The din of the birthday party and the screams of 15 five-year-olds were still ringing in our ears. Once inside the car, however, all we heard was the A/C blasting and the sound of US Highway 1 rolling by underneath. We love children, but this quiet was beautiful. Somewhere along the drive home, my wife, Melinda, broke the silence.
“You know?” She paused.
“Yeah?” I said, glancing over and then back at the road.
“I really don’t want to have children.”
It wasn’t the words that surprised me; we were both approaching our late twenties. We’d had this discussion several times already. It was the delivery: heavy, calculated, and, above all, honest.
I didn’t look at her because I knew she was staring, as I was, straight ahead, looking right down that highway.
“I really don’t want children either,” I said. Like her, I meant it.
Of all the times we’d talked about kids and the possibility of skipping parenthood, this time honestly felt like the last time.
It turned out that it was.
That brief conversation altered everything in our lives. Chief among the changes was our concept of space. Suddenly, without kids on the horizon, everything we owned seemed gratuitous. It wasn’t long before we started to do something about it. Able to carpool to our shared employer, two cars became one. We took leaf bags of clothing to Goodwill. I quickly became intimately familiar with Freecycle.org and Craigslist. Anything we hardly used, we gave away or sold.
It wasn’t long before we turned our eyes on our house, which suddenly appeared quite empty. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the home — or the neighborhood — in which we’d spent the last decade. We bought the property with the full intention of having kids to run around in the back yard, jump through sprinklers, and play with their neighbors. Hell, we even chose the area because of the schools that were nearby.
But that need was now definitively gone. The house had provided us with a lot of good memories, but it was full of empty rooms where we spent little or no time, and its closets were jammed with junk we couldn’t recall buying. When we factored in the time and utilities needed to take care of all of that unused space, it was a no-brainer. We had to make a change. We had to move.
Big news, tiny plans
It was March 2012, and the housing market was just starting to heal when we called a real-estate agent. Everyone thought we were crazy, but we had made up our minds. Our house no longer felt like home, and we didn’t see the point in staying there any longer. We cleaned and tidied and made the house sale-worthy, put a sign out front, and hoped for the best.
Four months went by before we had a buyer. One evening in mid-July, as I was bringing out the trash, a neighbor who had seen the red “Under Contract” slate perched on top of the real-estate agent’s sign came over to congratulate me and ask what was next for us. I told him that we were moving to Durham to be closer to work.
“You guys getting a bigger place?” he asked. “I couldn’t believe it when I read the square footage on this one.” He nodded toward what would soon be someone else’s home.
“Actually, we’re planning on downsizing,” I said, by now expecting what came next.
“Downsizing?! Really?” He raised his eyebrows.
At this point, I’d had this similar conversation at least a dozen times. People couldn’t believe that we were actually considering a smaller home. When I confided to our closest friends that we were, in fact, looking for something half the size or smaller? Well, that typically tipped even the folks who knew us best over the edge. We got everything from, “Oh my, I couldn’t do that at all” to “Have you guys really thought this through?”
My favorite, typically whispered, comment was, “What if you just need time alone?” We just chuckled every time. It was as if everyone wanted us to slow down, to think it over. We, however, couldn’t wait.
And we didn’t.
Next in line
Since we had only a month to find a new home, we began scouring ads in search of deals and move-in specials. We wanted to rent, so we aimed high and searched for studios and lofts in the downtown area. There wasn’t much, but we didn’t give up. Despite all the tools that had proliferated in the 11 years since we’d moved to the suburbs and last had to consult them, it was old-fashioned Craigslist that led us to a winner after a lot of looking — via PadMapper.com, which pulls data from Craigslist.
It was 500 square feet, affordable, a six-minute walk from my office, and an even shorter distance to everything else we could possibly want. It seemed wonderful! We called, landed third on the wait list, and hoped. Two days later, the owner called us back to ask if we were still interested. He said the size of the place caused the folks in front of us to withdraw from the running.
We grabbed a tape measure and hopped back in the car. Our daily commute from Apex to Durham was 45 minutes in each direction. It was always an inconvenience whenever we had to head back, but tonight? That time, it seemed like five minutes. We were only a few minutes into our tour of the apartment when I looked over at Melinda, who was beaming. “This place is…” “Perfect,” I finished for her. We’ve been finishing each other’s sentences for over 20 years. Why stop now?
It wasn’t the interior and its abundance of natural light, or the hardwood floors and the fancy stone countertops. It wasn’t even the ingenious storage options built into the walls — though that, admittedly, made me geek out a bit.
No, it was how this tiny space felt to us. It felt like home. We’d only been looking for a few weeks and just like that, we knew the search was over. Sometimes, you simply get lucky. Or maybe not. Maybe it was our intense want for something that other people felt was crazy or for a change they assured us they could never make. Maybe that genuine need to live with less made it possible for us to so easily downsize when everyone around us wanted more. It’s hard to tell. Whatever the case, we were (and still are) immensely grateful.
We took measurements, put down a deposit, settled on a move-in date, and went our separate ways, the landlord happy and us pinching ourselves for all our good fortune. Keeping the dimensions of our future home in mind, we spent the remainder of August paring down the rest of our earthly belongings even further. We got rid of a lot of furniture, purchasing replacements that utilized space more wisely. We digitized our CDs and DVDs. More painfully, we got rid of the bulk of our book collection, keeping a few treasured copies and buying the ones in digital form we knew we’d re-read down the road.
By the time moving day arrived, we’d pared down 20-plus years of memories into a 15-foot U-Haul. Our hard work had paid off in the intended way, but it also paid off in some unexpected ones.
Rekindling and reconnecting
Being forced to go through all of our belongings affected us profoundly and unexpectedly. The simple act of severing a bond to something, either by giving it away or throwing it out, offers tribute and, sometimes, much-needed closure. The same went for everything we kept.
I can’t tell you how many times I sat in the attic, sweating profusely in the Carolina August heat, smiling at old pictures, paging through forgotten journals, re-reading love letters that I wrote in pencil to my now-wife when we were in high school, and later, college-era notes written in fountain pen. Some of it you keep, some of it you part with. In both cases, for better or worse, you reconnect with the life you’ve lived.
We’ve been in our tiny apartment for about six months now, and I can honestly say that we’re the happiest we’ve ever been. I get immense comfort from being able to see everything we own from almost anywhere in our home. It all has a place when you live in tiny quarters, and you know exactly where everything is.
People often ask, “How do you get away from each other?” And while that always sounds overly harsh to me, when the walls close in (and they can), I head outside. Often, I sit in the park across the street, eyes closed, listening to the city breathe. When your home consists of one room and a bathroom to the side, it’s your surroundings that fill that gap. A coffee shop becomes your living room; the library, your study. A co-working space becomes your office. You meet new people. You make new friends. I know more people in my community now than I ever knew during the years we spent in suburbia.
The space where we sleep, cook, and get our mail is smaller, but our home is bigger than it’s ever been. I never thought I’d smile simply walking down a city block. But I do, frequently, when I walk home after a long day of work. I’m in the best shape of my life because I walk almost everywhere now. We rarely get in our car, visiting a gas station once a month. Our monthly utility bill is a fraction of what it was. We are surrounded by amazing art, live music, unbelievable food, different cultures, and different ideas.
The list is long, but the result is simple. By intentionally living smaller, our lives expanded so much.
Illustration by Dominic Flask.1
Thaddeus Hunt has been working in IT and Web development for the last 12 years in North Carolina. Since his childhood in New England, he's been writing and telling stories. He just finished writing his first-science fiction novel this past April. Up until this article, he's never been published before.