Yen Ha’s “A Shared Life” is the third and final of the winning entries to our Common Shares writing competition. Read together, the three are a perfect complement. Each took a different tack to exploring the competition’s theme: critical reflection on what is public, private, and shared in the urban realm. Yet all three located their explorations largely in interior spaces, mental as well as architectural. While Frederica Hill’s “A Commons of Unwanted Things” is a personal confession and Keith Engel’s “311 Complainer” an accusatory diatribe, Yen Ha’s short story describes a charming, if unsettling, pas de deux. An omniscient voice narrates a day in the life of a pair of strangers navigating an extreme form of sharing. Ha knowingly conflates seductively bourgeois images of city living with tropes more commonly associated with urban poverty and the informal economy. In so doing, the story probes the blurred edge between peer-to-peer and under-the-table, collaboration and exploitation, the romantic possibilities cities present and the sacrifices we make to live in them.
All three, accompanied by original illustrations by George Bates, are collected in a printed volume. More information on purchasing this publication is available here. And stay tuned for our next annual writing competition, to be announced next spring! –C.S
She glanced up at the clock over the kitchen table, barely enough time to get out of the apartment this morning before her ride came. She grabbed an extra sweater for later tonight and only changed her shoes three times before heading out the door. As she rushed downstairs, out the front door, she wondered if she had remembered to flip the bed. Too late now, she thought; she could already see her taxi-pool turning the corner. She met Vivian in the elevator at work a couple months ago. They had both been carrying the same tote bag from the East Village block association co-op and easily made the leap to forming a taxi-pool. Taxi-pools had complicated rules about no perfume and keeping a strict silence, but it was better than a subway ride and the long walk. She really hoped her coshare-mate wouldn’t care about the bed too much; it was already the second time this month. He seemed easy-going so far but she shouldn’t be so careless. If he posted it as an infraction, it would go into an official records folder and she couldn’t afford to get kicked out. As it was, the coshare was the only way she could stay in the city on her non-profit salary.
He looked at the clock propped up against the wall and realized he should be getting home. He hadn’t noticed the sun was already rising through the dusty loft windows. There were a bunch of errands he planned on getting done before going to bed. His coshare-mate was pretty prompt about leaving in the morning so he rarely had to worry about hanging out in the share-suite downstairs. The piece he’d been working on hadn’t really jelled until halfway through the night. The aqua green, impulsively added over the lower corner of the sea he’d been painting, was the breakthrough he’d been looking for. Before packing up for the night, he promptly moved the piece over to the storage racks to accommodate the next artist coming in after him.
She got out of the taxi, eager to get to work. It was her turn in the corner office and she had a lot of phone calls planned. Her ob-gyn had been bugging her to talk about the results of the scan last month and she had to call her accountant about the tax forms he sent her. Since they were no longer allowed to wear headphones in the open office, everyone was eager for their one allotted day in the closed-door office. It was the only time you could listen to whatever music you wanted or have private conversations. Their president bought into the current hype about how open offices promoted chance conversations and inspiring interactions, but no one actually got much work done.
He locked up the share-bike. He had to stock their share-shelf and he wanted to drop off his work things before heading out again. Even though his coshare-mate had a tendency to forget about the bed, she was pretty good otherwise. They agreed on the common essentials like milk and paper towels and she wasn’t picky about splitting shampoo and toothpaste. The coshares were usually compact one-bedroom apartments, which meant anything they could share beyond the common things helped with the efficiency of the space. Which reminded him, he’d have to sign out the steamer and rice cooker for the dinner tonight. He had picked this coshare originally because of the foodie-friendly reputation of its share-suite.
A note popped up on her screen to remind her that her coshare-mate was having friends over and her access would be delayed by an hour. Their 9 to 9 schedule worked out pretty well since she didn’t entertain that often and he seemed to like hosting early dinners. If only she could be better about flipping the bed in the morning. It only happened once that she had to request an earlier access. She felt bad that he would have had to nap in the sleep cubicle downstairs. It was pointless to wonder, but she did think about what kind of person preferred to be out all night, coming home for the day shift. All she knew about him was his name, David.
A reminder sounded on his phone so he wouldn’t forget to pick up wine for dinner. Tonight there were two extra people coming who had bought seats to the meal he was preparing. He sometimes thought he would prefer being a chef to a painter, but then he’d have to keep regular hours. There were always leftovers from the dinners, which he would leave on the share-shelf for his coshare-mate, though he was never sure if she liked what he made. The leftovers were usually gone when he got home in the morning so he assumed she ate them. All he knew was that her name was Sarah.
Sometimes, she thought, it was strange to live with a stranger whom she had never met. She guessed that he loved to cook because he was always leaving leftovers for her on the share-shelf. She could almost never predict what he would make. There was one dish he made a couple weeks ago with orzo and broiled chicken that she wished she could tell him reminded her of her mom’s cooking. The share-shelves were the only place they could leave stuff for the other person to use and it was where they kept common share groceries. Besides the shoes in the hallway, everything personal had to be stored in their individual storage bins. At first it had been strange for her, but she had grown used to the bareness of the apartment.
Occasionally he would imagine what his coshare-mate looked like. He pictured her as small from the shoes lining the hallway. She only seemed to wear heels and in all sorts of colors. He got a kick out of seeing what might show up next. He knew next to nothing about her except that once she accidentally forgot to press the compact button on the trash can and he noticed strands of dark brown hair before he closed the lid. He wondered what she thought of his shoes that alternated between two worn pairs of Converse, one dark gray and one white.
She was looking forward to tonight. One of her girlfriends had a share in a roof terrace garden that belonged to an architect couple who rented it out whenever they had theater plans or were out of town. They had designed some crazy latticework of green vines and darkened teak boards. A wooden bench running the length of the terrace made it her friend’s preferred spot for post-work gatherings. The wooden enclosure hid the rooftops next door and she loved how otherworldly it felt to be there.
He was excited about dinner and he hoped he had remembered everything. As he lay in the darkened bedroom, he thought about the salad he needed to prep before everyone arrived. He was trying a new garlic barley soup that would require a couple additional steps. Outside, the sun was still a couple hours away from setting. His food ratings were pretty high for an amateur because he experimented with different cuisines and tastes. The Moroccan tagine he tried a couple months ago had been especially popular and he still got requests for that meal.
She put on her extra sweater, even though it was the beginning of summer, it got chilly on the terrace at night. She should check whether or not it was too late to find a car share for the weekend. It was going to be a good beach weekend; maybe someone was selling a seat in his car. She’d have to be more careful this time, last time she bought a seat it was with a family and the baby screamed the whole time. The dad was really embarrassed, but there was nothing he could really do about it.
He changed into shorts before moving into the kitchen, the apartment got pretty warm with so many people over. He might as well flip the bed and close his bins now before he started making dinner. That way he wouldn’t have to remember it later. Sometimes he really did wish his coshare-mate was better about turning the bed, it wasn’t so hard to do. She must always be in a rush to get out the door in the morning.
She got home earlier than she thought she would, she’d have to wait in the share-suite until it was time. As she walked down the hall, the smell of garlic came off a dark haired guy walking by, wearing an old pair of dirty white Converse.
He was done sooner than he planned, so he might as well get a coffee before heading to studio. As he crossed from the bottom of the stair to the foyer, a petit woman passed him wearing a sweater the color of the sea.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.