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No More Houseguests

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When my husband and I moved into our current apartment, it felt like a graduation of sorts. Not because we’d never lived together (we had for six years), or because the place was really ours (we rent, and probably will for the rest of our lives). No, what made this new place seem really groundbreaking was the fact that it had a spare room. For the first time in our lives, we realized, we could have houseguests without anyone having to crash on the couch.

Excited by the prospect of playing hostess, I invited practically everyone we knew—family members, out-of-town friends, long-lost acquaintances—to visit. We started booking weekends months in advance, as though we were running a fancy hotel. I found I enjoyed preparing for new arrivals: putting fresh sheets on the extra bed, buying flowers, stocking gourmet coffee and bakery bread, instead of the usual sludge and Wonderbread I had for breakfast.

Those were the early days. Since then, my enthusiasm for houseguests has taken a nosedive. Now, our spare room is just that: a sort of all-purpose storage unit where we stick out-of-season clothes, yet-to-be-sorted mail, and gifts we don’t want but feel too guilty to return. I can’t remember the last time I changed the bedding—or even if there is bedding under the pile of shirts that I’ve been meaning to iron for a month.

See, my proliferation of guests woke me up to a startling but simple fact: just because you like someone doesn’t mean you want them living with you—even temporarily. In fact, some of my favorite people have turned out to be awful houseguests. I won’t name names, but almost everyone who’s stayed with me seems to fit pretty neatly into one of three categories:

The su-casa-es-mi-casa houseguest. This kind of visitor takes your invitation to make himself at home literally. He wanders around the apartment wearing only pajama bottoms or boxer shorts, rummages through your refrigerator looking for snacks, leaves dirty dishes on the counter and blobs of toothpaste in the bathroom sink. He scratches, burps, puts his feet up, and drinks the last beer. He doesn’t mean to be offensive—in fact, he doesn’t even realize he’s being offensive. He’s just doing exactly what you suggested and behaving as he does at his own place. In my experience, guests with this MO have usually been men; the one notable exception was a female visitor who happily helped herself to the contents of my medicine cabinet (including my mascara and my prescription for Ambien).

The “now-what?” houseguest. Guests of this sort assume that, because you’re giving them a place to stay, you’re also going to entertain them for the duration of their stay. Of course I don’t mind this if they’re only visiting for a weekend, or if they’re far from home and have no idea of how to get around my home city; in those cases, I like playing tour guide. But I’ve rarely felt as annoyed as I did when a visiting friend, who was born and raised  a few neighborhoods away from mine, bounced into the kitchen fully dressed and made up on the fourth morning of her visit.

“So,” she chirped, “what are we doing today?”

I had no clipboard to consult, no itinerary of fun-filled activities to present for her approval. So all I could do was reply, “Well, I’m going to work. You can do whatever you like.”

The don’t-worry-about-me-I’ll-suffer-in-silence houseguest. I hate to say this (I did say I wouldn’t name names) but my own family members fall into this category. There was the cousin who gamely tramped around museums and parks for an entire day before revealing that she had a fever; also, a niece who politely insisted that the food I served her was delicious, even as she sneaked it into her napkin.

I felt awfully guilty about these visitors—but worst of all was the night my parents spent in our guest room. Before they retired for the evening, I vainly pleaded for them to take the main bedroom with its bigger, more comfortable bed.

“Oh, no,” my mother exclaimed. “Don’t be silly. The guest room is fine.”

The next morning, as I made breakfast, I noticed that my dad kept rubbing his hip and flexing his leg, as though he were in pain. When I asked if he were okay, he waved me away. It was only weeks later that my mother confessed that he’d fallen out of the bed in the middle of the night, landed on his already-bad hip, and spent the rest of the night sleeping in a chair.

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe if I drafted some sort of questionnaire to send to potential houseguests, I wouldn’t have to completely avoid having visitors. The questionnaire would have to be pretty extensive, though, and I can imagine that some of my questions (e.g., “Do you snore?” “How often do your hair clumps clog the drain?” “Name five dairy products that you will willingly consume”) might put people off.

Or maybe I should just keep in mind the last time I was a houseguest. It wasn’t so long ago that I spent a weekend at a friend’s, and found myself confused by her curtainless bath stall with its strangely angled shower head. Because I was too embarrassed to ask about it, I wound up flooding her bathroom with an inch of water before figuring out the trick (it was a handheld nozzle on a retractable cord). She took the whole situation in stride, although she’s never invited me back.


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