At first glance, my house doesn’t look particularly offbeat. There’s no collection of comic book memorabilia, no spooky skulls, no wall covered in gears, no rainbow hallway runner or psychedelic nude painting in the living room.
The walls are beige or white and somewhat bare. The carpet upstairs is off-white, and there’s a pretty standard dining room table with six matching chairs. Sure, there’s a Tardis teapot hanging around, beer brewing supplies, and an entire shelf devoted to board games, but those things seem pretty standard and tame around these parts.
Look a little closer, though, and you’ll notice the comical number of computers hiding here and there. Seven or eight bikes in the garage, corralled by a bike rack made of two-by-fours. Five cars that come and go. The duplicate cookbooks and kitchen utensils, the camping equipment lining the walls in the garage.
And, of course, the five bedrooms that are definitely occupied by six adults.
Since I finished grad school, I’ve been living in a sort of halfway house for twenty-somethings: not a college dorm, but definitely not a single-family situation. There are six of us here (with my boyfriend and me sharing the master bedroom) — three full-time engineers, and three PhD students (engineering and physics). The idea for our house, named the Financial Aid Dorm (see: Futurama, Mars University episode), was born while the boyfriend and I were sharing a tiny bedroom in a crappy apartment with an insanely nosey and controlling landlady, and our grad school friends were still in standard issue on-campus housing. We would all daydream together about what it would be like to live in a communal house all our own, with freedom to do what we wanted and hang out all the time.
It took about six frustrating months to find a place. Long story short, the rental market in Silicon Valley is rough, and five-bedroom houses that are biking distance to Stanford, at a reasonable price, that aren’t falling apart, are near public transportation, and with landlords willing to rent to young adults instead of a family with kids, are difficult to come by. But we did it, and after a big meeting where we hashed out who would live in which room and how much each person would pay (there was a whiteboard involved), we were ready.
Each room even got its own Futurama-themed name: the Lovenasium (the room I share with my boyfriend), Panucci’s Pizza, Teddy Bear Junction, the Slurm Factory, and the Cave of Hopelessness (that’s the small one downstairs).
It’s been about two and a half years since we moved in, and it’s good, but things haven’t always been smooth sailing. We started out with some “spirited debate” about how clean common spaces need to stay, whether shoes should be taken off inside, how soon after cooking people should do their dishes.
Very quickly I learned how different some of our cleaning philosophies are
My boyfriend and I are pretty much agreed with each other, but add four more adults with their own habits and opinions, and I sometimes still get frustrated… Why don’t they realize that it’s much easier to clean food off things before it dries into a crust overnight? Why can’t things just stay in the spot where I put them? Has someone really not noticed that all the sharp things have been going into the same drawer for a couple years now (and who put the pizza cutter in the dishwasher)? Dammit, someone just bought more tupperware again, even though we would have plenty if we just cleared out the rotting leftovers from the fridge.
One time I also thought I had lost a package for a month, because one of my roommates had taken the mail in and absentmindedly put it in a random corner instead of where it usually goes. We’re also all very susceptible to distributed responsibility, and make dish sculptures in the drying rack, trash sculptures in the trash can, and get so many Amazon packages that there’s never enough room in our recycling bin. And I’m far from blameless — I’m pretty sure I’ve broken the most glassware, and none of it belonged to me.
I also sometimes just want to be alone
There are days when I feel the almost visceral weight of too many people around. After 15 years of mostly having my own bedroom, including college, it’s hard to share with my boyfriend when common space is fair game for five other people at once. There are times when I feel like there’s no space in this house I can definitively say is mine.
Thankfully, my boyfriend is an introvert as well, and we’re pretty good about telling each other when we’d like to have the room to ourselves for a little while. But if both of us want alone time at once, someone still has to venture out downstairs. I get extra grumpy if I’ve been kicked out while one of our friends is watching a loud movie, or has other friends of theirs over.
These downsides are part of the package when you’ve created a family of friends
And after we’ve all been living together this long, it does feel like we’re a family. Our first Christmas here, I went with another roommate and picked out a Christmas tree for my first time ever. We also host a yearly Christmas party, where we serve mulled wine and make cheesy decorations for the tree out of pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks, and clay. In the fall we go apple picking together, followed by lots of apple pie and apple crisp. We take turns surprising each other with cake on our birthdays. And in the spring, when Game of Thrones is on, a big crowd piles onto the couch every Sunday to watch people be naked and murder each other.
Then there are the everyday things
I’m pretty lazy about making plans in the evenings and on weekends, but usually at least a few friends are around and I can get some socializing without leaving the house (or having to bike back home late at night, like my boyfriend and I used to do). As I mentioned before, we all brew beer, and always have a keg of something on tap. My roommates are obsessed with board games and cards, and most nights there’s a game (while I take the chance to recharge in my room). We always have enough people (and invite even more) to go out for dim sum. I can bake whatever I want and know I won’t have to eat it all myself. A lot of times someone has made too much curry and I get invited to help eat it (not to mention how much cheaper it is to buy all our staples at Costco). And recently I was home sick from work with a migraine, and one roommate came back with ice cream for me.
As I write this, it’s Friday night and three of my five roommates, including my boyfriend, have left to hike the John Muir Trail for three weeks. A fourth is working furiously on his PhD thesis to get some simulations up and running and join them when he can. The fifth is probably working late or out with other friends. I myself have a week before I leave for my own vacation, and am looking forward to getting some time and space to myself for reading, sleeping in, and catching up on errands. But right now, I’ve got to say, the house is feeling awfully empty.