My Homeless Houseguest

We had recently moved into an apartment on 108th Street off Riverside Drive. The apartment—we combined two—was in an old mansion that had been given to the nuns in the twenties. It contained a large fireplace, old moldings, and a bay window. There were pigeons on the windowsills and wooden beams on the ceiling. We had moved there from an East Side brownstone, gleaning funds for college tuitions and medical school for an older child and such. The space was odd-shaped and hinted of railroad barons and glory times gone by.

It was the mid-eighties in New York, and all its variety was at our doorstep. In the early morning, you could see children in private-school uniforms and parents with briefcases heading downtown and flower stores and greengrocers and long lines outside the soup kitchens and a welfare hotel behind us and a rehab center around the corner, and the projects were a few blocks away. Also, a young couple who worked at a hedge fund lived in the apartment next door.

My daughters, then 15 and 17, had rooms at the far end of the apartment. Brimming with the virtue of the young, they befriended a girl, their own age, who lived in the park. Her grandmother had died, and she had run away from a foster home. She begged for money and used it to buy small bottles of gin. Her name, they told us, was Liza, and she drank each night with the men who huddled under blankets in the cold. My husband and I were gratified that these were caring girls we had raised.

And then we went away for a long weekend to a conference in another city. We said, “Don’t bring any of your street friends into the house while we are gone.”

“Go,” they said, and waved us away.

When we returned on Sunday night before dinner, all seemed well.

Then it began to rain and thunder, and lightning hit the roof on the house across the street and our building shook sympathetically. I awoke; it was two o’clock in the morning. Our daughters were sleeping. The cat was buried deep under the covers. The dog was under the bed. He did not like thunder. And suddenly the doorbell rang, loud and jarring.

I went to the intercom. “It’s Liza,” said a young but slurred voice. “I need to talk to …” and she named my daughter. “She’s asleep,” I answered. “I need to get in,” she said. “I’m wet.” It was raining very hard. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t let you in.” “But,” she said, “your daughter lets me in the house. I slept on your blue couch last night.” And the lightning turned the sky white. I thought I heard other voices behind her. She screamed out my daughter’s name. I hung up the intercom. She leaned on the bell. The sound pierced my brain.

I woke up my husband. “You cannot let her in,” he said. “We don’t know if she is alone. Go back to sleep.” She leaned on the intercom. An apartment is like a turtle’s shell: Mine was cracked. I closed the bedroom door and hid under my warm covers and slept until morning as if I were innocent of all cruelty and selfishness.

In the morning, the rain stopped. I wondered if Liza had showered in my bathroom. I wondered if I was safe in the apartment. I suddenly didn’t like the blue couch that had moved with us. The shape displeased me. It was too big for the space. I told my daughters that I was disappointed that they had let Liza into our apartment. I didn’t tell them I am also disappointed in myself.

Anne Roiphe’s latest book is Art and Madness.

My Homeless Houseguest