The Art of Anonymous Intimacy: My Life as a Reluctant Landlord

January 21, 2016 | 1 book mentioned 1 10 min read

This piece is being published anonymously in order to protect the privacy of individuals mentioned. Names and select details have also been changed.

The e-mail from Mary reads:

I hope you and Henry are happy and well; enjoy the spring days that are just around the corner. Your wonderful home has become ‘another home’ for me, and I thank you for that comfort.

She goes on to let us know her travel schedule — she will be leaving in two days’ time, a few days earlier than expected, for Delhi, then on to Palampur in the north — and shares her concerns about the earthquakes in Nepal. Thankfully, she writes, all her friends, and most of their loves ones, are safe. We trade another set of emails about what’s sprouting in the garden, the neighbor’s dog (she seems to be barking more, maybe there’s a bear or a coyote?), and light bulbs that need replacing. Do we need anything from the house? If so, she’s happy to bring it to the city; she’ll be spending a few nights with her son in Brooklyn before flying out. I write back that I can’t think of anything, and I wish her safe and peaceful travels.

When we arrive at the house following Mary’s departure, everything is, as usual, in perfect order. There is a butternut squash and cut flowers in a mason jar on the dining table. Epsom salt in the bathroom. A half-full box of pasta, a can of tomatoes, some oatmeal in the pantry. The refrigerator is spotless. Later, we will find colorful good-fortune trinkets upstairs.

I imagine Mary’s son as a lucky young man (or maybe he is closer to middle-age?), whose mother is both a lovingly consistent presence in his life, and a woman with fiercely independent energies. But then again, maybe he resents her independence, not to mention her far-flung spiritual pursuits; if that’s what they are, these regular trips to India. I suppose I’ve assumed this — unconsciously imagined ashrams and meditation retreats. On another occasion, however, Mary has written from Kuala Lumpur, where she was “teaching.” Teaching what? I had not been inclined to ask. Are there grandchildren? She has never mentioned any. Surely she would have. Or would she? It seems her son’s father is long out of the picture; one reads between the lines.

But really, who am I to imagine or assume anything about Mary?

After all, despite the fact that she has spent nearly six months living in our home over the last three years and has intimate knowledge of our books, music, movies, kitchen cabinets, maybe the contents of bedroom closets and drawers too — why not? — I’ve never actually met Mary.

About halfway through his month-long stay in August — a solo retreat to launch his retirement — Jack writes:

Bailey [the Labrador retriever] and I have gotten into a Zen-like rhythm of morning coffee and a walk, time spent reading and working, a quick trip to the L-ville store or perhaps G-dale in the afternoon, another walk and porch sitting time while the sun goes down, more reading and a little work, followed by restful, quiet slumber. It’s a perfect August for us. I spent my childhood summers in Maine and this experience reminds me of those days.

The boys came last week to cut the grass so I chatted with them briefly about their new mower which, they proudly showed me, can turn on a dime. Bailey and I went to the landfill once just for fun because I’ve discovered landfills are a great way to get a feel for a place and its people. Up in Springfield, Ellen and I would call our occasional trips to the dump a “date” because it’s just plain fun seeing all the neighbors, and sorting & tossing trash. When I pulled out my wallet and the crusty gentleman gruffly informed, “We don’t take plastic — ain’t got no electric here,” I felt right at home

We exchange other, briefer emails — sometimes logistical, more often a new installment re: the adventures of Jack & Bailey. At one point, Jack addresses one of these installments to three of us — his wife Ellen, me, and my husband Henry — as if we are all one happy family. When we arrive at the house the day after his departure, we find it squeaky clean — almost no trace of Jack, or Bailey, at all; our own dog circles his bed calmly and plops down without event. What we do find, prominently displayed in the center of the dining table, is a homemade booklet, filled with poems that Jack read during his stay — Wendell Berry, Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Creeley, Dorianne Laux, James Wright, et alia — each accompanied by a watercolor printout, and occasionally a notation:

Jane Hirshfield’s “Tree” — “For the wolf pines that have been here so long…”

Frank Stanford’s “Everybody Who Is Dead” — “upon reading of several tragic Syrian massacres”

Ha Jin’s “Ways of Talking” — “I looked, read, enjoyed your wonderful books — including yours…”

Sarah also pulled my novel off the shelf (we keep many books at the house, and mine is not displayed in a prominent spot, so I always find this interesting) and read it. She wrote: “Your novel rocked my world!” A musician and yoga teacher, Sarah was our first tenant. Our first successful tenant, I should say.

