Deborah Hannily fought the urge to scream when her client Paul stepped out of his car and said “I thought I said nothing out in the country.”
She wanted to scream because he wanted to stay close to the city, but his girlfriend Brittany wanted to be secluded. He didn’t want to live in a country-style ranch house, but she said it would be her ideal home. He wanted each room to be separate, but she wanted an open-concept living space. Their wish-list looked like an argument put on paper.
“I know what you said,” Deborah replied, stepping away from her own car, “but you’d be surprised how much this house meets both of your must-haves.”
Brittany stepped out of her side of the car, the wind catching her dirty blond hair. She tucked her waving locks behind her ear and crossed her arms as she ventured onto the leaf-covered front lawn. “I like it,” she said. “I think it looks really quaint.”
“Well of course you like it,” Paul said, not taking any steps away from the car; he even kept the driver-side door propped open, perhaps hoping he’d be able to jump in and drive away at a moment’s notice. “This place looks right up your alley. Did you notice how long of a drive it was to get here? It’s at least forty minutes away from downtown.”
“It’s not like it matters. Whether it’s a five-minute drive or a fifty-minute drive, you’d still be out until two in the morning.”
Deborah rolled her eyes. These were the types of jabs Paul and Brittany had been throwing at each other throughout all twelve house tours they’d been on. If they were left in each other’s company for more than two minutes, one of them would insult the other. A couple more houses, and she was sure someone was going to start swinging. And, personally, she was hoping Paul would be at the receiving end of it.
“Okay, you two,” Deborah said. “Before we get started: yes, it’s a country-style and I know that bothers you Paul, but it’s thirty thousand below your budget so you two can decorate it with whatever style you like. Also, even though it’s a long drive from downtown, if you notice, we’re in a pretty cozy neighborhood out here, so you’ll still get that neighbor-to-neighbor connection you were wanting.”
Paul gazed at the houses surrounding him, all similarly-built ranch houses from the early part of the century, and grimaced. “I’m not sure if these are the kinds of neighbors I was looking for. I was thinking more…young people. People who’d want to go out clubbing without putting in their going-out teeth.”
He smiled to himself. Brittany shook her head. Deborah pretended to enjoy the joke to please him, but not so much that Brittany thought she found it funny.
“Look, before you judge this place completely by its appearance, let’s take a look inside, shall we? And again, remember that any style problems you have can be remodeled.”
Brittany was already halfway through the front door by the time Paul finally stepped away from the car, sighing. The wind picked up again, shuffling the dead leaves on the ground, as Deborah led him through the entryway and closed the door behind them.
“So as you can see, we’ve got a nice mixture of open-concept and separation here,” Deborah said as the couple began to meander around the bright, spacious living room. “You’ve got the living room, kitchen, and dining room all open to each other, but then in the back, through the dining room, you’ve got a secondary living room all by itself. So it really is the best of both worlds.”
“I don’t know,” Brittany mused. “The whole reason I wanted open concept was to be able to see everything at once; even if I can see most of the room, I can’t see into that back room. And that really bothers me.”
“I’m still not sure why you’re so worried about everything being open,” Paul said, already migrating toward the back room. “It’s not like you have to worry about entertaining guests or anything.”
“What if I wanted to spend more time with you? What if I wanted everything open so I could talk to you no matter what room you were in?”
“Well…” He didn’t finish the statement. It hung in the air like decoration. He let the silence sit for a moment before pointing into the back room. “So would this be the man cave I was wanting?”
“No, this house has a basement,” Deborah said as Brittany slowly strolled into the kitchen, pretending to examine the cabinets. “If you look through the kitchen into the laundry room, the door is to your right.”
“Oh, that’s great, actually,” Paul said. “In fact, if you two don’t mind I’m gonna go check it out real quick.”
He stepped past the two women and ducked into the laundry room, sticking his head back to call out, “Make sure you give this kitchen a good look-through, Brittany. Let me know if you think it’ll work out.” He turned the corner and opened the door to the basement, the sound of his footsteps descending the staircase echoing through home’s small hallways.
“He trusts your judgment about the kitchen, eh?” Deborah asked, leaning her elbows onto the laminate countertops. Brittany nodded back, fingering the knobs on the stove. “You two must really be into cooking.”
