Three days after James moved in, we left him on his own in the house for the weekend. The ink was barely dry on our closing papers; we were still unpacking the 65 boxes of books we’d schlepped from Oregon.
We needed a housemate to occupy the third floor of our new home, a Northwest Philly Victorian — and, not incidentally, to help foot the mortgage. James was a third-year law student — too polite and congenial, we figured, to be a serial killer.
Still, we were nervous. Would this stranger leave a potholder too close to the gas flame? Forget to lock the security door? Would our computers still be there when we returned? Would he?
We opened the door on Sunday afternoon to the aromas of chocolate and butter. A plate of warm cookies sat on the counter. And there was James, paging through "Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant" and deciding what to make for dinner.
It’s been 15 years, and as many housemates, since then. We thumbtack notes on the food co-op bulletin board or post on Craigslist: “Seeking friendly, flexible woman or man to share our home.” We used to describe ourselves as “two women with a feisty toddler and two affectionate cats.” Later we added “tofu-loving hamster” to the mix. Now we call Sasha an “energetic adolescent”; we’ve become “midlife moms.” The tofu-loving hamster, sadly, is buried near the blueberry bush.
Housemate-hunting is a little like online dating, except the stakes are so much higher. We’re not just choosing someone to meet for cosmos in a public place; this stranger will, within days of our first meeting, carry keys to our house and memorize the code to our security alarm. He’ll hear us argue. She’ll know the sound of an energetic adolescent who is mad at her midlife moms, a bedroom door slammed loud enough to hurt your teeth.
In this intimate setting, none of us can hide our quirks for long. We’ll soon learn that one housemate can’t remember to close a cabinet door. Another eats a toasted English muffin for breakfast every single morning. A third is in turmoil over her alcoholic ex.
We’ve become adept at vetting online responses, sorting the merely neurotic from the flat-out nuts. I reject anyone whose note screams: “NEED PLACE IMMEDIATELY SAFE NEIGHBORHOOD PREFER SMALL SECURITY DEPOSIT.” I’ve learned the code “home-based entrepreneur” means “I have no job.”
Others make it past the email hurdle only to turn out unsuitable on sight: The woman with chemical sensitivities who sniffed inside the closet. The man who sighed after touring the third floor and said, “I know myself, and I just can’t live in a room with sloped ceilings.” The one who talked nonstop for twenty minutes — her crazy boss, her troubled adult daughter — after we asked, “Can you tell us a little about yourself?”
Sometimes we’ve gone without rent for a month or two while waiting for Ms. or Mr. Right to come along. And just when we start to feel despondent, there they are: an email with a touch of sardonic humor; a phone call from someone who sounds warm and kind.
They come to us in transition: bruised from a bad relationship, recently downsized at work, fleeing parental demands, seeking refuge. We’ve shared our home with a college administrator, a staff artist for Whole Foods, a digital animator, a bilingual anthropologist, a computer software engineer, a transgender playwright and several rabbinical students.
They live with us for a summer, or six months, or two years. Our lives intertwine: a little, a lot. James made us dinner nearly every Sunday. Anthony knelt with us by a bedroom window to gape at the lunar eclipse. Munish helped Sasha make a city out of shoeboxes. Housemates have fed our hyperthyroid cat while we’re away; in turn, we’ve watered their spider plants.
Only one person left owing us money.
Mostly, they depart beneficently: Jamie gave us her Cuisinart blender, which Victoria (two housemates later) used every morning to make an algae-colored smoothie with kale, blueberries and almond milk. MJ planted beets and basil in the back yard. There are items on the third floor whose provenance we can’t place: a lime-green winter jacket, an extra vacuum, a mysterious roll of beige felt.
But our housemates’ legacy goes beyond the tangible. They nudge us out of the insular bubble that a small nuclear family can be. They people our lives with difference. Sometimes, they become good friends.
We’ve attended some former housemates’ weddings and baby showers; with others, we trade email updates. A few, though, just vanished. What happened to Judah, who never did learn to sort the recyclables from the trash? Did Deb get sober and go to graduate school? And what about Ari, divorced with a two-year-old, who moved out after she was laid off from the vegan bakery? I hope she found a soft place to land.
“Aren’t you worried about having housemates, with a kid?” people ask, and I know they’re thinking about pedophiles and sociopaths. All I can say is that we rely on self-selection, intuition, references … and no small amount of luck.
My partner and her brothers grew up in a rambling house that welcomed a series of live-in graduate and exchange students; my childhood home always had an open door for a relative or friend in need. So this feels normal to us: extra sets of keys dangling on the rack, someone else’s music filtering through our bedroom ceiling, the soft beep-beep of a housemate coming home late, setting the alarm and padding up the wooden steps.
What will our daughter make of this shifting cast of characters? Maybe the thing her parents have long believed: Most people are good. All of us are flawed. And strangers are just the ones you haven’t gotten to know yet.
When Sasha was six, and our third floor temporarily vacant, she slipped upstairs with a silver Sharpie and inked the names of our housemates onto a corner of the blond wood: James, Grace, Cynthia, Charley, Munish, Deb, Judah …
We made her erase it with fine-grade sandpaper. But her touch was light, maybe on purpose, and the names didn’t completely disappear. If you squint, in the late afternoon when amber light spills through the dormers, you can still see them, all the people who left their indelible print on our lives.