The first thing that struck Carole about the young woman who booked her guestroom on HomeBnB was that her name, Xaria Lemieux, both began and ended with an “X.” It made her lip curl.
She'd had all types of people stay in the second room of her two-bedroom Ardmont, Pennsylvania rowhome since she put it on the site, but something about those bookend X’s gave her a bad feeling. This would definitely be a weird one.
She clicked the guest’s profile. Shocker — Xaria Lemieux was from California. A hippie freak, probably. Likely to stink up the place with incense and weed. Either she didn’t eat meat, or she was one of those crackpots who only ate meat.
Carole sighed and slapped her laptop shut. It would be a couple days, that’s it.
She peered through the blinds as Xaria got out of a rideshare taxi. Her guest’s hair was no longer brown and normal like it had been in her profile picture. Now, it was dyed a garish shade of Manic Panic pink that announced itself with all the subtlety of a roman candle. It's not that Carole was shocked by hair dye — this was the 2020’s, not the 1920’s. It’s just that statement hairdos seemed like a way to demand of everyone, “Pay attention to me, I’m so very edgy.”
Carole hadn't earned her Superhost badge for nothing, though. She tucked her feelings away and opened the front door, a practiced smile gluesticked to her face. “You must be Xaria," she said. "Let me help you with your suitcase.”
“Thank you,” Xaria said. “I brought way too much stuff, I always do, it’s one of my worst habits. If you’ll take these cupcakes, I can get the rest.” She handed Carole a cupcake container, then strapped a rucksack on her back, hung a purse over one shoulder, and pulled an overstuffed rolling suitcase from the car’s trunk.
Once inside, Carole rested the cupcakes on the kitchen counter. “I prefer to keep all food in the kitchen,” she explained. “To prevent ants. But don’t worry, I’m the only person who lives here and I won’t touch them.”
“You can, though,” Xaria said, high-pitched and overeager. “Please, enjoy one if you like. They’re gluten free and vegan.”
Of course they were.
Carole showed Xaria around the house, which didn’t take long. It was barely 1000 square feet, all she could afford with her salary alone. She ended the tour in the guest room, furnished simply: a bed, dresser, mirror, and television. “Let me know if you need anything,” she said.
“I shouldn’t need much,” Xaria said. “I’m sure my boyfriend will show me around.”
“You have a boyfriend here in Ardmont?”
“Yes, I do!” Xaria tapped her phone and opened a close-up picture of a shockingly handsome man. A short, scruffy mustache and beard lined his jaw, and long, pretty eyelashes crowned his blue eyes. His left hand could be seen fingering the bridge of a guitar. “His name is Decker. Isn’t he gorgeous?”
“He’s cute, yeah,” Carole agreed. She hadn’t dated since she and her husband split and she moved into this house, and not for years before that either, while she'd been married. “How long have you been together?”
Xaria sat her butt on the edge of the bed and leaned her body forward into Carole's personal space. “Can I tell you the truth?”
No one ever answers no to such questions. “Of course,” Carole said.
“Technically, we’ve never met. But we’ve gotten very serious online. See, we’re both huge Pearl Jam fans, and we got to chatting on a message board, and it’s become super intense between us. And his birthday is tomorrow, so I said, what the hell, I’ll surprise him. And here I am.”
“Wow,” Carole said, though the story didn't sit right in her gut. “Have you talked on the phone with him, at least?”
“Of course! Phone, Zoom, Snapchat, the whole thing. He’s real, if that's what you're worried about. And he’s getting together with his friends at Stanby’s tomorrow for his birthday. You should come.”
During the pandemic, Carole had gotten used to staying inside, and found she mostly preferred it. Had she divorced a year earlier or later, well-meaning acquaintances might have pressured her out to Stanby’s or one of the other bars in town, but she’d escaped that by splitting with her ex just as the world shut down. Now everything had been back open for over a year, but she'd still only Netflix and chilled alone with her laptop in bed.
