The moment my boyfriend walks away from a pot of rice burning on the stove, I begin to calculate how much it would cost to live alone. Could I even afford a studio apartment in this city? Could I learn to live with a kitchenette equipped with a mini fridge and hot plate? Could I, if worse comes to worst, live with a roommate again? I think of our cat and how he plays with my boyfriend’s shoelaces as he ties up his boots for work. Once you take in a cat, the relationship must last at least the span of that cat’s life. There are courts and systems in place to determine who gets custody of children. There is no authority to tell you who gets the cat.
The median price of rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Seattle is approximately $1,500. I would have to make, at the very least $60,000 a year (according to the AAOA’s rent-to-income ratio) to afford to live alone in an apartment like the one we are currently in. I, a fully employed, 26-year-old college grad, make $37,000 a year (and our apartment is not that nice).
I often play scenarios in my mind like I’m living in a dollhouse, changing my little doll clothes for different versions of what my life could be. I imagine myself living alone, happily rising with the sun, and drawing my miniature window blinds. I hop into my mouse-sized slippers. I enjoy the pot of coffee by myself with my teeny-tiny teacup. So what if my house only has three walls?
My boyfriend and I met on the internet when I was 17 and he was 18. I was finishing high school in Seattle, and he had just started college in Arizona. All it took was a search for fans of the '80s indie pop band Beat Happening for him to find me. We shared playlists, commiserated about our lives over the phone, and mailed each other love letters until it became a full-blown long-distance relationship. Each night, we fell asleep together on Skype, letting our laptops run until they died.
The first time we met each other in real life was a year into dating. He flew to Seattle to attend senior prom with me. We hugged for the first time at baggage claim. Our first kiss was in the back seat of my 2002 VW Jetta. At prom, we made out under the tables, threw food at the DJ, and danced to our own music in the parking lot. We were both shy, inexperienced with relationships, and struggled to find our place in the world. We found solace in each other.
When I started at Evergreen State College, he dropped out of school and moved to Olympia to be with me. We spent just eight months living between my dorm room (a twin bed) and his sublet across town before I moved into his room for the summer. It was a small upstairs bedroom painted an odd shade of yellow. Downstairs was a married couple who owned the house. Across from our room lived the man’s mother. Down the hall was a mysterious old man who claimed to be a traveling yoga instructor (despite having zero grace and a heavy foot). We lived off Cracker Jacks, plain pasta, and free frozen yogurt from my boyfriend’s job. We often trapped ourselves in the room with a bag of Hostess Donettes, too afraid of small talk to go down to the shared kitchen and make a real breakfast. Our rent was $450 split between the two of us.
Most people are surprised to find out that despite being in our twenties, we have been together for nearly a decade. It is fascinating to think once I turn 35, I will have been in one relationship for more than half my life. Growing up together has developed a familial bond between us. Not only can I not afford to live without him, but I have no idea what my adult life would look like without him. Plus, growing up together means invaluable collective memories, experiences, and niche humor. When I vaguely ask him, “What’s that movie we saw that one time?” he answers me before I can even elaborate.
With a limited budget, we try to take a few small road trips each year. While some might save their money for a tropical vacation to drink margaritas on a beach, we typically take to Airbnb for a rental house in the Middle of Nowhere, Washington. It’s on these trips that we get to play pretend; we drink our coffee on the porch, cook our dinner on an outdoor grill, and shout things like, “I’ll be upstairs if you need me!” Our life-size dollhouse.
My dreams have remained the same since we rented our first room. I want to live in a house, with at least two bedrooms, a bathtub, and a yard. This dream should be realistic, but it isn’t. Not even when the price is shared with my boyfriend. We have lived in six different apartments, all one-bedroom or less, ranging from $400 (a friend’s unfinished basement in Olympia) to $1,475 (our current one-bedroom in Seattle).
I suspect that, given the resources to live alone, we may have broken up long ago, perhaps while living in a clammy, rat-infested unit above a restaurant. Or maybe again in a kitchen-less basement littered with wolf spiders. I often consider, “Well, if this is all we can afford together, what could I afford on my own?”
Whether together for 10 years or 10 months, being “partnered” or desperately seeking a “partner” appears to be the standard amongst younger Millennials and Gen Z. It was not long ago that our grandmothers of the Silent Generation were given one option if they wanted to move out of their parent’s house: marriage. These days, while younger generations tend to put off marriage itself, I keep seeing more and more friends enter companionships for financial security. Moving in with a significant other to cut the cost of rent is not dissimilar from the mid-century picture of marriage.
When I was growing up, the term “partner” was reserved for people in queer relationships who couldn’t legally marry. Ever since the laws were lifted in 2015, straight couples increasingly use this idiom, and the subject remains divisive. With marriage rates in the US being at an all-time low, it makes sense to me that the concept of a partnership is becoming more common amongst straight couples. I tend to shy away from the term “partner” but I must admit that it’s difficult using the term “boyfriend” for someone I’ve lived with for nine years. There ought to be a better word. Maybe we should repurpose the term “suitor.” Or perhaps “companion” is more fitting.
Of course, companionships are much more than splitting a rent check. When I first heard the song “Black Bathing Suit” by our favorite problematic princess Lana Del Rey, I was struck by how she manages to sum up modern relationships in one fell swoop. “If this is the end, I want a boyfriend,” she croons, “someone to eat ice cream with and watch television.” True love, marriage, home ownership, children, and a lifelong future together are no longer realistic goals. We just want someone next to us when the world ends.
Ever since my middle school friend Jenny kissed me out on the soccer field, I’ve known I was bisexual. It’s something I even told my “suitor” when we first started dating. However, I hadn’t anticipated just how stifling entering a straight long-term relationship at a young age could be. I often questioned my wants and desires. I felt deep regret for my lack of experience. I figured that because I couldn’t afford to live alone, and because I was in a loving companionship, I would never be able to explore that part of myself.
In Patti Smith’s acclaimed memoir Just Kids, she writes about her boyfriend at the time, trailblazing photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and his sexual exploration within their relationship:
He had been chided for denying his homosexuality; we were accused of not being a real couple. In being open about his homosexuality, he feared our relationship would be destroyed. We needed time to figure out what all of this meant, how we were going to come to terms and redefine what our love was called. I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to the truth.
It wasn’t until understanding Patti and Robert’s relationship and absorbing the oeuvre of Stranger columnist Dan Savage that I considered exploring the possibilities outside the binaries of a traditional relationship. To my surprise, my boyfriend was extremely unaffected when I brought it up. “Sure, I trust you,” he said. Although I trust his sincerity, I often wonder, what are his options? He doesn't want me to resent him. He doesn't want me to suppress myself. But he also does not want to live alone. As living independently becomes increasingly difficult, couples adjust their expectations about what they’re willing to accept, which in turn is gradually destigmatizing nonmonogamy. It’s not good and it’s not bad. It’s just true.
Every night, my legs drape over my boyfriend’s lap while we watch Jeopardy, our cat circling us for a lick of ice cream. And every now and then, I open a queer dating app on my phone and consider going on a date. I have only been on one date with a woman. It did not go anywhere, at least not in that normal, satisfying way. But I am content, for now, to float in a pool of possibility.
Our generation can have it all. We can both be in love and want new experiences. We can share the rent of a one-bedroom apartment and kiss other people. We just can’t afford to live in a house. Luckily, I have a dollhouse for that.