Excerpt of If We Lived Here

CHAPTER 1

The apartment’s location was ideal, and the rent was within their range, but it was discovering the pair of walk-in closets that prompted Emma to start fantasizing about the article that would appear in the New York Times Habitats section, that trove of adorably obnoxious stories about New Yorkers landing their perfect homes:

Emma Feit, 30, and Nicholas O’Hare, 34, had set out with cautious optimism to find their first joint domicile. Lucky for them, their dream spot proved to be just one Craigslist ad away.

 

Emma stepped her entire body inside one of the closets, whispered, “Space!” and heard an actual echo. She performed a jumping jack, confirming that her arms at full wingspan wouldn’t brush up against the walls; the walk-in was only slightly smaller than the size of Emma’s whole bedroom in Manhattan. She ran her palm along the built-in shelves, which must have been teak, or cedar, or some other solid, expensive wood that real carpenters used to build real furniture. Emma breathed in—the scent made her think of camping trips and farm-to-table restaurants, nothing like her current closet’s flimsy plywood that smelled vaguely of chemicals.

Anxious that their moderate rental budget wouldn’t get them much more than a glorified studio, the pair had anticipated a stressful search. “But it couldn’t have been simpler,” noted Mr. O’Hare, his blue eyes sparkling.

 

Emma exited the closet and moseyed over to its twin. The spaces were mirror images, this one’s wall of shelves back to back with the others. Emma pictured herself getting ready for work, reaching for a scarf or a purse or one of many books she’d be reading all at once, while Nick would be opposite her, grabbing a belt or a sweater or one of his many Yankees hats. They’d be in their own little inlets, yet just a foot apart, both separate and together.

Not only did the duo hit real-estate Nirvana with their discovery of a stately floor-through brownstone in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, but the 800-square-foot charmer boasts walk-in his-and-her closets. “There’s none of his sports gear getting mixed up with my workout things,” noted Ms. Feit. “And we’re never tripping over each other getting dressed in the morning.”

 

“Em, is that you?”

Emma peeked her head out to see her boyfriend, Nick, abutted by the landlady, a stout, middle-aged woman who had introduced herself as Mrs. Caroline. “Who are you talking to in there?”

“Oh, no one.” Had she been narrating aloud? “This place is incredible, right?” Emma pulled Nick into the closet, realizing there was definitely enough room for physical fun. “Look, shelves!” She could easily prop a leg up onto one.

“Fancy. Did you see the dishwasher?”

“Ooh, we can have dinner parties!”

“Or, you know, just clean forks,” Nick said. Neither of them was too diligent about dish washing.

“Plus there’s the extra room. It’s perfect for an office, or storage—”

“Or a man cave.” Emma knew he’d said it just to get a rise out of her; at the top of her list of most despised concepts was that of the “man cave.”

“Or maybe a nursery.” She raised her eyebrows. If the landlady weren’t standing right there, Nick probably would’ve been yanking at her ponytail.

“Or a ball pit,” he said.

“Like at Chuck E. Cheese’s?”

“Exactly.”

“What about a yoga nook?”

“Or we could rent it out to a small family of immigrants.”

“Or to a heavy metal band, for their practice space.”

“Ahem.”

They might have kept going, but Mrs. Caroline was now beside them—three people in one closet! “You know I don’t permit sublets, correct?”

“Oh, of course,” Emma said in her best responsible-adult tone, instinctively straightening her shirt, which weirdly she was thinking of as a blouse. “We’re just enjoying some lighthearted banter.” Nick smirked; Emma’s eagerness to please sounded ridiculous even to herself.

“Very sweet,” said Mrs. Caroline flatly. “Should I draw up an application?”

“I just want to check out the shower,” said Emma.

