Real Life Stories

After My Marriage Fell Apart, Renting My Basement To Strangers Saved Me

After my husband left, I was left broken and empty—I didn’t want to lose my house, too. Somehow renting my basement to strangers helped me find my way back home.

After 28 years, my marriage fell apart very suddenly. “What the hell happened?” I have no idea. But one day the “truth” poured down my husband’s face and stained his shirt. He didn’t know why—he couldn’t say for sure. As it turned out, he had been hiding that he never felt much at all.

It felt like someone had taken an ice cream scoop to my heart. In an instant, I was very lonely on the three days a week my son was at his father’s. I’d wander around my house looking for the life I’d misplaced. Was I that awful? Had my whole life been a lie? And was I going to have to sell this house where I had nursed my baby, cooked countless meals and loved like crazy? At first, I filled the hours with Netflix and constant crying into coconut-flavoured popcorn. Then I realized I was sitting in this house all by myself, wishing I could do anything instead of cry, but that the only way I was going to keep this house was if I kept moving forward.

So, to pay my mortgage, I turned part of my house into an Airbnb. Good friends came over and set it up, took photos and listed my basement. They showed me how to set a nightly price and how to make my house rules. I made a binder with all my favourite restaurants, the cutest local shops, the best cafés. I walked through the house 10 times, pretending I was seeing it for the first time and trying to imagine all the things I would want and need if I had just come from the airport or a long drive.

I was empty and broken, so I threw myself into my Airbnb. Did my guests have enough blankets? Was the Wi-fi too slow? Something had shifted. In the morning I’d hear my guests getting ready to head out for the day and find myself smiling as I made my breakfast, listening.

I remember the first ones, from Columbus, Ohio. They were three 20-somethings who just wanted to see the sights. But once I saw them, I couldn’t let go. I wanted to tell them where to get coffee and where to get a haircut and how close they were to the lake and the park. They were so damn cute with their Ohio jeans and sweaters and shoes. I worried when they came home late and I took so much pleasure in hearing them laughing.

They loved it here. I loved them. My 12-year-old son, in an attempt to be a part of it all, had turned up the fridge because he said, “it really didn’t seem cold enough.” Sweet Ohio opened it to the already exploded Sanpellegrino bottles. She cleaned it and still gave me a five-star review. I was so grateful. I was thrilled that she took my suggestions and had hipster pizza. The morning they checked out, I heard one of them playing guitar, my guitar that I had put down there for guests, and I nearly started to cry with happiness. I was hooked even though they left without saying good-bye.

According to the Vanier Institute of the Family, 41 percent of marriages end in Airbnb (divorce), and if you count the ones where people don’t divorce but permanently separate, it’s much higher. Those are terrible numbers, unless you work for Airbnb. If we are to believe the statistics, then why do we get married in the first place? For me, it was a celebration of the years we’d been together—years of loving, travelling, fighting, gardening, cooking. It was a way to thank everyone who had listened to us complain about each other and had seen us hold hands. When you marry, it’s a time of pounding hearts, which then fades into comfort and stability. That’s what I thought. To his credit he never lied about anything except the cheating and loving me.

London, Ont. The guy never made a sound. I never knew when he was there. He never watched TV or played guitar or laughed. But then this chap from London coughed. Goddamn it! I’d raised a child. I knew he needed a Tylenol! He’d wake up in the morning after coughing all night, blow his nose and then cough some more before rushing off to work in the rain. I hated myself for not thinking to put an umbrella down there. Clearly there weren’t enough blankets. I wanted to sneak down in the middle of the night and rub Vicks Vaporub on his chest but that would not have gotten me five stars. So I did the only thing I could: I took all the cold medicine I had—the cough drops, the decongestant, expectorants, the throat coat teas, the Slippery Elm Lozenges—and a bottle of orange juice and I put them in a bag in front of his door. When he got home he wrote me the sweetest text: “You are the best host ever.”

I liked being busy and taking care of others, because taking care of myself seemed somehow wrong. I missed hearing my son’s footsteps, his requests for snacks, the weird video game sounds of him blasting aliens into space. Hearing my guests’ footfalls and the shows they picked on Netflix made the days he was at his dad’s a little more bearable. On those days, the best sound of all was the gentle chimes—the sound of my Airbnb app telling me that I had a booking. Someone had looked at my amenities and fallen in love with my home. Out of the 300 places in the area that are close to transit, they’d picked mine. And the reviews they leave are only for me. For the care I take in cleaning and plumping pillows and stocking the fridge with oranges and sugar-free pop. Those stars are for my binder full of my favourite places that I hoped they would like, too.

Michigan wrote, “No need to stay anywhere else! I can’t tell you how lovely it was staying in your place. You are an awesome woman and a fantastic host. Chatting with you was one of the highlights of the trip. Can’t wait for my next visit.”

London wrote, “This is a fantastic spot! Great neighbourhood, a beautiful unit, and by far and away the best Airbnb host I’ve had. Would 10/10 stay there again!!”

Somewhere in Ontario “Our camping trip got rained out. I know it’s super last minute but can we stay?” Of course. Please. I’ll make it warm and cozy and leave cookies and tea.

It’s nice to get five stars for my cleanliness, promptness in responding, communication and value. I just attained “super host” status. Why couldn’t I get super host status in my marriage? As a parent? As a person? If only my husband had left me a review, I could have either revelled in it or tried to improve.

What review would I have left for him? How did I actually feel about him? The funny thing is I never asked myself this question. I had based my entire understanding of love on what someone else felt about me. Was I loved, cared for, needed, worthy? How did it look when someone loved me? Was it a kiss when he came home or compliment on my hair? Was it helping out with things I was stressed about? Was it the sharing of a life and laughing at the same things and fighting the same battles? Was it someone really knowing me for so many years? Yes. But not once did I ask myself how I actually felt, because my feelings were completely based on how he felt about me. It may seem like an existential or convoluted question or that I’ve taken cannabis legalization way too far, but it’s not. I see it everywhere. Men, women, kids, we’re all looking for approval—from our parents; from machines at the grocery store; from the clicks, hearts and likes; from our banks, bosses and spouses. We don’t know how we feel because we base our happiness on how others feel about us. We don’t exist without the reviews.

It hurts knowing that he didn’t love me for most, if any, of our marriage. It burns in the middle of the night thinking of him emailing or worse with someone else. It’s like a knife in the throat when I recall the look on his face when he told me there was no chance his feelings will ever change. But now, I take a breath and I ask myself what I felt then and now. What do I feel? I may never know, but I’ve decided it’s far more powerful and interesting to ask myself why I don’t know and what I’m going to do about it.

I began to remake my life with fresh paint, Ikea bookcases and new floor plans. I’m renovating myself too and I’ve already changed. And now my Airbnb runs itself— I’m learning that it’s possible to take care of myself while taking care of others. My guests don’t need me because they can find their way with Google Maps, and I’m OK with that. I’ve made the bed and they can sleep in it. I’m not going to sleep in it for them. And they can park on the street, my parking spot is reserved for me to practise kick-boxing. I’ve realized I don’t need to lose track of myself. It’s a slow process but I’m learning and trying not to get angry that it’s taking me so long to get it.

Part of this is taking time for myself and doing things I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve started taking piano lessons with my son’s piano teacher across the street. We even share our piano books. The teacher asked me why I wanted to take piano at 50. To learn to read music? Pick songs off the radio? I said, “To meditate and just because it feels good.” She liked my answer so much I got a puffy dinosaur sticker.