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April 19, 2010

Living and Working in the Same Space

She got laid off. He works from home. They share 700 square feet. Help!

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couple working from home

Photo Credit: Martha Camarillo

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He said... Damn you, Don Draper. Damn you for your panther looks, your shimmering martinis, and your parade of bullet-bra-ed typists. But damn you most of all for that high-rise office, the 1960s Shangri-la that taunts me in every Mad Men episode. Wall-spanning windows. Oak-paneled walls. Danish modern furniture. Big as my whole apartment. This is what I'm reduced to in 2010: I covet another man's work space.

For six months now, my wife and I, both writers, have been working at home together in our one-bedroom apartment. If the precariousness of this situation isn't obvious, I refer you to the best film ever about shared domestic work space: The Shining. There's Jack Nicholson's would-be author, self-exiled in an empty hotel. Typewriter clacking, he squints into the page—limning, seeking, probing, his mind finally edging up against that drifting, vaporous thought, when ... "Hi, Hon!" chirps googly-eyed Shelley Duvall. "Get a lot written today?" The ax murders that follow are excessive, I grant you, but incomprehensible? I don't judge.

True, our two-desk living room is no Overlook Hotel — even if it is a feng-shui horror show — and Ellen respects its sanctity. But I do feel like a crucial curtain has been pulled back. In our courtship phase, when she worked at an office, she would often swing by my place after work and find me lounging on the couch in a rumpled Agnès B. shirt (just put on), an open book on the table (unread), and another finished project on the screen. "Yep," I'd say. "This is where the magic happens." Now she knows what the magic actually looks like.

9 a.m.: Cup of Rice Chex, bowl of coffee, crossword. Then an hour on the laptop — e-mails, news-gathering, Shakira image searches — followed by phone calls to "sources" to determine if Vincent Price was on any Brady Bunch episode besides the Hawaiian one, or how many song titles have semicolons. Then the writing, which usually features some combination of mouth-breathing, tuneless humming, and the creepy, REM-like eye movements I'm told I make when thinking. Lunch break might involve more calls to sources and additional contemplation. After this, who knows? There may be woolgathering vigils at the open fridge. There may be calisthenics of my own invention. There may be frequent breaks to meditate. The Cartoon Network may be involved.

This is not something I want to share with anyone — never mind someone I'm sleeping with — and having an audience is unraveling me. Reinaldo Arenas wrote a novel in a Cuban prison beside murderers and rapists, on bits of scrounged paper; I can't write more than two sentences next to someone I love. It's not that wifey cramps my style. It's that she makes me look at how I work and what that says about my life. The ad execs on Mad Men have their problems, sure, but their entire physical universe assures them of their importance. Mine is showing me how closely working from home resembles a downward spiral.

If we're lucky, Ellen won't join me in it. The other morning she was headed out to a job interview — lipstick, good shoes — and paused at the front door to call my name. "Mmmm?" I mumbled back, still half asleep. "I just wanted to make sure you didn't have a reason to get up today," she sang back, keys jingling, halfway into the world. "Nope," I said, as the door shut and implications settled in. Nope. No reason at all.

She said... I cried when I got laid off from my job as a magazine editor last summer, but not because of economic worries or self-esteem issues. These concerns were dwarfed by the fact that I'd now be working at home, in an apartment the size of my childhood bedroom, alongside my husband of four years. God save us.

Chris, an established writer who deemed the couch his cubicle years before I came along, wasn't happy about it either, but assured me we'd make it work and suggested a few ground rules: No talking, no music, no phone calls in the living room. Considering I'd spent the past seven years at rock magazines — blasting Phoenix from my iMac speakers, reading Kanye's blog posts aloud to cubemates — I knew this would be difficult. But I agreed. I'd wear headphones. I'd schedule interviews to happen when he was out. Totally doable. From 10 to 6, Monday through Friday, we'd be colleagues.

But very quickly, I took on other roles as well. Because Chris was used to my only being home in the evenings (making dinner) or on the weekends (making lunch, Swiffering the floor), certain primal, gender-specific assumptions were activated. Coworker? Try personal chef, maid, cheerleader, dog walker, masseuse, and make-out partner — on call, 24/7. In my attempt to adapt to his routine, I unconsciously stepped into some kind of '50s, June Cleaver stereotype. The first week, I offered to make lunch. The next, I volunteered to read an article he had just finished and to give him feedback prior to its submission — that is, to tell him it's great. The week after that, I assumed laundry duties.

Slowly but surely, all this wrought a learned helplessness I still can't quite believe. My husband was once a strong, independent man who'd return from a six-mile run with a bouquet of my beloved dahlias. Now he can't crack open a can of Progresso. If I mention I'm going to have a tuna melt, he'll reply, "Sounds great!" without looking up from his laptop. For years, he worked alone and practiced solitary discipline. Now he thinks it's OK to interrupt me "just real quick" to read me some bits from a project and then sit there like a golden retriever awaiting a verbal pat on the head — an irritating habit that turns insane-making when, after I tell him it's funny/smart/provocative, he puts his headphones back on and says, "OK, no more talking."

The funny thing is, while our 9-to-5 relationship is fraught, our after-hours bond has never been stronger. For a change of scenery, we've traded our Netflix-and-pizza routine for actual date nights. We go to the movies and Off-Broadway plays, dine at new (affordable) restaurants, and put in a surprising amount of "overtime" in the office's adjoining bedroom. In fact, it's kind of like we're having an affair: colleagues driven into each other's arms by close proximity in a high-stress workplace. But as much as I like a good office romance, I'd prefer an actual office. And though Chris loves tuna melts, I know he'd rather work alone. So I hang on to the idea that I might return to a stable, brick-and-mortar job, where the music is loud, lunch is delivered, and coworkers wash their own socks.


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