“Not exactly. He’s…kinda wanting me to get into it.”
Deborah scolded herself. She’d been trying very hard over the past month to stay out of their personal life, but every once in a while she’d slip and let her curiosity override her objectivity. At the ninth house she showed them, she learned that Brittany was on maternity leave, even though she’d neither seen nor heard any hints of an actual baby. And at the previous house, Brittany admitted that she didn’t really have any friends left; they all stopped seeing her after she started dating Paul. She hadn’t learned much about Paul, though; except that every time he opened his mouth she wanted to remodel his face.
“He thinks I need a hobby to get into,” Brittany said. “He thinks that, since I’m not working right now, I need something to keep myself occupied…and I have a habit of falling into some pretty bad hobbies by myself.”
Deborah stepped away from the counter and joined Brittany in front of the stove. “Well if you’re going to get into cooking, this would be a great kitchen to do it in, don’t you think? Look at how cute and old-fashioned it is. Hand-crafted wood cabinets, spacious layout, recently renovated hardwood floors. And look at all this counter space.”
She walked around the L-shaped counters, running her hand along the countertops to emphasize the amount of space. “Plenty of room for a big microwave, cutting board, coffee maker, knife block…And I know you were looking for a gas stove, weren’t you?” She strolled over to the dining table, turned to face the kitchen and leaned back against one of the chairs. “Can’t you just picture yourself making some apple pies or homemade soups in here?”
“Yeah,” Brittany said, stepping away from the oven. “It’s all pretty good…but I’m not sure if I like these countertops. I’ve had some bad experiences with laminate before; it’s pretty prone to scratches and stains.”
“Don’t forget, this place is thirty thousand below your max budget; countertops can be replaced. I’d probably recommend either tile or quartz if you’re worried about scratches or stains. Granite will work too, but it might not gel as well with the old-fashioned style. And wood will fit the style well, but it scratches pretty easily too…”
Just like that, Deborah slipped into her element; selling her on how the house could look instead of how it does look. Ignore the dings, the dents, the stains, the burns; those can all be buffed out. Look at the layout, the functionality, the potential. Look at what you could do with the space.
She went through her routine with Brittany, leading her through the entire renovation process without waiting for her to voice her own opinion. Her opinion was wrong, tainted with the kitchen she’d already seen. She wasn’t seeing the kitchen Deborah saw.
She had given her suggestions about everything except the appliances by the time Paul finally came back up from the basement. There was a rare smile on his face.
“I really love the basement,” he said, walking straight through the kitchen into the dining room, next to Deborah. “That’ll work perfectly as my man cave. There’s plenty of space for my flat screen, my pool table; we can put a new sectional down there…and there’d even be enough room left over for a bar. You know how much I’ve been wanting my own bar.”
Brittany looked at Deborah and rolled her eyes.
“Well that’s good to know,” Deborah said, taking a step away from him. “I knew you were looking for your own space, and I was thinking the basement would work better than this back living room.”
Paul’s smile went away. “Why? Is there something wrong with it?”
Deborah didn’t get a chance to reply; Paul made a bee-line for the back room, which was built a step lower than the dining room. “Oh, I see what you mean. This place is kind of ugly.”
Brittany followed him warily, poking her head through the archway. “It’s not ugly,” she said. “I think it’s kinda cute.”
Of all the rooms in the house, this back room was the room Deborah was most worried about showing Paul. The room had three of Paul’s absolutely-must-not-have items: a bulky wood stove, shag carpet, and waist-high wood paneling covering each wall. Not to mention the home owners had staged the room to look like it was from Little House on the Prairie, with knitted throw pillows on the couches, large white doilies draped over most of the furniture pieces, and small wooden animal sculptures sitting atop decorative shelves perched on the walls. The room was like a time capsule for the 1970s. And even more unfortunately, she was showing it to one of the most critical clients she’d ever met.
“No, not at all,” Paul said. “This room is gonna have to be completely gutted. There’s no way I’m spending any time in this room the way it is now.”
