Although the broker delivers the news tactfully, he cannot soften the impact: This apartment and all that abides within it — including me — are not fit to be seen. We are perfectly respectable, even possess a certain bygone charm. But much as one loves visiting grandmother’s house, you do not want to live there.
It is easy enough to absent myself for showings. Would that I could take the furniture with me. Since it must remain in all its dated glory, a stager is brought in to “freshen it up.” Everything is repositioned. Personal effects are tucked away. Pillows abound. The days of White and Faux begin. White as new fallen snow, white as Santa’s beard are the rugs, bedspreads, and throws that create a winter wonderland from my familiar rooms. Faux plants are here, there, everywhere. Fifty shades of green surround me. Her work is done.
The first morning we struggle to get our bearings. Then, from the tallest of the three painted tables huddled together in front of the couch, “We thought we’d never see each other again!”
The tables had come from my in-laws’ apartment in Miami only to be separated on arrival. Not just separated, exiled to far corners of the room; one covered in Belgian lace and a succession of orchids, two covered with large brass plates heaped with books and whatnots. Corners now touching, their aqua surfaces shine in the sun. Curved golden legs kick a cancan of delight.
The carpet opens with a reproach. Why do I persist in calling it an Oriental rug? It is a Persian rug. And not from a factory with decent ventilation and workplace standards. It was woven by child laborers — 12 hours a day of eye-straining effort. Then rolled tightly and placed on a ship to America, covering many floors before it got to mine over 30 years ago. How could I not have noticed that the underpad had begun to come apart? Such an itch!
What blessed relief when the stager lady lifted a corner, discovered the problem, swept up the pieces, and laid it directly on the floor. Ah, the smooth coolness of bare wood underneath. Even a move across the room and the unexpected burden of a large table and six chairs could not mar that pleasure.
The second morning I find the room deep in conversation. Several pieces go way back, having emigrated together in 1980 from my parents’ apartment in Boston. The dining room set, the desk, the footstool, and a few lamps remember it well. Yes, the thick, gold wall-to-wall carpet that held them was soft and comforting, but then there were the cigarettes. Ashes, smoke, everywhere! The air is so much clearer here!
The side chairs and wrought-iron lamps have little to say for themselves. Their memories don’t go back further than West Elm. (Though the red chair, the most recent addition, does recall its beginnings in North Carolina — being packed and loaded into a truck bound for New York by burly men in MAGA caps.)
The third morning I pull a chair up to the Sheraton Desk (it prefers to be referred to by its full name). It is the finest reproduction of the finest wood and has held pride of place in many living rooms for over half a century. Two perfect little knobs grace the top, and delicate gold engraving is etched all over the stained dark wood. I make my apologies. I know it had endured three moves in Massachusetts and two in New York since then, each of them landing it where it belonged — tucked into a corner. Not in the middle of a long white wall with an ersatz cherry blossom tree nudging its lower-right corner.
I am so sorry for losing the little keys to open the top cubbyholes. I hope that saving the blotter compensates, but, of course, a blotter is not of the desk, it is on the desk. (And really too large to lose.) Yes, I remember its glory days — when my mother would draw up a chair, write a letter or pay a bill with a fountain pen, and actually use the blotter. I assure it this move is only temporary. When I move, it will come with me. There is sure to be a corner somewhere.
The fourth morning, I hear the laughter before I enter the room. It is about the stager lady and pillows. The couch’s ordeal! On with the blue, off with the blue. Maybe stripes? Big or small? Three? No, two pillows on each side? Maybe all on one side with the oversize gold one on the other?
They are deep into this when the little gold footstool speaks. (Where did that footstool even come from? All I know is it has been in every apartment of my life. It has survived four chairs and is now snuggled up to the couch as if it belongs there.)
“How about a game? Close your eyes and guess how many ‘faux’ plants. Ready, get set . . .”
The Sheraton Desk: “Wait. Should we count only the green ones or include the white ones? And we must really differentiate between the ones on the floor and the table ones.”
“Stop being so pedantic,” says the footstool. The Sheraton Desk shuts up.
We begin to count. Not hard to correctly guess the ones on the floor — four. But the little ones are tucked into small spaces. Everywhere. Even the happy little tables have to put up with one. The numbers come up short. (Last I counted there were 14, but they seem to magically multiply when no one is looking.)
Frissons of excitement greet me on the fifth morning. This is the day the broker man plans to bring people in! The couch is full of itself. Sagging and faded for a few years, it has been granted a new lease on life. Newly festooned with colorful pillows, face-forward in a manner that showcases its curvaceous shape, it can’t stop preening.
“I’m sure they’ll love me,” it says. “Well, I am something special too,” says the Sheraton Desk, and suddenly I realize: a terrible misunderstanding! They think the people are coming to see them.
How to break the news in the kindest way possible, that the people are coming only to see the apartment, that the people might find them old-fashioned, that all the fussing was just to make them more presentable?
“You see,” I begin carefully, “we have grown old together. And young people prefer what is new and sleek. In fact, the broker man has created just such a picture of our place in the advertisement. It is called a virtual room.”
A virtual room? They instinctively look to the Sheraton Desk for an explanation. It is as mystified as they are.
“Virtual is like,” I begin, then falter. “Virtual is like it’s not real but wanting you to imagine it is.” Warmed up, I continue. “So, in the picture there are two long gray couches at right angles and a big black table. That is because long gray couches and big black tables make the people imagine that they could live here themselves. They want to make their own memories, not think about ours.”
The first open house is in an hour. Time for me to go. But not without finishing what I started.
“We will be moving away. I will try to bring you all with me, but some of you won’t fit. And even if you come with me it won’t be forever. But we don’t have to worry about that now. We’ll live on together as long and as well as we can. We will have each other. We will have our old stories. We will do just fine.”
Ann Burack-Weiss is the author of “The Lioness in Winter: Writing an Old Woman’s Life.” She has had a house in Montauk for over 40 years.