That night while she flossed, Carole pictured herself going to Stanby’s with Xaria. It was a dive, but a cool dive, where she and her ex-husband used to go to karaoke sometimes. He'd try to convince her to sing "Total Eclipse of the Heart," but she never would, except on the ride home, when she'd blast the song on the car's stereo and belt it out. She'd look to her husband every now and then to gauge his reaction to her performance, blushing preemptively, then feel a mixture of relief and disappointment when his gaze stayed focused only on the road in front of him.
It might be different for her now. Insecurity was supposed to be a side effect of youth, she thought. She was over forty, and didn't have to prove herself to anyone.
By morning, she’d decided she’d go to Stanby's. Even though the houseguest's name was ringed with X’s and her hair was troll doll chic, the situation piqued Carole's curiosity. If Dapper Decker was real, she wanted to witness his reaction to Xaria's unexpected arrival. Besides, what else was she going to do on a Saturday night? Lay in bed re-watching episodes of Law & Order: SVU for the upteenth time?
When Carole told Xaria she'd come with her — and drive them both — to Stanby’s, Xaria hopped up and down in place, clapping her hands. “Yay! It'll be so much more fun with you there.”
Carole had no clue where Xaria had gotten that impression.
A good portion of the overstuffed suitcase turned out to have been filled with way more makeup than one person could possibly need. “Let me do you up,” Xaria insisted. “I'll make you so hot.”
By the time she’d finished with her, Carole barely recognized herself. “I look ridiculous,” she said. She never wore so much makeup. Xaria had also convinced her to borrow her slouchy burnt orange pants and a cream-colored turtleneck that wasn't quite long enough to tuck in. She picked a pair of black heeled boots from Carole’s closet to complete the ensemble.
“You look amazing. Very hip. You’re gorgeous.”
She felt like a clown. Or maybe a clown parodying a Spice Girl.
Carole would have normally been in bed by 11 PM, but that night, Xaria insisted they couldn't show up at the bar before 10 PM. She knew for an absolute fact that Decker would not get to Stanby’s until at least half past 9, and getting there before him would be utterly uncool. By the time they walked in the bar at quarter past 10, Carole was already yawning.
“So this is Stanby’s,” Xaria said. “It’s exactly how I pictured it. I can’t believe I’m actually in Pennsylvania. Did you know I’ve never left California?” As a matter of fact, Carole had known that. Xaria rarely stopped talking the whole time she’d plastered her face with make-up.
Carole began scanning the place for the man in the picture, but Xaria directed her straight to the bar. Without asking, she ordered them each a shot of whiskey, which the bartender placed in front of them next to the container of cupcakes. Luckily, whiskey was exactly what Carole would have picked, had she been given an option. They both downed the shot in one gulp. Xaria almost ordered another round when Carole interrupted.
“I’ll get mine on the rocks this time,” she said. “I’m driving.” Xaria shrugged and swallowed her second shot before Carole even took her first sip.
Now Xaria’s eyes roamed the place. Suddenly, she grabbed Carole around the shoulders and stage whispered, “He’s in the corner behind us. Don’t look!”
“Why not? He doesn’t know me,” Carole said, freeing herself from her companion’s grip and turning toward him. Sure enough, next to the jukebox stood the man from the picture. She truly had not believed he would be real. “So are you gonna go talk to him?”
As soon as the bartender delivered Xaria’s third drink — a draft beer this time — she picked a cupcake from the box and marched, head held high, over to the man. Carole grabbed the cupcake container and followed her. She did not intend to miss this.
When they approached, he faced the opposite direction, talking to someone. “Decker,” Xaria said, and he turned.
His beard was shaggier than in the picture and his hair longer. He didn’t seem to recognize Xaria. Maybe the pink hair threw him off.
“Happy birthday,” she said. “It’s your favorite, chocolate peanut butter.”
Recognition seemed to dawn on him. He didn’t smile. “Xaria? What are you — ”
“The fuck?” a woman’s voice cut through the din of the music. “What the hell is she doing here?”
