When we were young, my husband and I used to have all kinds of weird houseguests. There was the law school classmate of mine who drove overnight from El Paso and ended up sleeping in his car in our driveway till we got up the next morning. We still have a photo of him, with potential blackmail implications, passed out on a couch during one of our parties. (Get in touch with me, Neil. It’s negotiable.)
We had friends of friends, we had hippies, we had a couple of my brother-in-law’s friends whom we hardly knew, but fondly remember, since she scoured and scrubbed one of our pots so thoroughly we didn’t even recognize it the next day. (Oh, wow! We thought it had permanently been scorched black.)
The older we’ve gotten, the more respectable our houseguests. If anybody’s suffering from a hangover, it’s usually one of our kids’ friends — or one of our kids. As far as I know, nobody’s slept in our driveway in decades.
But we still manage to attract the occasional weirdo. One, who stayed with us for far too long in Dallas, I nicknamed Conan the Social Barbarian. He took up residence on our couch, where he obsessively read the newspaper. When I was cleaning the living room, he very helpfully raised up the newspaper and his feet as I cleaned around him. When we went out for dinner, he very carefully inspected the tab to make sure he paid his tab — and not a penny more. When we ate at home, he showed up on time and departed after the final course. Preparations? Clean-up duty? It never occurred to him to offer.
But Conan was completely superseded by the English couple who came to stay with us in the fall of 2001. You might remember that time in our country’s history. We were all a little edgy after 9/11. Let’s be honest: I was really edgy. I flew a tattered American flag outside the house and concocted plans every time I flew about how I would fling myself in the aisle and attack a terrorist with my plastic knife and fork and gouge his eyes out with my thumbs. You know. It was that kind of fraught time, full of suspicion and fear.
These Brits, though, didn’t get it. They were amused by it.
“Can you believe,” one of them would ask, “how fearful Americans are of flying these days?”
“Isn’t that frightfully silly?” the other would answer, and they both would cackle some kind of peculiarly British cackle. Jesus. At this point, I was thankful I didn’t have to depend on plastic utensils in the case of a national emergency in our living room; in fact, we had some fairly sharp knives in our kitchen that I could, if necessary, plunge into an offending stomach that was trembling with laughter about the pathetic Yanks.
But that was before the female member of the couple accomplished the piece de resistance in our houseguest history. For days, when she wasn’t snickering about Americans and their shaky nerves, she’d devoted herself to knitting. Or something like that. Some kind of needlework, anyway. I’m not too informed in the domestic arts.
One afternoon, she dropped one of her needles behind our sofa cushion. She retrieved it — then went on to pull out every other bit of detritus behind our cushions and display it on our coffee table. When I got home, she proudly showed me what she’d excavated: several coins, cookie crumbs, a paperback, broken tortilla chips, an occasional kernel of popcorn, one of the cat’s toys, a few legos, wadded-up papers.
“Look at this!” she trilled, showing me the artificats as proudly as if she’d just unearthed Stonehenge. “Who would have thought anybody could have so many articles stuck in their couch!”
How interesting, I told her. How very interesting. It occurred to me that, given our couch would hold so much, a skinny little English corpse and knitting needles might fit there, as well. Unfortunately, the couple departed before I could test my theory. Maybe they were smart enough to know that flying — at that point — was their safest option.
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)