THE RESPONSES TO Francesca’s ad were abundant, and most of them were pretty outrageous. She was stunned by what most people were willing to say about themselves. Some of them were fresh out of rehab and said they didn’t feel ready to take on an apartment, and would be delighted to live with her. Everyone seemed to love the description of the house. Several couples answered the ad, and Francesca told them honestly that the spaces she was renting were too small for more than one person, and she didn’t feel ready to live with more than three roommates. One couple had two kids and wanted to rent two of the three spaces, which didn’t feel right to her either. They were three- and five-year-old boys and she was afraid they would destroy her house. Two people said they were recently out of prison, one said he was a sex offender, and the other said that he had been convicted of a white-collar crime he didn’t commit. She didn’t ask what it was. Four lesbian couples wanted to rent the house together and asked if she’d be willing to move out, which she wasn’t. It defeated the whole purpose of what she was trying to do to keep the house. And at least a third to half of the applicants had dogs, many of them large. German shepherds, Labradors, two Irish wolfhounds, a Great Dane, a Rhodesian ridgeback, a Rottweiler, and a pit bull. She wasn’t prepared to take that on either. And she was beginning to wonder if anyone normal and easy, without a partner, a child, a dog, a substance addiction, or a prison record would turn up. She was beginning to lose hope and wonder if Todd and her mother were right. Maybe they were all crazy, or she was for trying to find three sane, normal roommates. She was beginning to think that there was no such thing in New York.
It was two days before Thanksgiving when she got a call from a young woman who said her name was Eileen Flanders. She said she had just graduated from Loyola Marymount in L.A. in May, she was originally from San Diego, and had just gotten a job and arrived in New York. She was a special ed teacher for autistic children. She said nothing about having been to rehab, didn’t mention doing time in prison, said she was alone, and had neither kids nor dogs. It was a hopeful start. Francesca couldn’t help wondering if she was covered with tattoos, had countless body pierces, and wore a Mohawk, but the initial conversation over the phone went pretty well. She said she was hoping to move in quickly, but she was staying at the Y, and said she could stay there for a few more weeks, when Francesca explained that the place wouldn’t be available until January first.
Todd had just found an apartment on East 81st Street, near the river. He was planning to pack between Christmas and New Year, and said he would be out on January first. She didn’t want anyone moving in till then. It would be too painful for both of them to have strangers living in the house while they went through the emotional upheaval of his leaving. Eileen said she didn’t mind, and she said she was going home to San Diego for the holidays anyway. It sounded good so far and Francesca made an appointment with Eileen to come to the house the following afternoon.
The next day Francesca was immensely relieved when she opened the door and saw Eileen standing on the front stoop. Eileen was wearing Nikes and jeans, and she had on a red car coat with toggles and a hood, white mittens, and earmuffs. She looked like a kid on a Christmas card. She was a redhead with freckles and blue eyes, and she had perfect white teeth when she smiled. She was wearing no makeup and looked about fifteen years old, and she looked nervous as she waited to come inside.
Francesca invited her in, and the two women chatted easily in the front hall. Eileen looked around and commented on how pretty the house was. There was a stained-glass window over the front door, and a narrow but handsome circular staircase leading upstairs. And she could glimpse a marble fireplace through the open door of the living room, which Francesca explained she was keeping for her own use. Eileen said she was fine with that, as Francesca explained that some of the furniture throughout the house would be going, when her current roommate moved out, but she would replace it as soon as she could. The room on the top floor was furnished with things Todd didn’t want. And she was willing to furnish the other possible units if necessary.
She led Eileen upstairs to the top floor, where some of Todd’s clothes were strewn around, since he was sleeping there. Eileen admired the view of the neighbors’ gardens behind the house, and then peeked into the bathroom and the closets and seemed to like what she saw. And Francesca liked her. She appeared to be wholesome and clean, a small-town girl come to the big city. She said she was the oldest of six children, and asked if there was a Catholic church nearby. She was everything that Francesca could have wanted in a tenant. She was the epitome of a nice, friendly girl next door. There was nothing worrisome or unsavory about her. They both looked relieved.
