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The Perfect Host
It’s hard to be a bon vivant when your friends call you Scratchy.
By David Perrelli

 

All of my friends were moving off campus, so I figured I should do the same. I was getting tired of dorms anyway, and I’d always nurtured dreams of hosting lavish parties—the kind that needed space and a kitchen.

    Apartment-hunting was a bleak business. I was conducted by real-estate agents through a disheartening array of dingy basement dives and cramped garrets. Nothing seemed to fit. I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking for, but I knew that I would recognize it when I found it. On my list, there was one last place to view. I wasn’t expecting much, really; it wasn’t being offered through any of the local real-estate companies, and it was a little far from campus. Walking there took me through unfamiliar parts of West Philly. When I finally found the house, Sal, the landlord’s agent—a portly, balding man who smoked Parliament Lites—was waiting for me on the porch. He unlocked the door and led me inside. The house was vacant and smelled of neglect. On the ground floor were a spacious living room with a stained-glass bay window, a large dining room and a larger kitchen. There were two staircases; the back one, which was more like a ladder, had been for servants, presumably. Upstairs were two bedrooms and, towards the front of the house behind a pair of French doors, a room so large it looked like a place to play squash. The floors were oak. In the bathroom, I noticed tiles covered with pouty cherubs holding boisterous butterflies on leashes. There were three working fireplaces, bullseye moldings and a basement with a washer and dryer. The refrigerator even had those little spigot things in the door for cold water and crushed ice. The rent Sal quoted was less than what it cost to live on campus in a space the size of the hall closet, and it included all the utilities. I couldn’t sign the lease fast enough.
    The fun began in earnest after that. I logged onto e-Bay and bought a grand piano somebody in California was selling cheap. My aunt and uncle donated a set of worn, though elegant, Italian leather furniture they’d acquired in the eighties. I went to Crate & Barrel and selected two sets of dishes—one for everyday use, and one for entertaining. I afterwards picked up, second-hand, an oval dining table. It was fruitwood and could be opened to seat 15. My grandmother had just moved out of her house and into a nursing home; I inherited a sleek, Art-Deco sideboard; miscellaneous kitchen items; a collection of jazz LPs; and a Bang & Olufsen turntable. I went to Home Depot, where I bought 17 gallons of paint and eight potted orchids. After all that, I spent a month setting up, and everything looked pretty good when I was finished. The overall effect was minimalist chic. I painted the dining room a pale mint. “I was striving for an 18th-century Scandinavian look,” I told friends. For my bedroom I selected a brooding mocha, and for the front room, which I’d turned into a library, a sophisticated shade of slate. The piano arrived. I supervised the movers as they placed it in the living room near the bay window. “It’s a Blüthner,” I would tell my guests. “Liszt and Brahms both had one. Look at the sympathetic strings.”
    Early in the semester, I held a housewarming party. I wore a tuxedo and served boeuf à la mode while Marlene Dietrich oozed from the turntable. Aside from a few tipsy friends inadvertently hurling themselves down the precipitous back staircase, the evening was a rollicking success and everybody agreed that I’d thrown together a pretty respectable pad. I was pleased with myself.
    Don’t worry. I paid for my hubris.
    Fleas are amazing little creatures. They can jump eight feet at once in less than a second. They can reproduce rapidly at room temperature (one female can spawn over 4,000 new fleas in one month), making your home a perfect all-season environment. They can hide deep within the confines of upholstery, carpeting and bedding, making their elimination extremely difficult. The flea life cycle consists of five stages: Egg, larva, pupa, adult, egg—and eggs can lie dormant for up to 90 days. Most common is the cat flea, which can carry typhus, tapeworms, even bubonic plague.
    Mine were cat fleas, I later learned. Although the cat was conspicuously absent from the equation, they seemed quite content to make do with me. I counted 25 red bumps on my legs. I showered, dressed and went to class, wondering what to do. People eyed me suspiciously because I kept scratching myself, and I began to wonder if the fleas might not have crept into my clothing to feed off me at their leisure as I went about my business. When I got home that evening, the true absurdity of the situation hit me: How could I have fleas? Where were they living? Where do fleas live in a minimalist decor? I didn’t even own an area rug. As far as I could gather, their favorite haunts included the lime-green Danish Modern sofa in my dressing room and my bed. I decided to take action. In the basement, I found a can of something broadly entitled home pest control. With it, I misted the floors, hoping for an easy solution to my predicament, and went to bed. When I woke up, there were twice as many bites on my legs, and new ones on my arms, chest and hands. Now I began to worry. “You have to get flea bombs,” my mother told me over the telephone, when I called her, desperate. “That will take care of them.”
