Let me take you back to the summer of 2013. After securing a job as a junior software engineer early in the semester, it was nothing but smooth sailing ahead through graduation. I left college and moved back in with my parents. The arrangement was to live at home with my folks for a while and commute to Rockford until I married Marissa, and even though we weren't engaged, we had a mutual understanding that would take place sometime in the summer of 2014.
I underestimated what the brutal commuter's lifestyle had in store for me. That summer, there was a massive stretch of highway between Schaumburg and Rockford that was being expanded, meaning most of the drive was on a packed two lane highway at a maddening reduced speed limit of 45 mph. What Google Maps estimated would only be an hour in each direction was really an hour an a half - two hours on some days.
There were lots of cops on the interstate, too. Most drivers would do 60 on the road, slowing down for speed traps. But sometimes a cop would pull out and drive with everyone, meaning the entire caravan would have to slow down to the legal 45.
I tried to make the most of it. I woke up earlier, brought coffee along, and had a whole queue of podcasts saved on my phone. But the driving was just too much for me. There's nothing more soul crushing than spending that much time in the car each day. I'd have to fill up my car with gas about every three days. I usually wouldn't get home until seven at night, and on top of everything, I was also periodically driving to Wheaton to hang out with Marissa. It was one of the most exhausting seasons of my life.
Most dates with Marissa that summer were at the Panda Express or the Auntie Anne's pretzel stand on the Hinsdale Oasis. One night, on the way back to Wheaton after hanging out at my parents' place, we sat at a table overlooking the busy highway.
"Have you thought about getting your own place?" she asked. "You're so tired all the time, and you spend so much time driving."
"Why would I," I replied. "It's hard, but it's free. I'm saving money. I'll hang in there until we get married."
"You spend a lot on gas. Have you ever checked if you're really saving money?'
Marissa planted a seed. And to my surprise, it turns out that I wasn't saving money. Tallying up my gas bill for the past month, I found that I was practically paying for a small apartment. My favorite joke, "I basically live on I-90" took on a new meaning.
I had also underestimated how cheap it was to live in Rockford. The place we found was only $550 a month, Internet and utilities included. I set up a tour of one of the units. I loved how straight forward everything was. The apartment had a living room, a small kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a narrow hallway connecting everything. The rental office was prompt and friendly. It felt right.
"I'm finally moving to Rockford," I proudly announced at work.
"Oh nice," said my teammate, Gene. "Where's the place?"
I dug a sticky note out of my pocket. "It's called Beacon Hill." Another coworker, Matt, swung around in his chair.
"Oh I know that place," he said, smirking. "That's on the south side, right? Just a few blocks south of Sandy Hollow?"
Gene grimaced. "That's kind of sketchy over there. I live on the south side, but I don't go more south than Sandy Hollow."
"I'm going to Google hit," shouted Chris from the back corner. "Oh boy - it says on the police scanner that there was a stabbing there this week."
My new apartment in the scary part of town became the joke of the day. My coworkers casually dubbed my building Stabby Hill. Returning from lunch that day, I found this sign taped to the wall of our bullplen.
To be honest, I didn't mind the teasing. I was just happy that my coworkers and I finally had something to talk about. As a shy, newly hired junior developer, I appreciated just finally being in on the jokes, even if I was the butt of the joke.
And I wasn't even worried about the area's reputation for crime, either. My apartment was practically empty, even after my unceremonious moving day. In the middle of the living room, I had a cheap monitor and desktop computer on an ikea side table. I had an air mattress that I borrowed from my parents. I had a small non stick pan, a cheap stock pot, a plastic paring knife, and a heavy German chef's knife my dad gave me in lieu of a moving in gift.
That day, after work I hopped in my car, this time driving past the familiar entrance to I-90. I went the other direction, to my new apartment. It was only a fifteen minute drive. I remember how surreal it felt climbing the carpeted stairs to my empty sanctuary on the third floor. I remember a wave of giddiness and relief as my apartment door snapped shut, my heavy work bag slinking of my shoulder to the floor. I was home, and for the first time in my life, I had nobody to answer to.
I had picked up some food from Target on the way home. For my first meal living alone, I browned some stew meat in my stock pot, mixing it with chopped asparagus and a pack of instant beef ramen.
I enjoyed it standing at my bar table with a tall beer. I think that's the best meal I've ever eaten - forget that I probably didn't cook the meat all the way, nor trim the asparagus. All that matters was that it tasted like independence.
For the first week or so, I stuck to my asparagus, meat, and ramen combination. To appease my keen palate, I tried to pair chicken breast with chicken ramen, stew beef with beef ramen, and frozen shrimp with shrimp ramen, but sometime's I would mix it up. Some nights, I would just stick a frozen Home Run Inn pizza in the oven and cut it in half, saving half in tinfoil for lunch and taking the other half over to the air mattress for dinner.
With meals, I got more daring and more creative. On special occasions, if I was entertaining Marissa, I'd whip up my steak sandwich - a mess of beef, onions, and bell peppers on fried white bed, served on an elegant pile of sweet potato fries.
I invited my parents over for dinner. I made them my steak sandwich, since that was the only actual meal I could cook. They were amused seeing me in my natural state, eating simple meat based meals and drinking beer in an eerily empty apartment. "It's so empty - you don't even have anywhere to sit in here," they laughed.
