The Renters

Renting a room to a couple having an affair seemed like a good idea ... until it wasn’t.

The spring my marriage ended I couldn’t afford my house payments on my own, so I did what any reasonable person might do: I looked for a roommate. But as someone leaving a long relationship and in no hurry to share close quarters with another human, as someone prone to crying jags and soul-searching and emergency calls to the therapist, I was uneasy with the thought of a traditional housemate. I searched instead for a part-timer—a traveling salesman, an engaged young Baptist forced to hide cohabitation, or a long-distance commuter with a life somewhere else. Faced with slim pickings and mounting bills, I did what no reasonable person should do: I took in a pair of adulterers.

• • •

Mature Couple Having an Affair: $400: We will rarely, if ever, be present overnight or for longer than four hours. Ideal situation if you need help with expenses but do not want a full-time roommate.

It was perfect. I had a room and needed the cash; they had money but didn’t want a paper trail. They were “stable,” “discreet,” a “long-term couple.” They would rarely, if ever, be present overnight.

The first time I saw the ad on (where else?) Craigslist, just as my husband and I were contemplating separation, I mentioned it to our marriage counselor. “Yes, the money would help,” she said, “but do you really want to be complicit in adultery?” They’d be together with or without my help, I thought, but the posting was gone the next time I looked, and I put it out of my mind. It reappeared a few months later, after my husband had moved out and I was charging the electric bill and groceries to my credit cards. I decided not to mention it in therapy again.

It may seem strange, but the idea of opening my home to a couple of cheaters didn’t bother me. My feelings toward marriage as an institution could be described as hostile at best. My own marriage looked something like this: three counselors over ten years; a shelf of self-help books with titles like The Passionate Marriage, Getting the Love You Want, and How One of You Can Change the Two of You; a husband who went out without me five nights a week, who refused to see a doctor for sexual dysfunction, and who admitted to rushing through sex to “get it over with”; tens of thousands of dollars of debt; hundreds of empty bottles (mostly his); countless flirtations and emotional entanglements (as far as I know, all mine).

Despite our problems, my husband did not want a divorce. He signed a six-month lease on an apartment and insisted on referring to our split as a “trial separation”—this was, in fact, the only way he agreed to move out. Even after we’d made the decision to file, he looked across the table in the notary’s office, his pen poised above the signature line of the settlement agreement, and asked, “Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?”

My family did not want a divorce, either. My parents had been together since they were eighteen and twenty-two, and they believed firmly in making sacrifices for the sake of the marriage. They assumed that any problems were my fault.

“You know what your problem is?” they’d ask, without waiting for an answer. “You want too much.”

Since then, I’ve seen other people’s families rally around divorcing relatives, but it was obvious that if my parents had to take a side, it wouldn’t be mine. They continued to send my ex-husband Christmas cards and birthday checks. I heard, ad nauseam, that he was the nicest person anyone had ever met. And I’ll admit he was nice, especially to other people.

So the idea of taking in the adulterers intrigued me. My family already disapproved of everything I did, anyway, and I thought it would probably offend my husband, so squeamish about all things sexual. Plus, to be honest, the idea made me feel oddly glamorous. I was thirty-one years old and ready for my life to begin. This could be the start of the new post-divorce me, the me who could have fancy-free affairs where no one got hurt. Perhaps not the person I was, but the person I could be.

I replied to the ad and received an email the same day from Tall_Man69. Yes, they were still looking for a room. He would send his girlfriend over to see if their furniture would fit.

My house sat just inside the Perimeter, the interstate dividing Atlanta from its outlying suburbs. A large split-level built in the ’60s, it was entirely too much house for one person and more than enough for two. My husband and I had needed abundant space in order to live together. The downstairs rec room, his former music practice space, was now empty, as was the large guest bedroom—which was, perhaps, not large enough for whatever Tall_Man69 had in mind. 

The girlfriend arrived in a budget SUV and never got off her cell phone. Apparently she approved of the place because a few minutes later, a Mercedes pulled into the driveway. The man who climbed out was indeed tall, unusually so, with a weak chin and a nervous energy. His girlfriend was short, about thirty pounds overweight, and shy. I noticed he wore a wedding ring, and she, painfully, predictably, did not.

After looking the house over, Tall_Man69 asked about my marriage. Was I certain it was over? He didn’t want to move in only to be kicked out in a few months. He wasn’t crazy about having to use the downstairs bathroom, either—their previous arrangement had had an en suite bath—but he supposed they could put up with a little inconvenience. He had one last question: Were any of my friends attorneys? He didn’t want to run into anyone he knew while he was in his bathrobe.

As they walked out together, Tall_Man69 told me they’d move in on the first of the month and that their names were Melinda and Don. They were careful not to give last names.

