Houseguests by Kate Garklavs

Though it tires me, I welcome the arrival of houseguests. I set a jar of tulips on the table near the door and putter in the foyer, making a show of small, domestic attentions. While it’s true that I’ve dusted each item in the curio, enlisted my husband to cart the waxer from the basement and run it over the living room floor in unhurried rows, I have left many details unattended to—deliberately, even.

The framed art, for example. I have not, as my mother long ago instructed me, run a soft cloth along the top of each of the frames, dispelling the dust that has settled there. This may not seem outwardly problematic, and indeed it may not become so until, that is, a guest leans closer to inspect the fine woodcut my friend Annika gifted me and, having finished their inspection, languid returns to upright carriage and spies the accretion of dust. It’s a workaday occasion of Schroedinger’s cat, embarrassment at once imminent and impossible, and my stomach knots itself at just the thought.

In spite of this, the worrying, I find myself unable not to offer our guest bed any time an acquaintance breezes through town. It’s toothache sick, the mantle of required hospitality my gender has placed upon me, but stubbornly—straining against my better judgment—I accept it. In any event, hosting sets its own brand of order on my otherwise structureless days: tasks and interactions to work through to reach the reward of another unnotable sundown.

The guests’ visits—timing and purpose—follow a cycle as predictable as seasonal shifts in weather. Fall, the guests rent all-terrain vehicles and purchase trekking sticks and gaudy water bottles to explore the region’s mazework of trails. Winter, they grow weary of the city’s darkness, the close smell of wool in the chamber of the subway car, and drive north in search of sky open as a face in which they can pick out, by rote, Orion’s Belt, to the wonderment or boredom of their companions. Spring, full of verve, they lavish themselves with long weekends during which they stroll along the greening waterfront and sip coffee from hand-stamped cardboard cups, which sometimes I find empty and set without thought behind the chifferobe. And summer, the liveliest season, they stream through the household like ants, buoyed by chatter of cookouts and festivals and park days, respite and lagers beneath the spread of an off-season tulip tree.

They set out at lunchtime or just before, leaving the house in a limbo of false stillness, which I try to, but cannot fully, enjoy. In their absence, I bake scones or poppy-seed bread—my husband watches baseball in the rec room—and take down fig preserves from the cupboard, pairing the jar with a tiny, decorative spoon. I scour the kitchen sink, bringing the basin to an auspicious level of sheen. Intrinsic, my sense of when they’re due to return, the sensation common and fleeting as a cloud’s lapse in form. Up the driveway, then, waving to the front window behind which their host may be standing, they kick the mud from their boots or shake sand from their sneakers and speak in jocular, elevated tones to herald their arrival. I never fail to greet them at the door.

The final night follows its own peculiar time, frenetic and dragged out in a single breath. The guests, they are tired but unwilling to have the holiday diminish to its natural end. As I thread the skewers with onion and lamb, they lean heavy on the counter, pouring glass after glass of wine, holding up the bottle to gauge its reserves. Gardenside, they finger the now robust kale, asking if I’ve planned my plots for next season. Not yet, I say. I can’t imagine departing from the selection I’ve maintained for years: dark greens, pole beans, squash, cutting herbs. From the grill, where gently he rotates the kebabs, my husband is impervious to the lightning of ecstatic longing as one guest eyes another across the ginghamed span of picnic table.

Later, the uneaten lamb wrapped and the counters sponged, my husband and I will occupy our respective sides of the bed. In the insufficient light, he’ll hold The Economist too near his readers. Repeatedly, I’ll narrow my focus to a bit of needlework I keep in a bedside Longaberger, but the muted flutter of laughter will reverberate through the heat register, rattling my resolve. It will come in fits, by turns frantic and coy, and I’ll glance sideways to note my husband’s full obliviousness to the disturbance.

“Just getting some water,” I’ll say, picking my way downstairs. Place my feet on the loosest boards—ostensible warning to the houseguests, whose passion cannot be contained by strange walls or the propriety exacted by another person’s dwelling. They will not hear me as I hover beside the shut door of the guest room, or they will, but their laughter and heaving and linen-light sighs will carry along their preordained course until finally, blessedly, real silence resumes. Once it does, I’ll shift my weight to incur a final creak. Enough: goodnight.

Until then, though, I take great comfort in this, the end-of-camp freedom that winds down the last day. I have never borne witness to it, preferring to guard it as my own private experience of the world, but I absorb the gaudiness of the loosening, the unbecoming, of my assembled guests. Surely, I am close at hand with seltzer and salt when one spills wine on her off-white dress. From a different room, I hear the tinkle of china and appear specter-silent with a hand broom and dustpan. While the guests grow raucous and rowdy and then somber, shuttling toward the blank mercy of sleep, I remain a constant: blue skirt, tan flats, carafe of chilled white fingerprint-free. For a visit’s duration only, I’m a force of evenness, civility: the only calm presence here.

 

 

Kate Garklavs lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has previously appeared in Juked, Ohio Edit, Tammy, The Airgonaut, and elsewhere, and she’s the prose editor for the Submission reading series.

 

 

 

(Front page image via)



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