Our real estate agent looked around our condo and sniffed. I’ve never actually seen someone sniff, in real life, in the dismissive, Edith Wharton Disapproves Of Your Social Status sense. She sniffed, this woman, and said, “This is terribly cluttered.”
She was standing in the living room I’d just spent four hours cleaning, the room which also serves as “the room where Kick keeps all her toys” and “occasionally, my office” and “a recovery room from all my major back injuries of which there have been many” and she was looking dismayed. There were toys in colorful bins, antique typewriters on the fireplace mantle, books on all the shelves, a large rug we’d just had cleaned.
“You’ll have to get rid of a lot of things.”
What this disapproving woman didn’t realize was that we had spent the past two months paring down our collection of books, stuffed animals, clothes, furniture, dishes, travel coffee mugs and just about everything else we owned. We had filled an entire storage space with my grandmother’s furniture and the contents of three closets. We thought we HAD gotten rid of a lot of things.
She shook her head. In order to sell a small condo for a reasonable price in our neighborhood, one has to STAGE it. It must be freshly painted, impeccably finished, with two perfect polished apples upon the sideboard. There can be books on the shelves, but not too many, and nothing “divisive.” Two or three towels in the linen closet at most and those, brand new and unused. Photos are fine, but nothing personal.
People need to picture themselves in your space, the agent explained. Not you.
It must appear that no one lives here at all.
So we spent the next two months painting, and packing, and harrying people into helping us bring even more of our stuff over to storage. We shopped for neutral colored bedding. We made a game of it with Kick: Stand in the corner and try to throw all the stuffies into the box! We’re not getting rid of them, they’re just going on a trip! We preened and primped the place. We staged.
Our condo went on the market five weeks ago. People come in for showings, for open houses, and leave feedback about issues we cannot address. The bathroom is too small, there is no central air, a parking space is not included in the fee. Where is the washer and dryer, they ask, and upon hearing it is in another section of the building they blanch and back away. NOT THAT. First-time buyers don’t want to fix things, the real estate agent said, trying to get us to do more repairs before we listed. They want everything done. When we moved into this place we stripped miles of woodwork, painted and repainted and tiled and refinished.
Every weekend we clean and stage again. And every weekend I think about how ridiculous it is to expect people to act like their lives are an HGTV episode, like anyone with a toddler is able to have thin-stemmed crystal just lying around, or keep the walls free of fingerprints.
People live here, I keep saying to the real estate agent, who by now treats us like juvenile delinquents in need of tough love. Is it really a drawback to know that? People live here.
I feel like most people would get that. Life isn’t perfect. Life is disorderly. Life is persistent; it will find a way to make a mess five seconds after you’ve cleaned one up, and the more life you have around you, the messier it is. Friends, family, kids, pets, hobbies, dreams, work, love, entertainment, joy, rest, they all take up space. They all make clutter that isn’t easily confined to underbed boxes and back-of-closet bins. They’re inconvenient and sometimes gross. They can’t be staged.
And oh, have we had life in this house.
If I staged my house the way I want to stage it, I would leave some of the stuffies lying around, the stray puzzle pieces, some apple peelings on the counter. I would unpack my pasta machine and the toaster. And I would leave photos of us: Me, Mr. A, Kick. Photos from her christening, when we shook off our sleep deprivation and packed 30 people into the house for cake and champagne. Photos from the orphan Thanksgiving we threw one year for a dozen colleagues of Mr. A’s who came from all over the world and were stuck with nothing to do during the holiday. Photos from our tenth anniversary party, which spilled out of the house and off our deck and out into the alley because so many people came.
I would leave a note, too, next to the inoffensive flower arrangement in its recently purchased pitcher-vase.
The note would say, I know this house is messy and the bedding isn’t fashionable. I know it isn’t like the gleaming new construction towers you see down the road. I know if you stretch out your arms in both directions you can touch all four walls of the bathroom. I know the air conditioner rattles and sometimes you have to smack the microwave just right to get it to start. I know you probably want a blank canvas on which to project your dreams of home and I don’t begrudge you that. I would give it to you if I could.
But people live here. They had a guest room for people to crash in when they were done with college or between jobs or detoxing from political campaigns, when they needed advice or to recover from a hangover or a good laugh. The people who live here needed things, and people came here to give them.
They had pets and loved them. They gained friends and lost them. They learned here. They suffered here, too, and grieved losses, licked wounds. A child took her first steps here, and art was made here, and three of the five neighbors are truly stellar human beings. If they opened their windows they could hear music being practiced and played, trucks rumbling past, the rush and hum of the trains going over the viaducts.
People live here. They should leave marks on a place. A life should leave deep tracks, one of my favorite poems begins, and we see all tracks as damage. We see every nick as as indication of something wrong, something bad, an omen, a terrible sign. We don’t see it as a sign that this is a place where real things took place. Where real people lived.