I have a friend who has decided to take to his room. His home, he says, has become too much for him. This is not a man so overwhelmed by housework that he has taken to his bed to eat bonbons. Not at all. This is a man who is overwhelmed by something he can't do anything about.
He has two of them who are college age and one still in high school, and what makes his situation particularly interesting (my word, not his), is that he is divorced from their mother and married again. During the wintertime, his older children are away and his youngest child lives with his ex-wife.
This summer, however, my friend and his wife have been hosting all three of his children and, by his account, (which is probably not very reliable, since it was given with considerable arm waving and voice raising), a dozen or so of their most intimate friends.
The account began earnestly enough. "I'm a tidy person," he said. "I like things in their place. I don't mean I'm fastidious or anything like that. But I can't stand clutter. But in a house with kids in it that's all you've got. Clutter."
I nodded sympathetically.
"We have a small house," he continued. "It's only three bedrooms. And with teen-agers there it's unbelievable. They leave Coke cans and glasses all over the place. They never pick things up. My wife won't get involved -- for obvious reasons. So it's up to me. I tell them to pick things up and they ignore me. It's like they don't even hear me."
I told him I knew what he meant. Hearing problems are extensive in that age group.
"And the television," he went on. "The television is always on. It's incredible how much television they watch."
I nodded again. This was a man who needed help, or at least an understanding friend. It's one thing to have teen-agers in your house year round. You sort of get into training for it. But it's quite another to spend the winter as half of an adult couple and suddenly in mid-June become the full-time parent of three young people. The man was obviously going through re-entry shock.
His voice rose. "There [are] all these people coming in and out of the house at all sorts of odd hours, and we're constantly expected to keep up with schedules of people we don't even know. The other night, for example, my daughter was going out and she said a friend of hers was coming in at two in the morning. She said she'd leave the front door open for her. I nearly went crazy. I said, 'No, this is a perfectly safe neighborhood, but doors are for closing. In this house, we lock the doors.' So the next morning I wake up and I find that my daughter came home at 4 in the morning, her friend never showed up at all, and she left the front door open anyway. I could have killed her."
I was tempted to tell him all this was perfectly normal, but that didn't seem the right time.
"And the beds," he said. (As I recall he threw up his arms at this point.) "All the beds are filled but not by the people you expect to find there. There are all these strange people sleeping in the beds and they seem to change every day. So you go in there expecting to find one person, and you look and it's someone else entirely."
I suspect he may have been exaggerating a little there, but then again, it didn't seem the right time to be anything but understanding. The man had clearly had a bad shock.
But not as bad, it turns out, as his cat.
"The cat can't stand it," he said. "The cat spends a lot of time glowering and a lot of time hissing and finally a few weeks ago the cat retreated to our bedroom and that's where the cat stays."
Soon thereafter, the cat was followed by my friend and his wife. "We just go in there and shut the door. It's the only place that's quiet. It's the only place that we can be alone, just the two of us. And the cat. My wife can't stand the winter. The other night she said, 'You know, I'll be so glad when winter gets here.' She's really been wonderful about the whole thing. After all, this isn't her doing."
On that score, at least, my friend is lucky. His wife might have been very un-understanding about this and announced after a couple of weeks: "Okay, I married you for better or for worse, but not for three kids all summer." But she didn't.
I could have told him some families live with three teen-agers year-round, and I could have told him some childless couples might give anything to have his problem. And I could have told him, "Patience, it's bound to be over soon." But I didn't tell him any of those things. Instead, I looked at him with glee. "Thanks," I said. "You've just given me a column."