His phone buzzes, and a side glance clocks the loopy logo that accompanies a booking request for his guest room. Don’t let it be for today. Don’t let it be for today. Maybe don’t pick up the phone? He does—it’s for today. Until Monday. The whole weekend. A perfectly nice booking, should it have come even yesterday. But today? It annoys him that even though he has the listing set to at least one day’s notice, he still gets these requests. And right at the end of the workweek (the work-from-home week, but still). He won’t have time to prep the room. Never mind that it is already prepped, the bed made and everything clean. It’s the principle of the thing.
On the other hand… It’s been a couple of weeks without bookings. The host has allowed himself to not care because of the stimulus check, but that isn’t going to last forever in a COVID world where guest rooms are not in high demand. He opens the notification. Potential earnings of $157. Hmm. The guest has no reviews, joined the site a couple of months ago. But at least he provided a government ID. The host reads the request message, a very nondescript intro. He decides to stall—”what time would you want to check-in?” “ASAP,” says the reply. The host asks for an hour to prep. The guest accepts.
Half an hour goes by without new messages. Then, a problem: the guest says he’s having trouble with his card, they were at another place that got canceled and the refund for the remainder of that reservation hasn’t come in yet so he can’t afford to book the host’s guest room for the entire weekend. Could they just book for Friday and extend when the refund hits? The host clocks the “they.” Checks the reservation—yep, it’s for two. Alarms sound. The host can’t fight two people. They are going to come into the apartment and then refuse to leave when it turns out they can’t pay for the whole stay. No refund hits a card on a Saturday. This is a red flag. Plus the host has a two-night minimum policy. What if mysterious forces had him set it months ago not to cut down on the amount of sheets to wash, but to prevent him from making this mistake now?
“Why was their previous reservation canceled,” the host asks? The guest says, “medical circumstances.” That could mean so many things. But… it’s a pandemic wasteland out there. Who else is going to host them this late? He puts himself in their shoes even though he doesn’t want to. Is he really going to force this couple to spend a night on the street because of, what, neurosis? It’s not even a cleaning weekend, he doesn’t need to worry about people roaming around the apartment. No, wait, it is a cleaning weekend. Well, Monday’s a holiday. He’ll clean after they’re gone. Before he can keep thinking about it, he approves the one-night request, with the deep certainty that the refund won’t hit the guest’s card tomorrow and things will get ugly.
He became a host earlier this year, a few months after his roommate moved out. Everyone warned them—don’t live with your best friend. The first year, they proved everyone wrong. The two after that… It was the host who decided they shouldn’t live together anymore, in what he saw as a mature decision meant to save the friendship from certain doom. He offered to move out, but the roommate couldn’t stay, saying she wouldn’t be happy in a place with so many memories. The host felt weird about not having the same qualms. Should he? Was he emotionally broken for not minding? The day of the move, once he sat down on the couch and stared at the empty room next to his, both of them now under his charge, he felt it all at once: it had been a mistake, and he was now alone, perhaps forever. Corpse-devouring cats were most likely on their way at that very moment to seal his fate.
A few days later, coming back from the gym in the early morning and casting workout music to the smart speaker by the TV, he realized it hadn’t been a mistake at all. He danced as he mixed his protein shake, singing out loud, unafraid to wake anyone up or have anyone think he looked ridiculous. The place was his, and he was free to walk around naked, monopolize the TV, take up as much space and make as much noise and apologize for nothing and ask permission only to himself, which he’d mostly grant. There were really no downsides other than having to clean and do the groceries by himself, activities that the former roommate’s company and help had made less grueling. That, and the fact that the entire rent and utilities were now on him.
He half-attempted to get a new roommate, and when the last choice imploded he gave himself permission to do what had been his dream all along—have a guest room. The math didn’t quite hold up; he’d basically have to rent it the entire month in order to make up for the hole in his finances. Wasn’t the point of it to have the house to himself? But he had a busy year ahead with a lot of trips out of town, which would allow him to offer the entire place at more than double the rate, which should make up for it. The math had never held up anyway. The math never holds up when you live in New York paycheck to paycheck. Money always comes from somewhere just in time. He would figure it out.
