Not to toot my own horn or anything, but in the sixth grade I almost nabbed first place at my school’s spelling bee. (Please hold your applause until the end, thanks.) Panicked by what such a prize might mean for my social standing, I purposely fumbled at the last second, omitting the “e” in “hearth”. Cringe-worthy, yes, but likeability was everything then, and academic ambition carried no weight with the cool kids.
It took years for me to stop tempering my tenacity. Today I have no qualms about “admitting” that my competitive drive is alive and kicking, but the ghost of that insecure sixth grader still likes to turn up now and then.
Two years ago in Florence, she cost me—wouldn’t you know it—a hearth. More precisely, an affordable one-bedroom with a tease of a fireplace and floozy of a terrace. See, I went on a group visit to a renovated rental, newly on the market in a sought-after neighborhood. I’d been herded upstairs with a dozen other hopefuls after arriving to the address and wondering what they were doing at my visit.
Bearing documents and buste paga, I’d come ready to sign on-site. I’d also dimly assumed the agent would walk me through alone. Instead, competition was cutthroat: nearly everyone else was part of a couple with two paychecks. One woman was pregnant. The lone single guy in the group was, heartbreakingly, a young widower, desperate to leave the place he’d shared with his wife. So he said, anyway.
The place itself was absurdly, irritatingly perfect, and the agent knew this; she seemed to enjoy it. We circled back to the front door, group-gazing at the space like Davids on Bathshebas, dogs on bones, Florence residents on 600-euro bilocali. “Allora,” the agent began, playing dumb, “if anyone’s interested…”
Like everyone else, I piped up and left my details, but kind of knew it was a lost cause. I could have cornered the agent again after the group dispersed, but the sixth grade part of my soul was a little too timid, a smidge convinced that somehow, she was undeserving. (Plus, the pregnant girl refused to budge. She might very well have stayed until her water broke.)
I got home and sent an email, left a voicemail, lit a votive candle. Called again the next morning and it was clear I wouldn’t advance to the next round of the rental bee. “Four people from last night are here in my office right now,” barked the agent. “I only want serious offers. Are you coming or what?”
Now and again I do wonder what might have been had I acted more ruthless. I’ve got spunk, to be sure. But living here—indeed, just living—requires such stamina. Sometimes it’s simply not in me to be serious and obstinate about every single thing.
Spelling, though, is another matter entirely.