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The 'Living Together at Separate Addresses, Sharing the Toothbrush' Shuffle

Otherwise known as "What do you do when you can't live with him and you can't live without him?"

Image by Anna Sudit

Love has turned me into a “shopping-bag." But I'm not the only one. I've learned that many of the innocent-looking tote bags I see sprouting squash racquets and office files are likely to contain a toothbrush and change of clothes as well. I'm not talking about the post-adolescent version of a "slumber party" in which single people routinely prepare for a date or a night on the town by carrying camouflaged shaving kits or contraceptive gadgetry–"just in case." I'm talking about a pattern of living in which love and "liberation" conspire to make extracurricular commuting a daily routine.

Bag Lady

About three months ago, for instance, I noticed that I was spending almost all of my nights with a man I'd been seeing for a few weeks. And, since other affairs had never led my neighbors to inquire whether my apartment was vacant, I knew this was serious. Soon, we were discussing living together, but I didn't want to move into his artist's loft until he could afford to carry out his renovation plans install a shower, remodel the defunct kitchen, expand his studio area, and make his living quarters generally more livable. And he wasn't interested in moving into my conventional, one-bedroom apartment. ("Your ceilings are too low." "I don't want to live in a box.") There isn't enough money for us to consider other alternatives right now, so we continue shuttling from one end of Manhattan to the other–downtown to his place for about five days of the week and uptown to mine as often as I feel compelled to do laundry or perform unspeakable cosmetic rites. I routinely stuff an extra pair of jeans, a sweater, and a few days' worth of underwear into my oversized shoulder bag. Or, when the week's itinerary requires a more elaborate wardrobe, I add a shopping bag to my gear and leave my apartment looking like a black, female Santa Claus on Christmas Eve.

My friends have added his number to their phone books, I've transferred my account to a bank in his neighborhood, and in filling out a job application recently, I was annoyed that there wasn't enough space for both of my "home addresses." But I still don't know what to call this arrangement, and comparing notes with people in similar situations hasn't helped. "Heavy dating" is how one couple describes it, another woman says she isn't into "labels," and a man I know simply admitted that the whole thing made him feel like a “displaced person."

I discovered too that, while we all share the circumstance of being a part of one couple that has two addresses, our ideas about the meaning of it varied widely. I consider my current situation costly and inconvenient I feel ridiculous about paying rent on an apartment. I'm home in too seldom to clean or stock with food anymore, and I'm afraid to count the number of times that a late-night, midwinter journey to my friend's place seemed to require the luxury of paying cab fare. But I feel our willingness to invest so much time and trouble in our relationship is the most convincing sign of commitment my friend and I could ever make. Both of us are turned off to marriage–he, from experience, I, from observation–and sharing the same roof seems more a practical necessity than an emotional one, since we manage to be together almost all of the time anyway. Two of the other couples I spoke to, however, felt their arrangements were preludes to living together and marriage, or as one man put it, "We've done a test run."

Location, Location, Location

Kathy and Tom, a young publishing executive and a freelance illustrator, feel it's too early to speculate about the long-term structure of their month-old relationship. But Kathy admits, "I've got an incredible fear of marriage. Every marriage I saw when I was growing up was a disaster. I like knowing there's someone there for me, but I don't think I want someone there all the time. I guess I'm afraid of getting too dependent on someone."

She explains that her work is another major factor in her reservations about sharing a single address: "I love my work, I work hard, I work evenings. When I began seeing Tom my fear was 'Now I'm going to want to spend so much time with him that I'm going to start sloughing off in my work.' " Luckily, though, Tom seems devoted to his career also, and his habit of working at home during the day fits comfortably with Kathy's schedule of office hours and business engagements. Tom gets ideas for his illustrations from watching the evening news, so, he says, "I stay here and watch my TV–her TV doesn't work very well. After that I walk over to her place; she's usually home by then."

