That time Ikea actually saved my marriage

I wanted to murder my co-worker because of the way he chewed his sandwich. The only problem was, my co-worker also happened to be my husband, and I had nowhere to hide from his ridiculous chomp sessions because we both worked from home. And that home was a 400 square foot apartment.

When the real estate agent had showed us the space, tucked into a quiet brownstone-lined street in Jersey City, we instantly said “we’ll take it” in unison. We fell in love with the way the sun poured through the tall bay windows, the detailed antique fireplace and the view of Manhattan — it was our dream home in miniature. Super miniature.

The small size didn’t bother us; we had lived in cozy spots before and survived fine. It would be ok, right? What we didn’t realize was living and working in a home better suited for half of a human being was a whole different situation.

At this point in our marriage, we felt life could throw anything at us and we would be fine. Our past had woven us together so tightly unraveling seemed impossible. We met when we were 12 at a birthday party in our hometown: a Minneapolis suburb named after raccoons. He asked me to be his girlfriend that day. I said no, but a week later changed my mind. At 16, I was with him when his dad died. We slow-danced through two proms and I wore his bright red football jersey on every game day. He held me upright after my best friend was killed in a car crash on her way home from our freshman year of college. We grew up fast, holding hands tight along the way.

I was waiting for the day that I got sick of him, but it never came. Not even close. As we got older, the man he became fascinated me more and more. He could memorize entire scripts of Shakespeare in an evening and got the weirdest tattoo of a bear with antlers and a pearl-dotted crown. He wore torn jeans and cowboy boots to every occasion and could croon like Sinatra. We slept with our heads on the same pillow, our limbs wrapped around each other like baby sloths. Before we could even legally drink, we had felt like we had lived so much of life together, and couldn’t imagine the future any other way. At the ripe-old-age of 19, on a stage in front of a crowd of friends and strangers, he got on one knee as red rose petals rained from the ceiling. My answer: “finally.”

We married a few weeks after he turned 21, graduated college, and moved to Austin, Texas so he could get his MFA in acting. When the program was over, we happily made our big New York City move, saying farewell to wide fields of grazing cattle and hello to our cramped third floor walk up with a kitchen so minuscule we had to hang all our pans on the wall. He signed with an agent, and I could telecommute from anywhere as a publicist. We assumed it would be an easy, fun transition, despite our smaller space. At 26, were young, adventurous and optimistic.

A few weeks in, we realized being a New York actor involved a lot of waiting. We waited for his agent to call, waited to hear about the callback, waited for a big break, a small break – anything, really. He was home more than we anticipated. He took a flexible computer job to fill in the financial gaps between shows. Now, we both were a part of the American workforce whose morning commute involved shuffling to the kitchen coffee pot.

Our workdays started unraveling quickly. I would be in the middle of responding to a stressful email, or about to call a national radio producer, and marital questions would arise: Did you deal with the Comcast bill? What should we have for dinner? Can you take the dog out this time? We bumped elbows all day surrounded by our mail pile and thawing chicken breasts, so these distracting discussions were impossible to avoid.

Then, there was the issue of the bathroom. When your living room-slash-office-slash-kitchen was a few feet away from the john, there was no privacy. Every flush, loogie hock and gas explosion could be heard, and no marriage should ever have to endure that. Ever, do you hear me? Ever.

And of course, we learned our incomes were no match for big city life. Money was tight in a way we had never experienced before. Going in, we knew living near Manhattan, the queen of all money-suckers, would be hard, but understanding that didn’t really salve the pain of an empty bank account and enormous pile of student loans. Any unexpected expense would put us in the red. For the first time we felt the heavy weight of the reality we might not be able to pay all our bills that month. That, turns out, is even less sexy than sharing a tiny bathroom.

But the sandwich eating was what made me cross the line from slightly frustrated to “What the heck, bro? Can’t handle.” He had purchased noise-canceling headphones, and they worked so well they also cancelled out his ability to hear himself chew. But I heard it, every click, pop and smack. At first I didn’t say anything. But after several days of sloppy, open-mouthed, ridiculously loud eating, I lost it.

“I have never heard such insane chewing, when did you start CHEWING like that? I can’t do this anymore,” I ranted, throwing my hands in the air, pacing in a three-foot circle. “I’m done!”

He put down the sandwich, got up and grabbed his keys.

“Where do you think you are going?” I snapped, his mild reaction to my tirade making me more irritated. He didn’t respond and walked out the door, shutting it behind him harder than usual. I sat down on our sagging couch surrounded by dirty lunch plates and stared blankly at our antique fireplace with his still-glowing laptop on it, and wept. Ugly wept.

Minutes turned to hours of him being gone. He wasn’t answering my calls or texts. I was in awe of the disgust I felt towards him, things I’d never felt towards him before. I was angry at myself for feeling that way, and worried I hated him. The happy memories we shared as kids felt distant, hidden beneath a thick crust of early adulthood stress, money woes and piles of unwashed dishes. I realized, even with our sappy love story background, we were not immune to divorce. The walls of our apartment no longer seemed sun drenched — they were suffocating.

He eventually came home late into the evening, and before I could go into an angry wave of “Where were you?” questions, I saw he’d gone to where any sensible small space dwelling person would go in a time of crisis: Ikea.

At the Scandinavian godsend, he bought me a mounted desk that could be folded into practically nothing and hidden behind a curtain. He hung it under our bedroom window so I could work in a separate room, the cool Hudson River breeze wafting in and the impeccable view of a neighboring brick wall all to myself, no chewing mouth in earshot. It was the most romantic piece of office furniture ever to exist.

The desk and just being a few feet away from him helped. And from 9 to 5, we agreed to treat each other not like husband and wife, but actual co-workers. We untangled our limbs, stepped back and took a breath. During our workdays, we talked less, both wore headphones, and I found the perfect neighborhood coffee shop to escape to when things still felt too cramped.

Then, when the day was done we would take a pan off the wall, cook dinner, pour a big old glass of wine, and search real estate listings for a two bedroom apartment.

(Image via Fox Searchlight)


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