What is the matter with me?
We have a guest, arrived yesterday. He is the nephew of my husband, a man in his forties whose life is in a bit of a shambles. Father to two boys, he and their mother divorced long ago and until a year ago, he saw his sons every other weekend and half the school holidays. His relations with his ex-wife are difficult, but he has always held to his end of the bargain in terms of his responsibilities to his kids, as far as I know. Nevertheless, his ex embarked on a systemic campaign to turn them against their father, to the point where the eldest, at 15, exercised his right to refuse to see him. The younger one is not yet officially allowed that freedom, but his mother has flouted the court ruling and simply won’t cooperate with weekend visits.
In addition, the nephew’s 5-year live-in relationship with a rather nice woman came to an end a few months back, and he is now living under his mother’s roof while he tried to sort his life out. He is, fortunately, gainfully employed and successful in his job. I feel extremely sorry for his kids and for him, and wish him all the best in his attempts to reassert his parental rights through the legal system.
But I don’t really like him. He’s a bit of an odd character, and not in an amusing way. His company feels oppressive, and I don’t feel comfortable around him. When he wrote last week to invite himself here, I panicked. Pleaded with my husband to make sure that the ‘full week’ he wanted to stay would be limited to a ‘short week’, and husband wrote back to that effect.
Last night at dinner, the nephew mentioned that he wanted to see the Museum of the Confluence in Lyon on his way back to Austria, and then sadly added that ‘unfortunately it’s not open on Mondays’, leaving the clear impression that he didn’t intend to leave us for eight more sleeps. I didn’t know what to say, and so said nothing. But it kept me awake for a while last night, figuring out how to be diplomatic about telling a guest that you don’t want them hanging around for too long.
I can’t keep track of the number of times I’ve encouraged female friends to be assertive, and to stop worrying about conforming to that feminine ideal of being nice. My daughter has learned this lesson well, I’m glad to say, and is as upfront as anybody I know, although she deals with pangs about being unkind. Nobody wants to be mean, but sometimes that’s how it feels when you have to make yourself clear, when others don’t pick up on the unsaid messages or have different values that you do.
So added to my unease with this guy is my worry about saying anything that could make him feel unwelcome, especially considering what he’s been through, plus my fear of appearing to be un-nice. I’ve been trying to figure out why I find it so difficult to be around him, without laying all the blame on his behaviour. And it’s not even his behaviour, but just a general way of being, which seems pretty petty to find fault with.
He’s heavy going, basically. Dark and brooding at times, although not at the moment. A sense of humour that’s a little bit off, and a marked inability to interpret the unspoken. He doesn’t get social signals, and I think that’s what bothers me the most. The autism label is trendy but I have only the slimmest notion of what that entails, beyond the frequently cited inability to ‘read’ others. I had a twenty-four-year-old PhD student boarder a couple of years ago who was pretty much oblivious to social norms, and very poor at reading non-verbal cues. Coincidentally he was also Austrian – extremely well-mannered about stuff like standing up when a woman entered the room, but without the faintest idea that bringing a girl to the house with no introductions (walked right past me) and proceeding directly to his bedroom to make all kinds of noise audible throughout the house was not exactly the done thing. His reaction when I asked him not to repeat the experience was a mixture of clinical interest and well-bred apology, without any apparent embarrassment. It was as though he’d just learned something new to add to his etiquette folder. He was bounced from the house a few months later for, among other things, a remark that was breathtakingly inappropriate, apparently completely unaware that anyone would find it objectionable.
Anyway, I don’t do well when I’m off balance, and that’s how I feel around the nephew. By this morning I had figured out how to broach the subject of his overstay, but couldn’t summon the nerve at breakfast. My stomach was in knots and I thought about all the times I have not been able to say what I wanted because of the fear of being unkind or not believing I had the right to express myself in anything but a positive way. That did it, as well as taking to heart my daughter’s exhortation last night to ‘just tell him, Mom. He’s the one who isn’t polite, by assuming he can dictate how long he can stay.’
I waited until he and I had a moment alone in the kitchen and then said, as mildly as I could, that we had only planned on him staying until the end of the week. ‘But I want to stay until next Tuesday,’ said he. What can you do with that, except be sniper-like direct? I fixed my gaze on his and said, no, it would better if he left sooner, then mumbled something about this being a hectic week all round. He tried to bargain more, but in the end is leaving Saturday morning. Interestingly, he then went to my husband and told him that I had said he should leave by Saturday, but not in a I’m-telling-0n-you kind of way.
If it helps me to accept his oddness by thinking he’s got some version of autism, then that’s what I’ll do. Easier to accept that he can’t help the way he is than to be irritated by his lack of courtesy.