I knew before I walked in the door of the 1890 farmhouse in the Catskills with black shutters and a red door that I was going to buy it. That it sat on 1.5 acres of land demarcated by a rustic bluestone perimeter settled near the northern end of a three-and-a-half-mile stretch of paved road made it that much more enticing. But it was not until I moved in the fall of 2016 after 13 years in New York City that I realized I had never seen the house, or the road, at night.
If I had, I would have known that this winding stretch is characterized by absence, in the form of unoccupied vacation rentals and weekend homes. Rather than thwart me, it actually underscored my intention to build a sylvan fortress overflowing with friends and lovers—and eventually a family.
As for my neighbors renting out their houses for the weekend, once I learned how much they were earning on Airbnb, it seemed downright selfish to have purchased upmarket Norwegian wallpaper for accent walls for my personal use alone. So I snapped a few photos at opportune moments of daylight and listed the two railroad-style rooms upstairs under the “Private Room” option, labeled as a “suite.”
As my tasteful gothic and midcentury decor and exquisite listing copy brought in several glowing guest reviews, I found myself possessed by the thrilling prospect of making “a killing” on Airbnb. This led me to clean more deeply, invest in nicer sheets, and light cedar scented candles at least two hours before every guest’s arrival. I was awarded the coveted title of “superhost” for my efforts.
I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the company. My boyfriend in Brooklyn had a habit of canceling his weekend visits within an hour of his bus leaving for the country. Sometimes a last-minute plea to another friend from the city worked, but usually, it would mean I was on my own for the weekend.
To make up for lost time, I trekked to Brooklyn on weekday afternoons to meet my boyfriend, only to arrive at his apartment and then learn via text that he’d gone to last-minute drinks with some higher-ups at work and would “be home soon.”
The exact date of the inevitable breakup remains unknown. All I know is that on a Monday, I dropped him off at the bus station for his trip back to Brooklyn and that our last words were “I love you.” Later, we texted about the solar eclipse. The following day, I sent my usual flurry of messages and conversation starters and photos of my cat and an impressive salad I’d made. The ensuing silence didn’t particularly alarm me, but by day three, I was annoyed enough to alert my most trusted group text of his thoughtlessness. I spent day four crying in bed.
I am not alone in my preference for being screamed at over being ignored, but I am perhaps too quick to believe that I deserved it. I neglected the growing pile of unopened mail and waning supply of drinking water. I forgot about food and ignored the impulse to call friends sobbing at all hours. What was there to report but the latest day-count since last contact? The cruelty of ceasing communication without warning was that I had no fodder to pour my growing outrage into, no screenshots of text messages to condemn.
But on day seven, the small bing of an Airbnb notification interrupted my isolation marathon to remind me that I had a guest arriving within a few days. I considered canceling, citing unforeseen circumstances that had rendered my home unsuited for human life, which felt pretty true at the time. But as a freelance writer who had failed to turn in any work all week, the booking promised a few hundred dollars that would fill an upcoming income gap.
The guest was a woman who looked to be in her late 50s to early 60s. She lived a few counties away and was coming to the area for a five-day intensive Jin Shin Jyutsu training workshop that would keep her out of the house all day. The possibility that her husband might join her later in the trip made me reasonably certain I could continue my horizontal wallowing undetected if I committed to a few friendly but brief encounters in the common space. Her visit would be over soon enough, and I would be free to die of desertion.
I cleaned my house top to bottom, fixating on details I usually ignored. I opened the windows to let in fresh air and ventured off my property for the first time in over a week to buy fruit to place in earthen bowls and satchels full of of cedar, clove, and eucalyptus.
There I was: unceremoniously discarded in the woods by the man I’d bet on as my forever, realizing in horror that I was so preoccupied with proving my house worthwhile to strangers that I had failed to make any actual friends within one hundred miles. But goddammit, I was still a superhost.
From the moment I shook her hand, my guest just seemed warm. Warm in a way that’s detectable in the minutiae of vocal cadences and the crinkle of a smile. I have always projected an air of unabated girlish rebellion on women over 50 who keep their hair past their shoulders—which is entirely unscientific, but in her case, accurate. And I was cheered by the account of her recent discovery of Jin Shin Jyutsu as a healing tool after years of failed interventions for pain.
