It only sank in yesterday that this apartment is the first place, apart from my childhood home, that I can really call "mine." I've been living in Metro Manila for four years now — about seven or eight if you count college and living in the dorm — but it wasn't until I started sketching layouts for my apartment and debating on whether to get a dining table that the meaning of these acts and how far I've come really dawned on me.
Sure, I'm still renting, but really, I've never felt this free. However hospitable and generous my relatives in Parañaque were, I always felt I was encroaching on my sweet younger cousin's space. When I left Parañaque, I shared a condo with my college roommate Myka, but however well we got along, there was always the uncomfortable business of splitting bills and chores, timing when to bring our boyfriends up and when to disappear, and somehow knowing that the idiosyncrasies we dismissed or rolled our eyes at in college were somehow magnified and different now that we were supposed to be grown-ups.
And after that, there was Cubao, where I did have a room to myself, but it never felt "mine." I told the landlady it was only for six months, and though six months came and about 18 more went, I always told myself, "I'm going to get out of here." That's why I never thought about how to decorate the walls or how to improve my storage options; in the back of my mind, there wasn't much point if I was going to leave soon, soon, soon.
I don't read fashion, travel, or design magazines because they give me uncomfortable, I-want-my-life-to-look-like-this-but-I-can't-afford-it feelings. Last weekend, though, upon our mother's suggestion, Mikko handed me an interior design magazine as a housewarming gift. And after I warily cracked it open, I found myself thinking, "Hey, I can actually do this." I still couldn't afford anything in that magazine (which — ouch — dubbed itself the "cheap" interior design magazine), but it did send home the idea that I had the power to make my place feel less like a well-lit bodega and more like my home.
Maybe we underestimate how much physical distance, space, and freedom can contribute to our mental and emotional senses of freedom. My room in Cubao was not only small but also irregularly shaped and prone to dust from the highway; my furniture was where it was because there wasn't any other way I could arrange it. I ate and worked on the floor with my back against my bed frame and my feet up against my cabinet doors. When I started drawing and cutting buildings, I did so with the cutting mat on a clipboard in my lap. The longer I stayed, the higher the stacks of books and papers I had to step over to move from one corner of the room to the other. I used to collect materials for collages and other craft projects, but they only became a source of exasperation and frustration, because creating and keeping things required more space than I had.
I never had visitors over; visitors couldn't come upstairs — I had no chairs to seat them with, anyway — and the kitchen where they were allowed to hang out was dark and depressing. And while my housemates, landlord, and landlady were nothing but cordial and even nice to me, I was a grumpy shut-in who didn't want to have anything to do with them. The way they or some sign of them popped up everywhere, every day, was just another reminder that this place wasn't "mine."
That's why, when I started sketching layouts, considering tables, and plumbing Apartment Therapy for ideas, I felt my life opening up in yet another way I hadn't known it could. Guys, I can put my stuff on shelves now. I can prepare food on a kitchen counter. I can eat that food at a table. I can clear that table and make things, and then I can display those things around my room. It sounds so small and silly, but honestly, I'm tearing up a little at the thought.
It's a rented space, but the freedom to move and move things in that space somehow makes it mine. Maybe it'll just be for a year; maybe it'll be for three, five, or ten. But it's still the first place in years that feels like mine, to stay in and live.
(The last time I cried over furniture was the day my Parañaque relatives bought new shelves for my cousin's room and said I could use half. I don't know if they'll ever know how much that meant to me. I bought the same type of shelves for myself when I moved to Ortigas, and I plan to get a second set for my apartment now. It's not just that they're modular, affordable, practical, and actually kind of cool; they've also come to signify the ability to make home.)