What I started to say, but got distracted when I encountered that snapshot of the Asian beauty – I . . . uhm . . . something, something . . . oh yes, home exchanges.
Well, as I was saying, sometimes they work. I’ve great experiences with them. Met some wonderful people with whom I swapped. Until this experience, the folks I’ve exchanged with in the Manly area have been smart, successful, interesting people. Even though we have not done an exchange since the initial ones with two couples from Balgowah Heights, it has been a great pleasure, during subsequent visits, to share dinner and nights out on the town with Betty and Jim, as well as Helen and Tony.
And then there was this year’s trip, the “Swap From Hell.”
It was a last minute thing. I had I started the exchange partner search too late in the season. Most people who wanted to visit New York City for Christmas and New Years had made their plans almost a year in advance.
Starting in September, I began writing to every possible partner hoping for a response. The answers were prompt, polite and discouraging. My own advertisement was not generating any contacts. I started pricing “rooms for rent” and “surfer hotels.” Even they were not available, despite the high prices.
I could see I might have to change my plans. No Manly this year.
But the day after Thanksgiving, just as I was planning on changing the schedule, I got an email from a woman at the north end of Manly Beach. An incredible location, just a short walk to the sand. A bus that stopped at the corner connected to everything in the area, including Warringah Mall and the other Northern Beaches.
She was offering a two-year-old, 3 bedroom condo with a balcony and garden facing the beach, swimming pool, high-speed internet, large screen TV, modern kitchen. The photo of the building was delicious.
Her email said, “I have always had a fantasy of Christmas in Manhattan, wandering the great stores like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, watching the ice-skating in Rockefeller Center and then seeing the ball drop in Times Square on New Years Eve. I hope I am not too late. Is your apartment still available?”
I was online when that email arrived. I responded within seconds, “Yes is it is. Can you arrive here on December 10th so I can get you settled in before I catch my flight to Manly on December 12th?”
“Yes, yes.” she replied. Molly Bloom, I thought, as I booked and paid for my high-priced, late-booking. She said she was in her late 50s, long divorced. I never fully understood if she had just one son, or more.
Then, step by step, one email at a time, it unraveled.
After a few days silence she wrote, “I can’t get a flight that soon. In fact, I don’t see how I can come after all. But don’t worry. You still can have my apartment and I’ll go visit friends up in Queensland for the month.”
She explained that she would leave the day before I was due but would give the key to my son John, who lives not far away.
OK, it was going to happen.
My arrival was delayed by the fiasco with the flight from LAX to SYD (see “How I lost My Virginity“ further along in this narrative). John met my 8am arriving flight at SYD and drove me to QC.
As he drove he told me he had picked up the key but added, “You are going to have a problem. She not going to visit her friends. She says the apartment is big enough that you can stay. Today, she’s gone off to a wedding and will stay three days. But she’s coming back. And she’s wacko. I think she’s crazy or sick or both.”
I soon found out John was right. She came back that very same day without warning. Just walked in. She said she was horribly depressed and unable to stay with her friends. She looked like every bit of that was true. She was a physical mess. “But don’t worry, I’ll be in my room almost all the time.”
The phone and the Internet connection had been disconnected, apparently for lack of payment.
But the vibes from her were worse. I got the clear and disturbing impression that she was hoping for something to happen between us. She wasn’t flirtatious. I doubt, in her current condition, that she was capable of honest, deliberate flirting.
I have heard professionals describe her behavior as “a flat affect”, meaning no personality. No eye contact. Whenever she spoke I had to ask her to raise her voice even though I was only a few feet away.
That obvious lack of basic social skills alone was worrisome. Even more bothersome, she wandered around in diaphanous pajamas and came too close, face to face, when were together in the otherwise spacious kitchen. There was no “personal space.”
After I went to bed she knocked on my (locked) bedroom door “to talk.”
She spoke in a monotone and her words were of desperate depression and loneliness. She said that medications didn’t help. Could not sleep unless knocked out with pills.
I was silently sympathetic. I’d been in that condition maybe 30 years ago in reaction to a foolish love affair that ended badly. I had been in constant lower-back and leg pain and starting to think of relief by doing something stupid and self-destructive.
I had withdrawn from friends, stopped working, holed up in an north-facing apartment that never saw a single ray of direct sunshine, stuck in the stupor of a cycle of self-medication with a daily bottle of wine, huge doses of aspirin, Valium and bowls of marijuana.
I was saved only by a a staged intervention by friends, along with a shrink they brought with them. He provided savvy psychological counseling, followed by two years of weekly shrink sessions. I’ve been lucky that the depression never returned.
I knew that she was in trouble and would be trouble for me if I got involved in any way. I said that, since we were going to be in the same place for a while, i should tell her about myself. I explained my personal situation to her, carefully and gently, emphasizing that I was planning on marrying Margarita, a woman I had known for years, as soon as she and I worked out the practical issues of where we would live, how she would move her career to my city, etc.
Her response to that information confirmed to me there was fantasy stuff going on there with her. She told me she wanted me to leave, as soon as possible, even that very afternoon.
I responded that under the circumstances, I probably should move out. But, I continued, I estimated that such a move was going to cost me a minimum of $300 per day for a comparable hotel room in the area and the added expense of paying for restaurant meals above making my own in her kitchen. I concluded by telling her I considered her responsible for those expenses because I had come here on the clear understanding that I had the right to be here and those expenses caused by her unilateral decision would have to paid before before I would move.
That was a cold bucket of water for her. It penetrated her fog, She retreated to her bedroom for a few hours and then said she would contact her doctor and sign herself into a clinic for the time I was here. Apparently Australian public health care is generous.
She moved out the next morning and I finally had the place to myself for the remainder of the month.