To help pay for life after graduate school, I listed my old house on a vacation rental website. It had rented to the same tenants for the eight years I was away, a fussy Republican couple who complained about trees regularly. “What are we supposed to do about all these leaves?” the woman demanded on a yearly basis, as if autumn was both a surprise and disappointment to her. The house seemed like a dream of a former life and I was both pleased and uncomfortable to be back, a stranger amongst things I once counted as mine. I was also jobless and single with student loan debt, wondering how to validate whatever it was I tried to tell people I was doing with my life since at 44 I had neither career nor family. I alternated between struggling what to say when asked, stuttering over responses, or declaring something with an ease that I analyzed for days afterwards. What did I just say I did and why? To list a house filled with my personal belongings as a rental was easier due to my abstract view of the place, of myself, and a distraction from focusing on what felt like being an utter and unique failure, a nobody with nothing.
The hometown I returned to, Fayetteville, Arkansas, was not your typical vacation destination, but people went freaky for Razorback football and special events throughout the year, everything from Walmart shareholders meetings to dentists who trailered their Harleys into town to ride up and down a stretch of bars with other dentists on Harleys. Families attended weddings and wanted places to hang out in front of a fireplace with their grandkids and eat popcorn rather than a hotel lobby bar. Or, they wanted somewhere to get away from other family members at holidays, using cat or food allergies as an excuse. Maybe even a transitional home after leaving their wife, a place to impress new girlfriends with a fully stocked kitchen and crystal martini glasses. I bought new mattresses, fluffy bamboo towels, organic soaps and filled gift baskets with toiletries they might forget. I fixed what needed fixing, squeaky doors, questionable railings, inoperable appliances, and arranged everything in the house I had not lived in for so long, leaving every dresser drawer and closet empty. It was clean, fully stocked and ready for imagined, paying guests.
When you rent your bed out to strangers, you prepare for the worst. You envision weird sex things going on where you sleep, or even worse, ordinary sex things. You imagine yourself wiping all manner of crusted effluvia from your headboard or TV remote and the long, slow ball scratches of strangers before reaching for the lamp switch. “I don’t see how you could have strangers in your beautiful house,” said a few women who found the idea distasteful, no doubt considering the ball scratchers. “Why would you?” They had lovely homes, retirement plans, husbands with great jobs and careers of their own. None of them had pursued a PhD in English, or college teaching. “For money,” I said. No matter how many times I answer this, I am still confused why this is such an odd concept, that I do things for money to buy myself shoes, almond milk, electricity, vodka and the occasional suckling pig. However, most wondered if they could do such a thing with their own homes, asking for tips on listing theirs, including how much I charged, which was enough to bankroll all improvements and provide me with a small living.
My first tenants chose my home from a vacation website where I described the wonders that awaited them: “limestone and natural oak floors, vaulted ceilings, tons of light, a chef’s kitchen with stainless steel island.” They would sleep on bleachable, crisp white sheets and fully launderable bedding accessories I could disinfect after they left. The mattress pad was Gortex in case they murdered a goat or shit themselves from too much whiskey and tacos. I was to stay in my studio basement, a separate and comfortable space that also served as my office with its own porch, bathroom and washer and dryer, and hopefully not overhear anything too crazy in the master bedroom above. For the first group, a bunch of guys reuniting from all over the country for a football weekend, I expected portly former frats with receding hairlines, drinking till they puked and pissing off of my balcony. At worst, some late night hollering and a few beer cans to pick up from the yard. This composite Razorback fan I constructed from memory was white, puffy and ready to party in that lame drunken way that passes for wild now that he was away from the wife and kids for a few days. What I got were five young, gay hog fans who loved my house.
Staging is what you do with a space when you want to sell it. You want anyone who sees it to desire it, or at least want to hang out there for a very long time, playing to their imagination of how they would enjoy occupying that room. It is similar to how we present ourselves to others—considering what cowboy hat to wear, which dick joke to tell, or not, what to tell people you do with yourself since surviving a failed assassination attempt while on a Fulbright researching corruption in Indonesia. You walk in and consider what a photographer would see. What angle would they shoot from? Where does the light play best on that painting? Which is my least damaged side? Conversely, since the home is to be occupied, you don’t want it to look too staged or sterile. Personal photographs, books and artwork can be slung about in a tidy way. You have to ignore the insistence of people who want to flex the interior design muscles they never applied to their own home, and the barely concealed disappointment they express in your choices. “Yeah. I guess I can see how that might go there.” Finally, you want to ensure that everything you have ever delighted in when you rented a home yourself is available, and not a single pubic hair or liquor store receipt is blowing about on the floor. What you conceal is as important as what you reveal.
