the fifth episode of The Good Wife I have watched in a row (Alicia Florrick sometimes appears in my dreams). Yes, I am going to leave those dishes until the morning (and yes, I am aware it would just be easier to get them done now before the sauce sticks to the side of the pan). Yes, I am talking to the two possums that live in the tree outside my window (their names are Clementine and Brendan).

No, I’m not going to clean up the pile of clothes in the living room that were discarded when I was frantically trying to decide what to wear earlier (I call it my floordrobe). No, I don’t want to hear about your day, or play a game, or help you with your assignment (I’m a little busy watching The Good Wife). No, I don’t think that’s enough cheese (is that ever really a thing?).

But most of all, the small moments taste best. Walking into my cool, quiet flat at the end of a long day and saying aah. Doing a flailing arm dance after fixing my broken screen door with just my wits and an electric drill, without help from anyone else. Coming home from a music festival dirty and dishevelled and exhausted and knowing that I can get into the shower right away, that there is still that half a block of chocolate in the fridge, that I don’t have to tell anyone what my highlight was, and that I can order Uber Eats and not have to worry about anyone else’s budget or healthy eating plan or dietary requirements.

And, most of all, sitting on the balcony on a warm, late summer night, listening to the leaves of the old oak tree rustling, and knowing that, for me, I am enough.

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