Recent Splats according to Miz Yank

You never forget your first apartment…

I’ve been thinking about my first Big Girl apartment a lot lately.
I rented that place, a one-bedroom unit at the Dolley Madison Apartments complex in McLean, in the Spring of 1997, after I’d ended an engagement and before I’d thought of applying to law school or even knew what a tort was. Until then, I’d been living with my parents and saving money so my then-fiancé and I could start our new life together on decent financial footing. As soon as I realized I didn’t want that relationship, or that life anymore, I decided to start my own life in my own apartment.
I paid $800 a month for 800 square feet of garden-style living. At the time, I was earning an entry-level salary as a Spanish language interpreter for the federal government, and was able to afford the place only because the first month was free. Yet it still seemed a small price to pay for a lot of independence. My apartment was nothing to write home about architecturally, but it had a stacked washer/dryer right in the unit and a balcony, two features that lent it a more grown-up feel than the apartments I’d rented with friends in college. And unlike one of my college rentals, I never had to contemplate flea-bombing this place.
Because I had no income to dispose of, my friends and family donated nearly every piece of furniture in that apartment. I had my recently deceased Nana’s country-style kitchen table, my friend Marvin’s futon sofa, my parents’ Archie Bunker-style recliner, and the dresser from my childhood bedroom. If those items wanted for luxury, they more than compensated for it by making me feel loved and comfortable.
I had also gotten a cat to keep me company in case I got lonely. T.C., a fully-grown Maine Coon with a smoker’s voice that he used liberally, was a big, loud, affectionate, lump of fur. Part dog and part Elvis, he loved butter, biscuits, sausage, and drinking from the toilet. A couch potato, he made what I called “impact noises” every time he completed the two-foot leap from futon to carpet, as if encountering solid ground were a continual, and not altogether pleasant, surprise. T.C. kept me company and kept me in stitches, except for the time he caught fire (please, don’t tell me your pet hasn’t set itself ablaze a time or two). Because that just stunk. Literally.
Though I had T.C.’s constant companionship, I didn’t want to spend too much time at home. I envisioned leading a social life similar to that of the single heroines in the sitcoms I spent way too much time watching as a kid. In an effort to maximize my going out budget, I bought groceries on the cheap. I shopped the sales and tried to emulate my mom’s coupon-clipping skills, though I usually presented expired coupons or forgot the blasted things altogether. I thought nothing of eating cereal for dinner, although most nights found me on a date, meeting friends for happy hour or dinner, or embarking on a long night in D.C. (In fact, if law school enrollment hadn’t intervened, I might still be driving around Adams Morgan, looking for parking.)
Every now and then, I invited someone over for dinner, undeterred by the fact that I didn’t actually know how to cook anything. Mom had helped me fake my way through a meal with a foolproof recipe from the High Museum of Art cookbook (never mind that nothing that came out of my kitchen belonged in the same sentence as the word “art”). And I trusted myself to assemble a salad competently, but everything else came out of a box or bag. No matter how it all turned out, we always had fun.
Twenty years later, I have a better job, a nicer house –my washer and dryer are side by side, thank you very much –and I no longer cook from a box, yet lately I find myself longing for my days at Dolley Madison.
One need not to be a psychologist to understand why: I’m not reaching back for the balcony, the stackable appliances, or the recliner. (Okay, maybe the recliner, because I’d take that thing back in a heartbeat.) I’m pining for a time when my days were mainly about having fun. The days when I barely knew what Parkinson’s Disease was, much less that it would hit my family. The days when 9/11 wasn’t loaded with sad significance, and when it seemed like people just got along better. The days when my biggest worry was a triviality like how to rid my apartment of the stench of scorched cat hair.
But I don’t kid myself: I’m well aware those days weren’t necessarily better; they were just simpler for me. Self-absorption and naiveté spared me from knowing too much about what was happening around me and from thinking too hard about what might lurk beneath our country’s seemingly placid surface.
Twenty years of living later, I know more and I pay more attention to the world around me. That knowledge and awareness can feel heavy and exhausting at times (like pretty much everything in middle age does), but I’ve come to believe they are ultimately for the good. Knowledge and awareness can help plant the seeds of change, in yourself and in others. They can make you do things like show up for a women’s march, call your Congresspeople regularly, and use your platform for good.
Knowledge and awareness can also fuel perspective and appreciation. I couldn’t have known twenty years ago, for example, what it would feel like to be an aunt to seven kids. I couldn’t have known that having those kids in my life would be everything, or that I’d care far more about their futures than my own (though it was certainly in my immediate self-interest to instruct my eldest nephew, while we were traveling together in Greece recently, to brush his teeth before breakfasting in public).
Because I know more, I can do more. And I care more. And though I feel a bit tired lately, I’ll get right back to all of the knowing and doing and caring…just as soon as my mind finishes this bowl of cereal and hauls itself out of the recliner.