I met the first guests at my door, two young men, stylish after their long flight that I briefly showed around. After this I retreated to the basement, which felt kind of Lurch-like. The creature in the bowels of the house, showing the masters where their towels were located. I assumed I wouldn’t be able to hear much, but had neglected to consider how loud people can be on a weekend getaway when they are in a good mood and surrounded by friends. I heard them wandering through the house and was gratified with the number of times I heard someone holler, “Wow!” and congratulations to the guy who found the rental for them. More men arrived, Katy Perry was pumped up on the sound system in a perpetual loop that would last for the next 48 hours, and from the howls of delight I could tell the house was a success with the guests. “She sure loves cats, doesn’t she?” one guy said loudly. There was a cat painting in the master bedroom, and a handful of cat figurines scattered around. I thought, “Yeah? So?” but then it wasn’t followed up with anything snide about felines. Their conversation was nothing I wouldn’t wander around a stranger’s house and not say myself. One house my family rented in Santa Fe had an extensive military hat collection hanging on the wall of my bedroom. “They sure love their Prussian helmets, don’t they?” I’d said.
My mother called. “How’s it going?
“They’re all gay, and they love Katy Perry,” I said.
“Who?” my mother said.
“She’s pretty and sings and wears costumes,” I said.
My mother seemed relieved. Part of the fear of renting your house out and managing it yourself, especially as a single woman, is opening your home up to potentially unpleasant people. Dangerous. Bent on mischief or harassment. The kinds of people who get on an airplane just to come fuck up your life and threaten your physical safety. We spend most of our lives avoiding, hiding from, locking our doors to and generally sidestepping big, hairy strangers. We do not make a habit of giving them the code to the front door and allowing them the wide, open opportunity to rub their nuts on everything.
The guys settled in and between bursts of raucousness filled with Katy Perry, or silence when they were attending a Razorback event, I found myself also settling in to the basement. I got a kick out of hearing them have a good time and enjoy the house, plus the hum of my basement, beer fridge was soothing. When they invited me up for an evening of BBQ with their grandparents, I didn’t hesitate to accept. Originally, I had a bunch of rules I set for myself. Rule One: No fraternizing with guests of the house in case any of these strangers turned out to be extra strange. But, it was BBQ. Grandparents and BBQ. The guys were charming and polite, treating me as if I were their dinner guest and not the landlady. “We love your book collection,” a young man visiting from D.C. said. They asked what I did; who I was and I tried to construct some brief description that could conceivably be the person they saw sitting before them. I sat at my own dining table being served by others who had assumed temporary ownership. When they were drunk enough they began speed ordering designer chickens on their I-Phones for their grandparents. “Oh, yes!” they said. “Perfect!” “Come on, now,” said their grandparents, patiently, but they didn’t seem too worried about the boxes of chickens launched their direction by the mysteries of the Internet. The BBQ and drinking continued, but I excused myself early so as not to intrude.
Later that night as I lay in the basement, I heard someone having polite sex in my bed. Quiet, rhythmic creaks and low moans. My first thought surprised me. It wasn’t the sex in my bed that bothered me; it was that it was a new mattress I had never christened with my own romp. This was the crossed territory line I had not anticipated, animalistic and simple. I could not call first dibs on my own bed. No matter that I didn’t have anyone to call dibs with at that time, these guys had planted their flag. A half hour later I heard a loud thump and thud, like someone hitting both wall and floor, and a stumbling, wrecking ball of a human plummeting into the bathroom, followed by copious puking. “What ARE you doing?” said a voice. Then retching, gurgling, and more retching. The room was going to be a puke and semen soaked mess when I saw it next. All my worst fears realized.
