This. Is. It.” I walked up and down over the warped and broken floorboards, tracing a finger across a wall-sized hand-painted mural of what appeared to be an angry deer lurking behind some black trees.
“This. Is. Horrible.” Brigette looked at me in despair.
“All these walls,” I gestured wildly, “can come down.”
We were alone in the third-floor Tribeca loft we had read about just that morning in the New York Times. I had asked the woman showing us the space if we could have a few minutes to ourselves. I knew I had to convince my wife that what she was seeing—and smelling—was only temporary, that a full-scale renovation would transform it into the glorious New York City loft of our imaginations.
“Forget what you’re looking at,” I said. “Forget everything.” I came up behind her. “Imagine that none of these little rooms are here,” I whispered. “Imagine the space.”
We had just been given a tour of the seven or eight little rooms that had been carved into the 2,000-or-so-square-foot expanse—weird, windowless enclosures skillfully designed, it seemed, to provoke feelings of alienation and despair.
"Well,” Brigette acknowledged, “it is pretty big.”
And so there followed three years of almost unendurable torture. Hiring a crew. Demolishing the floors, ceilings, and walls (including the lovely mural). Designing the space. The rough framing. The plumbing. Oh, you want water going through these pipes? That’s $10,000 extra. Electricity? Oh, you mean everywhere in the apartment? Ventilation. A gas line. A furnace. And millions of other things that, trust me, you never thought about in your entire life and that only seem to be available at $10,000 a shot. Did I mention the mice that scamp-ered and cavorted beneath our bed at night because the walls were open to the elements? Or those early days when the only way to get into the place was to climb the fire escape, go in through the window, and hop precariously from beam to beam?
Because Brigette and I couldn’t afford to take on a new mortgage and pay rent on our old apartment, we moved in as early as we could—which meant before there was hot water, before there was air-conditioning, before there were floors, before, I’ll be honest, it was habitable. We pushed our bed into the middle of what would later become the kitchen and covered it with an enormous plastic tarp to keep the sawdust out of the sheets. We cooked our meals on a hot plate and took our showers at the gym. We breathed the fumes of that caustic stuff they use to remove paint from brick walls. We read books by the glare of construction lamps. Some mornings we woke up to find carpenters placidly reading the paper over a cup of coffee a few feet from our bed. Every night I said, “Trust me, sweetheart, this is going to be amazing, beautiful, fantastic.” And every night Brigette cried.
But gradually, slowly, incrementally, after a million timid steps forward and a thousand painful steps back, things started to change. On the day we got hot water there were tears of joy instead of despair. One day we had a floor, not just a plywood subfloor, but an actual expanse of honey-colored birch.
After living through clouds of dust from the sanding and polishing of the Sheetrock, a powder that permeated every piece of clothing and coated every object, we looked around one afternoon at clean, high walls of white. The hot plate gave way to a profes-sional stove. The bed was pushed into the actual bedroom. Furniture was unpacked. Brigette picked up some daisies and put them in a vase. We stood in the same spot we had stood on the day I talked her into moving here and marveled at every miniscule detail, observing a hushed silence, awed at all that we had done and gone through, until finally Brigette sighed and said, “I think we need to redo the kitchen.”