‘Super Host,’ by Kate Russo: An Excerpt

THE DEMONS YOU’RE STUCK WITH

In the hierarchy of linen stains, blood is at the top. Everyone thinks semen is the worst, but they’re wrong. They only think this because of that popular TV show where inspectors take a black light to a hotel room and it lights up neon yellow, indicating bodily fluids all over the bedding. Since that report, people automatically throw off the bedspread in hotel rooms, assuming it’s drenched in some stranger’s spunk. It probably is; that’s why Bennett Driscoll prefers to use duvet covers in his rentable four‑bedroom house. Soap, hot water, and a rigorous spin cycle will scrub all the manhood out of a duvet cover. It’s the stains you can detect with the naked eye that are the real problem. When Bennett throws back the duvets on checkout day, it’s the sight of blood he fears most.

Fuck.

And there they are, halfway down the fitted sheet. Only a couple drops’ worth, but on Bennett’s bright white sheets they stand out like a red scarf discarded in snow. Their removal will require bleach and a lot of scrubbing. Recently, he bought a nailbrush or, for his purposes, a blood brush, to combat the really stubborn stains. In the beginning, he would just throw away the visibly soiled sheets and buy new ones, but now a year into renting out his suburban London house on AirBed, he has thrown away five sets of perfectly good sheets. Bleach is cheaper. He pulls the fitted sheet up from the corners, wadding it into a ball in the center of the bed. If the blood has transferred onto the mattress pad, that’s double the work.

Dammit.

[ Return to the review of “Super Host.” ]

Recently, Bennett was awarded the status of “Super Host” on the AirBed website—an honor he earned for having a quick response rate and excellent reviews. Though it’s never been his aspiration to become a host, he’d be lying if he said that the little medal next to his picture didn’t fill him with pride. Until two years ago, Bennett was a full‑time artist who never stuttered over answering the question, “What do you do?” In fact, nobody ever needed to ask him. He was the well‑known painter, Bennett Driscoll. Everyone knew that. Okay, maybe not everyone, but enough people that he didn’t have to worry about renting out his house to tourists. Unfortunately, things change, tastes change. It used to be that anything he painted would sell. In 2002, there was a waiting list. Now, sixteen years later, there are more than a hundred of his paintings in storage. His last solo show was in 2013. The critic for the Guardian wrote, “Driscoll cares so little for the current trends in painting that one wonders if he concerns himself with the contemporary art world at all.” That pissed Bennett off, mostly because it was true. But a bad review is better than no review, he realizes that now. Since art critics don’t review his work anymore, Bennett pores over each AirBed review as though it’s the Sunday Times, scouring each for a new and nuanced understanding of his hosting skills. More often than not, they go like this: “Bennett was a welcoming and gracious host,” “Bennett was very helpful,” “Bennett has a beautiful home,” and “Looking forward to staying at Bennett’s house again the next time we’re in London.” They’re not exactly Times quality, but nevertheless, it’s nice to be reviewed favorably. Hey, it’s nice to be reviewed, full stop. Sometimes he wonders if his ex‑wife, Eliza, ever goes on AirBed to read his reviews. Probably not. She left a year ago to live in America with a hedge fund manager named Jeff, taking with her the steady salary from her publishing job that, until the divorce, had been paying their bills. That’s when Bennett decided to move into the studio at the end of the garden and rent out the family home on AirBed. He doesn’t think his Super Host status would impress Eliza. Almost nothing impressed her. He wishes someone would write, “Bennett has a beautiful home. He was the perfect host. No, the perfect man—exciting, interesting, and handsome in equal measure. He would make an excellent husband. I even bought several of his paintings because I believe they are the pinnacle of contemporary art.” No such luck yet.

******

As he rounds the corner from the bedroom to the hallway, hip‑hop is quietly thumping in the distance from the other side of the house. He carries the big wad of sheets down the wide staircase, careful to peer ahead of him from the side of the load. As he walks through the large, open‑plan living space, the music grows louder. Bennett sings along confidently, although he can’t quite bring himself to rap the lyrics. Instead, the words always come out melodically, each one dragging on a millisecond longer than it should. He discovered rap music around the same time he started letting the house, around the same time Eliza moved out. Though unable to name a single song, she claimed to hate hip‑hop.

On the night he discovered the rapper Roots Manuva, he’d been out to dinner with his daughter. They were at some trendy Shoreditch restaurant, the kind of place that claims to sell street food, but in the comfort of the indoors. The music was, of course, too loud—he knew that even without Eliza there to point it out. He had to shout to be heard, which was difficult considering the task at hand was explaining to Mia why her mother had just fucked off to New York. At one point, Mia, needing to collect herself, went to the ladies’ room. He hated the idea of his daughter crying alone in a stall, but he sat patiently, fighting the urge to follow her into the women’s loo and check on her. At the time he was one of the few people on earth for whom the mobile phone wasn’t an obvious distraction. Why pull out your phone unless you needed to make a phone call? Instead, in need of entertainment, he started listening intently to the restaurant’s music:

Taskmaster burst the bionic zit-splitter Breakneck speed we drown ten pints of bitter

We lean all day and some say that ain’t productive

But that depend upon the demons that you’re stuck with

He had no idea what a “bionic zit‑splitter” was (he still doesn’t), but something about how we “lean all day,” and “the demons that you’re stuck with” resonated.

