to Get Rid of a House Guest
By Peter Feibleman
Illustrations by Elaine May
When I first moved to Marthas Vineyard I
got calls from friends I hadnt 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 couldnt 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 didnt have time to plan and serve three meals a
day, they sympathized; when I said I didnt 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 isnt a simple matter. Id 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 wont necessarily work for
everybody, but Im 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
|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 hosts preferred
morning attire, then breakfast must be skipped entirely, and the host is forced to stay in
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
| 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
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, "Arent 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, "Im sure this isnt
|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
|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 whos in it. A great
entrance should not be wasted on the maid. Wait until youre 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, "Daddys 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?"
Now is the time to burst into tears.
To this end, the host must place both hands over the face
a series of hoarse guttural noises. After a few moments of this, words will come simply
and naturally. "Oh, go away, go away, for Gods sake," is quite proper, and
so is "Im 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
cant talk him out of it."
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 Ive described not until the host has successfully
vanquished one houseguest.
Then go for it.