• • •

I told my friend Johanna about my renters a few days later. Johanna was in the midst of treatment for breast cancer, and between her bouts of chemo, we got together for lunches at our usual restaurant, Manuel’s, ordering our usual meals—grilled chicken salad for her, a crabcake sandwich for me—and iced teas. We sat at our usual table, a two-top against the window, joked with our usual waiter, and dissected our love lives, trying to ignore the possibility that Johanna’s condition was serious. She had a policy of not asking her doctors for a prognosis, and if I asked how she was feeling, she’d try to be upbeat. That afternoon, her face was thinner but as lovely as ever, and she widened her eyes in mock horror at my arrangement.

“At least someone’s going to be having sex there!” She teased me about having my very own den of iniquity; then her voice turned serious. “Won’t it freak you out to hear them . . . you know?”

“How bad can it be? I mean, I had roommates in college, and none of them were exactly nuns. It’s not like I’m going to be there in the room with them, right?”

“I guess. What do they look like?”

“Like people you don’t want to picture having sex. Trust me. But really, it will be fine.”

The day Melinda and Don moved in, I came home from work expecting to find them unpacking. The movers had been scheduled for 4:30, and it was barely 5:15. I called up hello and was greeted by high-decibel moans. An hour later, they slipped downstairs to shower, leaning into my office on their way out.

“I hope we didn’t bother you,” Don said, grinning. “Unless we hot-and-bothered you.”

What in God’s name had I done?

• • •

Illustration by Anna Hall

The next time I saw them, Don asked, “Do you like what we did with the room?”

“I haven’t seen it,” I said. This wasn’t a complete lie. The night they moved in, I’d peeked in to see why they’d been so concerned about the furniture fitting. In the half-darkness, I’d spotted a king-sized bed, an enormous dresser, and a mirror, then felt guilty and shut the door.

“Oh, you can look any time,” Don said. “Just don’t mind the paddles. We like a little discipline.”

As soon as they left, I took a closer look. The room was covered in Elvis memorabilia: an Elvis bedspread, a velvet Elvis painting, and a ceramic bust that wore a pair of black plastic sunglasses. On the dresser was a framed photo of Melinda posing with an Elvis impersonator on the Vegas Strip. The only other decorations were a small black whip and four black leather paddles painted with the symbols of the suits of cards: a white club, a red diamond, a white spade, and a red heart.

In retrospect, things might have turned out differently if I had been a long-distance commuter rather than a person with a messy life. Even if I had worked a regular nine-to-five job, I might have rarely known they were there.

But I worked four days a week—one of them from home—for an ad agency outside Atlanta, in a county that prided itself on preserving its small town squares and bucolic way of life despite its proximity to the city. The owner of the ad agency, a self-proclaimed good ol’ boy, specialized in serving wealthy family-run businesses in the county’s outlying towns—businesses that had the money for large marketing campaigns but distrusted large advertising agencies. He believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the way to market to county residents was to drop not only consonants but also random vowels, so that playing at the old swimming hole would become “play’n’ at the ol’ swimm’n’ hole.” Not that there were any old swimming holes around. The creative team’s running joke was that any good headline needed to be countrified before we submitted it to the boss.

Thus I spent my workdays writing ads about how living in the county’s newest live-work-play development meant time for swing’n’ on porches while drink’n’ sweet t’. I spent my Fridays off, my work-at-home-Wednesdays, and occasional Saturdays or Sundays listening to the gymnastics of Melinda and Don, who would end one orgiastic frenzy only to begin another.

My house was close to Don’s home and law firm; originally this had concerned him, but it had made longer, more frequent sessions possible. Despite the claims of his Craigslist posting, they were often over for longer than four hours. And despite the assurances I’d given myself and Johanna, it did seem like I was right there in the room. Don and Melinda went beyond the standard muffled moans and creaking bedsprings. They, or rather Melinda, sounded like a parody of porn or someone mimicking how she thought sex should sound. Her oh, OH, oh God, OH GODs thundered from one end of the house to the other—exaggerated, self-conscious, and, I imagined, not very much fun.

• • •

A typical meeting took place one July afternoon. It was a Wednesday, the day I worked from home. Refilling my coffee, I looked out the window to see Melinda’s coppery SUV parked under a tree in my cul-de-sac. A moment later, Don pulled up in his Mercedes, and as they walked together up my driveway, I ducked downstairs and grabbed my earplugs. I was under deadline on an ad, and I knew that what would follow was three hours of moaning, grunting, and screaming, punctuated by the smacks of leather on flesh.

