The Aspirational Lure of the Guest Room

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The Aspirational Lure of the Guest Room

There are many things I have wished for this year, some of them noble and generous and most of them small and petty and selfish. But if I’m very honest, the thing I have wished for most is a guest room. The room I imagine isn’t even anything fancy. The guest room would be down an extra hallway, separated from the rest of my apartment, offering literal breathing space. Maybe the room would have a nice window, a little bit of a view. It would contain a desk facing the window, in which I would be able to focus, an imaginary haven of productivity. In the guest room, I would never procrastinate. The guest room would have a small, largely unused bed, always made neatly and perfectly, as untouched as an unoccupied hotel.

To be clear, I do not have a guest room, or even a hallway. My desk, currently, is my bed. I realize how lucky I am to be able stay inside at all, but there is little for which I have felt more constant and irrational longing this year than a guest room; it feels as though every single thing in my life would be fixed—money, love, sex, marriage, career, success—if I had just one more room in my apartment than I have now, and I could go into that room and shut the door.

Six years ago, when my then-boyfriend and I were looking for an apartment together, neither of us even considered looking for a place bigger than a one-bedroom. More than one bedroom and one bathroom for two people seemed like absolute, unnecessary luxury, as though we thought we were some kind of midcentury shipping barons, wearing tuxedos every day and eating with diamond-studded silverware and having more than one bedroom in our house. The price of two-bedroom apartments in Manhattan supported this conclusion.

More than one bedroom and one bathroom for two people seemed like absolute, unnecessary luxury

The people I know who have guest rooms in their houses or apartments are largely those who have moved out of the city or never lived in one at all. A much-mythologized ritual built into American life for nigh-on a century is the exchanging of the available resources of a bustling, crowded city center for the luxuries of space and distance: the exchanging of convenience for solitude. In a piece for The Atlantic on Americans’ lifestyles in 1915, Derek Thompson says of life at that time that “loneliness was a financial impossibility.” This is still largely the case; loneliness, of the living-alone kind, is for many people, especially in large cities, a luxury with a large price tag attached to it. Many of us cannot afford to be alone.

Everyone I know with a guest room also has an explanation, one way or another, for the guest room. The extra room in a house makes an unavoidable statement about the person or people living there: it says that in one way or another, they can afford to have more than they need. That doesn’t always mean simply having a lot of money. People with guest rooms rarely use them solely as such, an untouched room awaiting a guest. Many guest rooms are used as offices or, especially in large suburban homes although certainly in city apartments as well, are the result of kids growing up and going off to college, an extra bedroom that only recently became extraneous. Guest rooms are not all that often just a standing-empty unused room, except in the houses of the very wealthy, but it’s the mutable purpose of the extra room, any extra room really, that from my limited vantage point makes it seem so luxurious to me.

In pre-World War II America, homes with more than three rooms were the sole purview of the spectacularly wealthy. In the early 20th century, people in the debutante-ball type of high society lived in cavernous, beehived mansions yawning with rooms and populated by domestic servants to maintain those rooms, but, just as now, intense wealth inequality meant that these families, although over-represented in pop-cultural depictions of those eras, were hardly the majority. Most people lived in small homes shared by multiple generations of one family, rather than in the Biltmore. Guest rooms were largely unheard of, and the one bedroom was often shared by many family members and used for entertaining when guests visited. Houses were small enough for the average American that if the house was opened for a social occasion, the entirety of the house became public space. Privacy was rare enough to be nearly unheard of, a rich person’s fairy tale. Guests stayed in the same room as everybody else, and rarely stayed overnight unless necessity called for it.

The ubiquity of the guest room was a post-war invention, as American families diffused into the suburbs, chasing a dream of property that promised things previously available only to the wealthy could now be available to anyone. The post-war home was an imitation in reduced scale of the manor houses of the 19th and early 20th century, but one that was mass-produced and made available, supposedly, to the average consumer. In reality this new, luxurious way of living was still only available to the few, and made violent and intentional exclusions along racial and class lines. The promise of the postwar suburbs was that of a life beyond necessity. The goal was to have and be seen to have an abundance of things: more than one car, enough outfits so you scarcely seemed to be repeating them, and additional bedrooms and bathrooms.