Francesca showed her the floor below her own, and explained that the dining room would be turned into a living room and the den into a bedroom. It was bigger but darker than the top floor, and she and Todd had painted the walls a forest green, which worked as a dining room, but might be a little somber for a living room, or too masculine for her. And Eileen didn’t like the garden unit. She said she was afraid that someone might come in through the sliding doors. She said she felt safer on the top floor. And she loved the cozy country kitchen that Francesca and Todd had installed themselves. Or he had, while Francesca watched, handed him tools, and made coffee. It was their favorite room in the house, and Eileen’s.
“It looks like a lot of love went into this house,” Eileen said as Francesca nodded, not sure what to say, and not wanting her to see that there were tears in her eyes. A lot of love had gone into 44 Charles Street, and a lot of hope. And now all those hopes were dashed, and she was standing here with this pixie of a girl from San Diego instead of Todd. It wasn’t fair, but that was life. Francesca had made her peace with it over the past months, the transition was just hard. And talking to Eileen about moving in made it a reality that Francesca had to face. She was by far the most suitable candidate Francesca had seen so far. And if her credit and references checked out, Francesca was willing to rent her the top floor. She told her the price, and Eileen didn’t flinch. It wasn’t enormous, but it was enough to cover a quarter of the mortgage payment Francesca had to make.
“I think I can manage that. I thought I was going to be able to get my own apartment, maybe with a roommate. But everything I’ve seen so far has been way over my head. This is a lot for me, but it would work, and I like the idea of living with other people. It feels safer and less lonely that way.” Francesca thought so too. “Do you know who the other tenants will be yet?”
“You’re the first person I’ve seen so far who feels right to me,” Francesca told her honestly, and then told her that she was breaking up with someone who was moving out, and this was the first time she was going to be living with roommates in the house.
“I’m sorry,” Eileen said sympathetically, and looked like she meant it. “I broke up with someone in L.A. That’s why I left. We started going out right after I graduated, and he turned out to be insane. He practically stalked me when I said I wanted some space. He climbed in my window one night and tried to strangle me. I quit my job and came to New York the next day. That was a month ago, and I was really lucky to find a job here.” She looked relieved as she said it and Francesca looked sorry for her. She looked so scrubbed and sweet and innocent, it was hard to imagine anyone wanting to strangle her or scare her.
“It’s a good thing you got away,” Francesca said as they walked back up from the kitchen to the main hall. “There are a lot of crazy people out there.” She had interviewed many of them as potential tenants. “You have to be careful too in a city like New York. This neighborhood is very safe. I walk to and from work. I have an art gallery a few blocks away.”
“How exciting!” Eileen looked thrilled to hear it. “I love going to galleries on weekends.”
She gave Francesca her credit details then and the phone number of her landlord in L.A. She had lived there for her last year of school at LMU and for five months after she graduated. She had worked in a children’s shelter after school, and in a day care center for special needs kids after graduation. Everything about her was wholesome and nice. Francesca promised to call her as soon as she checked it all out. And with the Thanksgiving weekend ahead of them, she reminded her that she couldn’t do it until Monday, but she would get on it immediately then. Eileen said that was fine, and that she hoped Francesca would let her move in. She liked Francesca and loved the house. She said it felt like home to her, and the house where she grew up. It seemed perfect for them both. She was exactly the kind of tenant Francesca wanted, one she didn’t have to worry about. It was rare to find anyone as squeaky clean as that. She thought it a great stroke of good fortune that Eileen had responded to the ad.
Finding Eileen, the first of her tenants, put Francesca in better spirits for the Thanksgiving holiday. She knew it would be hard this year-it was the first holiday in five years that she hadn’t spent with Todd. He was going to his own family in Baltimore, and she was going to her father’s in Connecticut. Her mother had gone to Palm Beach to stay with friends.
Francesca ran into Todd that morning in the hall before they both left. There was a soundless look of sharp pain between them, and he gave her a hug.
“Have a nice turkey,” she said softly.
“You too,” he answered, gave her a quick kiss on the cheek, and hurried out. And she felt odd again as she sighed and went out to her car parked on Charles Street. Their breakup seemed to be taking forever, but it would be over soon. She wasn’t sure if that would be better or worse.
She thought of Eileen again as she drove to Connecticut, and was so glad she’d found her. She seemed absolutely perfect to Francesca. She just hoped her credit checked out, and the references from her landlord.
