I like house-sitting, really I do. I leap at the prospect every time it's offered, always envisioning a delightful suburban tranquillity -- trees, peace and quiet, a VCR, and homemade chocolate chip cookies.
But I'm not sure house-sitting likes me. Or anybody, for that matter. All too often my brief tenancies resemble ``The Amityville Horror'' -- with the house, car, and pets conspiring to flummox the ``intruder'' so that their beloved owners will come back sooner. Or at least that's how it seems.
I've had quite a few, shall we say, adventures when house-sitting. I think the houses save up their little repair jobs for my visit. At one place, I started hearing feeble squeaks about every minute. I searched all over for the mysterious noise and finally traced it to the smoke detector in the hall. Not knowing how to silence it, I was forced, naturally, to yank it out of the ceiling. A friend had a worse experience: The smoke detector where she house-sat was a high-voltage variety -- it let out a pe riodic caterwauling that wouldn't quit. She ended up phoning neighbors at 3 a.m. for quieter shelter.
Microwaves don't make noise, but they're equally treacherous. They're all different; you have to learn each one's ways anew. Buttons with commands and times and numbers stare at you tauntingly. And, of course, the instruction book is nowhere in sight.
Don't forget the car. The one the owners swear has just been tuned up, the one ``nothing could go wrong'' with, decides, just for a lark, to turn on its generator light as I am driving alone down a long stretch of dark, deserted road after watching an Alfred Hitchcock movie.
Then there are the pets. I went to take a neighbor's dog for a walk one day. This was a dog I had met before, had tussled with once or twice. This time, however, he took one look at me and slunk backward down the hall, making an unprintable noise in his throat. (Solution: I sat down, read a magazine, and pretended I lived there. A half hour later he believed it, too, and came outdoors willingly.)
In another house the owners wrote, ``Don't worry if Tulip is out for 20 minutes or so,'' in a cheerful note I reread desperately at 2 a.m. for clues as to why the little precious hadn't come back yet. After a sleepless night of mentally composing how I was going to tell the owners about the apparent demise of their pet, I heard the tired but happy Tulip scratching at the door.
And feeding! One place had two cats and two dogs, each demanding different kinds of food, in the proper bowls, in certain parts of the house, at very specific times (like 5 a.m.). Any deviations and they'd glare accusingly and not touch the stuff.
Of course I'm not saying it's only everyone else's houses that fall apart when a house sitter comes. My own little apartment does the same. Someone has to stay and feed my cat while I'm house-sitting in the suburbs. Often I will have just hung up the phone to the house owners (``Where's the flour? Oh, behind the dog food? Funny, the one place I didn't look . . . .''), when the phone rings for me (``I can't find Rosie! What happens when the phone answering machine reads 117? Are you sure the blue key i s for the police lock? It doesn't seem to work'').
I suspect all dwellings learn guerrilla tactics against short-term tenants at the same school. I sometimes wonder if hotel rooms do, too. Do you think we should all stay home?
In the end, no.
What you take on as a house sitter is a whole family's eccentricities -- why the paper towels are with the pans instead of in a more convenient spot; why a normally pleasant Siamese cat turns into a furry missile hurtling at you from atop the refrigerator. You may take a while to learn the logic of other people's lives, but once you get in sync with them, you're at home in another country. It's somewhat like a vacation.