LE DIVORCE: LIVING (AND NOT LIVING) WITH DIANE JOHNSON
ON DECEMBER 1, 2008, I BEGAN renting a bedroom and bathroom from the writer Diane Johnson. It was an expensive rental, almost double what I was paying for my share of an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, but continuing there was no longer an option. Now in her sixties or seventies, Diane Johnson owned a spacious 3-bedroom condominium on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The building was located only a dozen walking blocks from my teaching job. Our arrangement was kismet.
In 2003, I moved to New York City to become a writer. Barely a year out of college, I was eager to become prolifically unstoppable, yet my reservoir of experiences was limited and juvenile. Living in New York City, I figured, would situate me at the epicenter of the American metropolitan experience. From my perspective, as a then-twenty-four year old, it was a foolproof plan.
Within weeks of my arrival, I obtained two part-time jobs. The first was working at an Upper West Side private school, and the other was cashiering at a United Colors of Benetton store. My boss at Benetton was a terrifically handsome Japanese model with whom I quickly fell in love. Within days of our first kiss, Hideo found us an apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, and we moved in immediately. Where I would live if things did not work out with Hideo never struck me as a question I should ask myself.
Our relationship was normal, even happy, but after about three years, Hideo and I experienced a stunning checkmate. We stopped yearning for more, stopped challenging each other to achieve more professionally or personally. Around this time, I realized I had lost my motivation to become a writer. It seemed sufficient to work with children, read books at night, and occasionally go to a party. Hideo and I still loved each other, but we had both become fatally complacent. I started envisioning us in the same jobs and same walk-up apartment fifty years into the future. I hated that I was still in my twenties yet already my life was fossilizing.
After trying, over the course of several months, to inject hope and possibility into our relationship—and repeatedly failing—I broke up with Hideo. The decision brought me a mixture of relief and regret. To my knowledge, there was no infidelity between us. We had, as the expression goes, different expectations from life and each other.
Once things ended, I knew I needed a new place to live. The first place I contacted was the boarding house run by nuns where I’d lived prior to moving in with Hideo. I moved back in with the nuns, but the situation was untenable. Their 11 p.m. curfew made me feel like I was fourteen years old, and the sisters frequently snooped around the rooms when residents were at work. I told Hideo about these invasions of privacy. Naturally, he invited me back home, and without hesitation, I accepted. We decided I would live in one bedroom, and he in the other. By then, our work schedules were opposite, too. I taught kindergarten and he was a closing shift manager at an interior design store. I would pay the same amount of rent as before. We were still, essentially, best friends.
For six or seven months, I looked for a reasonable apartment share. As anyone who has apartment hunted in New York knows, the process is a unique form of torture. One ad I answered had me standing in a one-bedroom apartment with four other twenty-something-year olds. All of them lived there, but they were looking for one additional person to help them split the rent. Two of them slept in the bathroom, but claimed “it sounds worse that it is,” and the kitchen was wallpapered with glossy images ripped out of pornographic magazines. For six hundred dollars a month, they offered me their couch as a bed from roughly midnight to six a.m. Judging by its appearance, their couch had been in contact with hundreds, if not a thousand, filthy New York City asses. Its cushions were squashed, stained, and stunk.
Another apartment I visited had no light—no overhead fixtures, lamps, or any modicum of hope. Despite the pitch darkness, I noticed the bathroom was caked in a fuzzy carpet of mold and mildew. The paunchy man living there told me, in addition to paying rent, I would be solely responsible for all the cleaning.
Every time I returned home, I shared these nightmarish scenarios with Hideo. It was obvious he felt bad for me. He didn’t want me to sleep in a hallway or live with a dirty sociopath. His family resided in New Jersey, so he wasn’t ever far from home. My family, on the other hand, lived in Texas, so he felt partially responsible for me.
Eight months into my search, I realized I had to start the moving process. In so many ways, Hideo and I were okay being stuck together. I knew if I didn’t take decisive action soon, we would end up roommates for life. It crushed my spirit to do so, but one night while he was working late, I started dismantling my bookcase and packing my books. That night I removed every tchotchke that made the apartment feel like home.
In November, I found what sounded like the most promising share in my exhaustive search. It was a Craigslist ad posted by a woman named Olga. I wrote Olga an email describing my habits and myself, asking if I could view her place. Half a week later, I met Diane Johnson.