The first was Wendy. We’d put a lot of hope in Wendy, since our financial situation had changed and the foray into renting out our little farmhouse upstate was our best chance of keeping it. Wendy was a marketing design manager from Dumbo and was so excited to spend a month in the country working on a writing project. Her initial messages were full of exclamation points and over-the-top enthusiasm for sustainable living. I wrote that we had a large vegetable garden and an active compost pile, and she was thrilled. “Your home is sounding more and more exciting each passing moment,” she wrote. “I can’t wait to get there!” We were not able to meet Wendy when she arrived, but we’d planned to stop in and say hello halfway through her stay.

Upon arrival, she texted, “The house is so adorable with such great character!” I found myself getting caught up in Wendy’s enthusiasm: she was our first tenant! We were so glad to host her! We hoped she would have a peaceful and productive stay and would adore the place as much as we do! (Generally, I do not use the word “adore.”)  And we looked forward to meeting her.

Within a week, however, there was a marked shift: every day brought a new complaint, tinged with a passive-aggressive tone. She asked for the name of our cleaning person, while insisting there was no problem. On the second day of 90-degree heat, she asked if we had an extra fan; we did, and I told her where to find it. When I reminded her that the house stays cooler when the windows are closed, she wrote that it was fine, “just stuffy.” Then we didn’t hear from Wendy for a few days and hoped she had settled in. By the 11th day of her month-long booking, she left. We didn’t know this until day 12, however, when she wrote us an eight-paragraph email that began, “I gave it my best shot, but I just couldn’t take it.” She went on to describe everything that was wrong with our house: mainly, that it is creaky and the floors are uneven (in other words, it is an old farmhouse), there is no air conditioning (this we made clear in advance), and there are insects about (as there are wont to be in humid summer weather in the woods). Also, “there weren’t enough options for farmers’ markets in the area” — never mind that she hadn’t tended to or harvested any of the vegetables we’d planted right there in the garden, and that we’d left the names and locations of actual farms nearby that sell produce.

We arrived at the house to find all eight bath towels used and in a pile, a completed jumbo-sized jigsaw puzzle, an excess of expensive organic cleaning supplies, and wilted green beans, lettuces, and tomato plants in the garden. There was a feeling of such clashing and dejected energies all around — including, now, our own.

We did not try renting the house again for a year.

We cut back on extras and took on freelance projects. We held out as long as we could, until it was clear that we had to rent it or lose it. We lowered the rent — and thus expectations, we reasoned — and would do all the cleaning ourselves. We would try again, but this time instituting a new policy: we would be attentive but impersonal; we would conduct all interactions in a dispassionate, non-“amazing” fashion (absolutely no exclamation points). We would decidedly not meet the tenants in person.

This was business in the modern world: we would be decent and respectful landlords, responsive but disembodied. Nothing more nothing less.

This policy worked well with Sarah. We were in touch frequently, but always brief and neutral-toned — even when she mentioned my novel: “Thank you, Sarah,” I replied, “glad you’re enjoying it.” Before booking, we reminded Sarah about the age of the house and to bring insect repellent. We planted some vegetables but maintained low expectations for garden upkeep. We provided detailed answers to occasional questions about kitchen appliances and the workings of the gas grill. Everything went fine. Sarah had a productive and restful stay and assured us she’d be back again. On the coffee table she left a thank-you card, as well as information about her website…which I have never visited.

Kelly was a painter, her boyfriend, Paul, a philosopher-academic. Kelly’s emails matched mine in both clarity and reticence, and I thus found myself at ease. We hardly heard from them and didn’t learn too much more about them — other than their robust drinking habits. At the last minute, they’d texted apologetically that they’d run out of time to take the recycling to the transfer station, and we responded that it wasn’t a problem, we were happy to take care of it. Waiting for us on the porch were two gigantic, full bags, almost all bottles — beer, hard liquor, wine, the cheap stuff and a few bottles of the good stuff, too. Henry was amused, even vaguely excited to study the contents.

One of them also liked to bake, we guessed, based on the heavy usage of flour and sugar. They left behind plastic champagne flutes, a lovingly tattered copy of Michel de Montaigne’s essays for the bathroom — in exchange for a recent issue of Dwell magazine, we realized later — and a note:

intamacy1 copy

With Mary and Jack especially, it was tempting to loosen our policy. Why not plan to meet Mary upon arrival next time — it would be her sixth stay — or even rendezvous in the city when she was visiting her son? Once, I caught myself writing, “Safe travels!” (I changed the exclamation point to ellipses before sending.) And why not see Jack and Bailey off before they begin their cross-country road trip back to Ellen?

But we would do no such thing. I knew this.


