Free Bed: Strings Attached
I was couch surfing in California, and had been with one particularly generous host just south of LA for almost a week. Careful not to wear out my welcome and feeling ready for a change, I contacted a guy I had met on my first (and only) night in Venice Beach – Chase. He had invited me to watch his band play a gig and said that I was welcome to crash at his place for a few days.
I am a sucker for free accommodation, so I was excited about this prospect. He insisted he would pick me up even though I repeatedly offered to take the bus, and soon we were cruising into LA, drinking tallys and talking shit. His car was really nice, which I thought was strange, as he seemed to really embody the grungy-muso-hipster-hobo stereotype in all other aspects: long scruffy hair, shabby clothes, no job, and when I met him he was tripping on mushies in the street with a group of actual hobos.
The gig that night was fun; although America has similar licensing standards to Australia, they are much less enforced (probably simply due to the sheer magnitude of venues in comparison), so we were actually allowed to take our own beer into this particular bar, and although grunge metal isn’t my usual choice of music, I always appreciate live gigs and I enjoyed their enthusiasm.
After they packed up, Chase came over to where I was chatting with some of his friends, slid his hand around my lower back and asked me how I liked the show. I was inwardly alarmed, but played it cool: “Yeah I had heaps of fun, you guys were awesome!” I said, fading out under the guise of getting another beer. I managed to keep him out of my personal space for the rest of the night so as to convey the message that I wasn’t interested romantically.
But when we got home to his flat I faced another hurdle: apologising that there was not a spare bed, he asked if I was cool about sharing his. I didn’t really have much choice – it was a pretty shabby joint and the couch wasn’t fit for sleeping. Once we were in bed, he did the old sidle-over-to-snuggle/lets-have-sex thing. My skin crawled; it wasn’t even that he was unappealing, but I simply wasn’t interested and this was totally not what I thought was going on. I had friend zoned that shit! Here I was thinking he was just being super friendly and generous wanting to make a new friend and help out a foreigner. But no, he wanted a payoff. I faked sleep, even letting out a few rogue but hopefully believable snores, and he settled with spooning.
After realising his true intentions, all I wanted the following day was an escape, but I was stuck in the ‘burbs of East LA with no knowledge of public transport, not much cash, definitely no Wi-Fi, all my baggage and a guy who had big plans for our day ahead. And to be honest, the day was pretty cool. He knew the area well (pointed out Julie Andrews home, which fulfilled a childhood dream), and took us on an absolutely crazy adventure, but the entire time I felt uncomfortable and kind of scared (especially when we were deep in the Santa Monica Mountains with no one to hear me scream). Building a getaway plan, I started to vaguely mention plans of heading to San Francisco the following day.
“Rad! I’ve been wanting to head up to San Fran for weeks, I’ll call my sister and see if we can stay there,” he said, totally not getting the hint.
“Oh, no, I wouldn’t want to intrude,” I said. ‘Don’t be silly, my sister loves visitors!’, he replied.
His sister did not want visitors. In fact, from what I could gather from her raised voice reverberating out of the phone, she was pissed that he had even asked. Unfortunately this didn’t actually deter him from wanting to come, and he began to brainstorm other accommodation options. I groaned inwardly.
My feeling of uneasiness only escalated when, after walking about 10 kilometres back to suburban Santa Monica, we arrived at his mother’s house. I asked whether she was expecting us. “Oh, no,” he said casually “she died last week.”
My mind raced with questions. Firstly, why was he entertaining unknown guests mere days after the death of his mother; secondly, why had he not mentioned this at all; and thirdly, why were we at her house? Although questions one and two remain a mystery, the third was answered soon enough: we were there to feed her cats and raid the apartment for her heavy-duty pain meds. If I thought I was uncomfortable before, this was a whole new level. I ignored all better judgment and stepped over the threshold into the living room, really questioning my life choices.
It all began to make sense: turns out his sister didn’t want guests because she was mere days into mourning her mother; turns out the fancy car he had been driving was inherited the same day he picked me up; turns out the night he was out getting loose on shrooms and met me, was the night of her funeral. Turns out he had a very unique coping technique, and turns out my situation had gotten even fucking weirder.
His mum’s flat smelled how you would imagine it would after two cats have been locked indoors with no ventilation for five days. And to really add to the air of desolation, the power was out and sun had almost set. I sat on the edge of an armchair in the dim, musty lounge room while Chase rustled around in the bathroom. He emerged with a bunch of pill packets. I asked if we could leave now.
“Yeah, soon.” We were waiting for some guy to come and buy the loot, he explained.
It was a real catch 22; I wanted to leave, obviously, but I needed his cooperation if I ever wanted to see my belongings again. I didn’t feel as though he was in the best place mentally so I didn’t have the nerve to question what was going on, let alone demand him take me home this instant.
We sat in silence, and darkness, for the next 45 minutes, waiting. The guys eventually arrived, he did the deal and we could go home. On the way to the bus station, Chase got a call from some buddies drinking up the road in the park. Did I want to go, he asked. No, no I did not, but once again I was powerless as I had no idea where I was, especially in the dark, and I wasn’t really up for wandering around alone looking for the right bus after what I had seen of the people in the area, so along I tagged.
After it became clear he was in for the long haul at the park, I announced I would be getting a taxi home.
“It’s far,” I was told.
Paying a taxi fare alone is never something a hobo wants to do, especially not in a first-world country, but I couldn’t deal any longer. My tolerance had finally run dry (surprising, I know), and I needed to make an escape. He agreed to give me the key to his apartment and let me go alone. As soon as I left an overwhelming sense of relief rushed through my body – freedom.
At his apartment I showered and packed all of my bags ready to leave at first light. I even slept in my outfit for the next day. I set my alarm for 6am, not knowing where I was going, just aiming to get to the closest Maccas and pilfer their Wi-Fi and find a couch-surfing host ASAP. I drifted off to sleep, only to wake at approximately 3am as he climbed into the bed. I made myself as small as possible but he still crossed over to my side, snuggling up against me. It was all I could do not to cry. I pretended I was deep in slumber.
“Hey. Hey, are you awake?” he whispered, his lips close to my neck and hand creeping up my leg.
“Nnggfgehmmh,” I groaned aggressively in reply.
“Can I spoon you?”
I woke before the alarm had even sounded and tried to leave silently. I did want to thank him for his hospitality, but I didn’t want to risk him holding me hostage in the bathroom, or robbing me for my Valium. I had almost slipped out the front door when he walked into the loungeroom.
“Where are you going?”
“I booked a bus to San Diego,” I lied.
“Let me walk you to the station,” he offered, already putting his coat on. I suffered through one final interaction, the bus-stop-goodbye, which was predominantly me scraping the barrel for something to say that was polite yet not misleading, and him trying to hug me one final time.
As the bus rounded the corner and I watched him disappear, I thought to myself, “That’s the last time you accept an accommodation offer from a guy you’ve known for five minutes who is tripping balls on mushrooms.”
Funnily enough, though, it wasn’t.
Cover by Erika Neola