I got the key out of the lockbox and swung the front door open. The wide, winding staircase and empty hall greeted me as it did every Sunday. I put down my bag filled with brochures and leaned back against the closed door.
“Here we go again,” I said out loud to the statue the stager had set upon the entry table. “Today’s the day my friend.”
The faceless, genderless piece of rock gave no sign of agreement. It and I had been trying to sell this house for three months.
I began turning on lights as I went through from the front to the back of the house. I had learned which of the hundreds of switches turned on which lamps and overhead lights; I had learned which ones turned on nothing. The warm light seemed to bounce around the living room and dining room. It reflected off of the metal and glass surfaces, ricocheted off of mirrors, and got lost in miles of white furniture. The stager had set up nothing warm in these lovely rooms, nothing to absorb and hold the light.
This was my first listing. Given to me by close friends who knew that and put their trust in me anyway. It was a second home for them, a rental; an easier bone to throw me than their mansion in New Canaan would be. I was at least more familiar with Westport (with the exception of their evident design aesthetic). They also knew what this commission meant for me, for my family.
At the end of the entry hall, I stepped down into the family room. The back of the house faced the sun, and the room was flooded with light. It was a beautiful space. Built-in window seats, lots of bookshelves, and a huge stone fireplace that gave off warmth even without a fire. The stager did her best to Westport the hell out of the space with a huge white sectional and Pollock-like black and white wall art. But I still felt the warmth here, it was my favorite place to sit during these lonely open houses. It wasn’t the best time to put a house on the market, but my friends were antsy to unload it.
I loved to sit here and imagine my two kids let loose in this space. In the last house we owned, the boys and their friends would ride their scooters in a circle, through living room, family room, kitchen, dining room, and around and around again. Carpet to floor, carpet to floor, sounding like little Danny in The Shining with lots of friends. My husband and I would paint and re-paint the baseboards, dinged and scuffed along with screams of laughter. There’s no room for scooters in the rental we moved into, but I guess the boys would be outgrowing them by now.
My friend, the homeowner, had dropped off the catering boxes earlier. She knew food helped keep people at an open house, and she also knew I couldn’t afford the spread. I opened the Subzero and began to pull out the platters of salads and gourmet sandwiches. So much food. I’d take most of it home and we’d eat it for days. I had bought a bouquet of peonies with me from our yard. (Well, technically our neighbor’s yard; one branch of the peony bush reached out to our fence, as if to say, “Go ahead, pick me.” It offered, I accepted.)
As I laid everything out on the huge kitchen island, I thought about all of the dinners and parties we had thrown in our former house; our kitchen island saw a lot of action. My husband surely had a previous life as a chef; he so loved to cook. We both loved to entertain back in those days on Florence Lane. Our huge house was the social center of the neighborhood, with gatherings in our big kitchen and on our wrap-around porch. Martini Fridays, clambakes in the summer, fondue parties in the winter. The last dinner party in our house was right before our move, with the couple whose house I’m standing in now.
We had made a favorite meal of everyone’s, Korean hot stone bowls. As I set the table, I blinked away tears. Boxes were already packed upstairs. I didn’t want to spend money on flowers; that luxury was long in the rearview mirror. But I had another idea. I stepped outside to grab a branch of pink flowers from a tree on our patio. It would look beautiful as an Asian centerpiece for the table. The branch was thick and tough, though, and I ended up wrestling the tree for it; by the time it came loose it was basically bare of blossoms. I threw it onto the patio with a huge “SHIT!” I was shaking petals out of my hair when I noticed little Ashley from next door, sitting on her steps watching me. Ten minutes later, she was at the back door with two huge handfuls of wildflowers, roots attached, dripping dirt all over the welcome mat.
The food for the open house was all set, so I went down the hall to turn on more lights. At the end of the hall was one of the biggest selling features of the house, a first-floor bedroom suite. In the listing, I called it an “in-law apartment or au pair suite.” This room was staged as well, waiting for grandma or some sweet young thing from Germany to come on in and make it theirs. I sat down on the bed for a minute, careful not to mess up the throw perfectly placed at the corner of the bed.
