I have spent a great deal of time in the past year alternating between existing as a guest in other people’s homes and playing host to guests in my own strange assortment of places that are almost, but not quite, homes—or at least not quite my homes. It is a complex thing to play host in a space that does not belong to you. As someone who cannot do anything without overthinking it, this means I have also spent a great deal of time contemplating what it means to be a good guest, and a good host, and to take on both roles at once.
Another thing I have spent a great deal of time doing, over the past decade or so, is making coffee. I’ve brewed thousands of cups for customers during a year working as a barista, filled my own thermos as an adult student taking night classes after days working at a bike shop, fixed two cups while watching the dawn as the partner most likely to get out of bed first every morning. I’ve made coffee by feel, by momentary whim, by the standards of exacting recipes promising to unlock the secrets of the perfect cup. And, of course, I’ve made many other cups as the kind of host who tries to find out in advance how my impending guests prefer their coffee. Pourover, French press, Moka pot? Cream, sugar, steamed oat milk? I do not have any set opinions about which method might make the best cup of coffee; I only want to ensure that anyone for whom I make coffee enjoys the cup I set before them.
I remain haunted by the memory of the first time I made coffee for the guest who was to became the love of my life. At the time, they were a stranger, arriving in company with another guest who I knew had little interest in drinking coffee. I had not known I would need to make coffee for anyone during their visit to a house that was not my home. I was not really drinking coffee myself that summer, and so all I had on hand to offer was a stale sludge brewed from pre-ground beans that had been lurking in the house’s deep freeze for at least a year. This event reads like a horror story not only to me—a person determined to be an ideal host despite not having a home of their own—but also to that guest, who, I learned as we grew closer, is the most particular coffee drinker I have ever had the pleasure of serving. It says a great deal about the type of guest—and the type of person—they choose to be that they accepted my pitiful offering with gentle gratitude and made no complaint.
Last November—during the height of my time spent shuttling between not-quite-homes—Thomas Ha’s story “Our Quiet Guests” appeared in Three-Lobed Burning Eye. In this story—which is, I must warn, one of the more gutting narratives I have read in a year and more of seeking out the most devastating work I can possibly stuff into my sad little brain on a daily basis—an unwilling host with no choice in the matter must serve coffee to a trio of unwanted guests. Our Quiet Guests do not share my partner’s gracious approach toward playing the part of a guest in a stranger’s home. Ha’s narrator may also not completely share my precise attitude toward playing the part of the host, but nevertheless he does not hesitate for a second in doing what he knows to be correct.
If you were in any way raised the way I was—which I can imagine, given some of the anxieties that fuel this story’s nightmarish tone, could share some features with the way Thomas Ha might have been raised—you likely feel at least some ingrained pressure to be a good and proper host. In many cultures and communities, hospitality is essential to the point where it can create a sense of erasure. I was taught to offer guests whatever I had, even if that meant taking away from my own comfort. I learned to find out in advance, whenever possible, what my guests would want, so that I would be prepared to provide it. One reason I am still haunted by the terrible coffee I served to my partner before they were anything to me other than a guest is that it was quite unlike me to have failed in my preparations for their visit. I still do not know what was so different about that visit—or about me, during that time—that I did not bother to find out who would be visiting the house where I was living and what I should do for them when they arrived.
Like me, the narrator of “Our Quiet Guests” is well acquainted with the rules of hospitality. In his world, they are the Rules, passed down through generations in the feeble hope of averting disastrous consequences. The narrator, unlike me, at least has good, fresh coffee beans on hand when the titular guests arrive. The Rules have prepared him to welcome them into his home—a home made less his own through the fact that he cannot refuse to allow Our Quiet Guests inside—and offer them coffee accompanied with appropriate pleasantries. He is less well stocked, however, in the cream and sugar department. For reasons that remain outside the scope of his capacity to explain, his country is experiencing difficult times, and consequently it has become increasingly difficult to acquire the proper and preferred brands of such things. The anxiety of being insufficiently prepared for the unexpected visit interferes with his ability to follow the precise steps that might keep him and his family safe from those disastrous consequences, leading him inexorably closer to utter catastrophe.
During my strange year of shuttling between not-quite-homes, Thomas Ha became one of my absolute favorite writers. There are many reasons for this, but one is the way that each of his stories has a great deal going on underneath its inevitably, and gorgeously, emotionally impactful surface. This particular story ripples—rather, it seethes—with layers upon layers of half-expressed anxieties made more affecting through their menacing vagueness. Their influence unsettles the narrator’s marriage, his sense of place in his society—as both a citizen and as a person coming from immigrant stock who was, perhaps, indoctrinated to follow the Rules both for safety from Our Quiet Guests and to live up to some kind of model minority paradigm—and his relationship with the knowledge that he must not only act as a husband and a host but as a father with a son to protect and inspire. The acts that he must sum up the will to perform, for the sake of the Rules and then for the sake of showing up for his son, are some of the most awful and upsetting expressions I have encountered of that sense of personal erasure that can ensue from the necessity of being a proper host.
There are ways in which I cannot fully understand the experience of the narrator of “Our Quiet Guests.” I will never be a father, or a parent at all. I will never be required to invite anything like Our Quiet Guests into any home, whether my own or one temporarily borrowed. The consequences of failing to provide satisfactory coffee will never result, for me, in anything like what happens to this story’s narrator. And yet I feel a kinship with him nonetheless. Part of this lies in our shared experience of learning hospitality as a practice fueled by fear of consequences. I think, though, that it largely stems from Ha’s miraculous ability to express precisely the right amount of anxiety to spark an empathetic response. Every time I read one of his stories, despite his protagonists’ differences from myself, I learn something I needed to know about the person I am. I learn, too, something I did not know—on the surface, at least—about the things that I fear.
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