“I can’t stand still with you anymore,” Eliza had said two weeks previously. Divorce papers had since been served. He was now doing his best to explain to his then eighteen‑year‑old daughter something even he couldn’t understand himself. Had he been standing still for the last twenty years and not realized it? Their whole marriage, he thought he was being reliable—a good father and husband. That’s what women wanted, right? Reliability? Wait. He should be asking women what they want, not assuming. Eliza was forever pointing that out. His own father was anything but reliable. Well, that’s not strictly true, he was reliably drunk all the time—a miserable man who was only happy when he was listing all the ways you’d wronged him. Bennett was happy, or so he thought. He loved being an artist. He loved Eliza and Mia with all his heart. Why not stand still? Where else would he want to go? Eliza thought he was stuck. “The demons that you’re stuck with . . .” What were these demons that destroyed his marriage and why hadn’t he noticed them? This was what he was pondering when Mia returned to the table.

“What is this song?” he asked her.

A die‑hard Father John Misty fan, she just shrugged in ignorance as she sat down.

“Excuse me?” Bennett stopped a server moving quickly by with a plate of Mexican grilled corncobs. “Can you tell me what this song is?”

Mia, embarrassed, put her face in her hands.

“Roots Manuva, ‘Witness,’” the girl said, her tone implying Duh. Bennett pulled out the little black notebook he kept in his blazer pocket and wrote down Routes Maneuver. Witness. He had no idea which was the artist and which was the song title, but he’d figure that out later on Google.

[ Return to the review of “Super Host.” ]

At the end of the night, Mia burst into tears as they hugged good night. Though she’d only moved away from home the previous month, she told him she’d move back to keep him company.

“No, I won’t let you do that,” he said, holding her tight. “Besides, without your mum’s income, I’m going to have to put the house on AirBed.”

She cried even harder at this. The guilt weighed heavily on him. He might be stuck, but he wasn’t going to let Mia be stuck with him.

He went home that night and bought Roots Manuva’s “Witness” on iTunes. He played it twenty times on repeat before finally going to bed.

The music fades out as he reaches the laundry room—an annex off the kitchen with a large, American‑style washer and dryer. When Eliza ordered the appliances from John Lewis ten years ago, he thought she was crazy. The environmental impact alone of these fucking things! Eliza loved to live like an American in London. Big house. Big car. Big fuckin’ washer and dryer. “They understand convenience in America,” she liked to say. “They don’t enjoy suffering over there.” It had long been Eliza’s belief that misery was Bennett’s preferred mode. And not just him, but all British men. All that floppy‑haired, self‑deprecating, Hugh Grant nonsense from the nineties had penetrated their psyches and they were all irreparably damaged. But, eventually, the car, the house, and the washer/dryer were no longer enough. Eliza needed an actual American man.

Bennett spreads the fitted sheet over the top of the dryer. After pulling down a bottle of bleach from the shelf overhead, he pours a little over the stain. Grabbing the blood brush, he braces himself by stepping back on one leg to get more traction. The dryer rocks back and forth as he scrubs, a few strands of hair falling down in front of his eyes. He’s been lucky to keep a lot of his hair, though it’s thinning on top. His solution is to brush it back. A little product usually holds it in place. Eliza found the product sticky. Bennett finds satisfaction in the fact that her new bloke, Jeff, is completely bald with a shiny dome to match his shiny, fitted suits. Twat.

Bennett stops scrubbing and regards his progress. Barely a dent. He goes back at it, bending his front knee more to bring himself closer to enemy number one. Engaged with the task in hand, he’s startled when his phone, in the front pocket of his jeans, starts to ring.

“Mia! Hi, darling.” It’s particularly difficult to control his heart swells these days.

“You’re coming tonight, right?” she chirps, skipping the pleasantries.

“Of course I am.” He starts working at the stain again with his free hand. “I’ve just got to get the new guest checked in, then I’ll be on my way.”

“Ugh. Okay.” Mia makes no secret of her disapproval regarding her childhood home being on AirBed.

“She’ll be here at four. I’ll give her the keys and then catch the Tube. Should be there about half‑five. Is that alright?

Yeah, that’s fine.”

“I can’t wait to see your paintings.” “I had a good crit this morning.”

“Great!” He can’t help but beam with pride.

“But the tutor told everyone in the crit that Bennett Driscoll is my dad. Cunt.”

“Is that so bad?”