After the men left, I crept up the stairs to survey the damages. Sheets were neatly stripped from beds. Trash placed in the trashcan outside. Towels in tidy piles. Dishes washed. No visible puke or semen stains. When I opened the refrigerator, I considered another of my original rules. Rule Two: Do not eat strangers’ food as it may have icky stranger germs. Would you eat a sandwich you found on the street? Here was a smorgasbord one cannot pack for plane travel though. As I dragged items out to throw away, smoked meats and cheeses, I couldn’t help but see the insane waste. Hadn’t I just eaten this? Keeping the abandoned booze was an easier choice, but it was the half eaten Cheezits that gave me pause. Here was something delicious, salty and savory, that could realistically have been fondled by ball-scratching, stranger fingers. I held the box, smelling the contents, willing myself to discern the hygiene habits of the guy that ate only half of them. The Cheezits won out over my fear. Discovering stranger whiskey, stranger ham, stranger hot sauce, stranger rum, each time guests vacated became a welcome source of found, usually junk, food.
More guests came, keeping me consistently in my basement, while the Razorbacks slogged through a disappointing season and I staged my persona, tweaking it by rearranging books and switching out photos around the house. Now, I was their erudite, world-traveling host with a flair for tumbleweed as an accent piece. I put pictures of my ancestors holding strings of frogs up or sitting stonily in front of their general store, remnants of an Ozark past, mixed in with encaustic abstracts and African masks. In person, I constructed a ghost version of myself, someone pleasant and unreadable, helpful but aloof, aware from their volume that I was speculated about far more than I scrutinized my houseguests thanks to the trinkets of my life on private display. Who was I with this house, in this place, with my stuffed frog band and extensive graphic novel collection? Most people arrived happy, pleased to be meeting up with friends and family, and left happy too, sometimes leaving me elaborate cards, gifts of wine, or accent pieces for the house they purchased and wrapped in their leftover holiday paper. Usually I only saw them when I gave them the door code upon arrival, but I could hear the variations of their family interactions from the floors above.
There was barking laughter, occasionally a semi-hushed argument in the master suite, hissing noises with sharp, individual words punctuating the silence, followed by shushing sounds. I was alone in the basement, applying for jobs I wouldn’t get, overhearing the arguments, the dull exhalations of passion and creaks of the bed. The whining passivity of the uncertain or resistant. What shoes should I wear? Do I really have to go? Why does she get to and I don’t? One interesting family dynamic was a group gathered from different parts of the country with one child, a toddler, to spend time together and get to know Hunter.
I met Hunter when they first arrived. He was an ordinary kid, sleepy, silent and obviously weirded out by the new scene and people. The loudest group I ever had was this family and the toddler, and not because of the toddler. The paternal and maternal grandparents, aunts or uncles and parents themselves vied for who could pretend to be the most fascinated with Hunter, repeating his name in ever increasing volume and shrillness. “Hunter! Hey, Hunter! Yay! Hunter!” I never heard Hunter utter a sound loud enough to reach the basement, but the continual, chirping of the adults in higher and higher octaves punctuated every moment of daylight. By day two I had tried stuffing earplugs in and the adults had grown weary but refused to be the first to break. “Bye-bye Hunter! Can you wave bye-bye?! Bye Hunter!” “See you HUNTER! BYE!” There had been a negotiation to see who would stay with the boy while the rest of the family went to a bar to not focus on Hunter. The mother took the first shift to stay alone with the toddler. “Can you say bye-bye Hunter?! Wave bye-bye!” She chimed in, piercing and false to match everyone else, until the door closed. “NO! Hunter!” She said wearily. “I said, NO!” All excitement in her son’s existence had drained from her voice as she expressed his name in a flat, emotionless monotone, angry at whatever the kid was up to. Upon return of the boozy in-laws and husband, her voice ratcheted skyward, “Hunter! Look who’s home! YAY!” A cacophony of shrill, “Hey! Hunter!” until the next day, when the father was left alone with his child. “Dammit, Hunter!” he said, “God!” His voice sharp with disgust. I wondered if this would create a dissonance or distrust in the kid’s perception of adults, adoration and focus randomly heaped upon or withheld according to the audience. I saw so many parents perform this way around their children, but now I imagined them all bored and defeated once the last audience member left, maybe even a little disgusted with themselves for the duplicity. The staging of modern parenting continued until their departure, but at least they left plenty of fresh, organic food behind, ineffectively purchased for the child.