David presented a new challenge: he was an oversharer to the extreme, evidently tone-deaf to our preference for keeping things businesslike. Within two emails, I knew the fine details of his divorce battle, along with his very raw emotions about it. He was in fact renting our house as a means of escaping the “toxic environment” of the Tribeca apartment he still shared, for financial reasons, with his soon-to-be ex. A few weeks into his stay, things became more dire: the ex was issuing threats, and David’s lawyer advised him not to let anyone know his precise whereabouts. Thus followed an email requesting that I not mention his stay to anyone. “Please don’t worry,” David wrote, which of course made me worry. Was a weapon-wielding ex about to show up on the doorstep and make a scene? A few days later, the threat of immediate drama seemed to abate:

Right now I am not able to speak about anything due to the &^%$ing litigation. Word of advice…on your most loving and appreciative day of one another sit down and write down agreements about everything.

Week by week, he shared new developments, on both the financial and relational fronts; which inevitably led to pleas for payment extensions, discounts, and barter arrangements. I did my best to be reasonable and compassionate, yet firm and clear.

David shared a lot other things: what he was eating/cooking/pickling; encounters with wildlife and with several of our neighbors, with whom he became fast friends; photos of dog Molly curled up by the fire and romping in the snow; photos with exuberant captions of his newborn niece; lists of items he was buying and selling on eBay as a new cottage business. He had a wry sense of humor, and his messages were not infrequently entertaining: on Christmas he sent a photoshopped digital card — “Cher” instead of “Cheer” in sparkly red — and wrote: “May all your days be Sonny in 2015.”

David was a force of nature. His messages were epic; my responses brief. He wrote and wrote and wrote, regardless of my decidedly laconic responses. It was not a particularly stable time in my own life, but I was not inclined to mention it. The pattern grew exhausting, and with each manic message, I had to restrain myself from writing, “David, please, we don’t know each other. I am neither your friend nor your therapist.” Occasionally, David seemed semi-aware of the unilateral dynamic: “lol, I just caught myself signing XO and realized although you are my most frequent correspondent we’ve never met and you’re basically my landlady. ;)” On more than one occasion he referred to a “kindred spirit vibe” he felt with Henry and me. David is the one tenant I am quite certain investigated every closet and drawer.

He stayed four months, through a snowy, icy winter. He was conscientious about leaving the house in good condition, though not without a significant footprint — things missing, things left behind, things moved around, broken, repaired, replaced. But how else could it be? We did not mind. Clearly he needed to live in our house those four months, not just stay. A year later I received an email from him, “saying hi and thank you again” — for sharing our home during a dark and sad time in his life. Things were on the upswing now in his life, though not completely resolved. He asked that we pass along his regards to our neighbors, and wrote almost as if there had been no financial transaction involved; as if we’d opened our home out of charity and, well, friendship. I wrote back that it was good to hear from him, and I was very glad to hear that things were settling down. I sent a few vague personal updates and wished him well. And I meant it.

I did not suggest we meet up for coffee.

coverThe truth was that we had become intimately connected to these people because we would not be meeting them in person. The irony is not lost on us: our initial inclination to protect ourselves from all expectation of personal connection gave our guests a comfortable distance from which to entrust us with their kindness, their tokens, their troubles — authentic bits of their authentic selves. I feel close to these people, or at least a warm affinity; we’ve entrusted them with bits of our authentic selves, in the form of a home we have cared for and loved, and they’ve shown not just respect but genuine appreciation. If or when they return, we will take care in preparing — Moosehead Lager for Kelly and Paul, Mason jars for David, maybe Mary Oliver’s Dog Songs for Jack — and we’ll do so with pleasure. Then, we’ll get out of their way.

Henry sometimes Googles our tenants. I do not. He knows not to share with me, within reason, what he finds. He knows some things about David’s ex, from a 20-year-old wedding announcement. He’s seen a picture of Kelly and some of her paintings, found one of Paul’s course syllabi. He’s visited Sarah’s website. Once, he discovered something surprising about Mary, about her son’s father; I told him I didn’t want to know. Maybe she would share it with me someday, in her own way. Shortly after receiving that thank-you email from David, during a season when I was particularly active on Facebook, I gave in to temptation and looked him up; he wasn’t there.

We both like to speculate and imagine. Henry goes straight to the refrigerator and pantry, and doesn’t at all mind hauling the recycling. We can usually tell what books the guests have read (or at least inspected) and what movies they’ve watched. We sometimes curate the shelves in advance, turning certain DVDs and books face out, just for fun.

I think of Wendy every so often. I never responded to her departure email; but maybe now I should. We have become the landlords we were meant to be, and really, we owe that to her. I could write, simply and honestly, Thank you.

Image Credits: The author; Wikimedia Commons.

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