Inside the bathroom—spacious, tasteful, with lots of medicine cabinet storage and no sign of tile mold—Emma cranked at the shower knob. The water pounded against her palm. “Nick, feel this. It’s massage quality.” When her boyfriend put his hand under the stream, Emma took the opportunity to splash his face. He tried to retaliate, but she ducked away, all smiles at the landlady.

“You could bathe an elephant in there,” Nick said.

“But you kids wouldn’t try a stunt like that?” Mrs. Caroline asked, her tone inscrutable.

“You mean, would we locate an elephant in need of a bath, transport him or her up the stairs to this apartment, and—”

“Of course not,” Emma said, cutting Nick off. “We’re very responsible.”

“So, the application?”

Emma and Nick nodded like idiots, and followed Mrs. Caroline, who was shuffling in platform flip-flops, into the kitchen—state-of-the-art appliances, plenty of counter space, an eat-in bar, and a separate nook for table and chairs. A wide window looked out onto Prospect Park and Grand Army Plaza, where Emma could make out the stately arch; bronze statues of soldiers and their handsome horses were frozen in poses of triumph. It seemed like a sign, the arch an entrance and a beckoning to Emma and Nick: This will be your home. Nick’s tug on her shirtsleeve pulled her out of her daydream. Mrs. Caroline was waiting, clipboard in hand.

“So, what’s the relationship between you two?” Emma had a strange urge to lie, but Nick spoke first: “Boyfriendgirlfriend.”

The description made Emma wince; although accurate, it sounded like it was out of a nursery rhyme, singsongy and juvenile.

“We’re very committed,” she added, reaching for Nick’s hand, as clammy as her own. “We’ve been dating for three years.”

“But you’ve never lived together?”

“That’s correct,” said Emma. Since she was more adept at this put-your-best-selves-forward routine, she and Nick had agreed she would do most of the talking with prospective landlords. But the act was making her squirm. Who was this interrogator across the table? Might she next ask Emma to divulge her most shameful memory, or Nick to state his preference for boxers or briefs?

“I see.” It sounded judgmental. Emma couldn’t tell if it was because they were planning to cohabitate before marrying or because they’d waited so long to shack up in the first place. “Do you have all the necessary documents?”

Nick pulled the packet from his bag, their lives summed up in a neat little stack—bank statements and pay stubs, credit reports, personal and professional references, Nick’s letter of employment from PS. 899’s principal, Emma’s letter of employment from the CEO of 1, 2, 3 … Ivies! When Nick relinquished the paper trail into Mrs. Caroline’s stubby fingers, Emma had to suppress an instinct to grab it back. This woman could steal our identities, she thought, plastering a grin to her face.

Mrs. Caroline perched a pair of spectacles on the tip of her nose, then began thumbing through the pages. “My last tenants made more money.” The remark hung in the air, stagnant. She peered up at Nick, the glasses in danger of slipping off her face. “So what kind of earning potential do teachers have?”

“I get an annual raise.” Emma placed a hand on Nick’s thigh and hoped the landlord couldn’t detect his defensiveness. He was sensitive about his salary.

“Nick is tenured,” Emma said, “so unlike the rest of us, he has real job security.”

Mrs. Caroline glanced back at the papers, then fixed her gaze on Emma. “I see you’ve been at your position for less than a year.”

Emma felt her cheeks grow hot. She willed herself to keep her eyes on the prize: two walk-in closets, a dishwasher, ample counter space, a killer view.

“Emma is always changing things up and seeking out a new challenge,” Nick offered. Immediately, Emma knew it was the wrong thing to say.

“Is she?” The implication seemed to be that she was perhaps not very dependable.

Emma jumped in: “My job is great. I help high school students through the college application process, which is quite a booming business. Every parent these days wants their child to get into a top school, no matter who the kid is or what his grades look like. So I help my clients see that vision through, making sure my students stand out to admissions officers. It’s very rewarding, and my boss would certainly vouch for my reliability. Feel free to reach out to any of our references. We’re good, responsible, upstanding citizens, I can assure you.” Emma realized she was rambling, and she also had a sense these were the kind of assurances a serial killer might make.

