In 2009 my soon-to-be husband and I were looking for an apartment to rent in New York City. After looking around for a few weeks, we found a sweet little studio apartment in our price range. It was smaller than we would have liked, but it came with a dishwasher, washer and dryer in the apartment, a set-up so rare in NYC that it felt like we found an apartment with a unicorn in the bedroom closet.
We quickly signed the lease, amazed at our good fortune in finding so many luxuries in one place at a price we could afford.
Shortly after moving in, we experienced the first of what would end up being 13 total floods in the year we lived in that apartment. It quickly became apparent that the landlord did not care at all about our safety or well-being, sending unlicensed workers with nothing but a bucket of plaster and a trowel to repair the damage that occurred. Water poured from multiple locations in our ceiling into our bathroom, every single closet, the kitchen pantry, and over our washer and dryer.
The worst incident was when part of our ceiling collapsed on me while I was standing underneath it, taking pictures of the sagging plaster and bubbling paint, and the falling wood and plaster broke my digital camera. The repairman they sent to fix that debacle stole our change jar on his way out the door, because we clearly had no need of a jar of quarters since we could do laundry in our apartment, I suppose.
Because the landlord never fixed any of the pipes above us, the flooding was basically constant. And with regular water exposure, we started to develop serious mold problems to go along with the property damage we were enduring on a regular basis.
Appeals for proper mold removal to the repairmen and our landlord fell on deaf ears as they brought gallons of paint and literally just painted over the thick layers of mold, which fixed nothing and only hid the damage for a day or two until the mold grew through those layers of paint. For many months we kept every single window open, no matter what the weather was like outside, simply to be able to breathe in our own home.
We were living in a sodden hell, our clothes, sheets, and towels stored in plastic bins to keep them dry and plastic covers on all of our furniture and appliances to protect them from water damage. We spent our days at work and our evenings talking about ways out of our situation, reviewing what the housing court judge said versus the specific wording of our lease. What could we legally do to protect ourselves and get out of the apartment? Would our landlord take revenge on us by shutting off our hot water or turning on our heat in June? (The answer to both of those questions turned out to be yes, unfortunately.)
Luckily, we were finally able to break our lease and found a new place: a two-bedroom with no dishwasher, washer or dryer, but also no flooding or mold, so we considered that a win.
Three weeks after leaving that pit of despair and getting settled into our new apartment across town, we flew to Vegas where we exchanged vows in front of our friends and family. We were thrilled to be starting the next chapter of our lives together and putting our difficult year in the apartment of doom behind us. As we drank champagne at the buffet along with 40 of those closest to us we weren’t just celebrating our union, we were celebrating the fact that our relationship had not just survived but thrived in the most toxic of environments.
We celebrated our six-anniversary this year. Over the course of our marriage we’ve experienced unemployment, the birth of our first child, an interstate move, late-night emergency room visits, the purchase of our own home, and all the other things that happen to families as time goes by. Of all the things we’ve seen and done in the time we’ve known each other, nothing has been as difficult as living in that squalid apartment.
If you get a grain of sand in your eye, it can cause pain and serious damage if it isn’t removed, but if you put that same grain of sand inside of an oyster, it uses the presence of that irritant to create a gorgeous pearl. Relationships are very similar. People in relationships dealing with extremely difficult situations either get stronger, bringing the people involved closer together, or completely fall apart, seeing the people inside them go their separate ways. My husband and I look back at the year we spent in that apartment and marvel at how lucky we were to have been together through all of it, to know that had we not supported one another or worked together towards getting out of there and into a safe, dry place to live, our story might be very different. We were careful not to take out our frustrations with the apartment on each other, never using it against one another during a fight or as an excuse to say or do things we otherwise wouldn’t.
We took our grain of sand and turned it into the most gorgeous of pearls.