The apartment next door

Please note: While my books were translated by professionals, this blog post got a little help from AI, meaning it may not be a perfect translation.

Those who have read my new book know that, when I had just arrived in Japan and was still sleeping in my office, I wanted to rent the apartment right next door. It seemed so wonderful: a three-second commute, a shared internet connection, vacuum cleaner and pantry, and (after dismantling a partition) a very long balcony, so that I could even go “round the back” from home to office and vice versa. But alas, I just missed it, settling instead for an apartment on the other side of the building, and five floors up. Still convenient, though.

But as I sat in my office last week, a kind of reverse rerun of two years earlier played out. I heard banging and talking, and spotted cleaning supplies in the hallway. I knew immediately what was happening here.

I myself had renewed the lease on my residential apartment a week earlier. This is a Japanese custom, in my view little more than brutal money-grabbing, but something you can’t escape: every two years you renew your lease, paying the landlord a month’s rent and another half month or so in administrative fees. For what? For nothing. For everything staying the same.

So I had just re-signed, but many Japanese choose to move out before their contract is renewed. After all, for a new lease you also pay a month’s rent, a month’s key money, some more “thank you money” for the owner, and I don’t know what else they’ve pulled out of their arses. (Then again, the advantage of the Japanese housing market is that there is absolutely no housing shortage, and it always moves along nicely).

I looked on the Japanese real estate website Suumo, and lo and behold, there it was. A little more expensive than my current apartment, but some of that money I would save immediately if I shared the internet. I hesitated: should I apply? Last time I was turned down, but whether that was because my neighbor had already verbally agreed at the viewing, because I was listed as “unemployed” until I had formally established my business, or because the landlord was a foreigner-hating bigot, I didn’t know. “Maybe you could schedule a viewing?”, François suggested. I pondered. I didn’t know.

When I got the key to the apartment on the tenth two years ago, it was an old, dirty, smelly den. I scrubbed, polished, replaced handles, put down a tatami floor, installed soundproof panels and even evicted a bat. But all that effort wasn’t for nothing, because now it’s a fresh, nice place, where I unwind in five minutes. Did I feel like hauling the whole setup down five floors? Why exactly?

The tatamis wouldn’t fit anyway, because the apartment had a different layout. I would lose my view of Mt. Fuji, but would get river views in return. I could make a little more noise, because the apartment was adjacent only to my own office, the elevator and the hallway. Now when François is staying with me (in the office apartment), I feel like some kind of schoolteacher saying “shhht!” every five minutes so we don’t bother the neighbor. But it would also cost me hundreds of euros in key money and whatnot, when I had just paid for the two-year extension from upstairs. Furthermore, I would have to change my address everywhere and anywhere, which would involve a visit to city hall and all sorts of other hassles.

“I would love it so much for you if you would live somewhere for a little while longer,” an ex once told me. “You are really moving every few years or so.” I had never thought of it that way before, but he was right. I never live in the same place for long. I’m always looking for better, and in the process I’ve moved in with boyfriends, moved to other cities, and now even to the other side of the world. Shouldn’t I slow down?

“But you keep improving, right?” a friend countered. True enough. My office and living apartment were a prerequisite for living in Japan. I didn’t need the living apartment per se, but that was a requirement of the Japanese government. I would survive just fine in one room – although I find that a separate chill room has its advantages, too.

Steam rolling

Meanwhile, at François’ place, all sorts of things were also happening. His ex moved out, finally. She had been living in a temporary apartment for a while, but it was so shitty that she moved back in. Now, after a year or so, she finally moved into a decent new apartment. She took a lot of stuff with her – though it didn’t seem to matter much in terms of clutter. I waited anxiously for this moment, because this would mean I could be with François more often. I could even put up a little desk there, so I could work comfortably.

Now my autistic mind is not very good with timelines. If something big is about to happen, I stop thinking at that point and the world after is kind of a black hole. So when the ex was moving out on date X, I totally failed to consider that a lot had to happen after that as well. That she wouldn’t take everything with her on that day. That there would be stuff left behind that she no longer wants. And, last but definitely not least, that there would have to be cleaning up. Lots of it.

And so a “let’s clean up the coffee table before we eat” turned into a two-hour cross-examination: “What is this receipt? Why is this lying here? Whose is this?” Yesterday morning I woke up early, and while François was still in his bed, I scrubbed and organized the entire bathroom. Was it necessary? Absolutely. Was François happy about it? Mwah.

I have known myself for almost 40 years now, and I know that in situations like this I turn into a kind of steam roller with no brakes. Everything has to be tidied up, cleaned, and it has to be done now. Why now? That’s a question I’m trying to answer for myself.

One of the doom scenarios in my head is that we will end up in some kind of an impasse, where nothing happens at all. I think that’s exactly what happened with François and his ex, and I also kind of know it from some of my previous relationships. If there is too much fuss about a certain issue (such as cleaning or tidying), that issue can eventually turn into a kind of taboo that both partners would rather not talk about anymore, after which no one does anything and both parties ignore the problem until they low-key hate each other. In our case, that would mean that I would visit less and less, after which he might think that I don’t like him anymore, which would give him less and less motivation to make the house a nice place… See here, a downward spiral. How to avoid that? By pressing on now, pulling the Band-Aid off in one firm jerk, something like that.

“We have all the time in the world,” François says. He seems unsettled by my cleaning up frenzy. “Yes, we have all the time,” I repeat. But why doesn’t it feel that way?


The neighbor’s apartment became available – in itself just an additional option, but suddenly I was overcome with choice stress. Would I have taken it had François not been there? If I hadn’t been busy with a little desk in his cat room? Will I ever move out of my living apartment on ten, into that room (minus the cats) in François’ house? What will that bring me? Companionship? Is that what I’m looking for? Don’t I also need my me-time? Wouldn’t I be better off keeping it then? Look, the rent is only about 300 euros. But look, I always have the office too. What am I actually looking for? What do I actually want?

“Peace and quiet!”, my head screams. I want to be able to plop down somewhere, and feel that it’s all right. “But you can do that at home right now, can’t you? You can unwind there in five minutes, you just said?” True. But I don’t just want peace and quiet – I also want company. Until I get overwhelmed from that, then I want silence again. I’ve been trying to find a balance for years, and in that quest I move and organize to bring myself ever closer to perfection. Yet I already know that I’m not going to find that perfection, and that my pushing and rushing may actually make the situation more difficult. Maybe I’m better at crafting a life, than I am at living a life.