When Francesca got to her father’s house at noon, there were already a dozen people drinking champagne and standing around the fire, while Avery and a caterer organized things in the kitchen. The turkey looked fantastic and was golden brown. Francesca was planning to spend the night with them after dinner so she wouldn’t have to rush back to the city. Most of the other guests were either locals or artists. Their neighbors, who had a handsome farm, were there, and Henry’s art dealer from New York. It was an arty, intellectual, interesting, lively group. Francesca knew most of them, and always had fun with her father and Avery’s friends. He had never been much of a father to her until recently, but he was good company, and treated her more like a cherished friend than his daughter. It didn’t bother her anymore, but she had always felt cheated by it when she was young, and wanted a real dad, like everyone else, not an eccentric father with a revolving door of twenty-two-year-old girlfriends. Things had improved immeasurably when he married Avery, but Francesca was twenty-five by then. And at thirty-five, she accepted him for what he was, talented, kind-hearted, irresponsible, and fun to be with. And she was very grateful for his helping her out with the gallery recently.
He told everyone at lunch that he was now a partner in her gallery. And his dealer told her quietly after lunch that he had just sold another of her father’s paintings for her, at an amazing price, so she was going to be able to make yet another payment to Todd for the house. Thanks to the sale of the four paintings, she had almost paid him the full amount. One more would do it. And that left her one that she could keep. Everything had worked out just right, and in a remarkably short time. All she had to do now was find two more tenants to make the mortgage payments with her.
She spent the night at her father and Avery’s, and went back to the city on Friday afternoon. She had closed the gallery for two days for the holiday, but planned to reopen on Saturday. They got a lot of people just looking on Saturdays, but the occasional serious buyer as well. Much to her delight, they had a busy day and several young couples came in. They looked around nervously at first, afraid her prices would be too stiff for them, and were thrilled to discover that her prices were well within their range. It was the whole point of what she was doing. She wanted to bring young collectors together with artists starting out on their careers. She sold three very handsome paintings to two of the couples. The paintings were big, reasonably priced, and would make their d?cor. The prices were so low that it wasn’t a major financial victory for her, but the three sales made her heart sing and she knew all three artists would be as excited as the people who had just bought their work. The art they sold was beautiful, and she was proud of it and each one of their artists. The people who bought paintings from her that weekend were so elated about their purchases that it touched her heart. It always did. She couldn’t wait to tell the artists, all of whom desperately needed the sales. She felt like a mother hen with each one of them. And the day before, talking to her father’s friends, some of them very well-known important artists, had invigorated her. She loved everything about her life in the art world, and being part of the process. She was the link between the creators, some of whom were very talented, and collectors of their work. It was exactly what she wanted to do, and what she knew best. She lived and breathed it. She had a keen eye for new artists, gave them good advice, and had a good sense for what would sell. It was why she was so convinced that given enough time, the gallery would do well. She often spent hours in the studio with her artists, talking about their process or guiding them toward a new phase of their work. They had a deep respect for her.
She spent Sunday cleaning out closets, and getting the upstairs ready for her tenant. And on Monday morning she called Eileen’s landlord in L.A., and started the credit check on her. The landlord said she was a lovely young woman, had given him no problems, and paid her rent on time. And three days later, her credit check came back clean. She had no history of lawsuits, bankruptcy, bad credit, or unpaid bills. Francesca called her and told her she could move in on January 2, the day after Todd left, and Eileen was ecstatic. Now all Francesca had to do was find two more tenants. And from what she had seen in the past month, that wasn’t going to be easy. Eileen was a rare gem as tenants went. But there had to be two more like her, or close enough, somewhere in New York. She was still running the ads, but for the next several weeks all she continued to get were freaks. Sometimes they were so bad that all she could do was laugh when she hung up the phone.
The weekend after Thanksgiving she had dinner with her mother at a small French bistro they both loved, and reported to her victoriously on having found Eileen. Her mother still thought she was crazy, but it was an opinion Francesca had harbored about her for years. She wouldn’t have wanted her mother as a tenant either.
