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Threshold of Pain

For a newly married couple, the next step—buying a first apartment together—can be a doozy.

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The most common question I have been asked since I got married last year is not “How did you meet?” or “How’s wedded life treating you?” but that most New York of inquiries: “Are you moving?” It’s as though the matrimony is somehow less ironclad if the living arrangements afterward remain the same as the ones before. And yet the first year of marriage is hard, and a small space makes it harder, so a few months after Jake moved into my one-and-a-half-bedroom, we found ourselves looking for a bigger apartment. We began our search with shining hopes for good molding and a garden but were soon facing each Sunday afternoon as though it were a new canto of Dante’s Inferno.

Convinced that continuing to rent would be throwing money away, we decided to buy a two-bedroom in our neighborhood, Cobble Hill, setting a conservative but plausible limit. We discussed our priorities—light, quiet, and safety—and went to our first open houses. No. 1: Ugly modern building, loud commercial street. I was willing to look past both till Jake saw that it didn’t have a gas stove and announced, “I can’t cook on an electric range.” No. 2: Hardwood floors and a skylight, but to get to the second bedroom from the master, you had to walk 80 feet before arriving in what appeared to be a mop closet containing a crib. It was like living on the set of Das Boot. No. 3: In a full-service building in Carroll Gardens West, but when we walked into the second bedroom, we heard a loud whooshing noise, like the Grim Reaper’s breathing. We looked out the window and saw cars rushing down the BQE. “It’s a little loud,” Jake said to the broker.

“You can just think of it as white noise,” she said.

Jake gaped at her silently and walked out of the apartment. I found him in the hallway pacing in front of the elevators. “White noise?” he sputtered. “These people are rapacious liars!” Then he doubled over with a howl. “My back is killing me. I’ve got to go home and lie down.”

After a few more months of dark, ugly hovels, we opted to raise our cutoff by $100,000 and consider Park Slope, since there were more places. There was a red-painted former bordello, and a slumlike railroad on Eighth Avenue, but then we found . . . it. A two-bedroom on President in a limestone building half a block from the park, with bay windows, shutters, and two working fireplaces. I went to the sign-in sheet and spotted something highly disturbing: my agent’s name. Would we wind up going head-to-head? I could always remind him that Neil Simon’s agent had given the playwright a kidney; the least he could do was give me an apartment.

The next day, we called in a bid. The real-estate agent called to say they were going to highest and best, with a deadline of 6 p.m. Saturday. Jake gave me his eBay philosophy: Instead of going up in increments of $5,000 or $10,000, you go up in increments of $6,000 or $11,000 to beat out the other guy. We came up with a figure $16K above asking, certain this was bold and aggressive. Then we went to visit my grandparents in Philadelphia for Passover. In the middle of the Plagues, Jake leaned over and whispered, “We should go up another five.”

“We’re not going up another five!” I said. “We already did our calculations. Besides, it’s six-thirty. The deadline’s passed.” I’m the kind of person who would rather play it safe and lose out than risk everything and have a chance at winning. It’s a Jewish thing.

“When we walked into the bedroom, we heard a whooshing noise, like the Grim Reaper’s breathing.”

The next morning, the broker called. We were second. “You were my highest,” she said, “but the winning buyer was working with another agent, so I didn’t know.”

Jake’s face darkened like someone was dead. “They could have gotten it for, like, 50 grand more!” I said. A few weeks later, the agent called to say the winning bid was $3,000 higher.

“You never listen!” Jake said. “We should have gone up. That was the only place I truly loved.” He lay down on his stomach on the bed. “Every Sunday, it’s one disappointment after another. I lose all this time when I could be working, and nothing ever comes of it. This search is ruining our marriage. And taking a toll on my health. Every time you say ‘Park Slope,’ my back hurts.”

For the next few weekends, we took a real-estate moratorium. When I finally persuaded him to look with me again, everything was 30 percent higher—and smaller. The only decent possibility was a two-bedroom condo in Carroll Gardens. When Jake and I walked in, it was the first time he didn’t look constipated. It had a stainless-steel kitchen, tin ceilings, roof rights, and a view of Manhattan. The owners were a young couple and said it would be an open auction, so everyone would have a chance to go up.

When we got home, we decided that if we really wanted it, we had to raise our limit by $100,000. We had to come in strong, not timid like before. We’d have to liquidate our savings and borrow money from our families, but it was possible. We called in the offer. “You are the highest,” said the husband. I felt elated and on top of the world. A day went by, and another. The phone rang. “We got a higher offer,” he said. “They were below you, but when I told them yours they decided to go up.” He told me the number. I shook my head sadly. It didn’t seem possible, but we’d priced ourselves out of the market.

For dinner, we got takeout from our favorite cheap Thai and ate it in front of the TV. We had the A/C blasting and Jake had just neatened up so the place didn’t feel so cramped. Why did we hate it so much? Sundays used to be for morning sex, paper reading, and brunch. Now we hiked up endless stairs, stockpiled information sheets, and waited hours for the Union Street bus. This was no way to be a newlywed.

After dinner, I took a shower, put my hair in high pigtails, and donned my slut glasses. Jake was lying in bed reading Aloft. “I’d like to live in a loft,” I said. “Maybe we should reconsider Dumbo.”

“You gotta stop talking about apartments,” he said, pulling me on top of him. For now, we’re back to our lazy Sundays, and Jake’s reading Mind Over Back Pain.


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