Space Invaders

Readying for renters and sizing up the stuff of life
Words By Desi Van Til

Every year, my husband and I make our children reenact Goldilocks and the Three Bears; except we’re the bears inviting the strangers to sleep in our beds, sit on our chairs, and eat from our bowls of porridge. And we wonder if someday, when they are grown-ups with mortgages and junk drawers and grade schoolers of their own, our children will speak in therapy about the psychic price we paid every year to prepare our place for the arrival of the many Goldilocks who played house under our roof. The summer renters of our Portland townhouse are anonymous forces of authority who make the latter half of every June a latticework of hustle and anxiety, but who nonetheless kick open the door to the 6 transcendent weeks further up the coast that our family longs for the other 11 months of the year. In a decade or two, our kids may grow awash with nostalgia for the ferocious beauty of granite beaches, island-hopping by kayak, lobster bakes under sturgeon moons, bare feet on pine needles, hermit crabs at low tide, s’mores at sunset, and frisbee tosses in open fields lit by fireflies and shooting stars. But what will they remember of the chasm we first forced them to cross in order to get there?

Before we decamp from our city-mouse warrens, our family has to perform a choreographed burlesque, feigning to be far more put together than we actually are, so our Goldilocks renters needn’t shoulder the burden of the Bears’ disorganized lives. The battle we wage against our belongings is one lost by attrition, though it’s attrition in reverse—not a gradual wearing away, but a slow and steady accumulation. In order to tame our collective clutter, hide the bodies, or leave wedding invitations, explanations of benefits, and Magic the Gathering cards in shallow wicker baskets, the four of us must undergo an intense rehabilitation process. It goes beyond a superficial tidying up and is more like a reckoning. It touches on the existential—and occasionally veers into the sublime. It requires discernment: What is too personal to leave in plain sight, and what is too irrelevant to even register? What is precious versus what remains simply because it defies classification? If it is useless, or better off hidden behind a locked closet door, why do we have it at all? Then, pulsing in neon in the background of all these reasonable questions is the most loaded one of all: Whose fault is all this?

Renter preparation demands the emotional labor of a cross-country move every 12 months, wherein we see first-hand how the detritus of modern living can amass despite annual resolutions to nip it in the bud, before piles assume their own gravity. We witness how two envelopes sitting innocently on a desk can procreate into a veritable heap before performing the magic trick of becoming invisible to the naked eye. But before we cry uncle to any stacks of virgin New Yorkers or resign to shove any half-baked art projects into plastic buckets, ferried off to fester in shame in the basement, we have to vault over our mounting self-loathing, caught between the sparking of joy and the sentimentality of parenthood. We helplessly eye the bins filled with school projects too cute to recycle, too pedestrian to frame. We try not to blame our children for neglecting the toys in their playroom. They didn’t ask for most of that stuff; it is just the byproduct of living in a society wherein the purest way to show an eight-year-old boy you love him is via nubby, rectilinear Danish plastic.

The renters are rarely discussed during the sanctuary of winter; frigid temps offer a welcome respite from having to think about them at all. We pursue our lives with impunity. We use the toothpaste in our medicine cabinets; we open our dresser drawers and are delighted to find our own t-shirts and socks miraculously within them. The renters are casually mentioned in conversation when the tulips start popping, merely a rhetorical threat, like a heat wave or tsunami. But by mid-May, they are all we seem to talk about, apparently obsessed with these faceless people on the other side of the internet. The needs of the rest of the family seem to vanish, and it is always and everything to do with the renters who present diametrically opposing values. They are simultaneously problem and solution, perpetrators and saviors, our silent taskmasters and lenient gatekeepers. The children are both resentful and grateful, and in that way, utterly confused about what to think about them. Plus, why does Goldilocks get the fluffy towels while the Bears are told to use the old ones turning to sandpaper?

They aren’t sinister, these welcome intruders, but they nonetheless carry with them a variety of tacit dangers. Maybe they’ll shatter a prized Ninjago Lego mech. Maybe they’ll leave a beloved Percy Jackson book at the beach or scratch a favorite vinyl. Or maybe they’ll open the office cabinets to rifle through adolescent journals; or peer at family photos on the wall and draw erroneous conclusions. Worse, maybe they’ll forget to blow out a pine-scented candle and torch our lives to cinders. But our family is either too trusting or too lazy to hide away all the evidence of our true selves. It would take too much effort to fully anonymize the walls, shelves, and drawers which are a direct externalization of our personalities, travels, taste, and sentimentality. And to what end? If people wanted taupe walls and spacious, vapid bookshelves, they could stay at one of the hundreds of new hotel rooms that have proliferated in Portland over the past decade.

Beyond redefining the relationship with our possessions, we all have to make peace with the idea of strangers being the custodians of our home, assuming the mantle of the lives we are actively ghosting. It is an imagined relationship, a forced intimacy, an exercise in trust. Who are these people drinking tea from our mugs, grilling on the back deck, cutting our flowers, ignoring our thirsty houseplants, watching Netflix from our couch, boinking in our beds, sinking into bubbles in our bathtub, parking their upper thighs on our toilet seats? It is best not to think about it too much. Curiosity often gets the better of us though, and we sometimes succumb to Google, hungry for a visual, wondering what any given Goldilocks does for a living; if they have any suspicious hobbies like pyrotechnics; what stripe of political affiliations are made obvious on their social media. We are embarrassed to admit that on some level, we want our renters to be like-minded, and how much a glowing review can endorse our life choices, even if they never see what our house looks like 88-percent of the time. And yes, toddler renters will draw on cabinets with crayons, and baby renters will barf on couches. Anyone who has ever rented a house knows what inadvertent violence is done and then swiftly erased with a sponge, panic, and elbow grease. But we are willing to risk those acts of property damage in order to afford casting our children under the summer spell on the far side of that agreement.

Inevitably, the summer days start to shorten, and there comes a faint wisp of crisp in the morning air. When the blackberries are finally ripe enough to eat, and the ocean warm enough to swim in, it becomes time to leave our rented dream-scape up the coast. We must give up inhabiting other peoples’ lives and inventing our own theories based on the ideological breadcrumbs of someone else’s bookshelf. When we come home, sun-kissed and bug-bitten, feet calloused by barnacle shells, bathing suits faded, school looming in the near-distance, there is a surreal reunion with a house that is at the same time our home but also someone else’s. Because we Bears never live in this house without the wooden stacking robots and embroidery floss bracelets and graphic novels cluttering surfaces. Without the young Bears’ drawings on the fridge or stuffed animals holding conventions on their beds. Without sandals by the door or gummy vitamins in the pantry or dog bowls next to the oven. We walk in and marvel at how clean the house is, knowing it is tabula rasa only until the first suitcase comes in from the car, and the haphazardly filled boxes are exhumed from the basement, and the chaos of real life vomits itself back into view. Our house never looks better or more sparkling. And that’s when the spell of vacation is broken. Because real life never feels this immaculate. The house welcomes back the residents who care for it by making a mess of it.▪

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