It was official.
At long last, our fully-furnished house—upstairs and downstairs—was ready to hit the rental market.
We changed our web pages to reflect our exalted new status as a three-bedroom instead of a “one,” and sat back to wait for the bookings to pour in.
Not so much.
Whereas the previous October we had received twenty or thirty inquiries, this October we got just six. We couldn’t understand it. Was it the economy?
Was it some subtle change in the wording of our web pages that was turning off prospective guests?
We called Jane to ask what we’d done wrong.
“Nothing that I know of,” she said. “By the way, have you by any chance cut back on your meds?”
She had a subtle way of letting you know when she thought you were going off the rails.
We contacted the handful of other people we knew who owned rental houses on the island and asked if their bookings were down.
“Actually we’re doing better than last year,” replied Veronica, a divorcee from Boston who had bought her house on Vieques with her son and daughter-in-law. “Of course we’re just a two-bedroom. I’ve heard the bigger houses are having trouble this year.”
This was disheartening. Michael went to the “official” Vieques website, Enchanted Isle.com, and checked out three-bedroom rentals. The previous year there had been thirty-two (the year before that only nineteen). This year there were fifty-eight.
Had we inadvertently positioned our house in the most competitive rental market on the island? We discussed offering the place either as a one- or three-bedroom, but after all our hard work we weren’t ready to offer the one-bedroom option yet. Maybe more inquiries about the three-bedroom would come in soon.
Three weeks before Christmas the New York Times ran an article about Vieques in its Friday travel section.
This will do it, we said, high-fiving each other. We’re in.
But while the article generated lots more emails from potential renters in New York, Boston and Washington, bookings remained sluggish.
For the first time we found ourselves trying to convince people to rent our house. Neither of us felt comfortable doing this. Previously all we’d had to do was respond to email queries about the house; now we actually called people back if they bothered to list a phone number.
Sometimes these calls didn’t go so well. One man from New York (let’s call him Dan) answered his phone with a growl when I called to respond to his email about renting the house over New Year’s.
“I don’t remember sending you an email,” he barked. “Where’s your house?”
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s a small island off the coast of Puerto Rico.”
“Oh, Puerto Rico,” he said, his voice upgrading slightly from nasty to unpleasant. “Why didn’t you say so?”
“Look, I’m busy here, what’s the deal?”
If rentals hadn’t been so tough that season I would’ve proposed a very specific deal involving insertion of the phone into the most private cavity of his body, but we needed his business.
Deep breath. “You sent me an email about renting our house in Vieques over New Year’s. I’m calling to say that the house is available that week if you’re still interested.”
“Where did you say it is?”
“Vieques Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico.”
“Sounds pretty nice.”
Silence. “Are you trying to sell me something?”
“No sir, it’s a rental. The house isn’t for sale. And you contacted me, not the other way around.”
“Hey buddy, no need to get testy.”
Another very deep breath (I was perilously close to hyperventilating at this point).
“Would you like me to email the web page to you? Then you can have a look at the house and see what you think.”
Reluctantly, I sent him the link. An hour later he called back. “Your house is fabulous.”
I was taken aback. How had the lunatic I’d spoken to just a few minutes earlier morphed into this perfectly polite man? “Oh, thanks.”
“We’ll take it.”
“Is there a problem?”
“No, not at all, you just seemed so uncertain before.”
“Look kid,” he said in a low voice, as if he were confiding a state secret. “I’m a decision guy. I think about something, I make up my mind, just like that. And I’m very seldom wrong.”
“Sounds good,” I said, experiencing the habitual ditherer’s twinge of envy at such fabulous decisiveness.
“And you’ll make sure I’m not wrong this time, won’t you?”
What had I gotten us in to? I was pretty sure we’d both be wearing cement shoes at the bottom of the Potomac if this guy’s sheets weren’t perfectly ironed.
But then again we needed the business.
Dan called me every day for the next couple of weeks. Some days he was nasty, some days he was downright charming. You never knew which Dan you were going to get when you picked up the phone.
In some ways I preferred Nasty Dan. At least you knew where you stood with him. Nice Dan was unsettlingly pleasant, as if he were doing an impersonation of a kind, caring person and— having no actual experience of such a creature—wasn’t quite sure how far to take the performance.
Unfailingly, he overplayed his hand, though hints of Nasty Dan crept in even when he was trying his hardest to be good.
“Thank you so much for letting us stay in your beautiful house,” he said one day.
I almost laughed at his unctuousness. “You’re welcome, but you haven’t even seen it yet.”
“You mean it’s not beautiful?”
“Well, we think it is.”
“How about other people? What do they say?”
“We’ve gotten great reviews.”
“Did you write them yourselves?”
“No, Dan, we wouldn’t do that. Our guests wrote them. They genuinely liked the house.”
“Of course they did. It’s beautiful.”
“It certainly is.”
Jane called us the day Dan and his girlfriend arrived. “He’s mean to his wife.”
“She’s not his wife, just his girlfriend.”
“Good for her. He’s a jerk.”
“In what way?”
“She asked me what kind of trees mangoes grow on. He told her she was stupid.”
“Charming. What do they look like?” I always asked this when I got the chance. I simply couldn’t help wanting to know what the people who slept in our bed looked like.
“He’s short and chubby, she’s Asian and pretty, with long fingernails.
“Is he nice to you?”
“Yes, almost annoyingly so. It’s such a contrast to the way he treats his girlfriend.”
“He’s a little schizoid.”
“You think? By the way, what do you know about this guy?”
“I think he might be Mafia.”
“Really?” she said, and for the first time since I’d known her I heard something like awe in Jane’s voice.
“I think I’ll take over some extra towels.”