Their routine was to have as much sex as they could squeeze into an afternoon, then shower together before Don returned to his law practice or his family. Melinda always stayed to dry and hairspray her hair. (My downstairs smelled like White Rain on the days they visited.) She lived in the same outlying county where I worked, so if heading home threatened to put her in rush-hour traffic, she’d read upstairs or nurse a beer. Sometimes she’d come down to my office for a chat. Unlike Don, whose only interest was joking about sex, Melinda liked to talk about books, movies, relationships. She insisted her arrangement with Don was ideal; she’d been married briefly and didn’t want to be again. Don, meanwhile, claimed to be in a deeply unhappy marriage with a woman who emasculated him; he stayed, according to Melinda, for the sake of the kids and, according to Don, because he didn’t want that bitch to get any of his money.

Those short chats with Melinda felt almost like having a real roommate. I discovered she worked in a book distribution warehouse and had been a single mother until her disabled son had died. She’d met Don soon after. He gave her an outlet, she said, for her grief.

That afternoon in July, Melinda announced matter-of-factly, “Don has a little sexual obsession with you.” This didn’t seem to bother her, particularly.

It was true that, with increasing frequency, Don had been joking about inviting me to join their trysts—or, at least, I chose to act as though he were joking.

“We’ll be upstairs. Come on in if you’re feeling wild,” he’d said the previous week. “Heck, we’ll even give you some cash.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t mix business with pleasure.”

A few days later, I’d received an email: We may have another couple joining us tomorrow. Of course we’d rather have you. You’re welcome any time.

And another: You’re a cutie-pie. Can you be bought?

During another of our post-coital chats, Melinda revealed why their previous rental hadn’t worked out. Don wanted Melinda to experience sex with two men, so he invited the guy whose apartment they were sharing. Not only had the man turned them down, but he’d cited Melinda’s weight as his reason.

“He could have just said he wasn’t into that sort of thing,” she mumbled.

I studied Melinda: the long, baggy T-shirt that hung over her leggings; her sad face doughy beneath dyed red hair. She looked like someone who didn’t want to be seen, who was trying to obliterate herself. I understood the impulse, though for me it worked in reverse. I could feel myself disappearing, losing touch with everything and everyone I had known in my marriage. Some nights, all I ate was refrigerated cookie dough, digging my spoon into the plastic tube because the sweetness was all my stomach could handle and because I knew I needed calories, any calories, to keep from wasting away.

After Don and Melinda invited another couple over, I confided in Johanna. “What do my neighbors think? These strange cars come and go whether I’m home or not. What if someone asks me who they are?”

She suggested I tell people they worked in sales and needed a home base. “Everyone knows traveling salespeople are all a little crazy.”

As it turned out, one of my neighbors did ask someone about the strange cars, but she didn’t ask me. She asked Don’s wife. And then Don emailed me.

Do you by any chance know Elizabeth Roman?

She’s one of your neighbors. She saw my car in front of your house, and she told my wife. I’m getting grilled about it.

Don decided that our story would be that I was helping him write a book from the raw material of his diary. Though I worried about a confrontation or a P.I. stakeout of my house, his wife’s suspicions never came up again. Just in case, though, Don delivered a chapter of his five-hundred-page manuscript, which detailed his escapades at his first law job. I couldn’t read more than a few pages, but it did suggest that Don’s narcissism was bigger than I thought and that philandering was his lifetime career.

• • •

One morning, as I carried a basket of laundry downstairs, I jumped to see a man sitting in the rec room, covered head to toe in leather. Peeking around the corner, I realized the gimp suit was actually empty, its owner asleep on the couch. This was Bob, a friend of a friend, who was giving the renters a run for their money. A few months after Don and Melinda had moved in, Bob had contacted me, asking if he could crash at my house occasionally. He’d supply a couch for my still-empty rec room and toss in a couple hundred dollars a month. He also needed to store a chest—this, he added, I was welcome to explore.

And so my den of iniquity grew. I knew that Bob, like the friend who’d introduced us, was big in the national BDSM community—what I’d grown up hearing referred to as S&M, or Whips & Chains. Bob attended conventions and published fetish fiction under a pseudonym. A former federal employee, he told funny stories about BDSM contraptions intercepted by quizzical customs agents, and he knew which high-ranking government officials were secretly into extreme bondage.

I liked Bob. He was the real deal while I’d long suspected that Melinda and Don were make-believe deviants. Sure, they hung leather paddles on the wall and waxed enthusiastic about their predilections (especially Don, who mentioned that he was a “dom” in almost every conversation)—but they protested too much, methought.

I mentioned to Bob that he and the upstairs renters might get along, and he offered to share the contents of his mysterious chest, which turned out to contain mostly videos and books. The next time Don and Melinda came to the house, they stopped by the door of my office.

“We looked through the box your friend has and watched one of the videos,” Don said. He seemed more nervous than usual. “That guy is into some weird shit.”

