The other day I ran into my friend Julie on the street. She looked exhausted. “I haven’t been home for two days,” she told me.
“Why not?” I asked.
“I have no privacy there anymore!” she confessed. It turned out a friend had asked her if he could stay in her apartment “for a few days” while the contractors were finishing up the renovations on his own, newly-purchased apartment.
“Contractors?” I practically yelled at her. “My god, Julie. You know what ‘a few days’ means to contractors! It could be weeks….even months. What were you thinking?”
“I know, I know,” said Julie, putting her hand up to her forehead in despair. “It’s been over a week already, and he doesn’t show any signs of leaving. He keeps talking about how upset he is that they put the wrong flooring in and how they have to rip it all out. He’s very apologetic about it.”
I steered her into a nearby coffee place. “You’re the one who should be apologetic, Julie, when you tell him he needs to leave.”
The unwanted house guest is a common problem for people who live in places like New York City, where it’s almost impossible to find a cheap place to stay—and which happens to be the preferred destination for so many vacationers. I have heard numerous stories about people who come to visit for a few days and settle in for a month. This is why host/guest pre-communication (“hospitality foreplay”) is so important. The host needs to define the terms of the “guest-ation period” before the guest(s) gets settled into the host’s office or living room. And the host should have no guilt about setting limits.
What are these limits? When you’d like to put out the welcome mat, but don’t want to be a total doormat, how long should you let someone stay? How do you know, until someone is actually in your home, how much you will be bothered (or not bothered) by his presence? We’ve all heard the saying (generally attributed to Benjamin Franklin) about fish and houseguests smelling after three days, but this maxim is really only half true. A really great guest who has come at the perfect time—when your work is slow, or the kids are off at camp—can stay for a week and it can be more pleasurable for you than a difficult guest who has arrived at an inopportune time and stays for only one night. A visit from a couple with several very small, very precocious children can make a half a day seem like a month. If you live in east Texas and hardly ever have houseguests, a two-week visit from good friends can feel like heaven; however if you live in a place like Manhattan, where most people’s living space is cramped and the flow of houseguests never-ending, you may opt for a strict two-night only rule.
There is no question that the friend who needs to stay with you because they are having a problem of some kind—be it divorce or demolition—is often the trickiest. You feel horrible saying no, and yet there is nothing socially beneficial about the experience for you, for the most part. It’s just an intrusion on your life. And while we--at certain times--could, would and should put a friend-in-need up for however long they need it, it is not by any means de rigueur. The problem is, it’s hard for most of us to say no to a friend. This is one of those times when a white lie may save you both from painful awkwardness. If the friend desires to stay longer than you want him to, the best thing may be to simply tell him you have someone else coming to stay at the end of the week--or that your apartment is being painted, or your bathtub reglazed.
After our iced Mocha Lattes, I finally convinced Julie that she would not be a horrible person if she asked her friend-turned-houseguest to leave. We began to strategize.
“Hey, what about bedbugs?” said Julie with a sudden gleam. “What if I told him I think I have bedbugs? Would that work?”
“No,” I said emphatically, “some things are too horrible to fib about. It’s bad karma. Besides, next thing you know he’ll tell someone else you have bedbugs and that will be the end of your social life.”
Although, I thought to myself, there is one good thing about bedbugs. You don’t have to feel bad about trying to get rid of them.
*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, June 15, 2011