“I am leaving,” I murmured to my husband.
“You cannot leave,” he hissed back. “It is 3 a.m. These are our friends.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll just find a hotel and be back here in time for breakfast. They won’t even know I left.”
“You cannot do this again! People think we’re mad. You cannot leave someone’s house just because a doorknob is sticky.”
Oh, but it wasn’t just the doorknob. It was everything, at least in my mind. This was about 10 years ago, and my husband and I had been invited as weekend guests to the home of dear friends with a one-year-old son. This was before I had my own kids, before I realized that the essential condition of childhood is stickiness and that I would spend the first five years of their lives fearfully clutching wet wipes.
Right then I knew only one thing: A doorknob was whispering to me, all Amityville Horror–like: GET. OUT.
I have never been a good houseguest. And—despite what this episode might imply—it’s not because I’m impressively fastidious. I am a complete slob in my own home, albeit one with dry, noncling surfaces.
But after years of trying very hard to enjoy myself when other people invite me over for the weekend, I’ve basically given up. I like to think I’m the best kind of guest: one who doesn’t actually stay with you.
Oddly, people don’t always see it my way. Particularly the house-proud, those who love their 1,000-count sheets and cunning window treatments and Viking stoves with the special tiny flame for heating chocolate or whatever the hell it does—those people don’t like me. They don’t like me a lot. I have lost friends over my inability to just get with the program and bask in their hostessy generosity.
Here’s the thing: My husband—a Brit whose love of staying at other people’s homes could rival that of Bertie Wooster, from P. G. Wodehouse novels—thinks I am rude.
He is incorrect. What I suffer from is an overabundance of politeness, and a terror of all the ways I can fail to live up to my own standards. I am cursed with the knowledge of my impolitic nature, and if I have to spend more than a couple of hours being courteous, I become convinced I will get too cavalier and say whatever stupid thing is on my mind. And there are many stupid things on my mind.
So I have to be eternally vigilant. I’m like a werewolf who, when espying a full moon, knows that the only way the people he loves will live to see tomorrow is if he locks himself in the closet and swallows the key.
When I confessed this problem of mine to a friend, she immediately started listing all the wonderful times she’s had in other people’s houses: the hammocks she’s lain in, the Pimm’s she’s sipped in tall, icy glasses while allowing herself to feel loved and nurtured. She is insane.
Allow me to catalog The Many Ways Things Can Go Wrong When You Stay With People.
People hide the items you need most. Where’s the coffee? No, not that decaffeinated imposter; the real coffee. No wonder everyone in this house is still asleep at 6:30 a.m. Fine, I will just go out and buy coffee at the corner store. Oh wait, there’s no store at the corner—that’s a pond.
It’s 6:30 a.m. and all I want to do at this point is run home.
I will be repeating the same interior monologue at midnight, only this time it will be about gin cocktails. I mean, what kind of people don’t keep their limes in plain sight?
People in other houses eat things that are not, in fact, edible. I think the idea is that when you’re having guests, the experience must involve “special food,” and “special food” nine times out of 10 is completely horrifying. Seriously, if octopus really tasted that good, wouldn’t there be Octo Shacks dotting America?
Of course, I also despise people who make a big to-do about their precious little eating habits. So I say nothing. Instead, now and then, I bring little treats with me that I like and, naturally, intend to share. Occasionally this goes over well. “How thoughtful!” the host exclaims. More often, though, she shoots me an icy stare: Oh, my cooking isn’t good enough for you?
People’s houses are quiet. I live in Manhattan, and as a result I’m a little weird about silence. Out in the hinterlands, the no-noise freaks me out. Where are the car horns? The garbage trucks backing up? Why is nobody screaming, “I will kill you!” in the middle of the night? It’s unsettling. In this frame of mind, every owl hoot sounds like the arrival of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
People have trick mirrors. Truly, I am 10 pounds fatter in everyone else’s home. Is it the mirrors? Or maybe it’s the fact that other people have mirrors, which I do not.
People you never want to visualize without shoes will inevitably appear before you, naked. OK, maybe not naked. But not dressed enough. And to me that generally means something on either the top or the bottom is missing.
People don’t appreciate poorly worded compliments. Personally, I never seem to strike the right chord. I think the problem is that I’m a Decor Moron: I don’t know the difference between Pottery Barn and Precious Heirloom.
Once, I visited a particularly grand family and started gushing over the adorable handiwork of their fourth grader, who had molded all these tiny circus animals and placed them in a whimsical diorama on the coffee table. “That’s a Calder,” the father replied coolly.
People have problematic toilets. Need I say more?
People’s houses seem to invite trouble. They just do. All the time. I mean, I’m not Miss Marple; it’s not as if when I show up at someone’s house homicidal shenanigans follow. But I have never been to someone’s home without bringing some sort of bad karma with me.
How did I arrive at the home of a friend whose three-year-old had, just at that moment, contracted chicken pox, ensuring that I—one of the three adults in the entire universe who had not suffered from the disease as a child—would end up in the emergency room 10 days later? Why did I knock on the door of a friend’s house the day it was swarmed by ladybugs—thus guaranteeing that I, an insectophobe, would spend the night listening to the gentle plink of tiny hard-shelled creatures kamikaze-ing themselves onto my bedclothes?
Please let me be clear: In theory, I want to visit you. (And I hope you visit me, because my fear and loathing of being a houseguest does not, oddly enough, apply to having houseguests.) After all, I like you so much. I want to coo at your kids, cuddle with your pets, inventory the drugs in your medicine cabinet, and talk into the wee hours. And then I want to go to a hotel, empty the minibar, and write you a thank-you note before hanging my breakfast order on the spotless doorknob so the pot of hot, fully caffeinated coffee will be delivered at exactly 6:30 a.m.
Judith Newman is the author of You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman ($13, amazon.com). She has written for numerous publications, including the New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Vogue. She lives in Manhattan.