Love in a Very Small Space

Brad and Cynthia Koons, with dog Barney, live together in a basement apartment of less than 400 square feet near Dupont Circle.
Brad and Cynthia Koons, with dog Barney, live together in a basement apartment of less than 400 square feet near Dupont Circle. (By Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post)
By Jeff Turrentine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 9, 2006

On Tuesday, couples everywhere will sip champagne, nibble chocolates, exchange gifts and presumably find plenty of other ways to celebrate the splendors of human intimacy.

But for couples who share tiny spaces, every moment presents an opportunity to snuggle up with the one you love. When you live in an apartment the size of a dorm room, everything -- making dinner, doing dishes, folding laundry, paying bills -- takes on a certain intimacy, whether you want it to or not.

The "tour" of Jennifer and Jeremy Haile's apartment lasts only as long as it takes a visitor to glance from left to right about 45 degrees. For the past four years, since returning from a Peace Corps stint overseas, the couple has called a 416-square-foot Georgetown studio home.

Their bed -- which is also one of their two couches -- is a futon, hard up against the front door. Books, papers, vitamins and foodstuffs share shelf space in one corner. The computer doubles as an entertainment center; they watch DVDs on it and store all of their music on its hard drive. Their refrigerator and stove look like full-size versions that have been shrunk to about 65 percent by some sort of kitchen-appliance copying machine.

Wait: It gets better. Jeremy Haile is currently a first-year law student at George Washington University and does most of his studying at home. And because first-year law students study more or less around the clock, peace and quiet are more valuable to him right now than anything.

During exams, he says, "I was pulling close to 20-hour days. But Jen has the patience of Job. She would use headphones [to watch TV or listen to music]; she prepared all of my meals, and I'd go in my little corner and study. And somehow it worked."

The Hailes are no strangers to domestic deprivation. As Peace Corps volunteers, they lived in what they refer to as a "Soviet-style" apartment in Armenia, where it was so cold that any water left in the bathtub would freeze over. "To go into the kitchen, you had to dress like you were going outside," Jennifer says.

For two years they slept in a twin bed, with only a small kerosene heater -- and each other -- to warm them. "Now, when we go to a hotel and there's a king-size bed, we sleep together at the very edge of it," she says. "We don't really know how to sleep apart."

Living in comically cramped quarters may be easier when you're madly in love with your roommate, the Hailes say, but that doesn't necessarily make it easy . Every move they make reflects a negotiation of sorts.

"Jeremy was losing his eyesight during his first semester," says Jennifer, an events coordinator for National Public Radio. "He thought he was going to have to get glasses. The doctor told him: 'You have to stop reading in such small amounts of light.' What was happening was that I would go to bed at 10:30 or so, and he would turn on this tiny little lamp" to stay up reading until 1:00 a.m. or later. "So now I have to go to bed with the lights on, which is unfortunate." Her husband recently bought her a sleeping mask. (It helps.)

"The three Cs -- communication, commitment and compromise -- will get you through almost any sort of conflict," says Regina Leeds, a Los Angeles-based professional organizer and author of the 2003 book "Sharing a Place Without Losing Your Space: A Couple's Guide to Blending Homes, Lives, and Clutter" (Alpha Books). In her work with cohabiting couples, she has learned that one of the most frequent sources of disagreement is over where to put, and indeed whether to keep, the innumerable things that accrue over the course of their lives.

"People usually bring too much stuff with them," says Leeds. "And then they make assumptions about that stuff. I'll presume that you're going to love my mother's pink china -- and that this is what we will be using on the holidays. And I don't talk to you about it, because, well, surely, if you love me, you can see how beautiful this is. You, on the other hand, are presuming that I see how beautiful your mother's beige china is."

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