“Well, it’s been good to meet you. You’re a very nice couple. I’ll be in touch.” Mrs. Caroline ushered them outside, where they each offered her a hearty handshake.

Emma and Nick stood on the sidewalk in front of the brownstone for a long time, blinking up at the windows they hoped would soon be theirs. An autumn crisp had snuck its way into the August air, and it felt like relief—another sign, Emma told herself, although her stomach was clenched into knots.

“I feel like I just went on an awkward first date,” Nick said.

“I know. What was I thinking, telling her we’re good, upstanding citizens?”

“Did we blow it?”

“No. Or, I don’t know. Maybe. But damn it, we are good, upstanding citizens.”

“We’ll just have to wait and see whether we’ll get our mancave-storage-space-nursery-ball-pit-heavy-metal-band-practice-room.”

“You forgot yoga nook,” Emma said. “You know what? I think we’ll get it. I can feel it. Mrs. Caroline will think it over and she’ll realize we’re the perfect tenants.”

“And what exactly does that kind of certainty feel like?”

“Like blisters, actually. Wearing these sensible heels is torture.”

Emma slipped a swollen foot out of a pump. “Did you see her in those awful flip-flops? I mean, they had rhinestones. We clearly deserve this place.”

“We do.”

With that settled, Emma and Nick strolled down the street. Canopied by trees and buzzing with birds, it was so different from Emma’s current block, which was strewn with garbage and noisy with taxi horns and drunken NYU students. The couple’s silence was easy. After months of discussion and negotiation about this potential move-in, it was a comfort to know that, at least for this particular moment, they both wished for the same thing with the same degree of fervor; no ambivalence or hesitation clouded their joint wanting. What a relief, after all their tense talk of feelings and future, to finally focus on concrete details like street address and amenities.

Emma continued drafting the Habitats article in her head:

Certain they would have to settle for a less desirable location, a not-quite-gentrified Bedford-Stuyvesant or a deep-in-Brooklyn Sunset Park, the couple had been shocked to discover an affordable haven within their top-choice neighborhood of Prospect Heights. An area replete with trendy restaurants and upscale boutiques, and sidewalks bustling with hipsters and stroller-toting parents alike, the couple could imagine staying put through several life stages—Ms. Feit may well one day become one of those stroller-toting moms.

 

Well, not quite. Emma had gotten carried away with her pretend article—whose style, after all, was much too flowery for the Times—and the certainty she expressed within its imagined lines was just that: imagined. Already she felt the familiar anxieties seeping into her head. Were she and Nick really ready to move in together? Would the pros of cohabitation outweigh the cons of forfeiting their freedom? What would spending so much time together do to their sex life? What if they broke up and one of them had to sleep on the couch until they rode out the lease? And who would clean the toilet?

Nick had stopped. His head was cocked, gaze turned to the sky. “Look,” he said. “Parakeets.” Emma peered where he was pointing, and there they were—elegant creatures dancing around the branches, their lime-green bodies nearly blending in with the leaves. Nick had a sensitive eye for the lovely and rare, and it delighted Emma when he shared his sightings with her; they added a golden sheen to her everyday life. Here was the person she loved, the one whom she wanted, now in this moment, to share a home with.

“Parakeets in Prospect Heights,” she said, kissing Nick on the cheek. “Perfect.”

Aboard the subway, Emma perused the map. She’d hop off at Grand Street, then Nick would continue one more stop, switch to the 6 train, then shoot up the East Side to Twenty-eighth Street. They’d be thirty-five blocks apart, each in their own home. The distance spanned about a foot on the map, the same space between those walk-in closets.

“So?” Nick pinched at Emma’s waist.

“Huh?”

“I said, do you want to crash at my place tonight?”

“Oh, nah, I don’t have another dress there to go with these shoes.”

