Where I’ve Laid My Head


I have slept in 26 locations in the last seven months.

This was never my intention, this peripatetic life, but looking back now at the age of 40, I can finally see I have been doing it for decades. I wanted so much more for myself at some point, though I cannot even remember what exactly it was that I wanted anymore. Now it is only just to write.

On the one hand, I’ve written three books. On the other hand, I have what is politely called a “challenging track record” in the publishing industry, which means I’ve sold just a few thousand copies of each of my books. Getting three books published means I am technically a success, but if you ask some people, my empty bank account unequivocally means I am a failure.

But it is the thing that makes me happiest, and I believe that if you can find the thing that makes you happy, you should do it. Most of my artist friends struggle financially in varying degrees, and we all seem to be trading off turns loaning money to each other. We are members of the creative class, and none of us ask for any sympathy, because we chose this unstable life, although, in our most pretentious and self-indulgent moments, we will whisper to each other that it chose us.

And now, this risky life that I had chosen, had practically broken me. On December 30, I left New York City, and my apartment (now sublet), and headed down south to New Orleans. I was barely surviving off the advance for a book deal, and an unreliable freelance project. I’d had car troubles, too. I could no longer afford my New York rent. Soon I would have nothing left. So I headed south, toward cheaper rent, and a perspective shift. Whatever I had been doing for the last ten years of my life was no longer working. I did not know I would end up sleeping in 26 locations over a seven-month period, though I suspected the journey would be long. But I was all in on whatever happened next.

First, I stayed for two nights in a small town outside of Chapel Hill, NC, with some friends from New York who had swapped their Lower East Side apartment for a sprawling house. Their two children were with them, and the little girl was just like the mother, and the little boy was just like the father, and I could not stop thinking that the entire time I was there.

Next, I stayed for a night in a small, gated community on Tybee Island with my aunt and uncle, in their tremendous house they built from scratch. They talked casually about buying new patio furniture, each individual piece of which cost more than half my rent, and when I heard the figure it stung me with an unusual sensation; it was not envy, but it was something like it.

Did I mention that before I left town my agent took me out to a nice dinner, and told me I should probably try and find a rich man to marry? I never bothered to ask him if he was kidding or not.

In Gainesville, FL, I stayed with my friend Lauren, her husband, and their two young sons. Her husband made lasagna for dinner, and I drank wine, and after dinner Lauren and I talked about books, and then I fell asleep in their guest room, hard and fast, feeling as if I was at last far enough away from New York.

My first apartment in New Orleans, a two-month sublet, was one half of a shotgun in Mid-City I shared with my landlords, two doctors, and their two children and dogs. It was a bi-level apartment, the bedroom and bathroom upstairs, a living room and dining room and kitchen downstairs, fully furnished, big windows, ceiling fans to keep the room cool. There was a giant dining room table on which to spread out and write, which I did religiously, daily, with a firm discipline. My rent was one-third of my rent in New York.

It was in this house I found out about all the money I owed in taxes. I realized I had to sublet my apartment in New York for a few more months in advance so that I could have money from the deposit to live on. I would figure out where I would live later, but I knew I was going to have to do some serious couch-surfing for a while. It was like ripping a parachute cord.

So first I stayed another month in New Orleans, this time subletting another inexpensive apartment a block away. The bathroom smelled funny, and there was nowhere comfortable to sit, and so I spent most of my time there hunched over my laptop in bed.

One night I stayed with a man who lived about two miles away from me, in a tiny studio behind a larger apartment building, and in the morning he made me iced coffee and played Neil Young songs on his stereo.

In April I headed West, stopping for four nights at a friend’s house in St. Martinville, LA, a small town outside of Lafayette. It was a loft converted from a church and at night during thunderstorms the stained glass windows lit up magnificently. The night before I left, at sunset, a friend of a friend who had spent most of his life in that little town and still lived in his family’s farmhouse, took me on a swamp tour in his rickety old motorboat.

In Austin I stayed at a friend’s house just outside of the downtown. Years ago we’d had a fling. Now he was married. At night they drink beer and teach themselves how to play pop songs, she on keyboards, he on drums. They let me play the tambourine while they learned “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” and I thought maybe I would be jealous of their relationship, but instead I was just jealous of their musical abilities.

Outside of Austin I stayed with a friend who had received a nine-month residency on a 250-acre piece of land, part of which was a Cherokee burial ground. I stayed there for ten days. I wrote, I took long walks; the turkey vultures circled us at sunset every night.

On my way back east I stayed at a bed and breakfast in Little Rock, AR. There was a rose garden out front, and I ate crawfish at a nearby restaurant for dinner.

The next night, I stopped at the home of an old friend of mine from New York who had moved down to Memphis, TN because she had fallen in love with a musician who lived there. A friend of theirs was sick – he would pass away soon after I left – and things were tense. My friend and I went to yoga together before we left and we were both grateful for it.

I was making my way back to my hometown: I stopped for a night in Charleston, IL where I stayed with my internet friend, Roxane, who is a professor at the university there. It was the first time we had met in person. Her home was immaculate, and she bought me dinner, and I admired all her books, and the next morning I bought her lunch at a nearby diner and I suddenly realized how gorgeous her smile was.