“I don’t want to ride your coattails.”

“I’m currently scrubbing blood out of bedsheets. Those coattails?”

“Eww, Dad! I’ll kill you if you tell any of my classmates about that.”

He smiles wide. Horrifying his daughter has long been one of his greatest pleasures. At nineteen, it is easier than ever to send her into frothy outrage. Why would Bennett Driscoll confide to a bunch of art school pricks that he’s letting his house on AirBed? Is there anything worse than admitting that his paintings no longer sell? He’d rather watch Eliza and Jeff have sex. On second thought, no he wouldn’t.

“Can I take you out for dinner after?” he asks. “Can I bring Gemma and Richard?”

No. No. No. No.

“Of course, darling, whoever you want to bring.”

His next guest is Alicia, a young woman from New York. Originally, she said she’d be traveling with a group of friends, which gave Bennett pause. He prefers families, but there is something trustworthy, maybe even a little naive, about Alicia in her smiley profile picture in front of the Brooklyn Bridge. When she booked the house a month back, she said there could be anywhere between three to five friends with her, she wasn’t yet sure of the numbers. Bennett had explained that the house slept six comfortably, but please don’t exceed eight people. That won’t be a problem, she wrote back two days ago, explaining that it would be only her staying after all. He didn’t want to pry, but what was a twentysomething young woman going to do in his big, suburban house all alone? It had been a good‑sized house for three people. It’s an enormous house for one, as he knows all too well.

That first day, when it came to him that Eliza and Mia were gone for good, the silence had been unbearable. Hip‑hop now constantly follows him around the house like an entourage, sweeping the solitude under the carpet. He felt kind of silly the morning after he listened to “Witness” twenty times in a row. Bennett suspected that what Roots Manuva was rapping about probably had to do with racial injustice and that he shouldn’t equate those “demons” with his own, but he couldn’t help it. He loved the song’s sense of urgency, and before long he owned the entire Roots Manuva catalog. The old Bennett was a Billy Bragg kind of guy. A Jeff Buckley fan. All that “depressing, nostalgic wallowing,” Eliza called it. Musical evidence that he’d never change. He’d spent his whole life avoiding the things that weren’t “meant for him,” diligently adhering to the middle‑class white man’s algorithm for taste and respectability. But staying the course is rubbish, he’s decided. He’s trying not to “give any fucks” (a phrase Mia taught him) but in reality, he gives so many fucks. Like, a truly debilitating number of fucks. He can’t even work up the courage to tell anyone besides Mia (is there anyone besides Mia?) about his recent obsession with the rapper. What would they think? Is his newfound love of hip‑hop a “fuck you” to Eliza? He tells himself, no, it’s more than that . . . but yeah, sort of.

The older he gets, the more impossible it becomes to live in the present as Eliza wanted him to. The past is too vast to ignore and the present is too close, like staring at your pores in a magnified mirror. Last year, even his gallery of thirty years suggested that he’d be more valuable to them when he’s dead. Libby Foster Gallery began representing him in 1988, right after he graduated from the Royal College of Art, but over the last decade, his sales had waned. Libby insisted that it wasn’t just him. Lots of artists were suffering from the economic downturn. Just before Eliza left, a letter from Libby had come through the post. “Dear Bennett,” it read, “We regret to inform you that, after much thought, the gallery has decided to no longer represent living artists. Given rising rents in London, the time has come for us to give up our formal exhibition space and redirect our focus on representing the estates of William Warren, Christopher Gray, and Tyson Allen Stewart in the art fair market.”

He called Libby, immediately.

“You got the letter,” she answered. “I love your work, Bennett. You know I do. But it’s not selling, not right now. If interest piques in the future, the gallery would be very interested in representing your estate.”

“You’ll be interested in representing me when I’m dead?” he clarified.

“We no longer represent living artists, so, yes.”

Fuck the present.

Alicia arrives right at four o’clock as planned, pulling her suitcase behind her. She has a thin frame and her straight, sandy‑blond hair is in a ponytail. Her eyes are visibly tired through her thick tortoiseshell‑ rimmed glasses. Bennett watches her approach through the front window of the living room. He likes to observe his guests as they arrive, hoping to catch some glimpse of their true selves before he greets them. Bundled up in a double‑breasted navy blue wool coat, Alicia hunches over, dragging her suitcase up the pebbled drive. She bites her lower lip as though she intends to confess something. Since becoming profoundly lonely himself, Bennett now feels he can spot it easily in others. Alicia is lonely. Halfway to the door, she stops to tighten her ponytail by taking a section of hair in each hand and tugging. He remembers both Eliza and Mia would do this, too. He adored all their strange habits, all their alien feminine rituals. He can’t help smiling to himself as he opens the front door.

Noticing his smile, she smiles back, relieved.

“You must be Alicia.” “Bennett?”

[ Return to the review of “Super Host.” ]

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