Although it’s not strictly true, in my memory of everything, it took me three years to move out of the apartment on rue Riquet. I started moving the January my roommate died in a car crash and ended last summer when I found the flat I live in now.
In the month after she died I could not leave our apartment, a two-bedroom off the Canal de L’Ourcq. Our apartment was on the first floor, spacious and modern by Parisian standards. It had two enclosed balconies facing the narrow street and a huge, overheated bathroom. By any standards, our apartment building itself was void of any charm and grace. It seemed destined to age poorly and quickly, and despite its trendy location and large, airy flats, there was a dorm-like quality to the whole thing. It gave off an air that the people who lived there were not really adults and were not there to stay, that the place was a stepping-stone to a more stable, dignified life.
But she and I had always said we wanted to live there forever, that they’d have to drag us out by our hair, that we’d outlast the crack dealers and the hipsters and real-estate developers, and we weren’t really joking. In our old age, we said, we’d take our matching beach chairs down to the canal and have rosé and hummus for dinner.
After she died I could not contemplate moving elsewhere, and often I could not open the black reinforced door to walk outside, even to the bank of the canal at the end of our street, even to the mediocre bakery on the corner.
I remember instead lying on the Moroccan-style mat in our glass-walled balcony, watching the armed guards with their machine guns guarding the synagogue across the street. This was after Charlie Hebdo and before the Bataclan. In my memories I am alone, like a sad, exposed fish in a bohemian-themed fishbowl, but this is surely not true as I was rarely alone then. My friends came from London the day after the crash, sleeping in her bed and on our L-shaped Ikea couch. They held me at night and pretended not to hear me cry in the shower. My mother came, and she held me too. She helped me pack for my impending trip to Madrid, where I had been planning to spend a semester finishing up business school. They were expecting me there, I was enrolled in classes about the 4Ps of Marketing and Focusing on My Strengths. So I boarded a plane and fled, leaving the apartment furnished and empty.
My memories of Madrid are like one hot swath of sunlight: I sat on terraces, I lounged on balconies, I marinated in the croquetas-scented air of the city’s plazas. I dove into my courses with an ease that had eluded me in Paris. I took up smoking in earnest.
At the end of the semester I moved back to France, like an outlaw surrendering to arrest. I began working at my old job again, the job I had landed years ago thanks to my roommate and where we had worked together for the past four years. I started to move out of our apartment. Friends helped me with the paperwork and with the packing, and I threw myself into a kind of extravagant self-pity that was both unromantic and endless.
I sold our studenty, hodgepodge furniture for next to nothing on Craigslist, piece by piece: the full Ikea kitchen we had scavenged from a neighbor, my flatmate’s white wardrobe where she’d carefully arranged all the clothes she’d ever owned by color, a shockingly heavy drop-leaf table we’d carried on the metro, a stupid trash can in the shape of a lion that she had loved. I pushed our washing machine, which had been lent to us by a colleague who’d then been fired unceremoniously, into the street and abandoned it. I stood on the balcony and watched in horror as a man appeared minutes later and pried the machine open, harvesting its organs skilfully with a set of pliers.
I discarded and unraveled and cursed and wallowed, falling asleep at night in her unmade bed just for the sick drama of it, amid the orphaned mess of her guidebooks and papier maché and hibiscus tea and candles and scrapbooks and thought: what will end this? What rite of exorcism will signal the end of this old life?
Show me the dumpster where I can burn what’s lost, take it all and let it be over, let things be new.
There isn’t really an over, though, even in the material world. Our possessions, which had been so difficult and so costly to accumulate, were even harder to dispose of. What I couldn’t give away or throw away or sell was crammed in the basement storage unit of a friend’s apartment, a crypt-like space where we carried the L-shaped couch, the antique wardrobe with the carved rose mirror, the useless bullshit I couldn’t part with. Always, throughout, an endless parade of people helped me, grim-faced, empathetic, practical. I was grateful for them, I even loved them, sometimes with a fierceness that took me by surprise, but they didn’t make me feel less alone.
After I’d left rue Riquet, I spent the next few months house sitting, freelancing, subletting, living out of a suitcase and eating peanut butter and jelly like the poster child for performative misery. I rented a room with a couple of artists in the suburbs and talked to no one, less because I was broke and friendless and more because I wanted to win the race to solitude, to get to the destination so I could go somewhere else.
That fall I moved in with roommates I grew to love; we spent weeknights in the tiny kitchen drinking red wine and eating spicy curry and we all slept in the same bed the night of the terrorist attacks. In the spring I got a new and improbable job at a large corporation. I finalized, at last, my legal separation from my ex-boyfriend. I got a new visa and then a small promotion. And then, the week after my 31st birthday, I found this apartment, a minor miracle: the Parisian Apartment With Nothing Wrong With It.
But the moving saga did not end for me with any of these momentous, commonplace events. It did not end with my new job or my new visa. It did not even end when I went back to the damp cellar where our Riquet furniture had been mouldering for two years and hauled everything out into the street. It did not end, as I briefly, darkly, thought it would, by me being smothered to death under my own mattress, which collapsed on top of me in the cool, dungeon-like basement as I was trying to lift it alone up the cellar stairs and into the moving van.
As I struggled briefly under the mattress I thought, melodramatically, this would be very symbolic if I died here, very The Death of Ivan Ilych. But in real life death does not grant meaning and does not conclude anything. It is not a metaphor or a lesson and does not cauterize a tragic plotline or justify a noble endeavor. There is no satisfaction in the futility of death, like there is in great literature, and it does not, I think, facilitate the narrative arc of the protagonist. It does not carve out space for new love interests or fuel glamorous vendettas. It is just a burned space you can choose to plant over, with no guarantee that your new garden will be worthier because it was built on ashes, or even that the melancholy you live with will ripen into wisdom.
It was not until I was sitting in the peaceful sunlight of my lovely new apartment surrounded by the few boxes that had been spared all the rounds of purging, curled up on my tasteful gray couch, that I started to panic: what was I going to do now, without my dead friend and our houseful of memories and my ex-boyfriend and my family and my grief and my resistance? What happens now, in this quiet space with its inner courtyard?
My phone vibrated next to me, a text from a friend: How are you liking your new place?
I’m afraid I’ll die alone, I replied.
Darling, came the quick reply, we all die alone.
This made me laugh. I may have even laughed aloud, to myself. I got up and I started to unpack.