    So I went to CVS and bought a bunch. Careful to cover the orchids and the bowl of decorative fruit on the dining room table, I placed one in each room, broke the tabs, and fled, holding my breath, as the house filled with noxious gas. Back on campus, I sat in the library, gleefully assuring myself that this time, I’d really dropped the big one on my irritating little friends, and wondered how long it would take for my bites to clear up. I waited an hour beyond the recommended time for reoccupation of treated premises, and went home with as much confidence as I dared. I uncovered the fruit and the orchids, made myself an espresso, and sat down in the living room. I felt a slight stinging sensation, and looked down just in time to see a black speck propel itself from my hand to the far side of the room. I did not finish my espresso, but instead left the house again to walk the streets and to plan the next stage of my campaign.
    My wanderings took me back to CVS. This time, it was to buy an assortment of soothing salves and ointments. I’m sure I did not cut a glamorous figure in the checkout line, laden with calamine lotion and tubes of cortisone. A pretty, young woman eyed me with distaste as I bashfully placed my purchases on the counter. Back home, I washed my bedclothes for the second time in as many days, and called my mother to report that the bombs had failed. “Buy some more and try again,” she said. By then, CVS had closed, so I made my bed and went to sleep, hoping for the best. I awoke the next morning to a familiar sight.
    Now I really started to worry. I called the landlord; he refused to pay for an exterminator. So I bought the additional bombs my mother had suggested, but this too failed to check the invaders’ relentless advance. They were everywhere, in every room. They’d even found their way into the basement. There was nowhere to run. The score was fleas 3, David 0. This arrangement lasted for about another week. I kept buying flea bombs, and the fleas kept refusing to die. My friends started calling me Scratchy. I fell behind in my course work. The mocha sheets I’d selected to match my bedroom walls were becoming worn and faded from daily washing. I couldn’t even entertain, fearing the wrath of my friends should the epidemic spread to their houses in turn.
    On one of the records I’d looted from my grandmother, Billie Holliday sings a song called “Good Morning, Heartache.” I could kind of identify with it: “Good morning, fleas, thought we said goodbye last night; good morning, fleas, here we go again; good morning, fleas, sit down.” I told my mother that the bombs just weren’t working. “I don’t see how that’s possible,” she said.
    These were days of darkness and torment for me. Although I seldom saw them, the fleas became an obsession. They were always in my mind. I would sit, counting the bites on my body, and calculate how many new fleas my blood would bring into the world, and how many times their descendents would bite me, and their descendents’ descendents. I wondered how I would ever be rid of them. What if, when I moved, they managed to conceal themselves in my belongings? They would move with me. They would infest my new home, and the next and the next, nipping at my legs and drinking my blood for the rest of my miserable life. All it would take was one. Just one nimble bug, the size of a period. I imagined myself driven mad eventually, pushed over the edge, gibbering like a maniac as I scattered gasoline throughout the house and set it ablaze.
    One night I woke up. I couldn’t go back to sleep for the unbearable itching, so I went downstairs and made myself a cup of tea, which I sat drinking at the kitchen table. I looked at the clock on the microwave. It was after four. As I sat there, I wondered where it had all gone so terribly wrong. How could I have landed myself in such a mess? Fortune, for whatever reason, had decided to smite my attempt at gracious living, but, worse, it had done so in such a humiliating and ridiculous way. And then it suddenly occurred to me that I’d transformed myself, at age 21, into a bourgeois idiot. I was living my life out of order. I owned things I should not, like egg cups and martini picks. College wasn’t supposed to be like that. It wasn’t supposed to be black-tie parties and fruitwood tables and mocha walls. I longed for my efficient little dorm room, tomato soup on a hotplate, a campus around me, and most of all, an absence of bloodsucking vermin. The tea got cold, and I went back to bed with a heavy heart.
    Eventually, I triumphed over the fleas, but I will not bore you with the process. It required professional intervention. On repeated occasions. The little wretches are a memory now, and the bites have healed pretty well. Despite the fact that my house has been sprayed with enough pesticide to kill every bug in town, I seem reasonably healthy, and have become my old self once again. With one possible exception: As this year draws to a close, I’ll be moving out of my apartment. And when I do, I will leave a humbler man. And I think, in the future, that I will always regard the verb to host with a bitter irony.

David Perrelli is a senior English major from Guilford, Connecticut.



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