And for a while he did, even though the guests weren’t always quiet, or friendly, or clean, and the best part was always when they left. They weren’t bad per se, no one had done anything wrong, other than not squeezing the sponge and leaving it outside the sink to dry, or not closing the shower curtain all the way to prevent mold. Sometimes he even found them endearing, like the Egyptian tourist who called him his “new friend in America,” or the Korean student who told him she’d miss his smile when she checked out. But they were all guilty of the same crime: being in his space. It didn’t matter if they were the chatty kind that sat down on the couch and asked “what show is this?” or the reserved kind that stayed in the room at all times, they were all there, inside the apartment, breathing his air, touching his things. The first night someone stayed the night, a young woman who wouldn’t turn off her light (which he could see under the door as he went to the bathroom), he could barely sleep, imagining all the ways her presence in the house would result in disaster—she’d forget to lock the door, or leave the gas on by mistake. None of that happened, of course. She did leave a stain on the comforter, which is still there today in spite of several washes. The size of a plate. He believes hair cream was the culprit.
Then, the pandemic hit, and he was sure it was finally here, the big reckoning for having the audacity to decide that he needed his own space. Who did he think he was, not having a roommate? Who was going to book a room in the COVID capital of the world? His trips out of town had all been canceled, no double rates on the horizon. He’d be lucky to make even a quarter of what he needed each month. And there were health concerns to think about, contact with strangers. What sort of person would be looking for a spare room now?
The intercom buzzes and he presses the button, in doubt over whether to wait by the door as they come upstairs or occupy himself for 20 seconds and then come back. He chooses to wait, which always results in a few moments of awkward smiles as the guests make it up the second flight; he usually offers help with the luggage, but since the pandemic hit he is wary of touching other people’s things.
He sees the man first, tall, white, somehow both lanky and chubby, wearing a mask. He’s big enough that his (the host assumes) girlfriend is almost not visible behind him. The host takes a couple of steps back to let him in, and the guest notices the shoe rack. “Shoes off?” he asks, a good sign, and the host replies that yes, technically, but they can put their stuff down first, an answer he usually gives to telegraph that sure, there are rules in the house, but they don’t take precedence over kindness. The guest nonetheless takes his shoes off and extends a hand to the host, who looks at it and then up at the guest’s mask, wordlessly conveying the incongruence of covering your mouth and nose but still offering an unwashed hand to a stranger. The guest laughs nervously and they bump elbows instead. Something is off. Is something off? Maybe the guest is just a little… immature? There are worse things.
The girlfriend comes in, however, and things take a more worrying turn. Also white and, as previously mentioned, small, the host can now finally see her face, although she greets him while looking at the ground, a sort of servile gesture that unnerves him. Is she humbling herself because he took them in during an emergency? Or is there a different reason for her to be ashamed? The host quickly notices her sunken eyes, somewhat emaciated jaw, and what looks like a missing or chipped tooth. A word comes to mind, unbidden: tweaker. A theory starts forming in his subconscious, one that connects dots that maybe shouldn’t be connected: their previous reservation was canceled halfway through. They’re having money troubles. Plus their profile said they were from the city—why are they not staying home? Maybe because they don’t have one?
Did he just check in a couple of meth heads?
He shows them to the room, and she exclaims, “It’s so nice and cool in here.” It isn’t a warm day and the guest room is usually colder than the rest of the house, product of a poorly installed AC unit that isn’t sealed, so it feels like an odd comment. The host quickly points them to the keys and house instructions that lie on top of the dresser, and with a perfunctory “let me know if you have any questions,” he retreats to the couch and resumes the episode he’d been watching, projecting normality in the hopes of attaining it. The guests shut the door.
He hears them turn the AC on. He pulls out his phone and opens Google. “Do tweakers run hot?”
Eventually they emerge, announcing they’re gonna go get something to eat. A few moments later, the host gets off the couch. He has long ago stopped feeling any shame about peeking into the guests’ room—this is his house, and he will do whatever he needs to feel safe. His snooping reveals nothing out of the ordinary. Perhaps a bit of a mess, but an ordinary mess—tidiness would have surprised him more. No weapons, no needles, no pipes. The AC is on, however. He turns it off. It’s a waste of energy if they’re not in the room.
Back in the living room, he starts wondering. Will they notice the AC is off? Will they think it was him? Maybe they’ll think it turns off automatically. No, wait, that makes no sense. Well, if they ask, he’ll say it’s a faulty unit (which is true). Will they believe him? Will they be angry?