“Okay, then we’ve arrived at your destination. Stand clear of the closing doors and all that. Love you.”

Emma slipped through the train doors, then navigated the two crowded blocks to her building. She climbed the four flights that were responsible for her powerful glutes but that always reeked of cat pee and occasionally housed an actual hissing alley cat (thankfully not tonight). Opening her front door, Emma was hit by a wall of heat. The apartment had a talent for holding on to the day’s swelter long through a cool evening. She flicked on a fan and yelled out, “Hello?” knowing she’d get no response. Her roommate was an architect who lived and sometimes also slept at her office. If not for the occasional appearance or disappearance of a rolled-up blueprint or a fat textbook on electrical wiring, Emma would’ve sworn she didn’t exist. Emma didn’t mind, though; in fact, she’d chosen the girl because she seemed like the busiest of all the Craigslist applicants. Emma now wondered what it would be like to have a more present roommate, to share with Nick a set of keys, an address, a view out the window, a permanent bed. It thrilled and frightened her both.

The kitchen sink swelled with the remains of last night’s stirfry, and Emma, for the first time feeling sullen over her lack of a dishwasher, set about tackling the dishes. As she soaped and scrubbed, her forehead gleaming with sweat, she dreamed of her new home in Brooklyn, where she and Nick would likely live come October first, just five short weeks away.

“And we’ve never been happier,” Ms. Feit noted of the couple’s new digs.

“It’s true,” Mr. O’Hare concurred. “We made the right choice. Everything worked out for the best.”

CHAPTER 2

Genevieve poked her head into Emma’s office. “Hey, Feit, your ten a.m.’s here.” Genevieve straightened out the 1, 2, 3 … Ivies! button that she was required to wear on her lapel, and winked, like this whole receptionist gig was a joke. Emma had helped Gen land the job a few months ago after Gen had once again declared she’d given up on acting. Genevieve claimed she was filling out applications for nursing school, but Emma guessed her friend would return to auditioning within the year, as she always had shortly after previous “I’m through!” declarations.

“Thanks, Gen.”

“If you need anything—faxes, Post-its, sexual favors—you know where to find me.” She batted her eyelashes, and Emma chucked a pencil at her. “Hey, no need to get feisty. I’m leaving.”

Emma flipped through the dossier on her new client—male, Tribeca born and bred, enrolled at Stuyvesant. As always, she hoped that only the student would show, but 90 percent of the time the parents flanked their child like twin parasites, primed to run the show and suck most of the life out of their kid. This appointment proved to be no exception, as Emma rose to greet the boy and saw that both Hellis were accounted for. (“Helli” was Emma’s shorthand for Mom or Dad, a cross between “Helicopter Parent” and “hell-raiser.”) Dad looked business casual in a button-down but no tie, and Mom wore an eighties-style power suit, dragging Son along like a timid puppy. The boy, a head taller than his parents but still prepubescent, was all limbs in an oversized T-shirt he probably wished he could disappear into.

“You must be the Spencers. Please take a seat. I’m Emma Feit, and I’ll be your college advisory counselor, prepared to hold Paul’s hand through every step of the admissions process. Soon you’ll be off to the university of your dreams.” Usually Emma blew off this introductory stump speech, but when her door was open and she sensed her boss nearby, she went for it. “One note before we begin: I seem to be missing Paul’s high school transcripts and PSAT scores.”

“Oh, Paul is just entering his freshman year.” This from Mom, tap-tap-tapping her sling-back heel against a well-muscled calf. “We figured we’d get a bit of a jump on the process.” The boy smiled meekly.

“I see.” Emma had learned that when it came to their kids’ success, nothing was too crazy for Manhattan parents. That very morning she’d received a voicemail asking if she’d be willing to tutor a girl during her track practice, providing she could keep up with an eight-minute mile. So if these Hellis wanted their son to run SAT practice drills for the next three and a half years, who was Emma to deny herself all the billable hours?