The Ungrateful Guest
a short story by Amy Halloran
(Cover Art | Eric Anthony Johnson)
About the Author
Amy Halloran lives in Troy, New York, with her son and husband. She grew up near Troy, but spent a decade in Seattle, “trying not to be a millionaire. I was successful.” She says she’s glad to be back in the Northeast, “where the people and geography make sense.”
She freelances for online and print magazines, such as Salon, Working Mother and Brain, Child, to put “bread on the table.” She has also published short fiction in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Her favorite writers are James Purdy and Charlotte Bronte.
“I like to write because I like to read,” she says.
The ungrateful guest arrives with expectations, not gifts. She has no flowers in her arms, no sweater she knit on the train, no preserves she made in the heat of summer sweating the walls of her kitchen. She has a list of requests she will never ask, though her hopeful eyes say them all at your door when she says your name, dragging it across a long minute. She holds your hands and regards you.
“It’s been a while,” she says at last.
“Yes it has, hasn’t it,” you say while thinking, too long and yet not long enough. Long enough to have forgotten the want of those eyes, scanning you as if you were a department store or a Bible, something to offer solace. In this beginning of your togetherness you wish the ungrateful guest would immediately leave. You can tell that whatever you give her will not be satisfying. If only you could blink and think a change: the doorbell rang because of a prankster like the wind. If only you could blink and look up and down the street and see a child running yard to yard, away from you. Instead there is the taxi fading to the next corner. The ungrateful guest is in front of you, her bags at her side, her hands clasped together, anxious for you to pry them apart and pull them around you, to prove that the hesitancy in your eyes is a lie and what you really feel is gratitude.
The ungrateful guest is your friend from college, your sister, your mother, your father, and your cousin. She is the bad parts of all of these people wrapped up in one tidy package. She is good because of this: you don’t have to hate your relatives or your old roommate, just the ungrateful guest and her graceless, needy ways. If you needed a reminder of what not to need, the ungrateful guest gives it; it is the only thing she has. Her need is voluminous, thin, as veils hung to filter light, not block it. She is a veil, hanging on a rod by a window, billowing in fine breezes. She loves the light. She needs the sun. She wouldn’t dare let it not shine on her or her floor. She needs the glow of others. She needs your smile, beaming on her. She needs your thoughts.
“How ARE you?” she asks, earnestly, bending forward through your doorway. She is still on the porch. You ask her in, for lack of another option. She leaves her bags where they landed, and you wonder if they would get stolen if you left them there. Then you think of the guest asking to wear your clothes and you hoist her obstreperous baggage over the threshold, ungainly as a terrified bride.
“How are you?” she asks, crumpling into your sofa, leaning her ear and her face toward yours, as if to rub skin and kiss hairs and share thoughts. You have never been close to this person. She wants you right next to her, too close on the couch. She wants you inside her where she can pump you with her blood. She wants.
You sigh and look at the door.
“Fine,” you say, “I am fine.”
And you are or were until she got there. You will be fine once she leaves. But she is yours for three weeks. She asked to stay that many, and you didn’t know how to say no. Now that the reality of her presence is settling into the furniture, like the furniture, you see how you could have said it. With two letters, n and o. No. You can’t stay that long. I’m not a hotel or a hostel. Hostile is how you feel. Near violent. You clench your fists, pressing white marks into the palms of your hands. The guest can’t ignore your discomfort. She spies and wants to ease it. She reaches for a hand and her touch sends a wish down your arm. Your fist almost becomes a weapon, but the impulse drains into her cold caress. She’s stroking your fingers, straightening them, robbing you of your warmth. She is a reptile. No wonder she’s so needy, you say to yourself. She’s cold-blooded. You don’t blame alligators for needing to eat. You just try to stay out of their way.
“I’ll have to remember that,” you say aloud, what you meant to say in your head.
“What?” she asks.
“What what?” you say, unaware she heard what you thought, unaware you said it. The words, you realize, are hers now.
“You’ll have to remember what?” asks the guest.
“That I need to change the sheets on your bed,” you say.
“Oh that’s easy,” she says. “I’ll help you remember that.”
She doesn’t mean I’ll help you. She wouldn’t lift a finger; she won’t lift anything but a glance for the duration of her stay in your home. That much is apparent. The guest is a guest, classically defined. She acts as if there is a bevy of servants waiting to make tea, to lug her luggage upstairs and unpack her clothes. She looks for a bell to ring.
“Some tea?” she says tentatively, as if tea will soothe you, make you friendly.
You get up off the sofa, happy to have a reason to leave her. Her presence is not a presence, you think in the kitchen, running water into the kettle. Her presence is an absence, an absolute lack. She needs definition. She needs cherishing. She needs to be needed and wanted and held. Why does she want this from you? You’re not related. You were never lovers. When did she get the idea you’d be a good vessel for her hopes? You think back. Was there an incident, an ingestion of drugs that happened when you were together? And, in that delusion did you glue yourself to her, wishing you shared a soul? You don’t remember any such event but that must be it. Otherwise why would she have decided to attach herself to you, to button and zipper her shapeless figure to yours?
