Peter Khoury - Open House

Miriam Stolar has a routine.

              She gets the early part of the Sunday paper on Saturday morning and immediately pulls out the real estate section. Then she plans her route for the next day.

              A two-bedroom penthouse in the 70s, just east of Broadway. A charming Junior 1 in a doorman building less than three blocks from her place. A duplex north of Columbus Circle.

         “Susan,’’ she’ll later tell her sister in New Jersey, “I think I see some definite possibilities this week.”

          Octogenarian that she is, Miriam has lived in her fourth-floor walkup on Manhattan’s West Side since before “West Side Story.’’ Since before anyone liked Ike. Really, it seems, since before God.

          From ingénue to bride, from divorcee to senior citizen, Miriam has called these 550 square feet in a rundown brownstone home. She has no dearth of epithets for her abode. The rat trap. The shoe box. My prison. And, when she’s in a particularly foul mood and speaking with an old friend – the shit hole.

          But it’s Saturday, and hope has fully emerged from its weekly hibernation, brightening Miriam’s dark, cluttered living room.

          The mere thought of the first three places that catch her eye this morning have softened her demeanor.

          She can already picture that penthouse. Southern exposure. Skylights. Light! Two bedrooms, two baths. Space! And space, it would seem, with a view.

          View is a relative term in New York, of course, and Miriam knows where she falls on the spectrum. The two tiny windows at the rear of her living room face the back of a large gray apartment building with an antiquated fire escape that long has needed a fresh coat of black paint.

          No, the scenery and palette have little to recommend them. This is painfully clear to Miriam, a painter of some talent whose respectable though not high-paying job with an insurance firm sustained her for years and provides her with a modest pension.

          Miriam’s “space’’ has been constant for six decades, but perspective changes. Back when she took the apartment just after college, she didn’t even think about the fact that she would be living on the fourth floor.

          Now, despite her good health and regular exercise, those stairs take their toll. Proud and self-sufficient, she hardly shows her vulnerability. But she will pause briefly on that third-floor landing to catch her breath – if no one is looking, that is.

          And then there’s the kitchen. You practically have to be thinner than a model to squeeze in and get back to the miniscule oven. And the shelf space –  not exactly conducive to Miriam’s gourmet cooking.

          Not much has changed in Miriam’s apartment over the years.

          Several paintings – mostly her own – hang on the living room walls. Two bookcases are filled with the bestsellers of other eras. Photographs of the long-dead are scattered throughout the apartment, unwelcome testimony to Miriam’s advanced years.

           But it’s Sunday again – time to visit future homes.

           Marked-up real estate section in hand, Miriam wanders up Columbus Avenue, stopping in her favorite deli for a croissant and coffee. Then she makes the short walk to that penthouse on 70th. 

           The doormen’s well-appointed uniforms – dark suits with red trim, neat gray and black caps – are not lost on her as the building’s front door is opened for her.

           “Ma’am, are you here for the open house?’’

           “Indeed I am.’’

           “That’s 14F. The elevator is back there on the right.’’

             Miriam likes that. A sixth sense about the reason for her visit. Someone who knows his building and looks after its occupants. Something she doesn’t have.

           The elevator is quicker than many in these pre-war buildings.

            “And, how are we doing today?’’ a perky blond real estate agent asks Miriam as she enters the penthouse.

            “Just fine, thank you.’’

            The apartment is unusually bright, as light shines in through floor-to-ceiling windows.

            Miriam walks around the living room as the agent attends to another potential buyer. Her eyes dart about, and she manages a somewhat discreet look at herself in a long, mahogany-framed mirror next to the kitchen. For years she has dyed her hair auburn, knowing that to try to match the black of her younger years would be too obvious.

            The size of the master bedroom surprises her. Imagine, she thinks, a place to sleep that would actually have room for something in addition to a bed.

            Next, Miriam walks across the hallway to the second bedroom. She immediately pictures for herself an artist’s studio – with room for not one, but two easels.

             Back in the living room, she picks up a brochure, smiles at the agent and takes one last look through those tall windows before leaving. A little pricey, she says of the amount they’re asking, but nice.

             There’s an extra spring in her step as Miriam heads a couple of blocks west to check out that Junior 1. At 650 square feet, it’s not much bigger than her place, but she’s curious.

             Nice limestone and brick façade. Handsome. No doorman at this hour, but always during weekday business hours. Oh, to not have to wait around for deliveries!

             The elevator is slow, but at least there is one. The door to 5C is wide open, and the light-colored wood floor is gleaming.

             Floor space is not the issue here. But Miriam can’t help gushing over the tall ceilings, the open feel. Even the small kitchen to the right of the entrance foyer seems bigger than it is.    

           The furniture in these open house apartments always seems nicer than hers, Miriam observes, eyeing a divan against a wall on the left. She imagines lounging there late one afternoon, perhaps sipping a martini.

            Miriam has little to say to the agent, a dark-haired young man of few words, more handsome than intelligent.

             “Bedroom around this side?’’ Miriam asks, pointing to a small alcove at the back on the right.

             “Uh, yep.’’

             The quasi bedroom is no bigger than hers. She likes the overall package here,  though. She smiles at the agent, picks up a brochure from the kitchen counter, and heads for the door.

             “Thanks for coming,’’ the agent says. “Call if you have any questions.’’

             “I will,’’ Miriam says.

             As she leaves the building and heads toward Columbus, Miriam clutches the two brochures – and her marked-up real estate section – as she would some prized possession. There is still that duplex north of the circle to check out. But Miriam won’t make it there today. Her eyes are bigger than her appetite, and as excited as she is about these homes, she knows it is time for a rest.

             A while later, she’s back at the rundown townhouse, quietly working her way back to the fourth floor. There’ll be a tall glass of ice water now, a stiff drink with her after-dinner call to her sister later, and dreams tonight of a nicer home.

             Monday is a day of pleasant lethargy. Miriam has a thought or two about the new places she’s gone. She makes a comment to one of the other old-timers in her building about a possible move – but other than that, little else.

             Ambivalence sets in on Tuesday. She’s neither happy nor maudlin about her present existence.

             On Wednesday, reality moves to the fore – along with separation anxiety. Where would she get the $1.5 million for the penthouse? Does she really want to give up a rent-controlled apartment? The pictures of family members and her few former lovers stare down at her from their handsome frames, souvenirs that have earned permanent positions in her tiny space.

            Who, she wonders, really wants to have to scrub the floors of a large kitchen all the time?

            But perspective changes across the span of a week, and by Thursday Miriam is once again ambivalent – and a little impatient.

           What’s wrong with wanting a little more space? A little more light? A change of scenery? You can’t be afraid to try new things.

           On Friday, Miriam has a run-in with an impertinent young tenant in her building. And that view of the run-down fire escape grates on her once more.

           It’s a good thing tomorrow’s Saturday – time for the new real estate section

           Miriam Stolar has a routine.


Peter Khoury is an editor at The New York Times.  His short stories have been published in a number of publications, including The Baltimore Review, Driftwood and The Hudson Valley Literary Magazine.   

Posted on December 7, 2013 .