The New Water Cooler

For most of my life I’ve worked out of my home, so I have no direct experience of how privacy operates in a real office, the kind where one is supposed to wear shoes.

In the office I imagine, nothing goes unobserved. Chronic nasal congestion and another squeeze of Afrin or someone’s whispered argument with a boyfriend on the other side of the partition — it must all be grist for the mill. Surely the slightest event, once dissected with co-workers, would roar through a proper office like fire feasting on a dry hillside.

But what is proper in a home office? I have shared space with my husband off and on for almost nine years, if you subtract brutal periods of employment when he had to commute to Virginia from Manhattan or leave our apartment for a downtown office. Instead of the vaguely nautical arrangement we had in New York City, with him fore and me aft in a horizontal space, we are working upstairs and downstairs now that we’ve moved to Los Angeles. My desk is on a second-floor landing open to the living room and kitchen downstairs, while he inhabits the cave he prefers directly below me. Filled with boxes of books and papers still unpacked a year after the move, his room is not soundproofed the way his old one was to buffer the cries of protesters in Union Square or techno music from a neighbor’s loft party. These days when a family member calls me, he can make out my Tulsa accent that returns almost instantly — while bursts of laughter under my chair mean he’s on the phone with his sister.

He’s having his fourth glass of water this afternoon, attacking the logjam of ice in the freezer I could see if I stood up, not that I’m going to. Short of having a partner desk, we couldn’t be cozier.

“Whatcha got there?” my husband asks as I come in with the mail.

His face falls when he sees it is only a bill from the dentist. It is 11:01 and I have nearly trampled the postman in my eagerness to see what he’s brought today. It is a slow news day upstairs and down. By the time the sun sets, both of us will have eked out something that looks like a page or two of writing, but before then we are a cloud that bears no rain. A couple of hours later, we find ourselves in the kitchen again.

“I guess we’re both noshing, huh?”

“Yup.”

“Hey, what did our daughter have to say?”

A call from my son or my daughter nearly always provokes a turf war. If she phones me on my cell, it is classified as a mother-daughter thing, which I can share or not at will. On days when she phones on the landline, however, there is almost always a dust-up about who takes the call.

“Is that it?”

I tell him as much as he needs to know, and that seems to satisfy him. He is eating the last of my favorite cereal and breaking the rule. Nobody is ever allowed to eat the very last bite unless the significant other is consulted first. This is courtesy. It keeps the hope alive that when you want to have a cookie, there will be a cookie to have. Sharing a workspace means sharing your cookies, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t sometimes hurt feelings.

“I should have gotten on the phone for that one.”

“Your door was closed.”

It is generally agreed that a closed door remains closed for a good reason. You have to be talking with The Outside World and in need of total quiet and the illusion of privacy The Outside World demands. Most importantly, you can’t close the door to hoard the good stuff. If I’m talking to my daughter, it cannot be in my bedroom on the landline and with the door closed unless it’s a crisis call (in which case, she’s all mine). She provides us with what no office manager in the world can, unless he or she is a tipster for Page Six on the side. My husband wants his gossip and he wants it now.

I wondered when we bought this house why they had a water cooler in the kitchen. It’s a good space to cook and watch squirrels assault the pineapple guava tree for blossoms in the spring and fruit in the fall, but it’s not exactly commodious. A water cooler plus a water filtration system under the sink struck me as overkill until I understood its significance. There are new rules and new water coolers now. The stocking stuffer I gave my husband for Christmas failed to thrill. I had imagined the 50’s world of Mad Men, where husbands and wives swapped stories at an ordained hour with a finger of whiskey, not the world we live in today.

But the Sparq stones that didn’t melt — meant to replace the ice cubes that rattle his glass and my nerves — were no substitute.

Though we didn’t sign up for Sparkletts, the ghostly presence of the water cooler still hovers in the corner. There is a cathedral ceiling in our living room. It’s no accident that this is where we bring our higher selves, the selves we aspire to be as we watch something on PBS about an endangered species. The kitchen is where we write our checks and gossip. That is, when there is gossip to be had.

My daughter sometimes gets tired of us constantly interrupting the other when we’re both on the line.

“Why is he shouting?” she asks of her stepfather.

“He’s just excited, honey. Keep going. What did she say then?”

She threatens to cut us off and stop calling altogether if we don’t calm down.

I wonder what it’s like in other homes and other offices. Does the arrival of the mailman produce a butterfly effect that ripples upstairs and downstairs? Does a phone call from a grown child mean the same rush of adrenaline? In short, are their cookies studded with quite as many yummy bits of chocolate as ours? I haven’t got time to call my pals who office at home and find out. The phone is making the funny ring that means somebody’s getting a fax.