A photo of the author with her boyfriend

My boyfriend lives in a dumpster

When Jeff began his year-long social experiment, students wanted to know how it could possibly work. So did I


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Clara Bensen
September 29, 2014 4:00AM (UTC)

When I was a kid I came across a picture of the Casas Gemelas — the twin houses that Diego Rivera built for himself and Frida Kahlo in Mexico City. Diego’s Le Corbusier-inspired quarters were right next door to Frida’s boxy, cobalt blue studio. The two homes were connected by a third floor bridge, which, even then, struck me as genius. Separate yet connected.

I’ve carried that childhood image of the Casas Gemelas with me over the years, a freeing reminder that couples aren’t limited to any particular arrangement of physical space. There are popular models, of course — the sitcom realms of shared apartments, joint mortgages, and til-death-do-us-part marriage beds. But, in reality, the landscapes of love are many and varied.

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“Varied” is a polite way of describing my current relationship arrangement. I live alone in a ramshackle Austin house that, by all accounts, was constructed by a drunkard before the advent of the square right angle. My boyfriend, Jeff, shacks up a few streets over — in a 36-square-foot dumpster.

Coming from my hand, the phrase “my boyfriend lives in a dumpster” still seems unlikely, though it’s simple enough to explain why it’s true: Jeff, a science professor and university dean, is leading a yearlong social experiment in which a team of students, designers and engineers are converting a used dumpster into a high-tech, sustainable home in order to test the extreme limits of what one needs for a good life. Jeff, the intrepid guinea pig, is living inside it, on campus, during each renovation phase — from rusty bin to solar-powered über dumpster.

Jeff doesn’t expect anyone else to live in a dumpster and he’s the first to admit there’s a clear element of spectacle that comes with converting a trash can into a mini domicile. But spectacle is kind of the point. After years of teaching undergraduate science courses, Jeff realized he was bored stiff with rote curriculum — and if he was bored, what were the students? Enter professor-in-a-box: a science experiment so extreme — so far-fetched — that curiosity and engagement would be inevitable.

And it works. Students and onlookers start with basic problem solving. Where do you pee? Where do you get water? How do you generate energy? What happens when it’s 102 degrees outside and 130 degrees inside? And — as one first-grader pointed out — where is the chimney for Santa? Logistical and engineering considerations often give way to broader discussions. How much stuff do you need to live well? What can be defined as a home? What happens when you share communal resources with others?

I, too, have my own set of questions, though they have nothing to do with surviving dime-size mosquitoes, thunderstorms or the fury of Texas summers. I’m preoccupied with length, width and height: the tangible location of relationships.

“How’s this going to work?” I asked. It was a gray afternoon in January, and Jeff and I were standing side-by-side atop a mountain of trash after “home shopping” for his new place. The landfill didn’t smell nearly as bad as I had imagined on the overcast drive over. Waste dozers plowed into pyramids of muddy clothes, plastic bags and beer bottles, shifting the debris from one pile to another. We were being shifted, too, but I had no idea where. The landfill visit marked the end of our peaceful cohabitation at my place. He was moving out and his new dumpster home barely had room for one person, let alone two.

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Unwaveringly optimistic, he gave me his usual wink and said, “I have no idea, but we’ll figure it out.”

The dumpster project had been on the table since our first OkCupid date a year earlier. He was brimming with so much boyish, freewheeling energy that I hardly felt surprised when, over an initial round, he announced that he planned to take up residence in a trash receptacle. I admired his unabashed, experimental approach to life and he was drawn to my quiet openness. We were an unlikely pair, but we fit together, right from the start.

Fitting together within his experiment has proved more challenging. A few weeks after he moved into the dumpster it became obvious that my place was no longer a shared habitat. For Jeff, my house now poses a threat to the scientific rigor of his experiment with its running water, gas-powered stove, and fluffy queen-size bed. When he comes over, he feels guilty — almost like he’s cheating. We have the occasional dinner at my kitchen table and every now and then a student takes a shift in the dumpster, giving him a night off at my place. But even then, he acts like a temporary guest checking into a hotel. After he says goodbye and walks out the door, there’s no trace he was ever there — not even a spare toothbrush in the bathroom.

The other option — his place — is also complicated, though for different reasons. Nights in the dumpster require a basic understanding of the Pythagorean theorem: At 6-foot-1 Jeff can only sleep diagonally across the 6-by-6 dumpster floor. On the rare nights we both sleep in the dumpster, I hoist myself in through the sliding metal door and make my bed in the small triangle of space beside his long body.

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I don’t mind. The narrow territory is a fair exchange for the bizarre magic of our dumpster sleepovers. Before we climb into our sleeping bags, Jeff lights a candle lantern and flips open the roof so I can watch the stars and cloud drifts. I run my fingers through his hair for a while and then he’s out, leaving me to lie awake, cataloging the sounds of the city. Bats flicker overhead. If the breeze is blowing north, it relays eerie guitar solos from the hipster dive bars two blocks away. Sometimes there’s the rattle of a stolen shopping cart. Later, after midnight, the sirens and throbbing car stereos die down and I can make out Jeff’s breathing and the rush of wind-through-trees in the Texas State Cemetery across the street.

