House-sitting, of which I did the requisite amount in my twenties, was a gift cloaked as a favor: a good turn I was supposedly doing when in fact I was the one who benefited. I never had to take care of a child or a pet. I can scarcely remember even having to take in a piece of mail. It was a boondoggle, a thrown bone I eagerly dove for, resulting in stints of shortened commutes to work from digs far lovelier than mine; meals prepared in large, well-equipped kitchens; evenings spent on sofas in front of television sets with cable; and, most of all, the voyeuristic thrill of glimpsing, inhabiting, however fraudulently and briefly, someone else’s better life.
I once stayed in a friend’s loft, a place literally twelve times the size of my apartment at the time. A beautiful and largely empty space, save for two oversize couches in wide Lewis Carroll stripes. I could run laps around the place, which I did, giddy with space. Best of all was each night, when I could look across the Soho street and see into the glamorous cast-iron dollhouse that was the apartments of other, similarly blessed people. No one more so than the super-handsome fellow across the way; pure delight for the budding Peeping Tom. Every evening, he would arrive home and doff his suit and then spend an interval barely dressed in front of the television, watching wrestling videos. When he was, ahem, primed, he’d pick up the telephone, and after some negotiations involving multiple calls (this was pre-Internet), he would change into a scarlet singlet and arrange his spare room (a spare room!) so that its floor was covered in mattresses, by which time an equally handsome gentleman caller would arrive. They would enter the brightly lit arena and go at it. The winner of the scantily clothed match would be granted dominance in the later, more authentically ancient Greek matches.
That brilliant switch to Technicolor upon opening the door to the Land of Oz wouldn’t be quite so vibrant and thrilling if Kansas weren’t so drab. My own apartment was all of two blocks distant but fully a world away. I had been given a temporary visa to the realm of the beautiful, a brief trip that made it easy to forget certain things. Things like a shower in the kitchen is, rather than a hardship, a benign and charming, sepia-toned throwback to Old Tenement New York. That an eight-foot bedroom plunged into the permanent midnight of the bottom of a filing-cabinet-narrow, guano-frosted air shaft is not a similarly shitty referendum on my life. And, most importantly, that the joy that seemed so evident in those lofts might well be a complete fiction, and even if it were true, that it was hardly a function of money. I was an appallingly stupid twentysomething, it must be said.
The wrestling went on every night I house-sat. It remains one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life. I couldn’t see any evidence to counter the theory that if one’s place was bigger and better, so was one’s existence; fantasy literally came to life there.
Of course, even the most perfect home—indeed, particularly the most perfect home—will require closets in which to conceal its quotidian unsightliness. I finally met the obscure object of desire at a holiday party a few years thereafter. At some point I muttered some dumb “Happy Birth of Christ” non-joke, as is my cranky seasonal wont, and the kouros, seeing me for the first time that night, visibly bristled and said, “Someone should teach you about grace.”
And someone should teach you how to get out of a full nelson, I thought.
David Rakoff’s latest book is Half Empty.