The exterior of the Upper West Side highrise exuded its interior wealth. A doorman greeted me, and soon the front deskman was ringing a luxury apartment on the 17th floor. Moments later, in a kitchen brimming with hardback cookbooks, appliances, and a dozen potted succulents, I stood face-to-face with a tall, redheaded senior citizen. She extended her manicured hand and I shook it firmly.
As we meandered out of the kitchen, she showed me the section of the apartment she intended to rent. It was a somewhat cluttered bedroom with a phenomenal view of the Empire State Building. While we negotiated a price, I addressed her as Olga.
“I should tell you now, my name is not Olga. My name is Diane Johnson. I’m a writer, and I value privacy. For that reason, I decided to advertise the room under another name.”
Although I taught kindergarten, I had been an English major in college. On certain days, I still fancied myself an aspiring writer, and I was unequivocally an avid moviegoer. I knew of Diane Johnson’s novels Le Mariage and Le Divorce, and that she’d screenwritten, too. This was somewhat unbelievable—that I was negotiating a monthly rate with her, that her place was teetering on the verge of a hoarder’s paradise (a product of old age and not wanting to part with oversized furniture, I figured).
“You’re a writer?” I asked.
She nodded then added, “I currently write for French TV.”
I knew almost nothing about French culture. Her statement seemed plausible to me.
“Can I get the room cleared of the excess furniture?” I asked, pointing to a bulky nightstand, a cluster of lamps, and a chaise lounge sofa. “I’ll need very little.”
Within hours, we were signing a contract.
Diane Johnson seemed relatively pleased to have me as her roommate. I can only imagine the outlandish types that previewed the apartment before me. The doormen, likely, helped her separate the wheat from the chaff.
Nevertheless, she had house rules. Some fell under the umbrella of common sense, such as no playing loud music past 9 p.m., but some were downright absurd. If I was interested in having a houseguest over, even for an afternoon, there was a twenty-five dollar charge per person. My houseguests could never spend the night. I could only occupy my bedroom, the kitchen (which contained the washer and dryer set), and the bathroom directly across from my bedroom. All other rooms, about four or five, were her domain. When I closed doors at night, because the hardware was old, I was expected to wedge a scarf between the doorjamb and the door, so as to make the door closing process as silent as possible. She supplied the scarf; I simply had to carry it around as I shut doors. Many of the rules were neurotic, but I acquiesced. I could look for apartment shares forever, or I could carry the scarf around. I chose the soft accessory.
With Diane, I didn’t have the curfew that I had with the nuns, and since I didn’t plan on dating anyone or having friends over, abiding by these rules was no huge sacrifice. Truth be told, I usually hung out with my friends at restaurants, bars, or their apartments.
When her rules seemed too constraining, I reminded myself of the woman from Craigslist who implied I must be a murderer for not wanting to meet her at a busy grocery store for a roommate interview, or the man who kept referring to his bathroom in emails as The Royal Throne. After communicating with so many deranged, prospective roommates, I was genuinely excited to be living with a writer. Of all the places I could have ended up, I knew I had landed in the best arrangement possible. It was almost as if New York, a city indifferent to its residents, was reminding me of why I had moved from Texas in the first place. It was hard to ignore that the entire universe had conspired to remind me of my destiny.
Back in 2003, during my first few days in New York, I crossed a street near Central Park and found myself making eye contact with Jon Secada. I’d never been a Jon Secada fan, but that day I realized the city offered infinite possibilities.
A few weeks later, I exited a health food store to find Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, hand-in-hand, strolling by. At the time, I was awestruck by them and inadvertently blocked their path.
By year two or three in New York, I had become somewhat unfazed by celebrities. At the Borders in Columbus Circle, I saw Kelly Ripa, Anderson Cooper, Selma Blair, and countless others. Shortly after hitting the music scene, Kanye West smiled and complimented me on my Marc Jacobs sweater while we browsed the same bookstore.
That is all to say, I had had multiple run-ins with celebrities. I also had read Us Magazine regularly enough to know that “Stars are just like Us.” Yet, somehow the fact that I was living with Diane Johnson was different. Her obscure fame made her more alluring to me. This very woman had written the screenplay for The Shining. She was talented and complicated, I decided, hence her strange house rules. Naturally, I told my friend Eleanor, a fiction writer, about my new roommate.
“No way,” she responded.
I was walking home from work and had my cell phone pressed to my face.
“Isn’t she old by now?” she wanted to know.
