For Liliana and Edmundo
She never imagined there’d be so many. She’s running late so she isn’t able to count them, but she’d say there’s at least fifteen. Even though it’s a Saturday night. And it’s ridiculously cold. Everyone is sitting around a circle, like she thought they would be, each wearing a self-adhesive badge with their name on it. They don’t look at each other that much. One girl writes in a notebook, an older man stares at his shoelaces. No, she didn’t imagine them like this. She thought they’d be younger, weirder. Rebecca serves herself coffee in a paper cup. Cups, actually. She uses two to avoid burning her hands.
The keychain with her house keys feels heavy in the pocket of her jacket. She takes it out. Puts it in her bag. A metal bear. It’s not ugly, but she would’ve never bought anything like that. And, of course, she didn’t buy it.
This week she’s sleeping in a journalist’s basement. A man who won a Pulitzer a few years ago (Rebecca Googled him for weeks) and now, on sabbatical, enjoys renting his basement to tourists and strangers. Maybe she was no more than that: a strange tourist.
Her apartment was connected to the main part of the house by a stairwell. Usually, the door between the two worlds was closed. He lived alone and the cleaning lady came three times per week. Rebecca had gained his trust (and a substantial discount on the rent) by saying that she needed the space to work on her new book. I just broke up with my boyfriend and I don’t know what to do with my life now. While I figure it out, I want to work on my novel. Something like that, she’d said to him, and Robert had nodded in agreement, as if saying: I’ve gone through that, too. The truth was that Rebecca hadn’t had a boyfriend in at least two years, and she hadn’t written a line of fiction in her life. She worked as a waitress and a babysitter, and was slowly sipping away the inheritance left to her by a great aunt who’d held her in high esteem because she was the only niece in the family who was a redhead (like her).
Rebecca liked living in the houses of strangers. Drinking coffee in mugs with pictures of somewhat pixelated, unknown nieces, sleeping in out-of-fashion sheets, getting used to all the sunlight, or the complete lack thereof. She’d walk around the dark basements, in houses of families who rented out single rooms (and then there was the pleasure of having different foods for breakfast, of getting to known the rhythms of the other inhabitants), of staying in enormous apartments where her job was to water the plants, or take care of the cat. For a couple of days or weeks, being there to witness all kinds of arguments and outbursts.
The woman in charge of the session seems like she’s been tired for centuries. She barely blinks. As if she were possessed. She asks new people to introduce themselves. Hello, my name is Enrique and I have a problem. Everyone nods. I can’t live in my own house. Rebecca awaits her turn. Another girl goes before her. Hello, my name is Jennifer and I’ve been living in other people’s houses for six months.
Hello, my name is Rebecca. I haven’t had an apartment of my own in three years.
(She senses a few worried expressions in the room, someone staring intently at her.)
My parents think that I’m working on my PhD.
For parents who don’t ask much and believe in their kids’ unbreakable privacy, it takes only a couple of emails per month and a few Skype calls to construct almost any reality. All you have to do is buy the sweatshirt from the corresponding university, put a few books and notes within sight of the camera. All you have to do is look tired all the time. She has a couple of years before she needs to deal with the problem of the nonexistent graduation and diploma. But those two years feel like forever.
A friend, the only one who knows about where she stays, sent her the link to the article. “The Life of Others,” it was called. Not very original, but Rebecca read it anyway. That’s how she found out about the weekly meetings, about the number of people addicted to looking through Craig’s List and other sublet announcements. About the adrenaline of meeting the owners of the house and anticipating the springiness of the bed, the noise of the neighborhood. Always smile at the kids. Make eye contact. Don’t dress overly provocative or too traditional. It was an art, but only a few understood.
Enrique has begun to take things. Nothing big: a book, a pillowcase, a bowl. No one has ever noticed, no one has ever contacted him to ask about the missing item. Maybe because he always makes sure to leave a present for the owners: a new coffee maker, a fan, towels. This way he doesn’t feel guilty about what he’s stolen: the universe is in order. Jessica, instead, likes to write a little something in a corner of the house or apartment. On the wall behind the bed, on the edge of a door that opens to the wine cellar. In pencil and barely legible, but without fail.
Rebecca doesn’t do anything like that, but living with strangers has brought her a few problems. She’s been unable to continue going out with anyone for more than a couple of moves. The first dates everything is fine, the change of scenery contributing to the excitement of the encounters, but after a few months they all start to find it weird and they stop calling her or responding to her messages. Don’t you get tired of it? They say. Wouldn’t you rather have your own place? (This latter always accompanied with an expression that looks like disgust.)
