The title is not true. I do not live alone. I live with a girl, a nice one. And I am writing this from Cambridge, Massachusetts, so decidedly not-where-I-live that there is almost a degree of opposition to Chapel Hill in its lack of comfort and familiarity. It is difficult to write—away from home and unable to go and walk down the gravel paths—how the wisteria vines and rocky gardens of Old Chapel Hill–and in that, I mean the blocks of Rosemary, North, Glenburnie, Franklin Streets, and Tenney Circle–have come to mean so much.
The house will look much nicer than a house I should live in, but it’s the big white one on the corner, you can’t miss it, my sister tells me and yet I still miss the house, the big white one on the corner, because I cannot believe that my sister could have a house this nice. I walk about in wonder in her North Street house, knowing that I will move into my dorm on the other side of town in a month. How many friends will I have over the years that will live in the four dissected apartments in William Coker‘s old home?
My partner–but then, my boyfriend, and even then, tentatively–and I will ride our bikes up from south campus in the night-cool of April, tie them up to the light pole at Burham Park and walk around and around Tenney Circle, then watch the night-deer in their bold movements and bright eyes graze about brazenly through the park. We will be nervous and then, truthfully, afraid, when the deer hiss at us. I think now, we interrupted them.
My roommate and I will go walking on unseasonably warm winter days down through the neighborhoods deep and back into the parts of Old Chapel Hill that are not so old. I will stand in total reverence at the sight of an impeccable yellow crocus on February 2nd, and I will regret for days not dashing into a stranger’s yard and stealing their flower. I would have loved it more than them.
I moved into the top floor apartment of a house in Old Chapel Hill in August. When I check the mailbox on the porch in the evening, I smile when I see my name above my address: East Rosemary Street. I am training a wisteria vine to climb up the column on the far right side of the porch, and have been, so far, successful at colonizing the shared front porch with the blossoms of the, again, unseasonable flowers.
Up the stairs on the side of the house and into my apartment, I live with a girl and God knows how many German roaches. They come out one at a time it would seem, and maybe then only one every few days. I find them in the morning usually, already dead, in the recycling bin, one in the sink, another on the floor right in the corner by the refrigerator. I found them foul, disgusting, repulsive, and I feel this way still. But sometimes in the morning, when I find them on their backs, so small and light brown–the color of my own hair, I think–they are almost admirable.
We are surrounded by trees on all sides, trees and vines. In the back, there is a fine pecan tree, which is currently in the business of dropping its drupe on the roof of the house, and again, in the morning, I find the clang against the tin of the porch roof almost admirable. In the front, a tree I cannot identify: its seed-pods are foreign to me, but the cardinals that live in its boughs are not. From my bed, I watch them fly to and from their nests. Ivy has eaten up the stone wall up front. In moments I find it aggressively against the tone of the neighborhood. But I wonder how many broken beer bottles it covers up, and in that, I feel a kind of devious pride.
I was supposed to move into the apartment with my partner, and in the use of ‘supposed to,’ you will also find your answer to why I am writing from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Promises of future career flexibility is what drives him up here to finish school. We ate lunch today in the Harvard Law School cafeteria and the chatter of excited conversation and the quality of the ravioli felt terrifically Ivy League, and we talked about how my partner is fitting in and feeling as we looked out over the patio, over a hundred students eating salads and ravioli. How strange, I said, everything here is so new to me. I don’t have a good point of reference. A few bites of ravioli, then my partner said, But we’ve always known this place—I mean, it’s Harvard Law.
I hope you will forgive us for the pretension, because here is the connection I want to make: I have known Old Chapel Hill like my partner has known Harvard Law. They are places from which we derive promise, goals to work towards, places to dream of falling into intimacy with, developing a repartee with. I have dreamed of living in Old Chapel Hill for years: when I was a child and the public library was on Franklin, right around the corner from where I now live; when I was sixteen and visiting my sister in Chapel Hill for the first time; when I was a first-year falling in love on walks around Tenney Circle; when I worked through the night in the Love House my last year of undergraduate, sitting out on the porch and looking across the street, and thinking Chapel Hill’s history happened here; and now, living here, sitting on my own porch, watching the neighbors, the strangers, on their walks.
In “Death of a Moth,” Annie Dillard first describes the valiance of a moth that catches in the flame from her candle and burns to death. Again it happens: a moth catches in the fire, but Dillard sees something new in its death. The moth becomes a wick and the candle burns brighter. Dillard lives alone and sees this. It is an incredible observation.
“I don’t mind living alone,” she finishes the essay. “I like eating alone and reading. I don’t mind sleeping alone. The only time I mind being alone is when something is funny; then, when I am laughing at something, I wish someone were around. Sometimes I think it is pretty funny that I sleep alone.”
I am seeing and knowing Old Chapel Hill better and deeper than in all my life. I know this because I am living alone.
I still idealize it. But I wake up to the landscaping men buzzing the neighbors’ hedges; hear the fraternity boys, who live cattycorner to me, yell into the night, late and maybe angry; marvel at the sorority girls who live all around me, coming out of their houses ready for the night, and they are beautiful, glossy even; smile to the man who walks his Bichon Frise around in a stroller and gives me a nervous look when I pass; stop and listen to teenage band practice in the peeling green shed off to the side of an ancient home.
I walk home in the evening after I talk to my partner on the phone, and climb up the stairs to my apartment. Even now, I think, I am interrupting.