Upon her return from the first day of training, it was clear I had not heard the last word on Jin Shin Jyutsu. The way she described what she had learned and then put into practice reminded me of testimonials on TV shows from people who had witnessed all manner of medical, cosmic, and spiritual miracles. I was glad that hope for healing had breached my gates, even if it hadn’t yet overtaken me. She told me that her husband couldn’t make it up that week after all, and asked after my boyfriend.
I suddenly recalled mentioning my cat and my weekend boyfriend in my Airbnb listing. I winced at the thought of all the digital spaces I’d casually dropped his image, his name, or an allusion to his existence. “I’m … not really sure,” I told her.
Having been alone for the nine days since my now-ex had gone silent, I rambled through my own account of incredulity and pain. Her reactions signaled both sympathy and bafflement:
“Now what does ‘ghosting’ mean exactly?”
“I think I can guess but can you clarify?”
“Well that’s no way to treat anybody!”
I’d unleashed an incoherent and emotional load of generation-specific drama on my unsuspecting guest and had to apologize, cheeks growing hot with embarrassment. I went to my room and vowed not to mention it again.
When my guest returned the following evening, I was at my laptop, staring down the day’s pitiful word count accomplishment with what must have looked like focus.
She asked how work was going, and I mentioned the trouble I was having writing my second book. She declared her certainty that it would be wonderful before somewhat bashfully admitting, “I noticed a few copies of your book on the shelves and started reading it and then looked up more of your work; I’m sorry if that was nosy...” Sensing her unease at her own disclosure, I was quick to tell her, “Literally my favorite thing in the world is for people to read my work and Google me; I find it very flattering.”
She continued in that vein. And finding myself in that strange space where flattery renders you both vulnerable and emboldened, I said, “You know my boyfriend didn’t even read my book and he’s, like, in the acknowledgments.”
The following night, her last, I was in my bedroom crying when she returned home. It was too late to shut my door without appearing rude, so I rushed to the doorway to greet her. She said she’d be leaving early in the morning and thanked me for a lovely stay. Then she paused, tilted her head, and turned up one side of her lip into that not-quite-smile we humans reserve for someone who is suffering.
“Um, do you know what Instagram Stories are?” I asked. She didn’t. I decided against a crash course in social media and and explained, “He’s having a party. Right now.” The now-familiar frown and furrowed brow emerged and she said, “That’s just not fair.”
“Fair” was not one of the thousands of adjectives that had been running through my mind, but it wasn’t untrue either. I nodded in agreement. We stood for a moment, then she turned to go to her room.
The scene reminded me of a verse from Hebrews that reads, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have unwittingly entertained angels.” I didn’t especially love the verse, but was suddenly considering it in a new light.
My guest left behind a Post-It note with a line that read, “You’re doing great!” (which made me laugh because Kris Jenner said nearly the same to Kim Kardashian at a nude photo shoot). In my case, the phrase was a generous and necessary lie. Alongside the Post-It, she left me a small black notebook embossed with gold text that read, “I’m in love with the cities I’ve never been to, and the people I’ve never met.”
And just as I don’t know the precise date of the official break up, I don’t know the precise date that I was over it. I only know that a few months later, at a convivial, borderline-rowdy Thanksgiving dinner a few miles from my house, in the company of local people I’d finally had the good sense to befriend, I had a brief moment of interior quiet.
Now I am writing this story in a city I had never been to, that is 5,000 miles from the house I own. I am not quite sure I love this city, but I was brought here by a man I had not yet met at the beginning of this tale. His penchant for kind words on scribbled notes is not solely responsible, but clearly I’m a sucker for the medium. His notes, and the one from my guest, are safe at home, tucked into the black, gold-embossed notebook that I now believe was doing another task of angels: delivering some truth about ourselves that we can only decipher once we have learned a new way to heal.
Alana Massey is a writer and editor living in the Catskills in New York.