Deborah stepped in. “And that’s a possibility, with all the extra room in the budget. It won’t take more than sixteen hundred to tear down all this paneling, depending on whether you two want to do it yourself. And with the shag-”
“Wait, wait,” Brittany interrupted, stepping between Paul and Deborah. “Don’t get too crazy with the renovation talk. I happen to like the way this room looks. It’s very cozy.”
“No it’s not,” Paul said. He was wandering the room, arms crossed and staring hard at the walls like he was already overseeing the demolition project. “It’s ugly, it’s outdated, it’s cheap…It makes me feel old and sad. It has to go.”
Brittany walked hard up to Paul’s side, catching him off-guard with her sudden closeness. “What is your problem? Why do you hate this style so much?”
Paul hesitated. “What do you mean? I’ve always hated this style. It’s just…not the right fit for a young couple.”
“Bullshit. You have been so dead set against this style, a style that I happen to like, that I’m beginning to think you’re shitting on it to go against me. Is that it? Do you not want me to get my way?”
Paul shook his head. “No, of course not! Why do you always have to play the victim?”
“Well excuse me for ‘playing the victim,’ but it’s hard to think you’re not targeting me when you’re talking about ripping apart the one room in this house I could call my own. Because, and forgive me if I am mistaken, you would most likely spend most of your nights either holed up in the basement or out clubbing. No matter what this room looked like, you wouldn’t spend any time in it.”
“I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a room like this in the house.”
“Why?” Deborah suddenly asked, causing both Paul and Brittany to turn toward her. She covered her mouth with her hand and stepped backwards, stammering, “S-sorry. I don’t know what made me ask that.”
“No, I want to know too,” Brittany agreed, turning back on an out-matched Paul. “That makes no sense, Paul. Why would this room bother you so much?”
Paul threw his arms up. “Because, Brittany, I watched my grandparents die in a house like this. In a room that looked a lot like this one.”
He sighed and took a step away from the two women, wandering further into the room. “When I was around thirteen, my grandmother was going through Alzheimer’s, my grandfather dying of cancer, and every time I visited them I could see them get weaker and weaker. My family kept getting calls in the night of Grandma nearly burning the house down because she forgot to put out a fire in the fireplace, or Grandpa passing out in the living room and coughing up blood into the carpet, of…Grandma sitting in the corner, panicking and soiling herself while an ambulance wheeled Grandpa away. And no matter what I do, I can’t get those images out of my head whenever I’m in a room like this.”
Brittany was silent for a moment, her hands resting in her jacket pockets and her gaze fixed on Paul.
Paul looked at her, then shifted his eyes to Deborah. “Are you two satisfied now?”
Brittany took a soft step toward him and put her hand on his arm. “Why did you never tell me that?” she asked. “I would’ve understood…”
Paul looked at her. “Well, we don’t always tell each other all of our secrets, do we?” Brittany quickly let go of Paul’s bicep and stepped back, forcibly. Like he had physically pushed her.
Deborah had to hold herself back. She wanted to learn so much more about these two, but prying farther into what was clearly a loaded comment would have been too dangerous to the threat of her sale.
She had to push on. “Paul, I’m so sorry to hear that,” she said. “Like I said, this room can be totally changed since this style clearly…disagrees with you. If you want, we can move on to the rest of the house. I promise you, no other room looks quite as dated as this one.”
“Well, Brittany,” Paul said, moving past his wife. He gestured toward the archway. “Shall we move on?”
She looked toward him, slowly, before nodding and shuffling out of the den, Paul following close behind her. Deborah, mouth shut, quickly went after them.
She led them through the rest of the house as if nothing had happened. The bedroom Paul was planning on turning into an office; he liked how there was a view to the backyard, which was right on the edge of a large field. The master bedroom; Paul liked that it had an attached master bath and thought it was a nice size, but didn’t like the small closet or the decor; Deborah had to remind him that the decor could easily be changed. The hall bathroom; he didn’t like the tile vanity.
Throughout it all, Brittany was mostly silent, only contributing with the occasional “Yeah” or “Hmm.” Her mind was elsewhere, perhaps still wrapped around Paul’s story about his grandparents. Or the cryptic comment he made before leaving the back room …Either way, she was clearly occupied with something else, and Deborah had to force herself to stop thinking about it.