Thalia reported to her daughter about all the social events she had gone to in Palm Beach. She had always had an extremely active social life, and had a particular fondness for fancy watering holes, Palm Beach, Newport, St. Tropez, Sardinia, and St. Moritz, Gstaad, or St. Bart’s in winter. She had never had a job, and thanks to her ex-husbands, she could afford to do what she wanted. She was a totally self-indulgent person, and Francesca thought she was extremely spoiled. She thought of no one but herself. She had gone to a fabulous deb ball the previous weekend in Palm Beach, and was describing to Francesca what she had worn in minute detail. It sounded very pretty, but Francesca didn’t care. She was used to making the right noises and wearing the right expression to feign interest. She couldn’t even begin to imagine how her parents had ever gotten together, although her father had been sexy and young then, and her mother had gotten spoiled and snobbish later on.
She was a striking, still beautiful woman, tall, stately, blond like her daughter, with big green eyes, and smooth creamy skin. She stayed in good shape with the help of a trainer, and she was rigorous about what she ate. She had worn a fur coat to lunch, and had sapphires on her ears, which matched a stylish navy wool dress by Dior. And she was wearing sexy high heels. Men had always flocked to her like bees to honey, and still did, but no one had taken her seriously in a long time. She was a little too fey, just a touch too eccentric, and she looked expensive and spoiled. And referring to her mother as “colorful” had been Francesca’s way of saying that she was a little nuts. She was going to a fat farm after the holidays to stay in shape, and wanted to have a tummy tuck by summer. She still looked great in a bikini. So did Francesca, but she rarely had time to wear one. And she couldn’t help smiling at their feet under the table, when she retrieved her napkin when it slipped off her lap. Her mother was wearing the sexiest high-heeled black patent leather pumps she had ever seen. Francesca had delivered two paintings to clients before lunch and was wearing jeans and sneakers. The two women were nothing alike.
“And what are you doing for Christmas?” Thalia asked Francesca with a bright smile, as though she were someone else’s daughter, or a niece she saw once a year. The question made it clear that Thalia wasn’t planning to spend it with her. She never did. She usually went skiing in Switzerland, or to St. Bart’s in the Caribbean, particularly if someone invited her on a yacht, which happened often. Thalia’s life was one long vacation all year round.
“Maybe I’ll go to Dad’s for Christmas,” Francesca said vaguely in answer to her mother’s question.
“I thought he was going skiing in Aspen,” her mother said, frowning. “I think that’s what Avery said. It’s been a while since we talked.”
“Then I’ll stay home. I’m keeping the gallery open that week anyway, so I’ll be busy, and Todd is moving out.”
“That’s too bad. You two should have gotten married. It might have kept you together.”
“That never kept you with anyone when it stopped working,” Francesca said matter-of-factly.
“That’s true.” Her mother smiled sweetly at her. “I always seem to fall in love with someone else.” Francesca didn’t remind her that that hadn’t happened in a long time. “Maybe I’ll meet someone in St. Bart’s,” she said dreamily, with a hopeful expression. She was always hoping to fall in love again and get married. For Thalia, life without a husband was a wasteland. She was always on the hunt.
Francesca changed the subject and told her about her tenant then, and her mother frowned in disapproval. “I don’t care if she’s a Girl Scout and looks like Little Bo Peep. I still think you’re crazy to live with strangers. You have no idea who these people are, or who they’ll drag in.”
“I have no other choice, Mom, if I want to keep the house.”
“You’d be much better off in an apartment, by yourself.”
“I don’t want an apartment. I love my house.”
“You can’t live in a house without a man. It’s just not safe.”
“Maybe one of my tenants will be a man,” Francesca said blandly, thinking of the people she had talked to, and how unsuitable most of them had been, which she did not share with her mother.
“You need a husband, Francesca,” Thalia said, and then laughed, “and so do I.” Francesca disagreed on both counts but didn’t say so. Her mother always said things like that and she no longer took the bait. There was no point.
“When are you leaving for St. Bart’s, Mom?” she asked her, to steer her onto neutral subjects.
“Two days before Christmas. I can hardly wait. I’m so tired of winter. I’m going skiing in Switzerland right after that. You should try to get away.” Her mother lived on a different planet, of parties and vacations, and never realized how hard Francesca worked. Whatever Francesca had, she had made on her own, and built from scratch. Her father had paid for her education, and she had supported herself ever since. And the money her mother had gotten in settlements from her ex-husbands she kept to herself. She felt she had earned it.
Francesca left their lunch feeling as she always did after seeing her mother, emotionally hungry. There was nothing satisfying about their exchanges, and never anything meaningful or deep. At least her encounters with her father were fun.