Standing in front of the stove, hands dug into pockets, you think of her, amorphous and cold in the other room. You watch the kettle, as if you could stop the flame from working, the water from boiling. If the water stayed cold, you’d never have to return to the blob. But, the water and stove work against your appeal. The water heats, rumbling. You are not responsible, you decide, for her decision to befriend you. You did nothing to encourage her desire for your life. The only mistake you made was saying yes instead of no when she asked if she could stay almost a month. Twenty more days plus the rest of this one? How will you manage, you wonder. The steel bird whistles from the steam and you hiss to yourself, cursing. Saying shit doesn’t cure your frustration but it calls her, on tiptoe, to the doorway. She leans against it, you can see with the eyes on the back of your head. Her slanted slump blocks your exit, asks questions you don’t want to ask.
You don’t like me as much as I like you, her body accuses. Rightfully so. You don’t. You don’t want to be associated with objects so desperate, with people with pins on their skin, pointing out, wanting and wounding. Why didn’t you notice her need immediately, when you met? Are you at all like her? Is she your mirror?
“You don’t like me as much as I like you,” her voice spikes, hurt. What can you say? She’s right. You turn to the tea, pour water over leaves. You gather cups and put them on a tray, check the sugar bowl and fill the creamer with milk. She blocks the doorway.
You stare her down. She stops sloping and pulls herself to block the frame. You stare more. She backs up and out of your way, saying “sorry, sorry.”
You place the tea tray on the coffee table in the living room. The sofa looms behind it, overstuffed and reminding you of pillows, of bed. The coziness she wants of you, the overwhelming intimacy, is a threat that makes you taste metal. You grit your teeth and return to the kitchen for the teapot. She lands on the sofa, trying to become a pillow, an unobtrusive comfort. She pats the cushion beside her. Kneeling, you pour the tea from the other side of the table. Her hand stays on the cushion, beckoning.
“Here,” you say, handing her tea. You take a cup and saucer and pour again, trying to breathe, trying to watch what you are doing, trying not to look at her. She is caught in loose clothes. Her muscles have no definition. Her face is soft, and flesh spills under the chin and from her neck up, as if her anxious heart were forcing itself up her throat, where it could leave through her mouth, screaming. She isn’t fat but her skin is fluid. The room is silent but full of her emptiness. Her necessity echoes against the fireplace. She looks at the hearth for a fire, for Santa Claus laden with gifts. Seeing you won’t sit with her, she pulls her hand up from the sofa. Her fingers flow right out of the nails until she pushes them back into place. Even her eyeballs leak.
“Sorry,” she says as you spy the water on her face. Her roof has holes. She leaks. “It’s a disease.”
You nod, sip your tan sweet tea. She wipes at her eyes with a white handkerchief.
“What kind of disease?” you pry, and regret. What will she say, that her suffering is a biological difficulty? That she is not in charge of herself? Don’t blame me for being out of control, you hear her saying, but you are projecting, missing her actual words.
“I have a disease of the lachrymal ducts. It’s been diagnosed but it will not be cured. I will have this forever.”
“Were you born with it?”
“Yes, it made my mother worry. She thought babies should be happy sometimes, and I was always crying. She felt helpless.”
“Ah,” you say, “who wouldn’t?”
You nod, understanding her predicament, laying the story over her personality and taking it as an explanation. Now, you think, you know her. Although you’d never noticed her crying before. Not when she arrived, and not any other time you were together. Why has she invented this problem? To give you a reason for her dis-ease?
“You don’t like me as much as I like you,” she repeats, and you choke on your tea. You hold your hands over your head, drawing all attention, collecting. You don’t want to address her statement. What are you supposed to do when someone tells the truth?
“Are you all right?” she asks. “Should I call the police?”
Coughing, you wave with one hand. No she shouldn’t. Should you tell the truth back? She is saying what she’s feeling and that means she wants you to, too. You’ve never encountered a situation like this before. You’re stumped.
“I guess I better go,” says the guest.
You are grateful. She breaks her cup as she tries to bring it to the tray. She misses the tray and table entirely. She is shaking, using all of her jelly to flow.
“Here,” you say, “I’ll get your bags.”
“Okay,” she whispers. “Could you call me a cab?”
“You’re a cab,” you joke, though you know you shouldn’t. The moment is serious but relief makes you giddy. You dial the phone and say your address.
“I’ll wait on the porch,” she says.
“That’s a good idea,” you say. “Well, it’s been lovely seeing you.”
“You too,” she chokes.
“Don’t forget to write,” you say, wanting postcards to prove you haven’t killed her. No one wants the ungrateful guest to fill a house with her lack, but no one wants to end her life, either. That is a job she must do herself.
You put her luggage on the porch and reach your arms around her, crab-like. She winces. She wanted this, your touch and more. Now that you offer, it hurts.
“Why don’t you wait inside?” she suggests, gaining herself. “I’ll be fine.”
“You sure?” you ask.
“Yes,” she says. “I’ll be fine.”
You do her bidding and start cleaning the mess from the teacup. She clings to the air around you. It must be because she’s on the porch, you think. But after the cab takes her, she lingers. Her unmet expectations got left behind. She’ll be with you for three weeks, sitting across from you at supper, hoping you’ll want to go to the movies or rent a video and make popcorn, to talk about the old times you’d rather forget. She’ll want walks through the neighborhood, to advertise to that she matters. The ungrateful guest left but she stays.
“The Ungrateful Guest” Copyright ©2000 by Amy Halloran.
All Rights Reserved.
No part of this story may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without the written permission of the author except in the case of brief quotations for the purposes of critical reviews or articles. Educators who wish to print or photocopy in part or whole this story for classroom use, or publishers who wish to include this story in an anthology should send inquiries by email to the author: halloran15 AT gmail DOT com.