“She got laid off. He works from home. They share 700 square feet. Help!”
[This would be the title of a two-part personal essay published in the women’s magazine Marie Claire, for which I wrote as a “guy.” (For the she-said, check for updates on www.helloellencarpenter.com.)]
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, that 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 made about shared domestic workspace: 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 Shelly 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, Ellen would often swing by my place after work and find me lounging on the couch in a rumpled Agnes 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 own 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 any reason to get up today,” she sang back, keys jingling, halfway into the world. “Nope,” I said, as the door shut and implications of settled in.
Nope. No reason at all.
© 2010 by Chris Norris