Damn, why couldn’t they just turn off the AC themselves before leaving?
How much of a waste of energy is it, really? The room is getting warmer right now. When they come back, the AC will have to work double to get back to whatever temperature it had achieved.
He runs into the bedroom, afraid they will arrive at any minute, and turns the AC back on.
They offer him microwave popcorn, which he turns down. They loiter in the kitchen, drinking and talking as they wait for it to be done. The popping of the kernels mixes in with the sound of ice hitting the guest’s water bottle. The host can barely hear the movie playing on the TV. He gets up, goes to the bathroom, and waits until he hears the bedroom door closing before coming back out.
He looks at the big knife, thinks, just take it to bed and put it under your pillow. That’s stupid, you would cut your hands when you turned in your sleep. Well, then not under the pillow, maybe by the nightstand.
No. Taking the knife means there’s something to be afraid of. It’ll make it real. Because even if there’s nothing to be afraid of, there is something to be afraid of: that’s he’s diagnosably paranoid. His fear of being crazy is scarier than his fear of… whatever it is these people could do to him.
He hears them laughing through the wall. He prays before falling asleep.
Once, when he was little, his family came home to find the front door open. His father went in to check while they all waited outside. He remembers grabbing his mother’s hand, hoping to absorb some of the confidence she projected, but even so young he could tell she was actually worried.
It was a false alarm.
He wakes up to pee around 3AM, the devil’s hour, like he does most nights. Their light is on. It reminds him of that first guest, who wouldn’t turn it off until the morning. Although in her case, he chalked it up to the fact that she was a woman sleeping in a strange man’s house—it made sense she would be cautious. What are these two doing?
When he comes back to bed, he hears their door open. One of them also goes to the bathroom.
He can’t sleep until whoever it was comes back. At 4AM, he hears the bathroom door open. He starts to relax, then he hears the front door. Someone just left the apartment. What the fuck?
He goes out into the living room, hoping his presence puts a stop to whatever is going on. The front door is unlocked, meaning whoever left either didn’t have the key or didn’t know how to use it to lock behind them—or didn’t care. The bedroom door is slightly ajar and the light is still on. Maybe one of them is still there. What to do? Ask whoever stayed behind what’s going on? Maybe lock the front door? What if they just stepped out and he’s locking them out?
He comes back to bed. He feels a panic attack brewing in his stomach. He calms himself by thinking of some rule or chart that he hasn’t thought of in years, something that used to be important in his life. He won’t be able to recall what it was the next morning. He dozes off.
He used to call his father when he woke up from a nightmare in the middle of the night. One time, he did it so much that his father warned him he’d get beaten if he did it again. He did and got beaten. His father needed to sleep.
At 6AM, the sun is already coming in through the window—he sleeps with the curtain open because he likes waking up with natural light. He had been dreaming about the guests, who apologetically tried to disguise the damage they’d done—a broken appliance, a mound of dirt on the floor. They behaved like children caught in the act, trying to hide a mess. It surprises him how straightforward the dream was, no metaphors or mixed images, further evidence of how truly worried he is.
Now, awake, he hears the front door again. Someone locking it from the inside. Coming back, then. He has the feeling it happened more than once during the night.
He sees his bedroom door open slowly, and the male guest peeking in, looking at him. No. It’s a dream, he’s sure. He wakes up. It happens again. He can’t move. He’s either having sleep paralysis and the guest is indeed at his door watching him sleep or this is a dream on a loop.
Around 9AM, he wakes up. Looks at his hands, checking he’s awake. During a particularly challenging mental health crisis a few years ago, he’d find himself randomly paralyzed by the fear that he could be dreaming instead of awake. No evidence was ever strong enough to convince him either way. Eventually, he stopped caring. There are worse things than being asleep.
The morning goes by quickly, even for a Saturday, when he usually just lies in bed lazily drinking coffee and reading opinion articles he’s too busy for during the week—even with stay-at-home orders, his days are tightly planned, and during weekends he allows himself more freedom. But today it doesn’t matter, the coffee and the articles and the soft mattress all send the same signal to his brain: there will be no refund hitting the card, and the guests are going to ask him to stay and pay later, a payment that will never come. They might not leave even on Monday. And who knows what will happen until they do? They could steal things. They could bring someone dangerous back with them, even if unwillingly, to settle whatever debt they have. They could wreck the room when they eventually come down from their high.
