The Duplex

The summer in New York was particularly hot and muggy that year. I was exhausted visiting apartments. The kids were with their grand-parents in France, John was in Dubai and would soon join me. We wanted to buy property in the US. The plan was for me to see as many places as possible before my husband’s arrival and show him the best options.

Barbara picked me up. Our trusted real estate agent was on time, effective and perfectly manicured. Was I ready? This would be a busy day, she added. We were visiting places in the Upper West Side, Chelsea and Midtown.

I was ready. And because of what happened later in the afternoon, I vividly remember every single detail of that day.

The morning went by quickly. A cool loft in Chelsea, a modern 2 bedroom on the Upper West Side, but nothing to shortlist. Barbara and I stopped for a quick lunch on Madison Avenue. The charming Italian restaurant was busy. The waiter, with a moustache and a French accent, took our orders. I had the shaved raw Brussels sprouts and Parmesan salad. Sparkling water with lime. No wine at lunch, thank you. Barbara and I made small talk, waiting for our salads, but it was obvious we didn’t have much to talk about, apart from real estate in New York City. We said yes to black pepper, no to bread and ate our salads in silence. We then ordered expressos, Barbara settled the bill and we left.

Tony, Barbara’s driver, was waiting for us on the corner of Madison and 84th. A soft-spoken, tall black man, he wore sunglasses and a nicely cut, dark grey suit.   

 We drove for a while before Tony dropped us off in a busy Midtown area. He rushed to get out of the car to open my door. We were visiting a duplex, on the 10th and 11th floors. As we entered the building, Barbara listed the great view, the small balcony and the gym in the basement.

The doorman, a Croatian mobster lookalike, wore a uniform that had seen better days. He gruffly asked us to register, called the 10th floor and pointed at the elevator. There were only two doors on that floor. Barbara gestured to the one on our left. We rang and a young man, the seller’s agent, opened. I took in the charmingly old-fashioned style. The tiny pink flowers on the wallpaper. The English countryside kitchen. The duplex was bare, except for one folding chair.

“The duplex has been empty for a while, Mrs. Johnston.”

As soon as I stepped into the living room, my legs failed me and I had to grab on to the wall. As if a powerful and invisible force had hit me. I could no longer stand. I panicked; this had never happened before. Barbara rushed to me and Gary brought the folding chair. He offered to get me water, I declined.

“Gary, who owns this place?”

“I’m afraid I can’t reveal any information about the current owner at this stage…”       

“Ok, then tell me who lived here. Something happened, I can feel it…”

Gary glanced at Barbara, who glanced at me. I questioningly stared at both of them. Did they know something I didn’t?

“What’s going on? If you have some information, I need to know.”

Gary was obviously in an uncomfortable position. Barbara, for once, was silent. That alone was a red flag. Gary started enumerating apartment and building facts…but not what I wanted to know.

I felt better so I slowly stood up and walked over to the sliding doors. The balcony was small indeed, even for New York. The view was partially obstructed by a high rise. The area looked congested. It was noisy. Back in the duplex, I spotted the narrow staircase. As an interior designer, I immediately spotted the place’s great potential upstairs: two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a beautiful library and walk-in closets. One or two walls could be knocked down. The bathrooms and kitchen could be revamped. I noticed the beautiful volume and light facing West. I asked Gary about the price, which I already knew, pretending to be interested. I wanted to know. Something had happened in this duplex. I could feel it, so I tried a different approach.

“Why is the current owner selling?”

“Because…she lives alone now.”

“Divorced?”

“No, she’s a widow.”

“Did her husband die in this apartment?”

“No.” Another uncomfortable silence. Gary cleared his throat. Barbara checked her watch “Shall we go? We still have a few places to see.”

 “He died in the Twin Towers attack. 9/11,” Gary finally blurted out.  

I knew it. Barbara and I left Gary and the duplex to continue the visits. We never talked again about what happened that day.

Last time I checked; it was still empty.


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