169 Square Feet in Las Vegas


Home Improvements

Photograph by Meg Bernhard.

The Las Vegas apartment complex was advertised as a fresh start, a place to reinvent oneself. With only 169 square feet in the so-called “micro-studio,” there was simply no room to bring much of my past life with me. I was not seeking reinvention, but I was looking for cheap rent.

I arrived in late afternoon on a warm fall day. New friends had invited me to go camping in Utah and were soon to depart, so I tossed my few belongings into the studio without taking much stock of the space. I did, however, note what I would come to call “the bathroom situation.” Along the apartment’s eastern wall stood the shower and the toilet, both separated from the rest of the space by only a curtain. The only sink was the kitchen sink. Well, I thought, that pretty much eliminates the possibility of anyone staying the night. I showed up to my friends’ doorstep tired and sweaty, and as we chatted, the last member of our camping caravan emerged from his bedroom, hair damp from a shower. I snuck a glance into his room. His room was basically the same size as my entire micro-studio, and contained many more things—paintings from Chile, philodendron cuttings in blue glass vases, and, in the living room, even a large white rug and a recliner.

My tiny apartment, as I named it, was fine for the time being. Utilities were included in the price. I had a desk that doubled as my dining table, and enough cabinets to use for my clothes. There was a kitchenette with a mini fridge and a two-burner stove, where I made, nearly every day, toast and eggs sunny-side up. When I showered, steam filled the room, and the dracaena I’d just bought seemed to like the humidity.

One night, I invited my new friends over for dinner. I owned very few kitchen essentials, so I used a Crockpot Express to steep risotto in wine while I used my only pan to sauté onions. It would take a full day for the smell of caramelized onion to dissipate from the apartment, and, over time, I began to worry that the scents of all my meals had fossilized in my linens. The philodendron man made a comment about a YouTube video he’d watched on micro-studios in New York. Why, we wondered, were there micro-studios in sprawling Las Vegas, where subdivisions and suburbs were more common than even regular-sized apartments? When we left to go eat in the courtyard, our arms full of pots and plates, one of the friends said she’d stay behind. She needed to use the bathroom, but didn’t want anyone else inside at the same time.

Because I lived alone, I normally didn’t close the curtain to use the toilet. I closed the curtain only when I had visitors, which seemed like a performance of modesty, since the toilet was never going to be private. But there were not many visitors. One of my only guests was the philodendron man. The first time he visited by himself, I was nervous. I ended up overcooking the shakshuka I’d planned for dinner, and when he arrived, the place smelled of burn. We drank wine on my bed, and he left. From a friend, I learned he was anxious about the bathroom situation.

When my kitchen felt too small, I’d go over to his house to bake banana bread and roast brussels sprouts, and he and I would sit on the back patio, watching the wind in the overgrown weeds. In the winter, his laundry machine broke, so he would come over to use my facility’s machines, and we’d wait in the tiny apartment while his jeans were drying. He gave me two cacti and placed them on a ledge by the window. “Makes it more homey in here,” he said. Eventually, he started using the toilet, and around that time, he also started sleeping over.  His house sometimes felt too big; in the mornings, I’d wake up earlier and make coffee in the kitchen, and he’d join me later. But in my tiny apartment, there was no space for these different routines—no space, really, to be anything but proximate.

My lease ended last May. Now I live with two roommates in a three-bedroom house. We have a couch and a backyard, and I even have my own private bathroom with a door. Sometimes the philodendron man, who is now my partner, tells me he misses the tiny apartment. And I do miss the times when he’d peel away from bed and sit on the toilet, trying to be quiet, or crack the faucet for a cup of water. Despite his attempts at silence, I’d hear everything, and in my dream state I’d think, How nice it is to have someone this close.


Meg Bernhard’s essays and reportage have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. Her book Wine, with Bloomsbury’s object lessons series, comes out in June.