In Chicago, I stayed for a few nights with one of my best friends, Wendy, and her husband, Chris, and on the first night I got there she made us all individual pizzas from scratch and then we watched most of the second season of Portlandia and I drank a bunch of wine and was extremely happy. They know how to live their life right, I thought.

I spent an evening with my parents in my childhood home, in my childhood bed, where I will always sleep like a rock, because it is quiet there, and the room is small and compact and womblike, and I feel safe. When I said goodbye to my father he seemed sad, though I didn’t think it had anything to do with me, but I realize now maybe I was wrong.

I stayed with my old college roommate and her husband and two children in their beautiful home in Evanston, where we ate pot roast and drank wine and her daughter showed me how twirly her skirt was in the morning. I slept in their basement on an air mattress. I found myself experiencing something like envy when I looked inside her well-stocked refrigerator.

Rilke was notorious for always being someone’s houseguest. I read somewhere once that he had 50 addresses in four years. I suspect he wasn’t sleeping on air mattresses in basements though.

I cannot remember the name of the town where I stayed in Pennsylvania, but it was small and eerie: a town of chain motels and restaurants, planted in the middle of nowhere. I slept in a Holiday Inn Express, and dined at a TGIFriday’s.

I arrived in New York City at the beginning of May, and a migraine kicked in as I was passing Bryant Park on my way to Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where I would stay for two nights with my friend Gabrielle. I immediately blamed New York for my migraine. I was flattened for two days. Gabrielle sketched me while I lay on her couch and we talked about money and art.

I moved to South Brooklyn for a few nights and stayed with my friend Rosie for a few nights in her beautifully decorated but tiny 3-room apartment. I slept on her couch. I got up at 7 AM and sat in a café so she could have her space to do her work, and it was somewhere in those days, those early hours in the café, that I realized I had fully rescinded control of my life.

In Queens I stayed with my brother, his wife, and my seven-year-old niece. I slept in their basement on an air mattress. I babysat my niece for a few hours and when I told her that soon I would be back in New York for good she slid down to the floor and made a small noise of joy. “Did you think I was never coming back?” I said, and she said, shyly, “Yes,” and I didn’t cry, but I didn’t not cry either.

My friends Kate and Brendan, engaged, bought a house in Portland, ME, last year, and had finally installed themselves in it fully this winter, and invited me to live in their guest bedroom for the month of May. The house, an Italianate gem, was constructed in the 1800s, and is all high ceilings and hardwood floors, built-in bookshelves and crown moldings. There was a fresh paint job. They built a window bed in their guestroom and I was the first person to sleep on it. Forever I will feel like that was my room. For three weeks they fed me delicious food and wine, and the Maine air acted like a narcotic.

A freelance project arrived, and I completed it. I was getting some scratch together.

One night I slept at my friend Ron’s house in Waterville, ME. I drove up there for the night. It was his birthday. I slept in his guest room and he told me that he had let so many of his broke friends stay there over the years, and I know he wasn’t talking about me, but I realized that’s who I was, that’s who I am. I am someone’s broke friend.

My subletter moved out early, and I moved back into my own apartment for a week. I collapsed in bliss. I watched the sunset every night from the roof. I almost remembered who I was for a second. Then the next subletters arrived, a couple from Texas with a small dog named Peanut, and I gave way to that floating feeling again, perching myself in a friend’s girlfriend’s studio apartment near Prospect Park, cat-sitting while she went on vacation. I walked every day in the park, in one big circle. It helped.

I was back to Gabrielle’s for three weeks, renting her spare room so that she could afford a plane ticket to Chicago. The heat wave started. There was no air-conditioning.

I questioned everything in my life. A freelance project that was supposed to start never did. Every day I hid in cafes. All I wanted was to return home. But the deal I had made with myself in Texas in the spring was still in effect: my apartment was sublet until close to the end of July.

Three more weeks, this time with my friend Cinde and her husband, David, both unemployed and needing help with their rent themselves. I slept in their back bedroom. Again, there was no air conditioning.  I stretched sheets across a couch, and woke up every morning in a huddle of cotton and sweat, covered in mosquito bites.

I was still broke but now there was just enough in my pocket to pay my rent. Another freelance project arrived. Enough money to get me through until the fall. Enough money to give me a moment to breathe. My subletters moved out, and then, suddenly I was home, and I wanted to wrap my hands around my apartment and never let it go.

Sometimes people with more stable lives than mine, people who are married and own their apartments and have good jobs and families, like to say to me, “Keep living the dream.” And I always want to say to them, “What dream is that?”

I will never own a home, I will never have money in the bank to last me more than a month or two in advance. There is no chance with this economy. I will work until I die, but I will be happy to do it because I love my work. I’d better love it. And I’d almost say it’s all I got, but I know I’ve got just a bit more than that: a whole lot of people who love me and have my back. Forever I will have a place to rest my head.


Illustrations by Hadley Hooper.

Jami Attenberg is the author of Instant Love, The Kept Man, and The Melting Season. Her fourth book, The Middlesteins, was published in October 2012. She blogs at whatever-whenever.net and also has a Tumblr. More from this author →