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Living in Small Spaces

One day not long ago, the word came down from our employer: My wife and I had earned a one-year reassignment to a great city, Barcelona,  where there were good schools, a famous zoo, fantastic mass transportation, a beautiful coastline, a diverse population, countless museums, more than 2,000 restaurants, and a mosaic of intriguing and intimate neighborhoods. We were thrilled for both ourselves and our three kids.

That is, until we checked out the rental rates. In our current little town of 7,000 people, we could afford a 2,400-square-foot, four-bedroom red-brick house with two and a half bathrooms, a fenced backyard, and a basement where I occasionally hid out from chores or noise, all for less than $1,300 per month in mortgage. But in our desirable new metropolis, even with using our savings, the best we could do was an 800-square-foot inner-city apartment with one bathroom and no yard or basement whatsoever.

"You tell the kids," I said.

"No, you tell the kids," my wife said.

One night, over dessert, we told our far-flung kids, separated not by space but by years of age, by showing them the online photos of our soon-to-be home.

"That's my room?" Jacob, our 12-year-old, asked incredulously, pointing to an eight-by-eight-foot living space, with twin bed and a dresser and an iota of floor left over. "Where is my Wii going to go? What about my kitty?"

"I can't believe you guys are doing this to me," our 16-year-old daughter, Cade, said. "You are ruining my life." Her bedroom was 5 by 11 feet, long and thin, whereas Jacob's was a perfect square.

"Where am I going to sleep?" Benjamin, our 4-year-old, wondered.

"You and Jacob are going to share a room. Isn't that exciting?" Kathryn said.

"WHAT?" Jacob said.

"It'll be okay," I said.

Fred Leebron is the author of three novels. He and most of his family are now back at home in Gettysburg, PA. His daughter Cade has returned to Barcelona for her senior year of high school.

We arrived in Barcelona after a long flight featuring cancellations and crying children (yes, they were ours). When I turned the key in the worn entry of our building, I felt a little bit queasy. Thirty-four steps later, I opened the door to our apartment. The photos had been honest, although they'd been angled to make the family room appear larger and separate from the kitchen and dining room. The truth was that the family room was also the dining room and the kitchen and the laundry room, and appliances took up precious square feet.

"I don't know if this will work," I yelled down to Kathryn. "But it's clean!"

We hauled all our luggage inside. The kids raced to check out their rooms. They were back in an eyeblink, and their eyes were quite wide and they were dumbfounded. Benjamin just stood there, grasping his mother's hand.

"I want the red house," he said.

"Come on, sweetie," Kathryn said. "Let me show you where you're going to sleep."

We all went into Jacob's room. In anybody else's house, this was a walk-in closet, but this closet not only had a bed, it had a trundle bed! We pulled it out.

"Cool!" Benjamin said.

That night we made comfort food, then tucked in Benjamin, who was so happy he was cooing. We placated  Jacob, who wanted no part of sharing his room with a younger sib. Then soothed Cade, exhausted, not quite tearful.

In the morning we woke up to whimpering. "I don't like it here," Jacob cried. "I want to go home."

I was still in bed, because I couldn't get out. There was half a foot between my side of the bed and the wall. At the end of the bed there was perhaps an alley of 10 inches, and on Kathryn's side there was just an 18-inch channel, though it did eventually open onto a narrow foyer leading to the hallway door.

We gathered in the family room. We looked at each other and tried to smile. We'd asked for this. We'd wanted this.

All day every day the children fought. All day they jumped on the one sofa and shouted as loud as they could. There was plenty to do in the city -- even a Chocolate Museum -- but nothing interested them so much as staying in the apartment and trying to beat each other's brains out. Late at night, in the long month before school started, once the kids were asleep, we'd sit across from each other at our kitchen-living-room table and admit with our ears still ringing that we might have made a mistake. It was too small, too tight, too inhibiting, too suffocating.

Then, a few days before school started, we were invited to a party at the home of one of Jacob's new classmates. The parents were upper-crust, and on the way there I warned Jacob and Benjamin to be on their best behavior, that the classmate's apartment would probably be much larger and fancier than ours. "Don't jump on the furniture," I scolded, "and do not scream."

"Okay, Dad," Jacob said glumly.

The doorman let us in, and as we rose in the elevator, I saw these people inhabited the entire seventh floor. You could have fit our apartment into their kitchen and still have room for a Volkswagen. We sat on one of the three sofas in the living room, situated between the sprawling den and the dining room, and the boys were offered orange soda.

"I'm good," Jacob said.

"I'm good," Benjamin said.

Whatever happened to "No, thank you," I wondered, but they sat there so quietly while we adults wrestled with small talk that you would have thought I had glued their mouths shut. Finally, Benjamin leaned over and in his quietest, most dignified 4-year-old voice  said, "I want to go back to the apartment."

Kathryn and I glanced quickly at each other, and it was then, I think, that we first suspected something weird might be happening -- we might be growing attached to our small space.

Four hours later, having weathered an elaborate meal and watched the boys gradually relax into board and video games, we returned to the apartment. Benjamin hugged his beloved sofa.

The next day Jacob announced, "I want my own room."

If there is one thing I have learned from my 16 years of parenting, it is that, given a will and a yardstick, you can almost always make the math work. Kathryn and I discussed surrendering our quarters to Benjamin and sleeping on the floor of the family-room-kitchen-dining-room-laundry-room, and nixed that due to the window in our bedroom that Benjamin already knew how to open and the 50-foot drop to the ground. Instead, we squeezed a  futon into the tiny foyer of the bedroom. We moved Benjamin's stuffed animals and toys in there, too, and suddenly everyone was relatively content. The loud tenor of the apartment descended to something resembling normal.

We became a subconscious machine; it was just implicitly understood that if someone had a certain urgency, space was ceded to that person. And whenever I tried to hide from housework, I was right there to be found, and Kathryn and the kids were right there to find me. Eventually, I just did chores without any prodding. If I had anything private to say to Kathryn I could wait until we were alone, or send her an e-mail from my laptop to hers across the 12-foot-wide family room. When Cade went off on a school field trip, she called us four times a day. "Why are you calling your parents so much?" her friends demanded. "We're a close family," she said.

The day after Christmas, we took a trip up the coast and were blindsided by a blizzard so sudden that the interstate was shut down; when we moved to the coastal route, the road was closing  behind us as we were driving on it.

In the backseat of our rental car without snow tires, no one said a word, our kids not so much terrified as they were determined to be of assistance. We drove through a little coastal port as, to quote the newspaper the next day, it was "being destroyed." I timed one dash in between waves so that we would not be washed into the ocean. We drove on steep winding roads coated with ice at eight miles per hour, not risking a skid. Finally, we found a town 30 miles short of our destination but with open hotels, and we settled into two rooms that totaled six beds and three bathrooms.

"A palace!" Cade said.

The kids had been quiet and polite for the entire painstaking eight-hour ride over 120 miles. We would not have made it, I was sure, if it weren't for their communal focus. And that would not have been the case, Kathryn and I were certain, had it not been for the experience of living in our tight squeeze.

Now it is spring and almost time to move back to our little town and our relatively large house. Ironically, or logically, no one wants to go home.

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