At the studio: Hayley partially obscured by the IKEA bookcase and Marlan taking a wee break.

The Space Between Square Feet : a Husband and Wife Almost Divorce Over Studio Space

“Maybe it’s time we think about a trial separation.”

This was my husband Marlan speaking, three summers ago.
It was a little surprising to hear him say he wanted to separate. We have been madly in love since July 2003 when we were introduced at a party and then promptly started making out. We don’t have kids, but if we did, our adult grandchildren would mist up at the memory of us, holding hands and canoodling into our 90’s, our fluttery hearts setting off our pacemakers. Adversity only makes us more love struck.

We’ve had opportunities to test this theory. Shortly after we became engaged, in 2006, Marlan was diagnosed with kidney cancer. One would have to be removed. After surgery, we arranged the various drips and tubes coming out of him so I could lie with him in the hospital bed. Then the crooked insurance company refused to cover him and we faced bankruptcy. We moved into the third floor of his mother’s house in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn so we could pay off the medical bills, regroup. Then cancer came back with a vengeance: debilitating chemo, several excruciating operations and a three year wait to see if he would beat his 40% survival odds. Marlan shrunk to half his size, turned yellow and lost his hair but he still looked like a movie star to me. At our eventual wedding there was not a dry eye in the house.

But all that coming-together-to-face-poverty-and-death stuff was out the window when we were forced to share a 400 square foot work space that doubled as our apartment for three months in 2010. True love is nice and all but when it came to a battle for control over square feet for our respective working lives as artists, the situation devolved quickly into blood lust.

In 2008, when Marlan was sufficiently recovered, we returned to the apartment in  Williamsburg, Brooklyn that I’ve had since 1998. Sure, it’s small (400 square feet is a generous estimate, actually) but you can’t beat the location and like most New Yorkers with a rent stabilized space, I have an unhealthy psychological attachment to it. I am unable to imagine giving it up for a larger, more modern apartment with a doorman and reasonable landlords because I cannot bring myself to pay market rate. I swoon when friends tell me how much they’re spending each month on rent. Marlan is kind and understanding about this affliction. He has learned to downsize, and to pack his living quarters like a sailboat.

Marlan is a cellist and a classical recording engineer/producer. I was a freelance documentary filmmaker. At first, all was well. We were delighted that life was finally returning to normal. He had a recording studio in Park Slope so he’d kiss me goodbye in the morning and head out. I was always a little blue at first, life is just more fun with Marlan around.  But then I got down to work. My corner desk oozed and expanded, molting papers, and books and dv tapes until the whole apartment was overtaken. But at night I would fold it back in like an accordion, turning it back into a cozy nest in time for dinner.

At cocktail parties we would sit close and tsk-tsk about the couples who bickered about trivial matters. We had come through a dark phase in life together and triumphed. We knew how to see the forest for the trees, what was really important. I briefly considered writing a book about how to keep love alive through cancer.

But then Marlan got word he would have to leave his recording studio. The owner wanted to take back the space. Could he be out by the end of the month? It was definitely a blow but he didn’t worry. He would just have to find something new, better even! In the meantime, he packed up and stored all but the most essential gear and settled on the couch in his boxer shorts to edit albums on his laptop.

He started getting on my nerves immediately.

I’m a workaholic. I get up in the morning and I start. Whether I’m hired to produce a documentary about soldiers or scientists I work like a fiend until I finish the project on my plate. I forget to change out of my pajamas or eat. Conversely, Marlan manages to make four times the income I do at half the time and a third the pace. He takes breaks, seemingly hourly, to nap or ride his bike to the park.

“Well, I guess that’s about it for today” he would say, cheerfully clicking his laptop shut at 2:00 pm. “I guess I just never realized how…different our work ethics are before” I observed, pointedly.

I like to conduct as much of my business as possible via email. More efficient that way. Marlan thinks a good old-fashioned phone call is better every time. And he wants to make sure you hear every word. So he raises his voice and sy.lla.ble. He paces too; actually, he stomps. The wine glasses rattled in the kitchen as he lapped the apartment over and over again, consoling Sopranos with laryngitis or negotiating deals for new albums. Then he got called in to sub on “Shrek the Musical” on Broadway and he had to learn the cello part quickly, playing the same goofy, comedic notes over and over until I heard them in my sleep and dreamed I was leaping out of the apartment window to get away from the sound.