Rebecca never paid any attention. None of the potential boyfriends ever seemed worth the sacrifice (because that’s what it felt to think about abandoning her nomadic life: like a sacrifice), but everyone in the room was already looking at her a little alarmed. Truth was, she wasn’t seeking support to change her behavior, but a community of equals. And this seemed to be the meeting for the penitents, for the guilty ones who pounded their chests every time they sent an email asking about the cost of the utilities and if they could send them additional pictures of their beautiful apartment.
For Rebecca, the issue had started out of necessity. The supposed PhD was actually a man who had mesmerized her and had left her a few weeks after she’d gone to see him. So she’d had no choice but to look for a place to stay. And that’s how she’d met Megan, who had just lost her housemate and needed someone for the summer. And then Marc who was looking for someone to feed his cat and take care of his house while he went on tour (he was a musician) for a few weeks. It was hard to leave some of them: Sofía, for example, whose boyfriend had just died, and who always waited for her with a cup of tea when she got back from work, and who, when she saw her packing her bags, offered that she could stay as long as she wanted to without having to pay. And also Mrs. Davis, who sat by her chimney, in the house where Rebecca was staying in the attic, to hear all her stories. She’d asked her if she wanted to stay and be her assistant, but Rebecca had turned her down. The important thing was to find the right moment to leave. Before the place became too familiar, before the kids in the house invited her to their birthday parties, or before the owners gave her a towel or a new pillow of her own.
Once she was afraid. She opened her eyes in the middle of the night, and the owner of the house was looking at her from the doorway. He pretended everything was normal, only asked her if she wanted anything to eat. She said no and pretended to keep sleeping. In the morning she left the payment for what she owed on the table and left.
Robert, instead, didn’t seem to show too much curiosity about her. He let her be. If he ran into her on the street he’d only ask her about her day. At night, she’d hear him writing into the late hours. Every once in a while she could hear his footsteps in the kitchen (milk? orange juice? wine?) and then he’d go back to his office to keep working. She didn’t ask any questions, either. If he was writing a new book or angry emails to an ex-girlfriend, she had no way of knowing and, frankly, she didn’t care. Her role wasn’t to be the jealous ghost.
Sundays would start early (for him, she’d hear him from her room), with a shower (he took his time) and then he’d leave the house (to the supermarket? for a run? She didn’t know that, either). That was her favorite time (always at least an hour, once even three), during which Rebecca would go up to the main house and look around Robert’s life as if it were her favorite museum. This is where Robert Stain sleeps: take a look at how many pillows he uses, the five books stacked on his night table and the glass of water, half drunk. On the floor you’ll find his shoes (fairly small) and a robe with his initials stitched on the chest. This is where Robert Stain writes. We can see his computer opened to a blank page and a couple of notebooks (Moleskine, black, lined). The books, on the shelves, are ordered alphabetically. We can see his IPod connected to the sound system (Rebecca doesn’t need to turn it on, she knows he’s been listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which gives her indescribable pleasure). This is where Robert Stain takes breaks: in the corner, over there, is his favorite chair.
Rebecca has always liked visiting famous people’s houses. Writers, actors, and taking pictures of the beds, the chairs and the views from the bathroom window. Flash, flash, flash. Frozen everydayness. This is where they lived, where they slept, where they died. And buying a couple of postcards, which she would later forget in a drawer forever. If someone wanted to walk around Rebecca’s life, however, they’d need a map and be willing to improvise a museum with different stops, with shorter and shorter temporal markers. This is where Rebecca N. lived from May 15 to 19. This is where Rebecca N. lived from May 19 to June 15. Her “here’s” didn’t mark time. Not enough. Barely a scratch scribbled with a pencil (which could be erased by rubbing it with a finger or the side of one’s hand).
The session ends and everyone commits to a small goal. Rebecca’s is to tell someone, at least one new person, about her real situation. The idea is to work toward her parents, little by little. And maybe go back home. To a home. To her home.
Everyone commits to something. Everyone claps. Probably few think that they’ll actually do what they promised.
Rebecca heads to the bus stop. Enrique walks next to her. They don’t look at each other. He lights a cigarette and she wonders if he stole it from his last apartment. She smiles but he doesn’t notice.
Rebecca N. was here from six to seven-thirty pm.
Translated by Sergio Waisman