He stopped in at the gallery that week and bought a small painting for Avery that he thought she would like. Francesca gave him the partner’s rate, which made it ridiculously cheap, but he loved the work she sold. He was impressed that she frequently went to art fairs in other cities to discover new artists and spent hours in her artists’ studios, studying their new work with them. And he thought that most of what she had in the gallery was very good. He had a strong feeling that one or two of the artists she represented would have important careers one day. She told him that the artist he was buying had been selling well, and had sold several bigger pieces since Thanksgiving, although her father thought her prices were too low, and very fair. She commented that people seemed more willing to spend money right before the holidays. Her father was particularly pleased that he had just sold a very important piece himself. He was planning to buy Avery a new car, a Range Rover, with some of what he’d made. She had always wanted one, and despite her success, she still drove an ancient Toyota that Henry insisted wasn’t safe, and she had refused to let him replace it until then. He said he was going to surprise her with the car for Christmas before they left for Aspen.
It struck Francesca as she closed the gallery on Christmas Eve that neither of her parents was worried about what she was going to do for Christmas. They always made their own plans. It had made holidays more meaningful with Todd, but not this year. He had plans of his own, and she had none. There were friends and artists she could have called, but she didn’t feel like it. She had turned down two invitations. She felt melancholy this year and wanted to be alone. Todd was moving out in a few days, and his boxes were stacked in the hall when she got home. It was happening. She was ready for it now, but sad. It would have been hard not to be.
She watched movies and ate Chinese takeout on Christmas Eve. She hadn’t set up a Christmas tree and didn’t miss it. She wanted the holidays to pass as quickly as possible. And after the New Year, she could start a whole new life, alone again.
Both her parents called her on Christmas Day, and she saw Todd on his way out. He waved, smiled, and was talking to someone on his cell phone as he left. She noticed that he was wearing a suit, and wondered where he was going and with whom. It was hard to believe now that they had ever lived together, or had anything in common.
She took a long walk around the West Village that afternoon, and smiled at couples she saw, strolling with children. Some were carrying stacks of presents to someone’s house, and she saw a Santa Claus in a red velvet suit get out of his car, put on his hat and beard, and hurry in to a party. It was a strange day to be alone, but in a funny way she didn’t mind it. It was easier than pretending she was happy. She thought of her mother on the yacht in the Caribbean, hoping to meet a man, and her father and Avery in Aspen, and this year she was glad to be on her own. She went to bed early that night and was glad the day was over.
And then the day she had anticipated and dreaded for months came at last. She went to bed at nine o’clock on New Year’s Eve, and was sound asleep by midnight, and in the morning she could hear Todd thundering up and down the stairs, moving his boxes. He had rented a truck, and had two friends helping him. Francesca wandered into the living room, in time to watch them pick up the couch. They had already agreed to what each of them was keeping and he had paid for the couch. It was a good-looking brown leather piece that went well with their d?cor, and she knew she’d have to buy a new one. He had agreed to let her keep the bed and most of the things in their bedroom, although he had paid for them too. But he wanted the couch and the two big chairs that went with it, for his new apartment. Francesca tried not to feel her stomach turning over as she saw them go. She felt as though her body parts had been sawn off and were packed in each box, and somewhere amid the bubble wrap and styrofoam popcorn, along with their wineglasses that he had paid for too, was her heart.
It was over by midafternoon on New Year’s Day. The truck was packed to the gills, and Todd came to find her, standing in the kitchen, with a devastated look, looking out at the wintry garden.
“I’m leaving,” he said softly, as she turned to face him, and he saw tears roll down her cheeks. He took her in his arms, and he was crying too. “I know this sounds stupid now, but I love you. I’m sorry it worked out like this.”
“So am I. I love you too.” But no matter how much it hurt and they cared about each other, they both knew it was for the best. It hadn’t worked.
“Call me if you need me. I’ll come and help, anytime.” She nodded, unable to say another word. And with that he kissed her on the forehead, turned, and walked up the stairs, as she stood in the kitchen and cried. She heard the front door close a few minutes later. He was gone. It felt as though someone had ripped out her heart, and she knew he felt no better. It was hard to believe, but it had finally happened. The house was hers, and his days at 44 Charles Street were over. All she could do now was move on. She could tell he already had.