Recently, however, Kathy's work and Tom's reluctance to leave things at her apartment at this stage in their relationship combined to illustrate a frequent disadvantage of "migratory cohabitation." One Friday, she says, Tom met her at work to attend an office party. Normally a very casual dresser, he had on his one good suit–a white one–for the occasion. Afterward they spent the night at her place, but had to walk through a morning snowfall so that Tom could go home and change into something more suitable for the rest of the day. I am reminded of the time that I wound up with a severe cold from trudging though sleet and freezing rain in my party shoes the morning after a particularly festive night at my friend's place.

Kathy and Tom are fortunate to live within walking distance of each other. Rebecca and Bob, an artist/textile designer and a playwright/actor who are now married, recall that before they moved in together, commuting between her loft in Lower Manhattan and his apartment on the Upper West Side provided a hair-raising experience one night: "We were going uptown and somewhere in midtown the cab suddenly stopped. On the right was a white Mustang and some guys got into it really fast and started driving off. On our left was a police car. The cops jumped out, ran around the back of our cab, and started shooting! At this point everybody hit the deck," Rebecca adds, "Except me; I wanted to see what was going on. After they'd fired a few shots, the cops ran back into their car and took off after the guys." Did this incident put a damper on their crosstown romance? “No,” Bob answers, “it added some spice!”

But Rebecca remembers having been constantly afraid of Bob's neighborhood. When she came uptown alone at night, she would phone from the subway and Bob would have to walk to the station to escort her to his apartment. Such arrangements are not unusual: I've been known to ride the subway as far as two stops away from my friend's place, then take a cab the rest of the way for a late-night rendezvous. (We worked out the 'two stops away' system upon noting New York cabbies' indifference to under-a-dollar fares.)

Risking Roommates

Andrew and Sheila have been dating off and on for the past four years, seeing each other exclusively for the past two. Sheila shares three floors of a large town house in New York's Chelsea district with three other women, while Andrew and his male roommate split a cramped two-bedroom apartment until last fall. As a result, Andrew had gotten into the habit of seeing Sheila at her place most of the time. "And, in the last four months it's been a lot more serious and we've been spending a lot more time together," he explains. "About six weeks ago, her roommates said I'd been spending too much time there–that my presence was becoming a problem and they never got to see Sheila anymore."

Roommates have been the bane of more than one two-home relationship. Rebecca and Bob had to erect a partition of "clothing and boxes and stuff to have some privacy" when he spent nights at the loft she shared with a male friend from art school. Andrew and Sheila decided, however, to simply spend half their time at the more spacious, new apartment that Andrew and his roommate had leased in September. For the most part, the arrangement has worked well. "When I began spending more time at my place, we started doing things to make the apartment a little more livable," Andrew reports. "Finally, I hung my curtains.

"I was used to sitting down before I left the house and thinking, 'Well, if I'm not going to be back here for a couple of days, what do I need to take?" But for Sheila, it was an entirely new experience, because she'd spent very few nights at my place. When we first made the decision, she decided to stock duplicates in my house of most of the things she had at hers; she went to the drugstore and bought the entire array of accessories she needed, and they are now a part of my bathroom shelf. We both play squash, so there's always an extra bag on arm that can easily fit a dress or an extra pair of shoes.

"But, there are little things––like the fact that from her Chelsea apartment it's only a ten-minute commute to her office, but from my place it's a half hour subway ride. When I started seeing her more often, I figured out a rational-enough system so that there was a pair of shoes at each place that would go with each of my suits. But it's getting all screwed up now. In the last month, I've gotten up in the morning at my apartment, put on a suit, and found that I had the wrong pair of shoes or whatever. Minor things, granted, but just enough to make me think this is ridiculous!"