He will have to call the police. He wonders if it’ll put him in trouble, but reassures himself that what he’s doing is perfectly legal, a short-term sublet in which he’s present and all rooms are accessible. It’s not even against his lease, since his building is rent-controlled and the city laws supersede whatever stipulations the landlord has about subletting. But still, getting the cops involved… he Googles “what if my guest won’t leave.” Most answers tend to bring up tenant rights acquired after a 30-day stay. Still, would forcing them out count as an eviction? Evictions are suspended under the lockdown.
Hands off the keyboard, he takes a deep breath. Google searches only make the problem worse. He gives himself a deadline, as he usually does: 12PM. If by 12PM they haven’t said anything, he’ll ask them what’s going on and reiterate what he said yesterday when he approved the request: they cannot stay without a valid reservation. Until 12PM, there’s no reason to keep thinking about it.
He makes his bed, does the dishes, takes a shower. He keeps thinking about it. He thinks of nothing else.
At 11:55AM he gets a message from the male guest. The money hasn’t come in yet, should be available by 5PM. Could they wait here until then, since it’s raining outside? The host, following a rule he agreed on with his therapist pertaining upsetting news, doesn’t respond right away, and when he does, it’s only to ask the guest to come to the living room so they can talk face to face. The guest complies, shaking as he speaks, either because he’s very nervous or coming down from a high. He says the bank told him the money would be available today, by 5PM, which is when they close. The host says they are welcome to wait until then, but after that, he needs a valid reservation or for them to have made other plans. The guest agrees. Coming back to his room, the host gives the same answer over text, just to have it in writing, and the guest once again confirms.
He calls his parents for their daily Corona check-in, intent on not talking about it. They talk about nothing else.
At 4:45PM, he decides to check-in. His parents on the line, he knocks on the bedroom door, calling the male guest’s name (he saw the girlfriend head to the bathroom an hour ago; the sounds of a shower have yet to abate). No response. He feels fear, about the awkward interaction more than anything else. Of having to keep knocking and maybe get no answer. The guest finally opens the door. “No updates,” he says, so they’re “gathering their things” in case the money doesn’t come through. Indeed, from what the host can see, most things are back in the suitcases. He says, “All right. By five?” “Well, by five something,” answers the guest, the first time he has said anything that wasn’t absolutely polite or compliant. Is this it? Is the confrontation about to start? The guest amends, “We just need time to gather everything.”
The host goes back to his bedroom, says goodbye to his parents and hangs up. Guilt is kicking in hard. There was no way they thought the money would come in by 5, no rational adult would. They were simply stalling. They probably don’t have anywhere to go. Should he let them stay, even if they can’t pay? Or would he be just enabling whatever choices led them to be in this precarious situation? Putting himself in danger? He tries to think rationally about it, discarding all the circumstantial evidence: the previously canceled reservation, the sunken eyes, the thin jaw, the chipped/missing tooth, the turning on the AC on a cold night, the money troubles, the fact that they’re locals. All he’s left with is a sleepless night where they came in and out of the apartment, possibly more than once. What reason is there to go outside at 4AM instead of sleeping? He can’t think of any that reassures him.
They have to go.
He tries to do a Good Thing every week. Volunteering. Donations. He usually looks to that as reassurance that he’s a Good Person, whenever he’s feeling guilty about something.
The guest room is not for philanthropy. It’s for money. To pay rent.
His former roommate arrives. She lives a few blocks away now, they’ve been seeing each other once a week after they both tested negative and continued to isolate, but their meetings still have a veneer of wrongness to them. “Not anymore,” she jokes: Cuomo has allowed gatherings of 10 or more. They make jokes about it, trying to break the shared tension of knowing that it’s 5:05PM and the guests are still walking around the bedroom—she’s been briefed (about the payment issues, not the drug suspicions, which he feels ashamed of having). He asked her to come a little earlier than they had planned so she could be there for their departure. “Extra muscle,” he joked. An extra hand to call 911 is what he really thought. Or a sympathetic witness.