In our former house, we had an entire third floor that we never used. We had grand plans…a craft room for me, a music room for my husband. But mainly the two bedrooms and bath up there were used for overflow guests when my family visited. I envisioned it as a space where my mom could come live someday. As much as my mom laughed off the thought, I had a feeling she pictured herself cozy and tucked away up there in her later years.
Whenever the subject came up and people joked with my husband about his mother-in-law, he would say that he’d rather live with her than me – she was way cooler. He loved telling people about the Pearl Jam concert he took us both to. How I had to give myself an in vitro injection in a broken porta-potty while my mom held the door closed, yelling for me to hurry because the band was starting. How her boyfriend was fourteen years younger than her. As our finances got tougher, I spent less and less time up on that third floor. Why bother to make an effort to fix it up? Nesting made no sense when we were most likely going to lose the nest.
After prepping the downstairs, I made my way up to the second floor, to turn on lights and open doors. The stager had worked her modern magic in the master bedroom. (A stripe of purple on the bedspread – she’s gone wild!) But the other four bedrooms were left bare. I walked from room to room, my shoes echoing in the empty hall. I hadn’t worn these shoes in years and realized I had probably gone up a size since my office days.
One of the bedrooms looked like it had belonged to a little girl. I turned on the lightswitch and a tiny, crystal chandelier illuminated the huge room. You could have fit four of my childhood bedrooms into this one. How I would have loved that chandelier as a kid. I thought back to my bedroom in our small ranch house, decorated in purple and green. Mom had wallpapered my walls in a lilac flower pattern and had sewed a bright green bedspread with purple trim. My grandmother often picked lilacs from her side yard to place on my nightstand; to this day the smell reminds me of her.
Many years later, that little girl found herself living in a big fat house in Fairfield, Connecticut. My husband was doing so well at work that we might as well have been printing money in our basement. With each quarterly bonus check, we paid down thousands on our mortgage, put thousands more into savings, and often planned a purchase of a piece of furniture, an antique, maybe a small trip. A week of boot camp training for our new Labrador, Shelby. A once-a-week babysitter to give me down time. Sweet Ella, who gave up time with her own children to take care of other people’s kids. You know, so we could go out to lunch and walk through Target without a screaming toddler. Our growing bank account and spreadsheets with worst-case scenarios would eventually convince me that I might belong in a house that looked, well, so much like this one. We couldn’t imagine then what worst case scenarios were zooming our way.
After we moved in, I remember saying to my mother, “I’m just afraid now that someone will get cancer.” I was living in a dream and didn’t trust it.
She laughed as she poured me a wine. “I’m sure you’re right. Enjoy it while you can.”
The open house started; the front door was unlocked, and the sign was out on the manicured lawn. As usual, no one was showing up. This market was horrible. Just like my timing in starting a real estate career.
What was I doing? The very industry that had flattened us was now a place where I was trying to find success? When the recession hit, our home’s value plummeted, and so did my husband’s career. He sold mortgage-backed securities; the housing crisis was a death knell. Our savings slowly dwindled. Paying down credit cards changed to avoiding calls starting with “this is an attempt to collect a debt”. We slid down a long, jagged slope toward foreclosure; we avoided it by the skin of our teeth with a last-minute short sale.
I once had a successful career in marketing; I was a Vice President with a corporate card and car, sitting on a mountain of frequent flyer miles. But I had walked away from it. We wanted a family, and that ended up happening after six rounds of in vitro and an adoption. Money spent, hormones injected, and more money spent. (Years later when the boys lobbied for a little sister, I exclaimed, “We had to buy one of you and cook the other one up in a lab. We’re done!”)
And now, resumes I sent out weren’t answered. No matter how impressive the information on it, it still had a huge dark hole – twelve years raising the children I fought so hard to have. Employment dates that gave me away as “old.” So, here I was, helping people find their dream homes while still mourning mine. Our rental was fine for now, but it could be sold out from under us at any time. My mom was being forced into retirement and wasn’t going to be able to keep her condo without her salary. She was hitching her caboose to our run-away train. She’d be moving into our rental with us; we lost the house that would have been her dream too.