The promise of the postwar suburbs was that of a life beyond necessity

Since the 1970s, the average American home has grown by over a thousand square feet, while the average number of inhabitants has fallen rapidly, making the square footage per person in a home twice what it was fifty years ago; Americans have on average the largest homes in the world. Those lucky enough to have a home have, on average, more space than ever before, and more space than strictly necessary. But averages are deceptive and absorb wealth inequality so neatly as to make it invisible. Much of this change in statistics is due to the fact that the richest people in the country have more guest rooms than they can count, even if the data restricts each individual to a single residence and doesn’t take into account people who own multiple, or dozens of, homes. Space, and its isolating benefits, its intentional loneliness, has become the great luxury commodity. The ability to get away from everyone else, to stretch out across an unnecessary amount of room, is a proof of success and prosperity like a high-tech sports car. The question of extra space is certainly not the worst way wealth inequality has made its effects clear during the pandemic, but the difference in who is cooped up in close quarters with partners, roommates, and family, and who has space to spread out, to be alone, to retreat, to get away, is one more example of how the ultra rich have had a very different year than the rest of us.

I don’t need a guest room, not really, but that’s exactly why I long for one. My favorite place in the world is my best friend’s house in London, where he has two extra guest rooms because he lives at the edge of the city, closer to the airport than to the center of town. I have stayed in one of these rooms between relationships and between jobs, during times of crisis and times of plenty when I wanted to celebrate by getting away. The guest room in his house feels almost as much like home to me as my own apartment, but crucially it also feels distant, and not quite my own. The guest room is the exact midpoint between the permissive, sinking comfort of one’s own bedroom, and the obliterative hiding-place escape of a hotel room.

When I go and stay in a friend’s home, it feels like vacation not just because I may or may not have taken time off work, but because staying in a guest room renders one’s function in the home as entirely social and wholly superfluous. My link to this space is neither residential nor professional, but a third thing—and an unnecessary one— the same unsteady, liminal place that friendship occupies, neither romance nor family. Guest rooms are often sites of outsize emotion. People stay in guest rooms during personal crises, or retreat to the guest room, if they have one, in their own home due to sickness or as a way to escape marital or familial strife. A guest room is impersonal, since none of the residents of the house actually live there, but it is also the most purely emotional room in a home. Its function is either social or escapist, and therefore only about emotional experiences, rather than the obligations of day-to-day professional or domestic life. Even when a guest room is used for work, it compartmentalizes and separates that work out from the rest of the domestic duties of a marriage or a family.

It’s the interior functions, the ones that aren’t actually about guests, that have made me think about guest rooms every day. In April, a columnist suggested sleeping in your extra bedroom as a pretend vacation, and was subjected to well-deserved twitter mockery. A darker version of the same reaction followed the recommendations to isolate in the spare bedroom if you or a member of your household had a positive Covid test. Both of these solutions, to either the small problem of boredom or the large problem of sickness, are unavailable to those of us who aren’t wealthy, but the second one demonstrates how the longing for a guest room is not merely about the decadence of unnecessary social spaces.

Guest rooms are a form of money; they solve the same kind of problems that money solves. If I had a guest room, I could have space to focus on work without thinking about other logistical issues. I could have a place to go if my husband or I contracted Covid and needed to isolate. I could have a place to sleep when I felt like sleeping alone for any reason or for no particular reason at all. The choice to go to bed together could be a choice my husband and I made rather than a foregone conclusion.

The guest room is a literal expression of money; its mercies, its permissions, the way in which it grants the people who have it space, and time, and calm, how it offers the ability to step outside of the constant worries of the domestic and logistical and dwell in the realm of emotion. It means that escape is always available, and that there is always another option.

Helena Fitzgerald has written for outlets such as The Atlantic, Hazlitt, The Cut, and The New Republic, among many others. She also writes a newsletter called Griefbacon, which mainly consists of long weird essays about feelings. You can find her on Twitter @helfitzgerald.

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