Freaky Fortnight

My First Day in the Office Was a Little Terrifying
Watch as a husband and wife switch places.
Oct. 6 2009 7:23 PM

Freaky Fortnight

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My first day at the office was a little terrifying.


Doughnut. Click image to expand.

This morning I do what Mike usually does: leave the house around 8:15 with our 4-year-old son, Nick. As soon as we get outside, Nick announces that he's hungry. I say we have a bus to catch, but we can get something if we run. So we hurry downhill, Nick in sneakers, me in my "good shoes," little ballet flats. At the market, we buy a huge cinnamon-sugar doughnut. I tell myself it's only because this is a special occasion, but the truth is I've gotten Nick this type of doughnut before. The last time I did it, a little boy passing us on the sidewalk with his mother said, "I want that," and the mother said, "You can have a croissant," and gave me a look as if I had just introduced her child to Ho-Hos or crack.

At drop-off, I run into a friend. She sees my clothes—gray blazer, black pants—and says, "Oh, you're going to the office today!" She mentions that a neighborhood movie theater is showing a children's short this afternoon. I feel a pang for my flexible freelance life. I want to go home and change into clogs. I say that maybe Mike will go to the movie instead.

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I descend to the F train. It's been more than 10 years since I commuted on the F to work. Though the train itself is different—clean blue seats, digital readouts—the mood—resigned, habituated—remains the same. A blond girl wearing lots of foundation reads stuff on her iPhone, but most people are looking at things on paper: yesterday's Times Magazine, today's New York Post. People still do the crossword on the subway in the morning; people still sleep.

By the time I get to Mike's office, it's almost 10 a.m. I sit down in his chair. Suddenly I feel cautious and tender. Mike and I have lived together for 10 years, so the objects in our lives have been intermingled for a long time. But his office is a private space—it's different. Being here reminds me of college, of the days before we'd even started dating, when I first had a crush on him. Back then, I remember visiting Mike's dorm room (the previous occupant had painted it the deep red of royal families), standing shyly behind him as he typed something, seeing the arrangement of objects on his desk. His desk felt like an intimate window into his self back then, and it does again now. Suddenly this experiment feels wrong and invasive. I resolve not to rearrange anything, but as soon as I turn on the computer I have to move the mouse pad to the right from the left.

Susan at her new desk. Click image to expand.

The first phone call I make: the home front. I call Mike and mention the afternoon movie: Does he want to take Nick? In the background I hear our younger son, Will, playing with a train that goes by itself. "Hold on, the train just went under the couch," Mike says at one point, and then a few moments later says, "OK, I have to go," in a way that feels familiar to me, like there is domestic chaos to manage. I hang up, feeling as if Mike might be the busier one.

But then I turn my attention to the computer. This isn't a first day on which you fill out your W-2 and get taken to lunch. I have actual work to do. I need to send e-mails to Mike's regular writers and look at the culture memo and come up with ideas and check in on Facebook and Twitter. I feel like an air traffic controller, clicking from window to window and trying to avoid mental collisions. Though in my regular writing life I try to tune out distraction, suddenly it is essential to keep up. I am inside the ticker! Soon enough, there's a Freaky Fortnight fail: I mean to send Mike a text with a passcode he needs, but instead I broadcast the numbers to Twitter.

At 12:30 there's an editorial meeting in the conference room. Slate staffers in D.C. and other locales participate via speakerphone, which sits like a UFO in the center of the table. It's the weird thing of all speakerphone meetings where you don't know whether to look at your real, live colleagues, at the machine, or at the table. I am trying to live by the principles of this experiment—pretend this is really my job. So even though I'm pretty shy in new situations, I resolve to speak. I consider adopting a breezy, confident, coherent-sentences persona—but I can't. So I bring up ideas in my half-formed, thought-trails-off way … and feel silly afterward.

Outside at lunchtime, I have a powerful sense of being in the wrong place. My real life is not on Hudson Street! My real life is somewhere else. This feeling of displacement underscores some of the limits of Freaky Fortnight as an experiment. During these two weeks, I'm not really going to get a sense of what it feels like to be a mother who works in an office, because a mother who really works in an office has a sense of belonging there that I don't. Jamie Lee Curtis and Lindsay Lohan spend Freaky Friday stumbling and bumbling, trying to get back to their real lives, and that's a little bit how I feel today. Partly I miss my children, partly I miss my regular work, but mostly I just miss my real life because it's mine.

Back at Mike's desk, I work on the first dispatch, keeping my eye on the clock. It's like I'm in another time zone. Like when you're on vacation, and it's 4 p.m. Mountain Time, you think to yourself, But it's really 6 p.m. Eastern.

Like this: It's 2:32. In Brooklyn Time, that's Mike-as-Susan's afternoon trip on the bus to school; in Slate Time, that means I should finish up this dispatch and file. 2:40: Brooklyn Time, Mike at pickup, chatting with parents; Slate Time, me refreshing Facebook, Twitter, feeling petrified. 2:45: Brooklyn Time, Nick exiting classroom, his arms probably covered with the red paint that makes him look swollen; Slate Time, me returning e-mail. 3:20, Brooklyn Time, Mike-as-Susan stopping with Nick for cappuccino; Slate Time, me leaving the building for Starbucks. Caffeine: the great unifier of work-and-home life.