• • •

Over time, I came to realize that I was part of a threesome, even if it wasn’t physical. Melinda confided in me when she and Don were having problems. When her work schedule changed, making it temporarily difficult to schedule meetings, she worried that Don would leave her. And a few days later, Don emailed me: We won’t be around much this month because Melinda has a new schedule. This may destabilize the relationship. We’ll see.

Then there was the time Don arranged for another woman to join them—I still wasn’t available—and Melinda got stuck in traffic. She arrived half an hour late to find that the party had started without her, something she had not signed on for. I began to suspect that Don was a garden-variety schoolyard bully rather than the exotic sexual dominant he fancied himself.

In the meantime, I was still clinging to my image as a carefree libertine. When I told friends about my renters, I described their reactions to Bob’s chest—a mocking story, one that showed how I saw through them, these people who claimed to be sexual deviants but who really just enjoyed light spankings.

I told only Johanna how awful it was being in the house with them and how lonely I felt listening to their grunts and screams. And I didn’t tell even her how Don had taken to leaving the rent on my pillow, despite my closed door, or how if I came home in the middle of a session, they got louder, much louder, once they heard me.

Though they were careful to pay in cash and not to use last names, details emerged. Don mentioned that he practiced aviation accident litigation, which seemed like a particularly odd niche of ambulance chasing. Ten minutes of Googling, and his face was smiling up at me from his practice website, along with his bio, which emphasized Don’s belief in the importance of marriage, family, and church.

One day, Melinda revealed that the woman Don had brought to the house—she was still angry about them starting without her, though Don had asked what else was he supposed to do, sit around and make small talk?—was a prostitute.

Can you be bought?

Melinda saw the look on my face and begged me not to tell Don she’d said anything. It was a college student call girl, she said, not some hooker he picked up on the side of the road. For the next few weeks, I debated kicking them out, picturing a prostitute in my house. Then I pictured my mortgage bill. I needed the money. Could I be bought? It seemed that I could.

• • •

It wasn’t until I fell in love that things unraveled. The night I met Jim, a Ph.D. student in poetry, I told him about Bob, who’d since moved on, and the renters, who’d been with me for close to eight months by then. In a sort of flirtatious sexual one-upmanship, he described his ex-girlfriend, a grad student who sold her dirty underwear on the Internet under the name Molly Masters. He was seven years my junior, and I assumed that ours would be a short fling. I worried at first that all we had in common was sex and writing, but to my surprise, things got serious.

Don and Melinda had always emailed to tell me if they planned to come over at an unusual time or day. I did the same, letting them know if I was going out of town in case they wanted to spend the night. Once I began spending more time with Jim, the courtesy emails abruptly stopped. Don and Melinda seemed to make a point of coming over when I said I would be home, and they wouldn’t share Melinda’s new work schedule, no matter how often I asked. I stressed that I wasn’t trying to keep tabs on them; I wanted to give them more space by staying at Jim’s during their rendezvous. I eventually realized they didn’t want space; they wanted someone to hear them scream.

Of course, there was more to it than Don’s power games with the schedule. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my stance on monogamy had changed. I’d also learned that my friend Johanna’s breast cancer had spread. Although all she would say was that there was “involvement” in her liver, it became apparent that her case was terminal and had been for a long time. Suddenly I had even less patience for Don’s juvenile jokes. In my grief, I began fantasizing about calling his wife, or his pastor, or the police.

Instead, I set to work icing Don and Melinda out. I’m not proud of this. I behaved the way I might have in high school: I hid in my room. I avoided eye contact as they came and went. I didn’t smile at Don’s innuendoes. I’d call Jim and say, loudly, “Forget about coming over. They’re here. . . . No, I didn’t expect them, either. They were here yesterday and the day before that.”

Finally, Jim, my levelheaded boyfriend, the man I eventually married, stepped in. “Is this any way to live, dreading pulling into your own driveway?”

He had a point. Wasn’t that why I’d gotten divorced in the first place?

He suggested I send a coolly worded email. No pleading. No explaining why: If our arrangement is to continue, I need to know when you will be using the house.

Within an hour, I had a response. Don and Melinda would be moving out at the end of the month.

• • •

After the movers were gone, I stood inside the empty guest room. Large metal brackets remained in the wall where the mirror had hung, and there were holes where the paddles had been. I took a deep breath. For the first time in seventeen months, the house felt like mine. I had no idea how I was going to make up the four hundred dollars a month, but I didn’t care.

I opened the door to my bedroom and left it open. Nestled in my pillow—exactly where I expected them—were Don and Melinda’s keys.

About the Author

Chelsea Rathburn

Chelsea Rathburn is the author of two poetry collections, A Raft of Grief, recently released by Autumn House Press, and The Shifting Line. Her work has appeared in The AtlanticPloughsharesNew England Review, and other journals.

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