On sophomore year move-in day, my roommate told me that she was going to become a minimalist. Her shelves would be free of clutter; her wardrobe would consist solely of solid-colored essentials. I told her that I found her plan fascinating. Then I moved to my side of the room and began to sort the clothes I had packed—polka-dot pants, a tie-dyed tee featuring the neon likeness of a Lisa Frank leopard, a pair of checkered socks with the phrase “Okey dokey!” stitched into a pop-art style bubble.
When my armoire was stuffed at maximum capacity, I moved onto my walls. A Rolling Stones poster here, a boot-themed magazine collage there… and don’t forget the photo of Handsome Dan! That evening, I decided I hadn’t done enough, so I strolled to Group W Bench and picked up a second Stones print for good measure.
If you told me that two years later, I would exist in a poster-free space and be content with it, I wouldn’t have believed you—but what about 2020 has been predictable?
When I made the gonzo choice to take a semester off from Yale and move to Los Angeles for the fall, I had limited housing options. I would only be in town until Christmas, so a traditional apartment lease would be unwise—and buying a truckload of furniture sounded like a massive pain. Hence, I moved into an already-furnished AirBnB.
My humble abode was a two-bedroom pad on the second floor of an apartment complex called “The Colony.” In many ways, I lucked out—my room had an AC unit to help me beat the beachside heat, plus a queen bed that was plenty big for me and my Lilo and Stitch plush.* Yet I couldn’t help but feel a rumble in my tummy when I saw the decor—stark metal furniture, a grey comforter with a geometric pattern that didn’t seem to fit into any conceivable aesthetic, and the whitest walls I had ever found myself enclosed by. You thought this was your room? they said. Psych.
You are lying! I told them. This is my room, and I’m going to prove it by giving it the classic Brittany touch. When I finished unpacking, though, I realized I didn’t know how. I had forgotten to print photos of friends and family before jetting off, and I hadn’t been able to smuggle any poster tubes into my luggage. My walls were blank blank blank, and blank they would remain, at least for the foreseeable future.
I still had stars in my eyes—I was in the City of Angels, and I reminded myself by putting my “down on the West Coast” playlist on full blast. Yet I also recognized that I had just set myself adrift from the majority of my loved ones during the most isolating era in modern American history—and I couldn’t even look at their pictures, or gaze up at the motivational grin of Mick Jagger, as I lay awake at night.
At first, I was determined to produce some HGTV-level pizzazz and turn my room into my very own California dream. I vowed to traverse the city in search of posters and tchotchkes, stopping at Targets, artisans’ storefronts, and quirky vintage shops to find items that were just right. My room wouldn’t merely exist as sleeping quarters—it would look like the edgy grown-up equivalent of a Disney Channel bedroom, or the immaculate backdrops seen in Twitter mirror selfies.
Like all resolutions, this was easier said than done. Before I could buy an appropriately “culty” movie poster, I had to buy groceries. Before I could track down a tapestry, I had to track down a job. And then I was tossing chicken into a pan, and then I was traveling back and forth from the office… and in a gust of late summer wind, I was blown out of August and into September. “I moved here last week!” became “I moved here last month”; then it was simply, “I am here.”
Having a work schedule meant that I had to be deliberate about how I spent my time—and living during a pandemic meant I had to be conscientious about where I spent my time. I was determined to move beyond my posterless walls and prove that I could handle the big city; yet I didn’t want to catch a potentially deadly virus, nor did I want to spread it to my new neighbors. So, I got creative. I cruised around Beverly Hills, feeling like I was on a safari as I spotted packs of coyotes (which I was seeing for the very first time). I drove by the American Horror Story Murder House and Donnie Darko’s “Virginia” home. When LA’s infection rates briefly dipped, I even found some outdoor, socially distant events to attend—such as a Halloween faire where I had my portrait drawn and visited a psychic.** Soon, nights were not spent tossing and turning, but exploring and posing for countless bad-good photos in my mask.
One especially memorable evening, my friends and I scrambled up [redacted], a cactus-covered hill that purportedly has the best views of the Palisades (I won’t tell you where it is, but I will say that Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is rumored to linger about the area, although this remains unconfirmed). At the top, we stopped to catch our breaths, and the night lights of Los Angeles revealed themselves to us in all their twinkling glory. I smiled upon realizing that I could point out the neighborhoods I saw below me.
When I finally did get my hands on some decor, it came from an unlikely source: a beauty store in K-Town. Browsing the aisles one October afternoon, I found an item that was both blessed and cursed: a Jack Skellington face mask. As a former Hot Topic kid, I had to bring it home. Imagine my surprise when, after unwrapping my little Halloween gift for myself, I found a Nightmare Before Christmas poster amidst the packaging.
A poster! A poster! I finally had a poster. No longer was I confined to a life of stylistic asceticism; I could begin my spree.
I stood back and surveyed the space to determine where the flimsy paper rectangle might fit best. Would the desk feel more like mine if Jack and Sally were looking down upon it? Would the bedding look brighter if I hung the poster over my head?
I moved the poster left and right, pondering how to make it mesh with the odds and ends that had accumulated on my desk and bedside tables. As I did so, it dawned on me that I was already looking at home. While I had been running around town, making the memories that had turned California into my new stomping grounds, my subconscious had done all my decorating for me.
My jean jacket, which had shielded me from autumnal breezes on many a West Coast adventure, hung from a hook. My journal, which was already full of giddy reminiscences, rested on a pillow. My favorite sunglasses, which had blocked my eyes from UV rays on countless beach days, were strewn next to the stack of books and magazines I had picked up from various Eastside bookstores, which sat beside the beloved rubber salamander I’ve long used as a stress toy. Beside that was my portrait from the Halloween faire—a likeness I adore, with the broad shoulders I’ve come to embrace.
Compared to the many Yale rooms I’ve occupied, my California room was a barren wasteland. Yet its very barrenness made what mattered most stand out.
When I was twelve years old and in the midst of my “noveling” phase, I wrote a lengthy tome about teenage carnival employees. One such teen was a lanky boy named Tripp, whose personality hinges on the fact that he’s terrified of graduating high school. At one point, Tripp explains that he lives in a plain white bedroom, completely devoid of decoration. If he doesn’t build an emotional attachment to his room, he figures, he won’t feel too emotionally attached to his hometown, and therefore he won’t be too heartbroken when he leaves for college.
I haven’t entirely adopted Tripp’s philosophy, nor do I think it’s particularly healthy (or effective). I’m more than just “emotionally attached” to California—if I were to sit down and write it a love note, my pen would surely run out of ink within minutes of unbroken scribbling. Yet I know that when I say goodbye to its sandy shores and shimmering skyline, I’ll be alright. If I should find myself longing for a coyote sighting or an In-N-Out burger, I’ll remind myself that I can turn anywhere into a home—an important message to repeat right now, when unpredictability seems like the only given and so many old comforts are out of reach.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll be back in my childhood bedroom in Maryland, surrounded by 21 years’ worth of memorabilia. After that, I’ll return to another blank slate in New Haven. I’m not quite sure where I’ll be living yet—or how I’ll decorate—but in any case, I’m confident that I’ll be able to make it feel like my happy place.
*Neither Lilo nor Stitch, but Angel, Stitch’s spunky love interest.
**Apparently I “have a lot of fire energy—whoa!”