How to Get Rid of a House Guest

By Peter Feibleman
Illustrations by Elaine May

     When I first moved to Martha’s Vineyard I got calls from friends I hadn’t heard from in twenty years, all of whom wished to make up for lost time by staying with me for a while. By "make up for lost time" they meant they wanted to use my house as a hotel, and by "a while" they meant an indeterminate period extending anywhere from a month to an entire season.
     Toward the end of August I felt like a somewhat incompetent but wildly successful innkeeper who couldn’t keep up with the trade. When I told my houseguests that I write every day from early morning to mid-afternoon, they always understood; when I explained that I didn’t have time to plan and serve three meals a day, they sympathized; when I said I didn’t wish to be spoken to ‘til three p.m., they agreed happily. One day, when I went downstairs for a cup of coffee around noon, an especially polite house guest, respecting my desire for silence, smiled at me and wrote down on a piece of paper the words, "What time is lunch?"
     It took me two months to cope with the situation. By that time I knew that getting rid of a houseguest isn’t a simple matter. I’d gone through several books of etiquette that touched on the subject, but none of them solved my problem, so I was forced to draw up some rules and devices of my own. Making guests disappear is an art, not a science, so my methods won’t necessarily work for everybody, but I’m going to present a couple of them anyway, as a tribute to all those writers of etiquette books who have fought so hard to make us look genteel.
     First, let me state that the single most important quality essential for success in all social endeavor is good taste.

The Vomit Ploy


HGnaus.jpg (27899 bytes)Here we see both tact and taste employed to their full advantage.
     Before beginning, the host must stand alone in front of a mirror and practice facial expressions until the correct look of nausea has been achieved. This sounds deceptively simple, but weeks of hit-and-miss have taught me to beware of the cheap grimace. It is all too easy to mistake a look of nausea for one of sexual desire, and many a host has fallen prey to this error, with disastrous results. The test of the true look is not how startling it is to the guest, but the feeling of disgust it exacts in the host.
     Once this is achieved, the next problem is the matter of proper attire. Since the method of guest-removal we are considering here should take place in the morning, there is one easy rule to follow. The host must choose the clothes ordinarily worn at this hour, but one step down. That is to say, if the host is inclined to come to breakfast in a shirt and jeans, then a bathrobe is in order. If a bathrobe is normally worn to breakfast, pajamas are called for. If pajamas are the host’s preferred morning attire, then breakfast must be skipped entirely, and the host is forced to stay in bed, naked.
     Let us assume that the host is correctly dressed, has an expression of malaise suitable to the occasion, and has come downstairs to have breakfast with the guest. Before sitting, it is essential to indicate a sharp revulsion at the sight of food. This is best achieved by a faint upward movement of the eyes, accompanied by a slight gasp.
  Clutching at the stomach is optional, though personally I advise against it: My own belief is that the host must learn to indicate nausea without spelling it out. The reason for this is simple, and now is as good a time as any to issue a word of warning. Not all houseguests are as stupid as they look: Do not underestimate the enemy, you will regret it.
     Having gone this far, the host must now make an overtly brave effort to face the day as if nothing were wrong; only by seeming to dismiss the illness can the host hope to convince the guest of its veracity. If correctly done, this is bound to elicit a remark of concern from the guest, such as, "Aren’t you feeling well?" or "Something wrong?"
     The proper response to such a question is a shrug, while making sure that the look of nausea is retained. If this is tastefully done, it is the guest who will force the issue, by asking a more blunt question about indigestion, such as, "Listen here – do you feel sick to your stomach or not?"
     Now is the time for the suppressed belch. This is not easy. Only a truly accomplished host can, with the proper facial expression, appear to belch and pretend to conceal it at the same time. A good example has been set for all of us by such notables as Henry Kissinger and Margaret Thatcher. For the novice, I would suggest accompanying the first attempt with a suitable remark.
     The best remark is, "I’m sure this isn’t contagious."
HGtable.jpg (31398 bytes)At this point, we come to what the French call "the piece of resistance" – or, as the Spanish have it, "the moment of truth" – for the remark must be followed by immediate action. There are only two possibilities. The first is to rush to the nearest bathroom and slam the door. The second, and more refined of the two, can be done right at the breakfast table, with the aid of a large napkin held tightly over the mouth (if a napkin is not available, a corner of the tablecloth will do). Remember, however, that there is no substitute for good taste: Under no circumstances do I suggest that the host vomit directly onto the guest. It takes the brilliance of a great stylist for that kind of thing, as we know from the George Bush fiasco in Japan.
     Once this final step is taken, the battle is almost won, and the rest may be improvised somewhat freely. Only the most stubborn houseguest will ignore the notion that the host has succumbed to an infectious disease, whose primary symptoms causes the sufferer to heave his or her cookies every ten minutes all over the house. With this understanding, I think we may proceed to the next tasteful method of guest extermination.


The Dying Relative Stratagem

HGstand.jpg (28828 bytes)In this method, as in the previous one, it is necessary to spend a certain amount of time standing in front of the mirror. The effect required here is a stricken look, or a look of hidden grief.
     There is no correct attire for The Dying Relative Stratagem. If anything, inappropriate attire is best, since the host must seem to have been caught napping just at the moment when the terrible news arrived. An appearance of dishabille helps: a few strands of uncombed hair, a partly unbuttoned shirt, a shoelace untied, that sort of thing.
     The host must now make a proper entrance. This should be dealt with cautiously. First, do not enter a room unless you know who’s in it. A great entrance should not be wasted on the maid. Wait until you’re sure the guest is there, then walk in slowly and somberly, eyes averted. Biting the lower lip is optional. Walk to the fireplace if there is one – to a sofa or chair if there is not – place a hand somewhere, as if for balance, and remain silent until the guests ask you whether anything is the matter. Then turn away, keep your back to the guest, count five in silence, and carefully pronounce the words, "Daddy’s dead," "Daddy is dying," or, if preferred, "Daddy is passing on."
     This should be followed by a tastefully suppressed sob, which is not as difficult as it sounds. In fact, the suppressed sob has much in common with the suppressed belch: If you can do one, you can do the other.
     The host must now appear to collapse either on the floor or on a piece of furniture. Please note that when I say collapse, I do not mean dissolve. On the contrary, the host must appear to be fighting some strong emotion. Bursting into tears at this point would be most inappropriate. (Jumping the gun never helps.) Rather, a certain misty eyed look is called for here, and is best achieved by rubbing eyes with salt.
     When the above has been accomplished, the host must wait in total silence for the guest to ask a polite question, such as "What can I do to help?"

hgdd.jpg (32298 bytes)   Now is the time to burst into tears.       
      To this end, the host must place both hands over the face and make
a series of hoarse guttural noises. After a few moments of this, words will come simply and naturally. "Oh, go away, go away, for God’s sake," is quite proper, and so is "I’m afraid I must ask you to leave."
     While speaking, remain calm, maintain your dignity, and if the guest is a stubborn one, try "Daddy wants to die alone in the house with me. I can’t talk him out of it."

Final Advice

      I could go on to describe other methods in detail, but the theory would be the same. The Political Activist Pass, with its implied threat of terrorism. The Quiet Dignity Twist, a psychosis followed by insane laughter. The Haunted House Hype, a last resort carefully designed to cause a heart attack – all follow the same basic rules. By now, the diligent student will have sensed the essence of my message, and can extrapolate from it accordingly.
     A note to the novice: I do not suggest trying any measures more extreme than the ones I’ve described – not until the host has successfully vanquished one houseguest.
     Then go for it.

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