Working Orders

Andrew and Sheila are at the point where "living together is no longer a dirty word." But, he expects it will be another six months to a year before they are ready to move in together. "I consider it essentially as big a decision as getting married. It means more of an emotional investment and it also means a financial investment–both of which I want to be sure I'm ready to make when I do it." The young journalist has deferred a possible overseas assignment because of the growing intensity of this relationship, but feels that Sheila is even more hesitant about living together than he is, because of her career as a banker. "I think she worries that if she moves in with a man, at some point she's going to have to give up her career. I think that comes, in part, from earlier relationships that developed into real dependencies rather than partnerships. And these are feelings that have to be worked through." When asked if he had any objections to living with a banker, he replied, "Absolutely not. In fact, there ain't gonna be no house-wife, that's for sure!"

Different professional orientations, like the preference for living "uptown” or “down-," seem to be a major source of tension in these two-home, all-of-the-time relationships. Recently, I switched from being a full-time editor to being a part-time waitress, art student, and freelance writer, and found myself replacing one neat, little briefcase with a purse stash of tennis shoes and an apron for my restaurant nights, or tape-recording equipment for my daytime journalistic forays, and a portfolio and beach bag full of art supplies for my afternoon classes. My professional life became so complicated that I am amazed I could continue to conduct a full-scale romance, but things continued smoothly until last month, when I decided to take a break from art school and do my artwork at home.

The problem was that "home" had come to mean primarily my friend's place, and, although he was very gracious and encouraging about it at first, he eventually informed me that it was too distracting for him to have me drawing on one side of the room while he was painting on the other. I was very dismayed by this conflict in our work needs, and it took me a long time to admit–to myself or to him–that, for the first time in my life, I'd grown accustomed to constant companionship and I liked it that way. I've finally realized, though, that until we can afford to construct a second working space in his loft or to invest in a new place, we'll have to discipline ourselves to do our artwork at opposite ends of town and serve even more time on the subway.

Kathy and Tom want to keep separate addresses in order to try to eliminate the work problem–for now, anyway. Tom could imagine himself moving into Kathy's apartment, which is more "comfortable" than his, and keeping his own inexpensive, little place pure for studio space. But, he also admits that if the relationship lasts his ideal would be to share a small loft with Kathy–someplace with "just a separate room for myself where I can play my stereo or watch TV and not disturb her. Kathy, however, is wary of living together.

"One of my fantasies of an ideal relationship is two people who are really committed to each other and who know they're committed, but who can give each other a sort of freedom and latitude. I think one very symbolic way of giving each other that latitude is to know that you each have your own space, which is a private space, when the need arises. It's just another way of saying, 'I'm with you because I want to be, but I'm my own person.' I think that's an important thing for people to remember about each other, and maybe it helps people not to take each other for granted quite so quickly.

"I'm afraid of living with someone and then having to break up," she continued. "I don't want to have to go through that again–you know, the disillusionment. I guess my own fear of that makes me want to keep a certain distance so that the 'honeymoon period' can last a little longer. On the other hand, though, I love the intimacy of just being comfortable together."

Running Home to Mama

Although I'd love to stop lugging around bags full of blankets, pillows, books, clothing, and so on, I wouldn't be surprised if my friend and I continued commuting indefinitely. He is a veteran at this sort of thing—one relationship involved flights between Europe and Africa! And, although I love being with him 99 percent of the time, I find it reassuring to keep a 'security blanket'–my own apartment—even if I'm there so seldom that my cupboards are usually bare. My friend accuses me of 'running home to Mama' whenever I threaten to remove my toothbrush from his premises. My mama is 3,000 miles away, but I suspect he's right-in a way.

My mother once confided that, during the early years of her marriage, arguments with my father occasionally led her to pack her bags and phone her mother to say she was 'coming home.' I know I've never wanted to end my relationship with my friend, but periodically I have felt I needed 'time out' to lick imaginary wounds and think things over. And, somehow, retreating to a place that's completely 'mine'–a place I've spent years working to pay for, that is full of the small and large signs of my own habits and tastes–helps me to get clear about who I am and what I want. So far, I've always returned to him and felt able to say, 'I'm with you because I know I want to be.' "

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