“Uh, yeah. Like in her late sixties or early seventies. She watches a tremendous amount of TV for a writer,” I added. “But that’s her medium now—TV.”
Occasionally on my walk home from work, I glimpsed Diane Johnson out and about in the neighborhood. Her favorite place to meet friends for appetizers and drinks was Café Du Soleil. More than once, I spotted her eating al fresco with friends. For these outings, she wore a beret, zany eyewear, a striped sailor’s shirt, and solid colored trousers. I assumed she was happy being Parisian in New York and eating at Parisian-type restaurants. It was her thing, and I respected it. In fact, I was somewhat infatuated with her persona and I vowed to be equally as spirited in my old age.
While living on the Upper West Side, I developed a new routine. About two or three evenings a week, I swung by the MoMA to watch independent films at their theater. Often, I stayed for the Q&A sessions with film directors and listened as they detailed their artistic processes. Storytelling began to fascinate me once more, and even though I was a year away from brainstorming my own ideas, much less writing, I was hungry to explore other people’s art.
In my new living environment, I also started to see the world through a different lens. Part of this change in perspective was due to my literal view. Instead of looking out my four-story bedroom window, staring down at a bakery, and waking to the sound of dump trucks, I was now living on the seventeenth floor of a highrise. My view of everything below 100th street was awe-inspiring, and the city was gorgeously muted. I could assign the city any soundtrack. My life was, for once, exceeding my wildest expectations.
At night, I gazed at a boldly lit Empire State Building and fell in love with New York over and over again. Often I thought it a pity I could not summon up stories to write, but I was comforted by the fact that I was living with a famed novelist. My intuition assured me that I was on the right track. While I still thought of Hideo, I felt my life expanding, and I hoped, as I drifted off to sleep, that his life was expanding, too.
After grocery shopping one day, I was walking down West End Avenue when I spotted Diane Johnson crossing the corner. Switching my bags to one hand, I waved to her. She cracked a big, toothy smile and waved back.
“I’ve got a lot of work to do back at the apartment,” she said instead of hello.
I assumed by work she meant writing of some sort. The truth of the matter was that I had never seen Diane Johnson “at work.” If she had a computer, I’d never laid eyes on it. If she wrote longhand, her journals or notebooks were private and kept out of sight. Per her rules, I was hermetically absconded in my bedroom when home.
“How long did it take to write Le Divorce?” I asked, surprising myself more than her.
She chuckled, then glanced up at the sky. I assumed this polite laughter translated into “many moons.”
“I don’t know,” she said. “That was written by another Diane Johnson.”
I redistributed the weight of my groceries to my two hands and sensed a gastric revolt brewing in my intestines.
“I know the other Diane Johnson,” she offered. “We’re actually friends. She’s not often in New York, though.”
Torrential waves of denial overcame me. Naïve and wholly cheated didn’t even begin to express how I felt. Why hadn’t I Wikipedia-ed or Google-imaged her?
As we continued toward the apartment, the mood between us shifted from optimistic to realistic.
“How was work?” she asked.
“Good,” I said. “None of my kindergarteners threw up or bludgeoned each other today.”
“A+,” she quipped with a firm nod.
I knew Diane Johnson sensed my disappointment, but her stride remained unbroken.
Within two weeks, I was over the initial disappointment of not living with a famous novelist. My mind was blown, my ego bruised, but overall, I was still in a better place than I had been while living with Hideo, or any of the motley individuals I had crossed paths with during my apartment search.
Even though my roommate was not a literary celebrity, I liked her. She was an eccentric, older lady with a zest for life. Every few weeks her hair stylist flew into town to dye and style her hair. On various occasions, I noticed she was experimenting with new shades of lipstick. Sometimes, through the wall, I could hear her rearranging furniture in her rooms. Even if she was only chipping away at French soap operas or never-to-be-seen television pilots, I didn’t care. Whether she knew it or not, her daily life had served as a powerful example for me when I most needed it. The year I lived with Diane Johnson, I rediscovered the wonders of books, movies, and a new neighborhood. It was a brief but seminal period of uninterrupted exploration. Not long afterward, I was ready to write again.
URSULA VILLARREAL-MOURA was raised in San Antonio, Texas, and earned her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in New South, CutBank, Vol.1 Brooklyn, The Butter, Washington Square, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and one of her stories was longlisted for Best American Short Stories 2015.