  1. I definitely agree with the pull back to a simpler time. Just finished reading Anne Tyler’s old classic The Accidental Tourist. I enjoyed it much more than when I saw the movie decades ago. I appreciated Tyler’s writing but as an adult in midlife I understood the subtleties of characters life experiences. And how a trauma like losing a child would manifest itself differently in different people. What also struck me was how much I longed for the simpler time (contemporaneous to when it was written) with only one phone in the house. Newspapers to read. Flying to and travel in Europe with no worries of terrorism. Raising a child and not having to worry about bullies online … I’ll stop.

    • I’m in heated agreement with you on every point you made here, Jamie. I understand things so differently now than I did when I was younger (and sometimes I cringe to think how insufferable I might have been, thinking I understood when I really didn’t). Funny enough, I was thinking just the other day that I used to LOVE reading the actual newspaper. Now, I read it online –because that’s where most of the best content is –and it just makes me anxious.

  2. Sssssiiiiigggghhhh!!! Those were such good times, and I’m so glad I got to share those years with you! I remember moving you out of that apartment! With Marvin and Gil, and I lost T.C. in the bush!

    • They really were, and largely because you were part of them, Shel! I totally remember how TC shot out of my open car window –the greatest feat of agility he ever performed, as you know –and how it was spring, so the azaleas from which I extracted him were in full bloom, thus I emerged covered in azalea funk as if snowed on. Those were the days!!

  3. Amy K DeCarlo says:

    I drive by the Dolly Madison apartments from time to time, and yes, it reminds me of my earlier, less complicated, days. Time – and the next generation – definitely change the perspective.

    So thankful for the earlier years. They were simpler, but not necessarily easier. Thanks for reminding us of that.

  4. Earl Shores says:

    Karen, what a wonderful, wonderful piece!! I so admire the humor you bring to it — and I can relate on so many levels. The first apartment my girlfriend (now my wife) and I shared in 1981 — with three cats, roaches, and a yes, a flea bomb — will always be our simpler place. Including a Sears Surplus Store sofa that had a large rip on the armrest that we sewed up (actually my wife of course, sewed it – the rip was why it only cost $60). And this paragraph — apologies for hijacking your comments – comes from the book I’m working on now. A description of an OC condo I lived in. Simpler days for sure!
    Greg got up and walked down the hallway to the back door, which was in my bedroom. That and the bathroom were the only true designated spaces in the place. This room was the habitation equivalent of a Swiss Army knife, as besides the television and the couch, which pulled out to be Greg’s bed, an entire compact kitchenette – cupboard, stove, sink, and under counter half fridge – was within arm’s length behind me. Spilling out of a broom closet just beyond my reach was our resident “pet,” a five-foot-tall avocado colored Skinny-Mini washer-dryer contraption that tried to walk down the hall every time we used it. The most prominent piece of furniture, a white Formica dinette table, is where I sat. Centered under an immense globe-shaped 100-watt bulb whose retina-burning properties rivaled a solar eclipse, the table took up almost half of our floor space. From it we ate, drank, talked, watched television, watched the tourists on the stairs, read the newspaper, wrote letters, listened to music (from a pair of Bose speakers pointed directly at the table), de-seeded our weed…and passed the bong. It was the center of our summertime universe.

    • I LOVE this, Earl! Thanks for sharing, and for the pitch-perfect visual of your condo. Hilarious!! (And as always, thank you for reading!!)

  5. Mary Jo Titus says:

    Loved this piece. I think we all long for those simpler times, although I would not want the couch and chair that we got for $20 at Goodwill! I have lived in so many different places and love the memories of each and every one. And getting my very own washer and dryer was definitely one of the highlights of my life!!