A few weeks into the pandemic, my four-year-old asked me what the word “disappointment” meant. “Well,” I said, “it’s all the things you wish had happened that didn’t. Like, I never went to Paris, or someone I loved didn’t love me back.” He turned and looked me dead in the eyes, already aware at that point of my deep longing to leave our 1,400-square-foot apartment, and said “Mama, you will go to Paris soon. Your disappointment will come true.”
In many ways, this preschooler prophecy has come true. No, I haven’t made it to France in the time that I have been raising two small children, managing a career transition, and tending to a 20-years-old relationship with my husband, all during a global health emergency. But I have gone somewhere freeing, somewhere foreign and private: I have gone upstairs, to an entirely different apartment in the same building.
In 2019, my mother-in-law decided to rent the recently vacated studio upstairs from us for a year, so she could come out and help us more. During the pandemic, she came for six months, but before and after her stay, we began to experiment with what this extra space could mean to us, how it could expand our little world.
My husband and I have lived in our two-bedroom, one bath (with no tub) apartment in Oakland since 2009, when we were childless and all of our friends lived in one-bedrooms in The Mission or rooms in Victorian flop houses. We love where we live, but it also brings us great ambivalence. Over the years, we’ve cleverly re-jiggered our space to accommodate one and then two children, and then, two people working from home. Now, many of our friends have more space or at least a space that affords some kind of privacy. There is not a single door in our apartment that closes properly, let alone locks. If someone farts in the kitchen, you can hear it in the living room. If we attempt to watch “Succession” after bedtime, our children ask us what “fuck off” means at breakfast.
When we decided to take over the lease from my mother-in-law for the studio upstairs, we were a specific pandemic-kind-of-desperate. The upstairs apartment — which we began referring to as Paris (as in, “don’t forget to take your charger when you go to Paris tonight, babe”) — was the only place to go.
But years later, it’s just as important to the smooth functioning of our home and, as I reflect on it, essential to keeping our marriage alive.
My husband and I alternate who gets to sleep upstairs every night. He snores, I am a terrible sleeper, and our four-year-old, no matter how many sticker charts we employ, still wakes up at least once a night claiming that she never actually fell asleep and asking for some “shoya doya” — my mother’s Yiddish word for warm milk. When we are upstairs, we sleep well, or if not, it’s on us. We get to be alone. We also get to take a shit without interruptions, have a long, emotional phone call with an old friend, soak in an epsom bath, masturbate, and even experience that rarest of feelings for people in this stage of parenting: loneliness.
When I took an enthusiastic trip to a witch store in Portland, I delighted in knowing that I could buy fragrant candles and incense (my husband goes into a fit of sneezes if I even thinking about using scented lotion) and light them upstairs, while I played Erykah Badu, gave myself a tarot reading, and made a glass of warm milk for absolutely no one. When I’m too tired to go out on a Friday night, I pour myself a glass of wine and let the sounds of life on the street outside reach me through the open upstairs windows, making me feel part of the collective cosmopolitan vibe. When I do go out, with friends or by myself, as I have started to do every Thursday night, I can come right home to the upstairs apartment. I don’t have to tell anyone where I’ve been or feel the buzzkilling guilt of leaving a sink full of dirty dishes.
Marriage is hard. Even a New York Times op-ed by a recently divorced woman encouraged us to act more like a divorced couple (share parenting, give each other space) in order to make our marriages better. As someone who rarely sleeps in the same bed as her husband, I can say that frequently missing the person you love is an antidote to the claustrophobia of years of monogamy, and that this time away brings us closer. I don’t know if we have more sex since we started renting the upstairs apartment, but I can tell you that the sex we do have is more fulfilling.
The upstairs apartment isn’t cheap, and its market-rate rent (which my husband insists we can “write off” as his office, but my vague understanding of tax law informs me that this fact does not mean it is free) makes the 15 years of rent control on our downstairs apartment feel like less of a steal. But it’s for us, it beats moving out of the city center, away from the people and places we love, paying a mortgage that would likely be greater than our two rents combined. These have been lean years for us, but, and I almost hesitate to write this, they have been overwhelmingly happy ones, due in no small part to the fact that when we need to return to ourselves, privacy is always just a few steps away.
Maybe you don’t have an upstairs apartment. But maybe you have a shed in the backyard, or a guest room in a friend’s house across town, or a favorite stool at your local bar, or a stuffed leather chair at your city library. Maybe you can send your partner out once a week, and walk around your house naked blasting EDM in your ears and eating sour gummies for dinner. Or just read a book. Whatever it is, I believe there’s an upstairs apartment out there for all of us, and I can’t wait for you to find yours.
Sarah Wheeler is an Oakland-based writer, educational psychologist, and mother of two whose work has been published in Romper, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Times, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and more. She writes the Substack Newsletter, Momspreading, and knows all the words to the rap from TLC’s Waterfalls.