A work spouse is meant to be a stable presence in your life — one as reliably mood-elevating as coffee in the morning or The Simpsons on Sunday. You don’t quarrel with a work spouse. When he (or she) is out of the office, the day goes by slower. As for the thought of losing your work husband forever? Unimaginable.
My work husband was an exemplar of the genre. Jarrett, a graphic designer who sat two desks south of me, was consistent in the way that a large pile of rocks or a sequoia is consistent, with an unmoved integrity that I’d previously experienced only in natural landmarks. He wore the same outfit every day: a white cotton button-down shirt, nondescript jeans, sensible shoes. (He owned copies of each item.) He began every conversation the same way, with “Molly, I haven’t talked to you in forever.” He spoke at the pace of a molasses drip and almost no part of his face moved when he did so; the overall effect was of an animal conserving its energy for vital tasks in winter. When Jarrett said hello to me in the morning, it was like seeing the word printed in Helvetica.
Together, Jarrett and I did what all work spouses do: trade advice, make furtive eye contact, entertain each other. When bored, we created lists of boring things (napkins, Radio Shack, lobbies, redistricting, Jon Secada, Neil Sedaka, pores). If I became agitated by some trifle and threatened to quit or punch a wall, Jarrett would level me with a gaze like undisturbed pond water: “Don’t punch a wall; that would hurt,” he’d say. Or: “Don’t quit; you’re scaring me.”
In the end, though, it was Jarrett who quit. On an icy week in March he announced that he would be moving to California to take a job at Facebook. I was disappointed but glad for him; my mind barely absorbed the impact at first. On the day he left, everyone at the office wore a white button-down shirt, jeans, and sensible shoes: Jarrett’s Uniform. At 6 p.m. I began to cry. “Don’t cry, Molly,” Jarrett said. We hugged good-bye.
The next two weeks passed with a kind of baroque, stylized pointlessness. When a project manager requested “concrete deliverables on an aggressive timeline,” there was no one to exchange sneaky glances with. When a ludicrous deadline was handed down, there was no one with whom to mime death by hanging. Absurdities floated by, unremarked upon. There was nobody around to sort through the daily banalities and micro-excitements of office life. I ate lunch alone and wondered what Jarrett was doing on West Coast time.
All of this had a more profound effect on me than would seem reasonable. When I explained my mood shift to a therapist, she suggested that I was having a dissociative episode; I switched to a different therapist who explained that the mourning period was natural and temporary.
Meanwhile, I found some comfort in the asymmetry of the sadness. While I moped, Jarrett was embarking on a million exciting tasks and projects: filling his new apartment with books, exploring the profane benefits package and snack possibilities at Facebook, enjoying the mellow fog and superior burritos of San Francisco. We texted for a month or two before tacitly accepting our annulment. Jarrett was happy at his new job, and I would soon be happy again at my old job.
A work husband, after all, is a conditional relationship; when the condition is removed, the relationship goes with it. If Jarrett had switched jobs within the city, the marriage would still have ended — albeit more gently. Work partnerships are sewn from daily scraps of conversation and patches of infinitesimal observation. They reflect the human urge to forge bonds in impersonal spaces, especially spaces of adversity. It’s a weightier version of the urge to chat up the person next to you on the delayed flight or in line at the DMV. Like all fleeting intimacies, the sweetness is bound up with the impermanence; there’s no such thing as a long-distance work husband. I’m still looking for my next office love.