Last week, I learned that my coworker, Maria Del Russo, “goes scorched earth” any time she gets out of a relationship, cutting off all contact with her former love interest. I can’t fault her for that; plenty of people would probably agree that severing all ties is the clearest way to say that it’s really, really over.
But this is a relationship rule that I happily subvert. You see, I’m not just friends with my ex — I live with her.
Her name is Katie, and we met while working for our college’s LGBTQ magazine. Katie was a journalism major who dreamed of giving marginalised communities a voice, so she signed up as an editor. I, a physics and English major who wanted to try my hand at journalism, became her writer. After a few months of 4-hour “meetings” during which we talked about Carl Sagan, coming out, first lady-crushes, Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog (and also, you know, my writing), it was pretty clear that my feelings for Katie were more than friendly.
But I’d go over the memory of her in my mind — her maraschino cherry hair, her septum ring, the shiny stud in the side of her nose, the big black plugs in her ears — and worry that someone as edgy as she was would never go for a nerdy, plain woman like me. I settled for just being friends.
Until the first of what would become many nights when Katie came over to watch Glee, and her hand somehow found its way into mine. I don’t remember how it happened, but I remember asking her what we were doing and I remember catching my breath as she leaned in to kiss me.
Three years later, we were still together and moving into a 640-square-foot studio flat in Brooklyn.
But sometime in the first few months of living together — between starting new internships, fighting over how often the dishes were done, waging war against cockroaches, and spending less and less time together — we stopped being girlfriends and slipped back into just being friends.
I’m not sure exactly how our relationship ended, just like I can’t pinpoint the moment it began. Don’t get me wrong, I remember very clearly the night when she turned to me in bed and asked if we could talk. And I remember crying in the bathroom cubicle at work the next day, not because I was hurt — it was something I had wanted, too — but because the relationship I’d been in for almost four years was suddenly over.
It had been over long before that, though, and we both knew it.
When we finally said it aloud, I braced myself for devastating sadness. And I was sad (hence the crying), but it wasn’t the tortured, binge-on-chocolate break-up that Legally Blonde told me to expect. There was no explosive fight, or infidelity, or one-sided shift in feelings. We both just knew that we no longer loved each other romantically, while still knowing we’d always love one another as friends.
If it had been a different kind of break-up, I might have asked which one of us was moving out. But instead, the question was, “Who has to sleep on the shitty couch your mum gave us?” (We took turns until I was able to save enough money for a bed of my own.)
At first, the decision to keep living together wasn’t really a decision at all — it was a necessity. We were both making $10 an hour in a city where most of our combined paycheques went to rent, and neither of us had other friends in New York with space to suddenly take us in. It’s been two years since that night, though, and living together is no longer something we have to do. It’s something neither of us wants to give up.
“But isn’t it weird when you date other people?” countless friends and coworkers have asked me.
My answer to them is always, “of course.”
It’s happened on almost every first date I’ve had since. There’s a weirdly specific dating convention in New York: You always talk about property and housemates. As I sit across from a girl at the bar or over brunch, I worry about getting to that housemate part — where we share how many we have, if we like them, how close we are. I wonder, anxiously, 'Is she going to bolt once I tell her that I live with my ex?'
The reason I worry is explained perfectly in Maria’s piece. “I just can’t get comfortable with the idea of being 100% friends with someone who’s been inside of me,” she writes. If she couldn’t be comfortable being friends with someone whom she has slept with, it stands to reason that a new or future girlfriend of mine would struggle with the fact that I still live with a person I used to sleep with (and date, and also love).
That hasn’t proven true so far, which may be because, generally speaking, exes staying friends isn’t that strange a concept for queer women. As a writer named Phoenix wrote for Autostraddle in 2012, plenty of gay women break up, spend some time apart, then later rekindle their friendship. This is how it goes:
“Start talking again, and get your friendship back,” Phoenix writes. “Realise how much you’ve missed her! Not her in your arms, or her in your bed, but her as a person. She knows you so well, and vice versa.”
So Katie and I just skipped the time-apart part, but everything else is true for us — she knows me better than any other friend or housemate ever could, and that plays to our advantage.
Having been in a relationship for four years gave us the kind of closeness that other housemates couldn’t possibly have. There are no labels on the food in our fridge. We buy everything together, keeping an unofficial tally of who owes whom, and eat dinner together like a family. When laundry needs to be done, Katie does it (yes, she even washes my underwear) because she’s not about to stick her hand in the sink to pull out food that’s gotten trapped or wash congealed cheese out of a pot, which makes the dishes my domain. When I need someone to rub my feet after a long day of shopping in the city (usually with Katie by my side), she’s got me covered there, too.
Yes, my housemate has seen me naked, and I understand how, from the outside, that seems like something you just don’t get over. But it also means that I have no qualms coming home and immediately stripping to my underwear — which I do so often that Katie has joked that I should join a semi-nudist colony, where all we wear is underwear and an oversized T-shirt.
She’s also down to diagnose all of my relationship problems and help me flirt when I'm crushing on someone new. In fact, she walked with me from our apartment to the restaurant where I had my first date post-break-up, and told me about 500 times along the 15-minute walk how lucky any girl would be to go out with someone as smart, and funny, and pretty as me. And I’m willing to do the same for her. (BTW, she’s single and attracted to people of all genders.)
This reality completely baffles one of my friends. “I just don’t get how you can live together and not still have sex,” he’s told me three separate times. It’s simple, really. Not wanting to have sex with each other anymore was the whole reason Katie and I broke up, and it's exactly why she makes such a stellar housemate. Because isn’t the golden rule of finding a good housemate making sure that you don’t want to jump their bones?