Ellen Freeman Roth                      

Sunday Magazine
February 11, 2007

Turf Wars

We shared a home office for years. That is, until we both tried to work from home.

"You could take over our office," I proposed disingenuously when my husband left his corporate job and became an independent consultant. "I guess I could move all of my work." Steven and I had shared our home office during evenings and weekends, enjoying our commingled space an arm's reach across the desk. During business hours, however, that space was mine. Now, though Steven was earning most of our income, I was marking my territory.

On our first day both working from home, I sat at my desk and he contentedly spread out at the dining room table 25 feet away. We smiled at each other. I began writing and he rustled folders. He got a glass of water, raking his chair along the floor as he sat. I squinted to see if the legs had felt pads.

Midmorning, crunch, crunch. Was he chewing granite? I looked. He pulled his paw out of a cracker box, showering crumbs everywhere. I closed my doors, barely muffling his gnashing and phone conversations. At noon, he knocked.

"What does your office do for lunch?" he asked. "Want to go out?"

"Can't. I'm working. I'll grab yogurt from the fridge."

When I went into the kitchen, Steven was standing stoop-shouldered at the counter spreading peanut butter and jelly on bread. I felt like a louse. I sidled up. "You know I'd love to have lunch with you. But I need to write." I had recently returned to work after several months rehabilitating a knee after surgery.

"I know," he replied understandingly.

At lunchtime the next day, I heard the knife scraping the peanut butter jar. Guilt stuck to the roof of my mouth. The third noontime, Steven walked in holding keys. "I'm meeting Greg for lunch. Can I get you anything?" He returned on tiptoe, set a cup on my desk, and whispered to the dogs, "Decaf with three squirts of chocolate." I felt as if he should have laced it with strychnine.

Soon Steven decided that the dining room table wasn't practical. He didn't have the amenities to get organized, and our teens and dogs were noisy. So he cleaned out a small room in the basement. He had a 25-year-old folding table and wireless Internet. We dubbed his warren "The Cave," with a short "a" – the French pronunciation.

The Cave sat under my office. Through my picture window, I saw trees dancing in the breeze and tomatoes ripening in the garden. Through Steven's porthole, he spotted fruit rotting in the dirt. While I went about my business, I let the dogs out. Steven witnessed their business.

One afternoon soon after Steven had moved, I visited him in his den of inequity. The Cave was soundproof, while upstairs I was being blasted by the kids' music. During our home renovation, I e-mailed Steven: "Paint smells nauseating." From the Cave, he replied: "Painters are here?"

Steven settled in and the office upstairs was mine, though in some ways still sweetly ours with supplies and some of Steven's things. From our respective work spaces, we invited each other into our professional lives. I edited his proposals; he offered feedback on my writing. We captured nuggets of time together – walks, occasional lunches. I liked having him around.

In August, we cleared out the office to have the floor refinished. When it was time to move back, Steven tackled his stuff first. Excited to see how he'd reorganized, I hooked my arm in his and we strolled into our office. It was empty.

"Where are your soccer folders? That funny anniversary card?" I asked.

"Downstairs. Now the Cave feels permanent." I surveyed the bare cabinets and desk. There was ample space for my work. The stapler was firmly on my side. My eyes welled up.

Steven's business is booming. Evenings and weekends, he's often squirreled away in the Cave, upgraded now with a desk and shelves. I relish the seclusion during the day, but off hours can be punishingly solitary. Still, we'll always have e-mail.