Living Together

On communal living and sharing space

Larissa Pham
Jan 9, 2020 · 9 min read
Illustration by Louisa Bertman

Last summer, an article with the astonishing headline — “Seven Chinese girlfriends buy mansion to retire and die together” — went semi-viral, proliferating on my social media timeline like mushrooms popping up overnight. Rather than rely on husbands or other support systems in their old age, the seven women, all close friends, decided to buy and refurbish a house in rural China, preparing themselves to live in community in their retirement. Photos accompanying the article depict the property, surrounded by rice paddies: huge windows, sun-filled rooms. A tea pavilion, a swimming pool, shared spaces with low tables, floors cushioned with tatami mats. The seven girlfriends, all beautiful, and still quite young, pose for their picture in a vivid green field, holding fashionably clear umbrellas over their heads. They look happy, like characters in a TV show where nothing bad happens. Some of the women have children, the news piece notes. But they’re looking to each other to keep each other company into their twilight years.

Many group chats, I’m sure, sent the piece back and forth. One of my friends — I can’t remember who — pasted a link into our own group DM. Goals, we said. When we get old, let’s buy a house like this, we said. It was a nice fantasy to aspire to.

I do live in a house full of women. Well, a four-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment. There are four of us, constantly painting our nails and making soup in the kitchen and blow-drying our hair. Yes, it’s so fun, just like college, I explain at parties to strangers surprised that I live with so many people at my advanced age. (I’m 27.) It’s not a co-op; we don’t have a chore wheel, and we take out our recycling only when we remember to, and our shoes — chunky platform boots and scuffed Air Force 1s and loafers with leather tassels — despite our organizational efforts, are constantly jumbled in a pile in our entryway.

But we’re close, very much so. Nothing unusual differentiates us, or particularly contributes to our circumstance: we’re ordinary working women, all in our mid-to-late twenties. We date around; we go to our jobs. Yet out of this ordinariness has risen a bond so strong that if I think about it too deeply, my eyes get misty and my throat gets tight. We cook for each other and go out for hotpot on cold days; we trek out to parties in Ridgewood together and share cabs home. We have a family group chat; refer to each other as sisters, wives. On holidays and vacations, we start missing each other after about two days. It’s friendship — of course it must be friendship — so solid and dependable, I can feel the weight of it in my hands. And yet, as time goes on, and our lives change — the arrival of a promotion, a serious boyfriend — I find myself fearing that our little home could change, too. That we’re approaching the age where, fully grown, we’re expected to leave the nest we’ve built together, and spin away.

Nothing unusual differentiates us, or particularly contributes to our circumstance: we’re ordinary working women, all in our mid-to-late twenties.

Later that summer, I learn that some friends of friends have bought a house upstate. A group of people, not just a couple. They’re fixing it up, and taking care of the land in front to make a garden. They’re not starting a family, not in the traditional sense. They’re already a family. They want to live together. Hearing about their plans for their new house fills me with an unexpected joy, like a window opening: maybe it can be this way.

The idea of living in community isn’t new. It’s one of the oldest things in the world, dating back to when humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, long before we decided to distill family into two-parent households. America itself is full of both failed and new projects in communal housing, efforts at intentional cohabitation outside of the traditional nuclear family. Some, like the branded co-ops of the Bay Area, where every member is listed on the website with a blurb, feel California-cultish; others, like the international Bruderhof community, take the armature of religion as their framework. In cities, especially, informal communal houses abound, where young people live together to save money. Some of the more organized houses have names, doubling as social hubs for subcultures: venues for noise shows and pop-up art galleries.

Recently, a handful of startups have attempted to capitalize on the trend of co-living, combating the loneliness and alienation of the modern city. WeWork’s WeLive program might be the most egregious example — seamlessly integrating the site of home to streamline the production of capital. Ostensibly a place for young people new to a city (for a job at a different startup, perhaps) to get their bearings, WeLive advertises fully-furnished rooms with all the perks of a fancy apartment building or hotel — fruit infused waters, coffee every morning, housekeeping, a concierge. In doing so, WeLive offers a seemingly utopic mode of communal living so frictionless and luxurious that residents can enter — and exit — a city like a well-lubricated piston. All is provided: there’s no need to go shopping for furniture, no need even to find a local grocery or coffee shop or gym.

But WeLive, in its effort to provide total convenience, also institutes a hierarchy in its living spaces — there’s a power balance between those who live there and those who work for them, and little motivation for the ever-transient former to foster meaningful relationships with the latter, let alone with other residents. Is that community, or is it an extended stay at an all-expenses-paid resort? Having all of one’s creature comforts immediately at hand is also isolating, paradoxically: with everything provided for, interior design included, it’s so easy to be absorbed in the singular concerns of the self. I can’t imagine a WeLive resident knocking on the door of a neighbor to ask for a cup of sugar, when such conveniences can be easily bought downstairs or delivered — although, to be honest, I can’t really imagine a WeLive resident cooking much at all. Is it really utopian when your community — whatever of it exists — is built on the labor of others, when your relaxation is dependent on someone else’s unacknowledged work?