That summer I was in the midst of a long archival project, reviewing hundreds of hours of the life’s work of a deceased and moderately talented video artist. Under the best of circumstances it would have been a trial. When I finally managed to tune Marlan out and find my groove he would invariably interrupt me, “Smell this and tell me if you think it’s gone bad” or worse, “You know, you really work too hard. It’s not healthy.”

I began to make rules. “Between the hours of 9:30 AM and 6:00 PM please try to limit unnecessary talking or better yet, email me if you need something.” Or, “Is there anyway that you could type and chew a little more quietly?”

We began to fight. A lot. The arguments were alarming because we weren’t taking turns respectfully “airing our feelings” like we always had in the past. We were going for the jugular. Daily. Staying mad. One or the other relegated to the couch to sleep. When we weren’t fighting we were mostly silent. I started to wonder if he was really so great after all. He was wondering the same about me.

“Maybe it’s time we thought about a trial separation.”

Clearly things were bleak. But I brushed him off, “Don’t be ridiculous, nobody’s going anywhere.” I sounded more like a captor than a wife whose husband was inching steadily toward divorce. But I was too furious to feel wounded. And besides, this was a low moment for sure, but you don’t just throw in the towel when you’re married. Not yet anyway. In the end, Marlan kind of, sort of, agreed.

Miraculously, not long after, he found the right space. A studio in an elegantly restored factory building in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Nice, posh even, with lots of high windows, loft ceilings and gleaming wood floors. And it was big. In fact, two of our apartments could fit in there with room to turn around.  It was way more than he wanted to spend but worth it to get away from me.

He showed me the space and despite glaring evidence that it was the worst idea in history, I immediately asked if I could move in there too.

He started off incredulous, thought perhaps I was joking. Then he got angry and wondered if I hadn’t taken leave of my senses. Then he got furious and accused me of master minding an elaborate head trip.

But what can I say? As soon as I saw it I had this feeling it was the right move. For starters, working at home is challenging; you’re never quite done for the day. Besides, I work too hard. It’s not healthy. I needed to find a way to have more free time.

Ultimately it was an altruistic, husband-ish motivation to help me have a healthier attitude to work that swayed him, if only just enough. That and the prospect of adding precious space to the living room. I sealed the deal with the suggestion of a leather recliner.

But on moving day tensions were running high. Marlan still hadn’t forgotten what a bitch I’d been for the past three months. He bought a large IKEA bookcase, so, he said, I would be completely blocked from his view. I had to agree to leave when clients came to the studio. I complied, hanging out in a coffee shop until the coast was clear.

Things slowly improved. In the mornings we would leave home together, riding our bikes the 1.5 miles to get to the studio, stopping for coffee along the way. Marlan bought me a pair of high tech noise blocking headphones so that I could work in peace while he mixed operas at full volume. I ordered a mini fridge and offered to make tea.

Hayley partially obscured by the IKEA bookcase and Marlan taking a wee break.

Not long after the move I had an unexpected creative impulse: watercolors. I had never picked up a paintbrush before but suddenly I found myself prowling art supply stores in search of brushes and paper. Unlike documentary filmmaking, which requires (for me) an uncomfortable level of prolonged, headache-inducing cerebral rigor, painting felt like a walk in the woods, near a stream, eating cupcakes. Hours passed in a minute. I didn’t care if the paintings sucked, just making them was enough. I even asked my talented friend, Jessica Milazzo, to collaborate on a little animated video.

“Dad with Fish” Watercolor by Hayley Downs

The freedom of space allowed me to take a chance at something new and it had the same effect on Marlan. After a lifetime of playing and recording other people’s work, he began to compose himself. Like me, he was surprised at how much he enjoyed himself, delighted to lose himself in creation. We rely on the others feedback now too; nothing feels quite finished until the other has weighed in. Regarding one another from across the studio, at work on our new and more broadly defined artistic lives, we began to remember what was so great about each other after all.

LISTEN to Existenz Composed by Marlan Barry for the Brooklyn performance collective, DA:ZAIN.

In 9 years we have been strangers at a party, newlyweds, comrades in a battle against death and bitter rivals in a hot summer turf war. Now we’re companionable studio mates. And when we turn off the studio lights and ride our bikes home at night we go back to being spouses, bickering about trivial matters, which really isn’t so bad after all.

You can get in touch with Hayley at hayley downs at gmail dot com.