"What do you mean empty," I retorted. "I've been entertaining. Look at how homey it is in here. I even set out the pink lawn chairs."
They had a point. I needed some chairs. With Marissa's help, I tracked down some bar stools on Craigslist. I made the drive to the west side of town, which unbeknownst to me, was even more feared than where I lived. I pulled my car over at the curb in front of a chain linked fence. There was a tough looking dude standing in the front yard. In one hand, he gripped a chain tied to a Rottweiler. He snatched the money out of my hand with his other hand.
Gracias, he said gruffly, motioning at the chairs laid out on his lawn. All things considered, it was a great deal, and they really spruced up the place.
I loved having my friends from college over. They didn't seem to mind that my new place was practically empty and in the middle of nowhere. It just felt cool hanging out in a real apartment with no roommates, RA's, or college administration to answer to.
And I couldn't believe how much time I had. Going from three hours of driving down to only twenty minutes, I practically had an extra half day of freetime bolted on to my day. I was sleeping more and staying up later. I spent many evenings falling asleep on my air mattress slumped over my keyboard, my living room dimly lit by my single computer screen. Being a junior engineer, I had lots to learn, and I was finally free to study and practice my new trade on my own. I learned python, django, web development, and linux server administration. I tinkered with cheap computers I bought off ebay or bummed off my college's IT department. Most of what I know today about web development, I learned in that empty apartment.
Summer rolled into fall, and it didn't take long for me to realize that my heat wasn't working. I woke up one morning seeing the fog from my breath. The temperature plummeted overnight and I woke up to a frigid 58 degree apartment.
"I'm really worried," I told Marissa over the phone. "Am I going to be OK? What if I like... freeze in my sleep or something?"
Marissa laughed over the phone, but tried to keep an empathetic posture. "Sorry I laughed, but I don't think you're going to freeze. It's only 50 degrees outside, you're going to be fine."
Marissa and I visited family for Christmas, but after the holidays I found myself alone again at my place. It was new year's eve, and a brief blizzard had just left a few feet of fresh snow on the ground. For the first time since moving in, I decided to go for a walk around the neighborhood. I trudged through the unplowed parking lot and wandered further into the neighborhood. I walked around the block, and decided to duck into the nearby gas station for some snacks. That's when I had an impulse.
"Oh, and I'll have a pack of... cigarettes," I said sheepishly.
"Which kind?" asked the attendant.
"How about those - the red... Maaar-earl-bor-os," I said, sounding out the name on the box that I had never before pronounced aloud.
"Not really a smoker, are you?" he smiled.
"Eh, I smoke like... a pack a year... starting tonight," I laughed. I trudged home with my bounty. I remember clearing just enough snow off my balcony so I could fit one of my pink lawn chairs through the door. I rang in the new year that night with my first cigarette, looking out over the snow covered parking lot. From a distance, I could see cars whizzing by on I-90, the same highway that once claimed so much of my time and energy, now just a quaint addition to my view from my fortress of solitude.
Marissa and I were married the following summer, and she joined me in my apartment. The transition from my empty, aescetic home to one filled with clothes, decorations, wedding presents, and furniture was a jarring one. I had to actually start sleeping in the bedroom instead of on the living room floor in front of the TV. We set up our computers beside each other, calling the shared table "the newly wed battlestation."
Though I resisted her new frivolous additions at first, Marissa had a good effect on the place. Our place felt more loving and homier. Suddenly having friends over felt more like a real social gathering than just a rowdy dorm sleep over. All in all, she did a great job sprucing up the place, and I learned to trust her sense of taste.
Not to say that all her ideas were good. I reluctantly agreed to letting her hang our coffee mugs on the wall. Little did I know that her "mug wall" vision was literally just coffee mugs nailed to the wall.
It also became a lot easier to meet people. Marissa was bubbly, friendly, and basically a walking ice breaker. I began to get on speaking terms with my neighbors and the apartment office. There was the couple below us - she was a nurse, and he was in welding school. He used to lock himself out of his apartment all the time and just resort to using the balcony. Living on the second floor, that meant seeing him scale the side of the wall like Spider-Man in the middle of the day was a pretty common occurance.
There was another heavy set guy who lived on the first floor who used to sit on his couch next to his window. Every time we brought Beef-a-Roo home for ourselves, without turning his head or getting up from the couch, he would stop us in our tracks on our way into the building. "I smell Beef-a-Roo," he'd say through his open window. "What did you get for me?"
"Ah dangit," joked Marissa sweetly. "They forgot your food again."
And of course, our new dog Ollie was the center of our lives. We set him up with a pen in the corner of the living room. Coming home from work or running errands, we used to love watching Ollie stretch his back and happily roll around on the carpet. We used to catch him sprawled out on his back on the couch, his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
After a little over two years living in Rockford, I took a new job in Madison. Already soured to the idea of commuting, we moved out. There were plenty of reasons to move, but it was still heart wrenching leaving that little apartment behind. Sometimes Marissa and I like to stop there as we're passing through Rockford. We eat Beef-a-Roo in the car and stare at the balcony of our first apartment on the third floor. Just imagining all the moments we had in that little place is enough to make me misty eyed.
I loved that place. My first apartment may have been cheap, drab, and in the rougher part of a town that was in the middle of nowhere. But it was special to me. It was a place of learning, independence, and love, and I'm thankful for every minute of it.