They finally come out, all smiles. The girlfriend leaves the key on the dining table. They say their goodbyes as if everything was normal, as if they hadn’t planned on staying longer and couldn’t afford it, as if they weren’t walking out into the street with ostensibly nowhere to spend the night. After they leave, he checks: the room looks clean, the bed is made. More guilt. There’s a stain on the dresser that the host jokes is blood, and his friend agrees, without joking. He says “I thought they were tweakers,” and to his surprise, the friend immediately confirms she thought the same thing when she saw them, she just didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to worry him. The guilt is replaced by fear—maybe he was actually in danger and it wasn’t all in his head? The friend distracts him, but eventually he feels too sick to keep talking and they watch a movie instead.
She leaves, and he’s alone with his thoughts.
Brushing his teeth, he realizes the guests went through an entire roll of toilet paper — the wastebasket is almost overflowing. He looks inside the tub and finds it filthy with some sort of grime, probably dried up soap that didn’t wash off because there’s a big ball of hair clogging the drain. His shampoo, conditioner and shaving lotion are all slimy, as if someone had squeezed them until they leaked. He opens the mirror to find his toiletries pushed back, and his brush full of hair, knots and knots of the girlfriend’s blonde strands. It’s a miracle she didn’t go bald after brushing so much.
“Do tweakers pull their hair?”
His heart pounding, he goes to the guest bedroom. It still looks nice, but on a whim, he rips the comforter off and finds the sheets covered in crumbs, a broken plastic fork hiding underneath.
He takes the bedding off and throws it in the hamper. Monday will be too late to clean, he needs to do it tomorrow.
The panic attack finally hits before bed. He feels almost certain his suspicions were right. He tries to calm himself, reminding himself it is now over. But is it? What if they made a copy of the keys and come back during the night? What if they wait for him outside the apartment to harass him? What if…
What if they did nothing wrong, and they’re an unfortunate couple who’s now probably spending a night on the street?
He finds the male guest (whose name was on the reservation) on Facebook. He has three or four different profiles, some of them with her, some of them alone. In one, someone has recently posted a message hoping he’s okay, which went unanswered. On another, someone posted an image that says, “When someone lends you money, it’s not because they have a lot of it, it’s because they thought you really needed it” and signed it “From everyone who tried to help you.” Also no response. On another, his profile picture shows him with a grown beard, and he has what looks like a sore on his forehead.
The host feels a pit of despair, in equal parts because things could’ve gone horribly wrong, and in part because it seems they already went horribly wrong, for the guests. What is it that separates him from them? What is it that has kept him from a life like theirs? Is he really entitled to that apartment, to his job, to his things? He’s become uniquely aware of how easily they could all disappear, and it doesn’t make him grateful, it makes him scared.
Who does he think he is?
Should he have tried to help them?
Or did he narrowly avoid sinking with them?
The only hard truth is that he’s sleeping in a warm bed tonight.
On his way to the bathroom before finally giving sleep a try, he walks by the front door and does an instinctive lock check with his hand, an automatic move he barely registers anymore. But tonight, the flimsiness of the lock scares him. He wishes it was bigger. He wishes it was a bolt, something that couldn’t be opened from the outside.
He thinks about putting a chair under the doorknob. It’s not the first time he’s thought that; after the first guest checked out, the one who left the stain on the comforter, he felt a similar impulse. But no. To put a chair under the knob means there’s something to be afraid of. It’ll make it real.
Because even if there’s nothing to be afraid of, there is something to be afraid of: that’s he’s diagnosably paranoid.
Fuck it. He grabs a chair and jams it against the door. That night, he doesn’t wake up once, not even to pee. He has no dreams of any kind. It’s the soundest, deepest sleep he’s had in years.
Francisco Mendoza is an Argentinian writer currently living in Brooklyn, NY after spending several years in Brazil. His work has been developed or presented at The New Group, the MacDowell Colony, and Northern Stage, among others. His scripts include stage plays Machine Learning (The Lark’s Playwrights Week, Neukom Award for Playwriting, San Diego Rep Latinx Festival), Tooth for Tooth (Finalist, Sundance Theater Lab; Finalist, Princess Grace Fellowship), and Patriarch (Great Plains Theatre Conference); TV pilot Land Most Loved (Finalist, Sundance Lab); and podcast Hairy Legs Hannah’s Feminist Hour (Austin Film Festival), which he co-wrote and directed. notrealmendoza.com