I sat on the floor of that huge, empty room and stared up at that tiny chandelier. What little girl would eventually live in this room? Why couldn’t it be my child? We did everything right. We saved, we didn’t buy above our means – we aced all of the formulas and ratios you use when figuring out how much to spend on a home. Why didn’t we deserve this? I would be lying if I said I never dreamed about us, somehow, being able to live in this house that I was spending so much time in. I spent hours here during the open houses imagining how I would decorate each room. Our friends wanted the money but didn’t need it. I seethed with envy at every family who walked through it. I envied their security, and their options. Get out! I wanted to scream at each and every one. As I sat on that floor, I started to cry.
The doorbell rang.
Jesus Christ. I jumped up and ran out into the second-floor hall, straightening my realtor’s name tag and wiping my nose. I took a deep breath and walked down the stairs. Whoever you are, welcome to my nervous breakdown.
A small blond woman was closing the front door behind her. She had on workout gear, and no purse with her. She took off her sneakers and told me she lived next door.
“My kids are in the yard, hope that’s okay. I’ve always wondered what this house looks like inside,” she said. A nosy neighbor. Terrific. Mascara was probably running down my face, I hoped it would scare her away quickly.
She started looking around. “It’s dated,” she said, as if she had been expecting that. Her face was wrinkled in distaste as she stepped down into the family room.
“Well, it has a lot of traditional features, ones you don’t see a lot anymore,” I said, my lines memorized. “Don’t you think that makes it unique?”
She murmured, “Hmm…not really. Just sort of boring.”
You’re boring. I’d rather be upstairs hysterically crying.
She stared down at the newly stained hardwoods. I had chosen a colonial brown, to keep with the traditional – or, boring – features of the house.
“The floors were just refinished,” I told my visitor, my voice lilting high at the end of the sentence, as if asking a question, or for approval.
“Yeah, not the greatest choice. Light is trending, not dark.”
You know what I think is trending? My hatred of you.
She made her way around the first floor, peeking into closets and peering around doorways. She eventually headed back toward the front of the house. “Want to see upstairs?” I asked her.
“Nope, seen enough.” She put her hand on the entry table; she seemed to contemplate the statue for a moment.
“I see it’s listed for $1,399,000. Do you think the seller would make any concessions to us, if we paid cash?”
I’m sorry, what?
“Uh…I’m sure my client will be willing to have a conversation with you about it,” I managed to say.
“Great. My husband wants to put in a pool, and we could use the extra land so I don’t have to look at it from the house. Most of the year a pool is an ugly covered-up hole, don’t you think?”
I think I nodded. She wanted to buy this house, tear it down, and put in a pool. A pool she wouldn’t have to look at.
Yes. She called her husband and confirmed it. Paperwork would be on its way from their realtor. I had a feeling my friends would accept their bid; they were looking forward to unloading this house.
“It’d be a nice commission for you, huh?” she said, as if she expected me to thank her. She put on her sneakers and yelled for her kids. (Kids who I hoped could swim well, hidden away in their new pool.)
She was my only visitor that day. The only one I needed. My first sale. She’d never even introduced herself.
I cleaned up the kitchen, covering all of the platters of food and putting tops on salad bowls. I bagged it all up to bring home, including my stolen peonies. I wiped down the counter and made my way through the house, turning off all of the switches I had turned on before.
I lingered for a minute in the bare room upstairs, the one with the tiny chandelier. I imagined a small version of me cartwheeling her way across the floor in her cousin’s hand-me-down dress. I saw the homemade bedspread and heard my mother’s muffled swears as she hung that sweet wallpaper. I heard my little brother in the bedroom next door, talking to himself, counting his collection of bottle caps as he laid them out on his floor. I smelled the hand-picked lilacs on the nightstand, and my grandmother’s chicken soup cooking down the hall. I took a deep breath. I shut off the light, and left.
I called my husband and told him the good news. He was at the stove, and I heard the boys in the background; one was chasing the other, and their antics were making the dog bark. I told him I was coming home.
I made my way to the front of the house, turning off the last light in the front hall. I opened the front door and turned back to look at the entry table.
“We did it,” I said to the piece of stone, and closed the door behind me.
LeeAnn Weaver has been writing in many capacities throughout her career. She worked in marketing and public relations, served as a grant writer for non-profits, and currently writes a lifestyle blog. LeeAnn lives in Fairfield, CT with her husband Jeff and their two sons.