In the dumpster, there’s only an eighth inch of steel separating us from the motion of the outside world. That’s part of the magic.  Camping is the only thing I can compare it to, though even that doesn’t quite capture the experience — it’s the difference between pitching a tent in the middle of Union Square and unrolling a sleeping bag in the Rockies.

Still, the experience shouldn’t be over-glamorized. A few months ago, when the dumpster was moved to a public plaza for a festival, we woke to zippers sliding and the unmistakable sound of piss trickling down the outer wall, just above our pillows (“Dude, I can’t hold it. Is anyone around?”). Jeff laughed from inside his sleeping bag while I fired off obscenities and barreled my fist against the metal. To no avail — the bar-hoppers were either too hammered to register the noise or too sober to accept the possibility that a human might be inside.

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Fooling around is also more complicated than it used to be. When it comes to privacy, our choices are often limited to the occasional house visit and the dumpster, which is usually parked a few feet behind the women’s residence hall. We regularly get asked if we’ve done the deed in the dumpster. For the sake of Jeff’s position, all I’m at liberty to say is discreet passion is (almost) impossible in a thin metal box where one careless sigh can inform the entire neighborhood on the finer points of our recreational activity.

We rarely fight, but when we do, we’re forced to choose our battlegrounds carefully. My place is usually out and the dumpster doesn’t work either — it’s impossible to take anything seriously in a one-room box that doesn’t even have a proper door. If a fight needs to be had, we usually end up hashing it out in the relative privacy of a car in a parking lot. I’ve cried my fair share of tears parked between two yellow lines.

The parking lot skirmishes point to a broader shift in the relationship — the fact that, if our love is conducted anywhere, it’s not at my place or his, but out in the big, wide open of the city itself — the bridge that connects our homes. Out of necessity, we’ve adopted the public space as our own.

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On an average night, I meet Jeff at his lab and we walk down to the campus entrance gate, occasionally stopping to wave at students who yell across the lawn.

“Professor dumpster! You got A/C in that box yet?” (He does, finally, after six months in a dumpster furnace.)

It’s only a few blocks to our back porch — an outdoor biker bar favored by '80s revival kids with stringy cutoff jeans and freshly inked tattoos. Jeff orders two beers and we sit under a canopy of crepe myrtle, discussing the day.

“How’d you sleep last night?” I’ll ask, running my hand down one of his four remaining button-down shirts. The dumpster is short on closet space — he sold most of his possessions for a dollar apiece before the experiment began.

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“Not bad,” he’ll say with a wicked grin. “It feels like home. Would you still love me if I lived there forever?”

We both laugh, but I know he’s only half-joking.

After the beer, we drift down Sixth Street to the Driskill Hotel — our living room — where we sit, arm-in-arm, on carved leather couches, pretending to be guests (if the staff has noticed our routine, they haven’t let on). We dine at cheap food trucks. We lean against each other on the Capitol lawn. We move through the city — from block to block, room to room — until the sun is gone and the high-rise lights glow overhead.

Neighbors are everywhere. Some we know, some we don’t. Jeff strikes up a conversation with everyone in a 50-foot radius: homeless vets panning for change, security guards, bearded bartenders, European tourists, pole dancing instructors, skinny-jean hipsters, start-up entrepreneurs.

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I’ve fallen in love with our roving, communal nights, but there are moments when I miss the privacy of living together. The pleasure of an unbroken conversation is hard to come by in the streets. As we walk, I sometimes conjure up remote, private spaces in my mind. Swiss monastery. Mountain cave. Wine cellar. I imagine a life where I don’t have to channel a chimpanzee to enter my partner’s front door, where a dumpster is just a trash can, where I don’t sleep alone most nights.

But then — when it’s dark and our nightly wander has circled back to the point where we split ways — my feelings always shift. In some absurd twist of fate, I’ve ended up with the separate-yet-connected arrangement I always hoped for as a kid (though, admittedly, the delivery has been a bit unexpected). I have love, but I also have quiet rooms, freedom and space. I can adorn my walls with pictures of cats and naked women without consulting any opinion but my own.

Negotiating space is a critical part of any relationship, but there are a thousand ways to do it. Our setup is undoubtedly one of the more peculiar ones around, but it’s also vibrant and loving — due, in no small part, to the fact that we’re flexible and we welcome the strange and curious. We still want each other after all these wild months. We’re still slow to say goodnight.

The other night I leaned through the sliding dumpster window to say goodbye. When I turned to leave, Jeff called me back.

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“Hey, if you ever buy a house, do you think you could keep a spot for the dumpster in the backyard?”

“Sure,” I said. “Maybe I’ll even build a bridge from my house to yours.”


Clara Bensen

Clara Bensen is a writer based in Austin, Texas currently writing a travel memoir, "No Baggage," based on her many adventures with Jeff. You can follow her on Twitter @clarabensen

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