But WeLive’s failings only highlight that truly living in community — trying hard, and intentionally, to create a space together, on equal ground — still seems revolutionary and special to me. Not because it’s new, but because it’s so ancient, and that we keep trying to make it the most sustainable, the most ecological, the most kind, the most pure. There are 256 communes listed internationally at the Foundation for Intentional Community, each with its own mission, goals, and visions. But I think that smaller communities — say, a household, say, a group of tight-knit friends — are just as important to learn from, too.

There’s a romantic sort of person — you see it often on Tumblr, or you did, anyway, when I was a teen — who’s always looking for the foreign words for things. As though concepts that can’t be expressed in English are better off in translation. Still, I remember how in my youth, I was fascinated by the different types of Greek love — I liked that there were different words for each, and each so specific. Among them there was eros, denoting sexual passion; philia, the love between equals; storge, the love begat by obligation, or alignment; and agape, my favorite, a kind of all-encompassing, familial, possibly divine love.

I liked that the framework made room for so many kinds of love, and that if all were not necessarily equal, each had a place. Today, and especially in America, where I live, romantic love is prioritized above all other forms — it’s what one aspires to find. Career aside, it’s romantic love’s developments and precipitates: partnership, cohabitation, perhaps children — that are supposed to dictate the choices of one’s life. But to solely focus on romantic love felt, and still feels, lopsided to me. Even when I was quite young, I’d never imagined myself partnered, never fantasized about a wedding, never even imagined myself co-parent of a child. How could I possibly stake my future on just one person — what about all the other loves in my life, like my love for my friends? How could I possibly ignore those bonds so strong?

As I get older, the way my roommates and I live together seems increasingly rare. One by one, members of my social circle have partnered up and puffed off like dandelion seeds in the wind. I know this is a familiar lament, often posited by people of a certain age — we’re growing up and getting old, both ordinary things. Now are the days of dinner parties, over-budget bottles of wine, guest lists that allot plus-ones. Around the corner: more weddings, more parties, and then babies, and calendar invites, and couple-friends. When I’m feeling especially cynical — or just afraid — I see my future like a hallway full of doors swinging shut.

In my early twenties, while I was dating a string of unreliable mostly-men, I often found myself craving their companionship when I was sick. It was the care I wanted, from those who seemed least likely to provide it: I wanted to be looked after, held and cradled and protected. Maybe if they brought me soup and tissues — maybe if they finally showed they cared — it’d give my relationships with them the legitimacy they always seemed to lack. Floppy and romantic, it was the gesture I craved. But I rarely received it — not from those I dated, I mean.

It was always my roommates who came through for me, who propped me up and suffered through my complaining and nursed me back to health. That it came from my platonic friends didn’t make it any less meaningful or any less true, though this took time to learn. I wasn’t any less loved, any less cared for — if anything, I experienced it in excess.

Years later, I’m in a relationship now, one where I do feel cared for, every day. I’ll write about it lightly, because it’s not solely mine to describe, but over the years, I’ve had to navigate what traditional structures I want to take with me, and which ones I want to leave behind. As I get older, I see those milestones coming up in front of me, like exits on a freeway. It’s tempting to think that certain moves will provide me legitimacy, that setting myself on a certain path is all it takes. But so far, I’ve held to this mode of living — treating my friendships and my partnership with equal weight. I can’t bear to think of myself disappearing into a dyad, when such a beautiful, dynamic network exists.

It feels increasingly urgent, now, to take care of each other. Everywhere I look, our support systems are being eroded. Under late capitalism, we’re becoming increasingly isolated and alienated by structures that work to separate us from the things that bring meaning to our lives — that’s what makes something like WeLive so appealing, even though we know it won’t heal us. Our attention is frayed, our resources scattered. How could I not, in response, want to hold tight to the bonds close to me — my home, my chosen family?

It feels increasingly urgent, now, to take care of each other. Everywhere I look, our support systems are being eroded.

Maybe we’ll never buy a house — the four of us, I mean, or more of us. Who knows. Or maybe we will, like those seven girlfriends with their home surrounded by green fields. Maybe we’ll find a place to live, or many places to live, and start a garden, and learn to repair our clothes and shoes. Maybe we’ll start an artist residency up there, or a studio, or a school. I don’t know if I’ll ever have children. I don’t really know what the future holds — if I’ll be able to make a living doing what I do now, or who will take care of me when I grow old, or if the seas will rise to the point that it won’t matter where I grow old. All I know is yes, I’m in love, but I’m in love in so many ways. How could I not hold onto all of it, and treasure it, and work to build something together, every day.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most…

Larissa Pham

Written by

Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

Larissa Pham

Written by

Larissa Pham is a writer in Brooklyn.

Gay Mag

A new magazine from Roxane Gay offering some of the most interesting and thoughtful cultural criticism to be found on the Web. Our first quarterly is coming in June 2019. We value deep explorations, timelessness, and challenging conventional thinking without being cheap and lazy.

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