The last room in the house was the third bedroom, which the couple was planning on turning into a nursery.
At first, they treated it like a regular room: walked around in it for a minute, planned out the layout for the crib and changing table, looked for flaws in construction, and so on. They were both happy that it was right across the hallway from the master bedroom, so they would be able to quickly run in if they heard any crying at night. Paul was a little concerned with what appeared to be a burn mark in the carpet near the foot of the bed, but otherwise they both seemed to have pretty positive impressions of the space.
Paul was ready to walk out, but Brittany was lingering in the spot where they both agreed they would put the crib. She was looking down, imagining the sight of their little ball of joy bundled up in a blanket beneath her. Deborah looked at her and smiled, hoping that she was beginning to picture herself in the house as well. Maybe she was finally getting through to these two.
That’s when Brittany looked up, tears in her eyes, and said “I’m sorry.” She reached into her purse and pulled out a small plastic bag of white powder. She dropped it on the floor, right where the crib would be.
“What is that?” Paul asked, his voice dead.
“I’m so sorry.”
Paul looked at the bag on the floor. Looked at her. Clenched his fists.
“How long what?”
Paul unclenched his fist and slammed the palm of his hand against the drywall, causing the two women to jump. Brittany shrieked.
“How long since you last shot up?”
“Paul, I swear I haven’t shot up since Jackson’s funeral.”
“Bullshit.” The word was a dart aimed straight at Brittany’s throat. He lunged forward and grabbed the bag on the floor. His hand was shaking. “Why do you have this, then?”
“I bought it three days ago.” Her voice was nothing but a whimper at that point. “That’s the first bag I’ve bought since I quit. I haven’t had any. And I swear I won’t.”
“Why buy it then?” Paul was shouting now. “Was Jackson not enough? Are you trying to kill off any kid we have together? Are you trying to show me that sticking my neck out for you was a mistake?”
“Paul…” Brittany’s hands were covering her stomach.
“Are you…” He stood up straight then, dropping his arm down, letting the bag fall. “Are you pregnant again?” His voice lowered.
She lowered her head, her eyes closed and shoulders quivering. She was sobbing now.
“And you swear you haven’t taken anything?”
She managed to shake her head.
Paul reached out and grabbed her arm. “We need to go. I need to make sure you’re telling the truth.” As he turned to run out of the house, his eyes met Deborah’s. He stammered for a moment, searching his mind for something appropriate to say, some social etiquette to refer to. When none came up, he came out with, “We’ll call you with our decision.”
And then he shot down the hall, into the living room, through the front door, and onto the porch, his arm draped around Brittany’s quaking shoulders the whole way. Moments later, the sound of their car’s engine revved through the home, followed by the squeal of tires peeling out of the driveway and down the street.
Deborah watched their escape in stunned silence, holding still for several moments before drifting down the hallway like a leaf caught in the breeze. She shut the front door and locked it quietly, and before gaining full awareness of her actions, she found herself back in the bedroom, her eyes plastered to the white bag on the floor.
Paul called her back a week later. The call was dry, thankless – but then again, she wasn’t sure what else she was expecting.
“Hi Deborah,” he said. “It’s Paul Summers.”
“Paul.” He had caught her off guard.
There was a protracted moment of silence, each person trying to decide who needed to say what. Deborah could faintly hear a woman sigh on the other end of the line. Eventually, she came out with “How’s…”
Paul cut her off. “We’ve decided to put an offer down on the country home you showed us.” He was trying to maintain a sense of friendly professionalism, but there was a dead, monotone quality to his voice. “We don’t want a bidding war, so go ahead and put in an offer at list price.”
“I’m not sure I would recommend that,” Deborah said, her instinct kicking in. “Going in at list price right away might make you seem desperate; they may raise the price on you.”
“Well then we’ll just pay the raised price.” His voice was curt, impatient. “Like you said, it’s thirty thousand below our budget.”
There was another pause, this one more malicious. Then Paul spoke up again. “I mean, I really liked that man cave in the basement.” Deborah heard another sharp, feminine breath on the line. “And Brittany really liked that kitchen.”