A room of one's own -- or, eight years inside a Faberg'e egg

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

I lived in one room for eight years. Sounds a bit constricted, doesn't it? Especially when you consider that the kitchen was part of the room -- merely an insert in one wall containing a cabinet, a small sink, a thigh-high refrigerator that conked out every summer, and an assortment of electrical cooking appliances, the latter provided by me.

There was a little hallway when you entered, and off it was the bathroom. With its solid white fixtures from the '20s, Laura Ashley-type, hang-it-yourself wallpaper, and washable, home-installed carpet, it wasn't bad at all.

What truly amazed me about this apartment, the place in which I lived longer than anywhere else in my life, is how my feelings about it changed over time.

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When I moved in I had just returned from three years in Rome. There, my living conditions had been varied and charming, but by no means always spacious or comfortable. A tiny nook on the 21st floor in New York that had some sense of stability about it possessed a certain appeal. And anyway, I told myself, I certainly wasn't going to be living in one room for more than a few months at the most!

The saving feature of this modest room was the view. Two mullioned windows in the north wall greeted you when you entered. The northern light that filled the room was enough to make geraniums bloom in January, and when it bounced off a glass tower two blocks away and streamed in as watery, reflected southern sun, it made me feel rich and pampered. And outside those windows was infinity.

Three states were visible from that small apartment. Connecticut lay in undulating green on the far side of the Throgs Neck Bridge, which could be clearly made out on most days. And if you opened the windows and leaned toward the west, you saw New Jersey at the end of 42nd Street, with the mighty Hudson in between. New York, of course, was all around.

But man cannot live by view alone.

The place looked pretty depressing to me at first. There was a large Murphy bed enclosed by two big doors in one wall, and two more such doors on the opposite wall enclosed the ``kitchen.'' When all these doors were open you could hardly squeeze in between. The room was nothing but doors.

At first the Murphy bed seemed fun -- until I discovered that I was in danger of being crushed by its weight if I didn't exert all my strength when getting it down or putting it up. So the Murphy bed went, along with its doors.

Next the kitchen doors went, replaced by floor-length curtains made from various fabrics according to periodic changes in d'ecor. A single bed ran along the wall in Murphy's alcove, thus gaining about 10 precious inches of space.

The color schemes of those eight years are divided into three parts. The first one was mainly tomato and green, inspired by some fabric acquired in the Congo which served as the initial kitchen curtains. This gave way to lemon yellow, designed to cheer me up one gray November. The last was mostly pink: Frivolous and feminine, it made the place looked rather like a Victorian box of chocolates. I loved it.

Then there were the special touches that seemed to me truly inspired. Like the steamer trunk painted white enamel that served as a coffee table and storage for out-of-season clothes. The delicate botanical-drawing flowers that had been pages of a calendar and got stuck up on the kitchen cabinets in two even rows -- six flowers each. And the small angels' heads on the wall near the bed, which cast long shadows from a lamp turned on them at an angle.

The ceiling was not too high, the wall space was not too copious: It was a great room to hang clusters of pictures in, and it was easy to keep clean. It also taught me to be organized.

How hospitable can you be in one room? Well, it depends. But what it depends on is your own desire to share, not on the dimensions of the room. There was a period when I gave dinner parties all the time -- usually for six, once for 11! And friends came to stay very often, sometimes in groups of two or more, occasionally with children or infants in tow.

For seven of the eight years I lived there, I had a 9-to-5 job and so spent a great deal of time out of the house. But eventually it got so I would relish my quiet evenings and weekends at home, when I could curl up and read and listen to music. I would gaze around that room and admire it. And never even wish that I had more than one.

During the last year there I was even working at home. My IBM typewriter sat permanently on the ``dining'' table by the window. The rest of the ``office'' was the head of the bed near the phone, and all first-draft writing was done on a corner of the couch, with a yellow pad on my lap. My whole life took place in that room, and instead of feeling confined, I grew more and more attached to it.

There were inconveniences about the place, it's true. If I bought a new sweater or pair of shoes I had to dispose of something already there, so crowded were the two small closets. And in summer the heat was so unbearable (no air conditioning allowed) that I would sleep with the door open on its chain, trying in vain to get a little cross-ventilation going.

Also in summer, the noise of the traffic 21 stories below was such that when I was on the phone people would say, ``Where are you anyway, on the street?'' And once in winter during a blizzard I got home to find an inch of snow on my geranium leaves, even though the windows were as closed as they could be.

I no longer live in that apartment. My husband and I now have three rooms, and they each have two doors. My greatest joy is deciding which of all these doors to go out or in as I zoom around our (relatively) palatial new abode. The thought of living in one room seems impossibly cramped.

But I know from experience that it can be done. Like one of those Faberg'e eggs with a beautiful scene inside, a tiny space can become a whole world.

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