April 16, 2006

A British friend of mine is in New York, desperately looking to rent an apartment for six months. Last night I told him I'd ask some friends, see what I could do. An hour later, I'd forgotten his quest and told him I was planning to spend April out of New York. All of a sudden, he looked hopeful. "Does that mean your apartment will be empty?"

Here was a situation that presented problems. If I said yes, I was a shrew for not offering to let him stay in it. If I said no, I was a weasel for lying. Telling someone who is looking for an apartment in Manhattan that you have one empty is like telling someone who's waiting for a bone-marrow transplant that you know of a donor but don't want to give them the phone number. It's not something they're likely to forget.

Being British, he began to apologise: "I didn't mean to put you on the spot." Now I felt like the Queen of Mean. On top of not helping him, I was making him bear my guilt. How did that happen? I tried to explain I wasn't sure when I was leaving, or how long I'd be away for. That made it worse. I couldn't even produce a credible lie. But what could I tell him - the truth? There are legitimate reasons to explain my reluctance. For instance, my apartment is tiny. I'm tiny - it's a tiny person's apartment. If you have long legs, it won't suit you. But no matter what I say, it doesn't matter, because the answer is always: "I don't mind." My home could be condemned as a carbon-monoxide-filled deathtrap, and the response would be: "Does that mean it's empty?"

Why should I feel bad? Is it criminal not to want a strange bottom sitting on my toilet seat? Or a sticky ear pressed up against my phone. Plus everyone snoops and I know how it goes. First they would see the expensive Clarins massage oil and wonder: "What does 'relax' smell like?" The next thing you know, they're thinking: "She won't notice if I use a little, just this once." Soon there's hardly any left. And what about the personal things, especially in the medicine cabinet? It's one thing to take a quick peek, but what if someone were to leisurely examine each and every tube of gel and package of pills? Conclusions will be reached based on inconclusive evidence. There's no way to explain that I bought Preparation H after reading a beauty tip that suggested it gets rid of dark circles under the eyes. As far as the snooper's concerned, I have haemorrhoids.

If I were a snooper in my apartment, I'd be thrilled. Here's why. I have an entire file devoted to ex-boyfriends and relationships gone wrong. Every time the relationship ended, I'd put everything he ever wrote me - every card, letter, e-mail - along with photographs (only the ones where I looked cute), tapes of his messages on my answering machine - in a big manila envelope. Sometimes, if the relationship was particularly long or turbulent, two envelopes. So I have a dozen of these labelled: "Jon", "Jon 2", "Punishment", etc. It doesn't get any better than that. Snooping + ex-boyfriend's angry e-mails = jackpot.

Everyone snoops and I can't be bothered to lock all my stuff away. Having someone stay in my home, I'd feel exposed. It would be as though I'd handed over my diary and said: "Here, read whatever you want." I can't take that risk. I have enough trouble holding on to friends as it is.