“I swear, I have no idea. I cut it off with her, like I told you.” He turned away from Xaria and reached for the hand of a tattooed woman with bleach blonde hair. “I haven’t talked to her in months.”
Xaria blinked wildly. For the first time since Carole met her, she’d been struck dumb. And even though Carole had half-expected a scene, had come to the bar mostly in anticipation of one, the tears that gathered behind her houseguest’s mascara’d lashes gave her no pleasure.
“You stopped communicating,” Xaria choked out after seconds that seemed to expand to infinity. “Didn’t say anything, you just… ghosted me.”
That panged Carole’s heart. She remembered the morning she woke up and her husband had uncharacteristically risen before her. When she came downstairs, she’d expected to find coffee brewing. Instead, the note: “I can’t. I’m sorry. You will survive.”
At least he’d left her a note. This guy had no such courtesy.
“What are you, a stalker?” the blonde woman was shrieking now. “Can’t you tell you’re not fucking welcome here?” Carole couldn't blame her for that reaction. In her position, she might have reacted the same way. Her harshest judgments fell entirely on this man, this Decker.
Xaria’s mouth hung open and she stood frozen in place. With her dramatic make-up, she reminded Carole of one of those mimes who pretend to be a statue for tips at the park. A petrified spectacle.
Carole couldn’t take it. She downed the rest of the whiskey and slammed the empty glass on top of the jukebox, causing every head in a ten foot radius to jerk in her direction. Then she yanked the cupcake out of Xaria’s hands.
“Happy fucking birthday,” she said, and smashed the confection into Decker’s Pearl Jam t-shirt. “Enjoy.”
With that, she grabbed Xaria’s hand and pulled her, cutting through the crowd to the exit. When the guy who checked ID’s in front tried to stop Xaria from bringing her beer outside, Carole knocked it out of her hands and let it smash on the bar’s dirty concrete floor. The way the cold night air whooshed by her as she opened the hydraulic door to leave made her feel like Superwoman.
She'd never made a dramatic exit before. It was exhilarating.
Back in the car, a silence, particularly pronounced in contrast with the noisy bar they’d just left in a hurry, settled around them. Carole didn’t place the keys in the ignition, she just sat there, calming her breath.
Finally, Xaria broke the silence. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have told you the truth. Decker wasn't my boyfriend. He wasn't even my Facebook friend anymore. I only saw this birthday event by using a fake profile.”
Carole shrugged. “It’s okay. I understand.” And she did. Loneliness metes out its punishments irrationally. It might cast you across the country to chase a fantasy, or into bed for months at a time.
“It’s just, we'd spent so many nights talking, really beautiful nights. He'd write little songs about me, and he was so sweet. I really believed — ” Inky tears flowed down her face now. “I thought we had something special.” Her tears ramped up suddenly into a bawling cry, no doubt made more intense by having been held at bay with false optimism for so long.
Carole hadn't cried in a long time, but Xaria’s exposed pain was a pickax that chipped away at her heart. She drew her guest into a hug over the car’s gear shift and breathed in her sadness along with the scent of her almond shampoo. The pickax struck a water pipe and it sprung a leak. They cried into each other’s shoulders.
To avoid driving while tipsy on either emotions or whiskey, they took a rideshare taxi back to the house. “I’ll come pick up the car tomorrow, don't worry about it,” Carole assured her.
The two of them stayed up late into the night talking like girlfriends. Xaria told Carole about her strict Catholic upbringing and her first kiss, while Carole told Xaria about getting married too young and divorcing, most likely, much later than she should have. She realized she'd never actually put these feelings into words before, not even in her own head. The night had somehow freed her to be vulnerable.
They shared intimate details from their lives: the jagged devastation of their heartbreaks, the riotous heights of their joys. They cried and laughed so hard, Carole worried they'd wake the neighbors. All while they ate — in the living room, not the kitchen — gluten free vegan cupcakes.
Carole had to admit, those cupcakes were damn tasty.