At nineteen she decamps to an apartment in the western suburbs with her boyfriend, Tanner Walsh. This is not her first time living outside her parents’ home. There had been that whole year[1] [2] [3] at the university downstate — a semester in a traditional dorm room and then a desperately traumatic semester in a suite situation with three other girls who had all already been living with each other for a whole semester and who had a system and everything that went along with it (“intruder” is barely the word). The point being: she had lived alone[4] before.

However, and this is vital, she had never lived alone with a boy before; she had never lived alone with a boyfriend[5].

In her many childhood fantasies of living in an apartment and with a boyfriend, her mind always locates that apartment in the city. A loft with exposed brick and exposed rafters and exposed pipes and ductwork, huge windows looking out on an urban landscape (always raining) of factories and skyscrapers and networks of public transportation and bars, clubs, restaurants flickering with neon. So, in many ways, the western suburbs feel rather flat[6] [7]. What they do have going for them, however, was space.

From its screened front door, the apartment opens up into an obscene amount of space. The living room feels as big as her parents’ house[8]. The toffee-colored wall-to-wall ripples out to an exposed-brick wall[9], a linoleum-floored kitchen[10], and off down the hallway to the two bedrooms[11] and single bathroom. Yes, some of the fixtures in the bathroom are a perplexing shade of seafoam green. Yes, she would prefer hardwood floors. Yes, the linoleum in the kitchen sticks to the soles of her bare feet in a skin-crawling, very nearly Velcro-ish kind of way. But, on the whole, she and Tanner have done very well for themselves.

And she finds that, even though she is meant to be taking general education classes at the local community college, she skips Western Civilization: Rise of the West and Remedial Algebra in order to be home, alone, in the apartment while Tanner works his shifts behind the deli counter at the local supermarket[12] [13].

She likes being alone in the apartment. She enjoys putting on her music and vacuuming the brick dust from the carpeting. She takes pleasure in cleaning the already-clean apartment: wiping down clean counters, mopping clean floors, fluffing pillows on the made bed, rubbing the chrome faucet until it shines like a mirror, dusting baseboards and the television and the bookshelves. Alone, cleaning her apartment, is her favorite thing about living with her boyfriend. After a fight with Tanner where he pushes her so hard she crashes back against the stove and the knobs scrape up her lower back and two wine glasses fall off of the counter where they had been drying on a towel and he stands there, eating SpaghettiOs cold from the can and watching her crawl around on hands and knees, rushing to clean up the glittering granules of glass, she consoles herself with the fact that soon he will be heading off to work[14] and soon she will be alone again in the apartment, to clean it as slowly and carefully as she likes.

Later, when she is married and keeping house for three kids[15], a dog[16], a cat[17], a guinea pig[18], and her husband[19], chasing after them all with hamper in hand, begging them to please, please, please just put their dirty socks into the hamper and not leave them curled into little smelly balls under the sofa[20] or draped over the lampshade[21], she will look back at these moments alone in her apartment and cleaning as though the memories were of her stretched out on a golden beach in Ixtapa.

[1] An academic year, so, in actuality, nine months.

[2] Minus one month for winter break, so, in actuality, eight months.

[3] And she came home practically every weekend, so eight months of weekends, average four weekends a month (8 × 4 = 32), thirty-two weekends, we’ll call a weekend two days for simplicity’s sake (32 × 2 = 64), and we’ll agree that a month is, for simplicity’s sake, thirty days (64 ÷ 30 = 2.1333…), which we’ll call two months, again, for simplicity’s sake, so, in actuality, six months.

[4] Where alone = without parents.

[5] And, really, as long as we’re doing math, this was her first boyfriend. Yes, she’d dated before: Ian Connor in fourth grade (although is it dating if all that ever happened is that they kissed at her fourth-grade graduation party — no tongue, although Kelly Malcolm and Kelly Leary told the whole school that there had been tongue which was, of course, ridiculous, they hadn’t even been there, so how would they know?), Mickey Powecki for nearly a whole week in sixth grade (her father had taken them to see Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves and told her to walk Mickey to his door after — but she hadn’t kissed him, and then Austin Kristofferson spent all Monday and Tuesday teasing her about having a boyfriend and she shared all of her “gifted” courses with Austin which was all of her courses so she broke up with Mickey on Wednesday), Shawn Thomas in eighth grade (who asked her to the spring dance and she said yes — they were next door neighbors, of a sort — she lived in a tiny ranch house with a backyard with a weeping willow and he lived in the motel across the alley, and there was something about that, about the fact of living in a motel with his mother and younger brother and also of how big he was and how he shaved his head and how, even in eighth grade, his entry into the army was a forgone conclusion, something about that scared her and so she backed out of attending the dance altogether), Noah Schlechtmann her senior year of high school (her first French kiss — that shocking wetness, both cool and warm, both firm and soft, thick and delicate — but Noah was a junior and that felt weird — girls are supposed to be younger — and he was built, all muscle and sweat and hard-bodiedness, and, since puberty, she had been round and soft and she felt like, somehow, Noah was bringing more to the relationship than she, like being attractive was her responsibility, and, plus, her best friend, Pete, who she’d always had a desperate crush on started getting grumpy about her dating Noah and suddenly there was all this possibility in the air there, and then Noah, during a date to go see Dragonheart at the mall, slowly dragged his hand up the inside of her leg and barely brushed the tip of his middle finger over the center seam of her jeans and that was that — perhaps if he had touched her with more authority, they might have lasted because she had enjoyed it, but it was so hesitant that she felt utterly unclear about his expectations and so she dumped him after nearly two weeks of dating).

[6] As did the fact that she had already had to forgive Tanner for cheating on her with his ex. Not only forgive, but beg him to let her take him back just so she could arrive at the point of living with him in this apartment in the western suburbs.

[7] Not to mention that she didn’t even have an ex with whom she might have engaged in retaliatory cheating. “Humiliating” is barely the word.

[8] It wasn’t.

[9] Which produced rather a lot more dust than she had ever imagined an exposed-brick wall producing. In fact, she hadn’t imagined they’d produced any dust at all.

[10] With a cute little brass transition bar on which she consistently caught her pinky toe.

[11] Her father insisted on two bedrooms. And her father paid the rent.

[12] Tanner never fails to tell her about the older women who work with him at the deli counter and how much they love him. They compliment his wavy blond hair, his tan features, his height, how the royal blue of his work polo brings out the flecks of gold in his eyes, how well he handles the meat.

[13] He reeks of meat.

[14] And a daydream about his cheating dick getting caught in the deli slicer and how the older women will all stand around and tell him how well he handles his meat.

[15] Tyler, Dakota, and Fisher. All boys.

[16] Cooper, Golden retriever, male.

[17] Tigger, Maine Coon, male.

[18] Pancake, Abyssinian, male.

[19] Brent.

[20] The boys will insist Tigger bats them under there, which will then cause her to imagine the cat playing with her sons’ stinky socks. Usually she will imagine this once the cat jumps up on her lap and is kneading her soft belly with his paws.

[21] Brent.

Jenn Lee has work featured or forthcoming in The RumpusThe Penn ReviewBending GenresThe Tiny Tim Literary ReviewSeeds, and other places. She founded the ARS reading series at Northeastern Illinois University, and is working on an MFA in creative writing at Columbia College. She lives in Chicago with her partner and two cats. // @jenn_smash

Banner image by Olivia Cronk