There was much that people didn’t know about their best friends, their lovers, their children I could hear from my basement, but some took the extra step to confess directly to me. I was the ultimate stranger. Safe. I appeared tidy and reasonable. Looked them straight in the eye. Asked simple questions where it appeared they wanted to express something, and told them very little about myself. It wasn’t about me. It was about their enjoyment of the time they had purchased. I was a walking, talking sounding board, showing them where the fresh towels were and retreating at once to the basement. “Text me if you have any questions,” I said. They came from LA, from Boston, from San Francisco and New York City. Flying into the airport that Walmart built it was the first time in Arkansas for many. The home and town was not what they had imagined, and as their family wore upon them or they drank their way into confessional states, the texts and personal asides increased.
“Sometimes, I dress up like a woman and have sex with men,” said one houseguest, pulling me away from his friends and whispering in my ear. He had arrived with old college buddies, meeting up from all over the country to attend a football game. “I can’t tell these guys ‘cause they would bust my balls about it.” He was a large, hairy man, and he and his friends, after much coaxing, had talked me into having a drink with them in my own kitchen. Once again I was breaking my rule number one. He had become engaged to a beautiful blond woman two weeks earlier, whose picture he kept flashing around on his iPhone, his friends joking about how nice her tits were. In the brief time I had been around his friends, I assured him that he was probably right about them not understanding, but did his new fiancé know about this? “Well, she knows I like to dress up,” he said. He also said he thought I would make a good dominatrix because of my demeanor, and that he paid $500 an hour to someone to tell him he had been a very bad boy. “Really?” I said, briefly imagining myself in leather, insulting people at will and smacking them with riding whips. (A cool job, I thought, if you didn’t have to see them naked.) I refused the remaining invitations due to them coming from someone who envisioned me as a prostitute though, but shortly after their departure the text images began arriving. The first, a close up of a man’s beefy, hairy buttocks encased in 1940s sky, satin panties, the hair pressing in subtle patterns against the fabric. The photos that followed showed his bulky legs in garters, high heels, posing at suggestive angles with ruffle panties, and finally a peach evening gown. “Peach suits you,” I said, meaning to be polite and helpful. It did. The blue satin clashed and was somehow tacky against the fur, but the peach evening gown matched his olive skin tone and brought out his eyes. “I can tell you are not into this,” he said, and the texts stopped. Maybe I should’ve told him to flog himself.
The confessions and ongoing attempt at connection threw me. As big a voyeur as I had the potential to be, I backed away from invitations from future guests, or any enlistment in their affairs. It wasn’t the texted images, their personal habits or concealment, it was the implications for the world my houseguests inhabited, the secrets they concealed from one another and the lies they were performing in public. I didn’t want to have to know. It pained me to see the strain. I also felt strangely comforted by their public and private orchestrations, a temporary release again and again from my own obsessions about who I was or was supposed to be, or wanted others to believe. Mostly, I felt an increased connection and sympathy with the people who came to my doorstep, slept in my bed, doing who knows what with each other and the TV remote. They were earnest in searching for a good time and connections in a beautiful staged space, with their staged personalities and found this staged stranger, a nonthreatening person in the basement who would provide the toiletries they needed, listen and give them suggestions for Thai delivery. I don’t stay in the house any more when it is rented, but I still am the pleased recipient of stranger, spiral cut ham and an occasional greeting card expressing gratitude to me as if I had done them a favor, as if I was someone they wanted to know and impress.
Rose Bunch is a MacDowell Fellow, Fulbright Scholar and Tennessee Williams Scholar. Her work has appeared in Tin House as the New Voice in American Fiction, New Letters (winner of the Dorothy Cappon Prize in Nonfiction), The Greensboro Review, Poem, Memoir, Story, River Styx, Gulf Coast, Fugue, Surreal South and Speed Chronicles from Akashic Books, a short story collection concerning the effects of the methamphetamine industry on America. She received her MFA from the University of Montana, her PhD from Florida State University, and she currently lives and writes in her hometown of Fayetteville, Arkansas.