Dear Prudence

Help! I Let My Friend Move In. I Wasn’t Prepared for Her Smell.

My house feels close to unlivable.

A woman holding her nose with an odor floating next to her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Q. The Hideaway Friend: One of my friends of 30 years is staying at our house this year while my husband and I travel back and forth to Europe. She’s not really taking care of the place, just needed somewhere to stay for a local job. I was excited to offer it to her, to give her a sense of home. I’m in town for two 10-week stints this year. Problem is, my friend has a terrible odor problem that I never realized before. I’ve stayed at her apartment before and visited her there other times. It was never an issue. Something has changed within less than a year or I’m just plain crazy.

My house feels close to unlivable. It’s 30 degrees out, and I have the windows open, am boiling vinegar, have ordered two HEPA filters, am burning candles, and might have our cleaner come every week or twice a week. (We usually bring her in every two to three months.) It’s in her clothes, even in our dryer. I don’t think any of my efforts will make a dent, honestly. I mentioned the smell to my friend as nicely as I could, asking if she used patchouli (it’s that kind of smell but with sweat and bathroom odors) or suggesting that it could be her cat or maybe a sewer issue with the house. (It’s not.) We’ve joked that I must have a really strong sense of smell. I’ve blamed it on menopause. (Is this possible? I don’t think I’ve even reached menopause yet.) A new COVID symptom? (Not funny, I know. I’ve just been trying to lighten up the issue between us.)

She’s been through a terrible few years of loss and really doesn’t need someone telling her about this. Her sense of self-worth is at an all-time low, and her stress is at an all-time high. But I’m also having to cancel all social plans at my place and basically hide upstairs. Honestly, I’m kind of unraveling. Smells for me are very, very difficult, though I think this would be difficult for anyone. I can’t really relax in my own home and I work mostly at home. But I just have to grin and bear it, right? I’m a horrible person because this bothers me so much. I’m even planning to run the filters when she’s not here and when she’s gone next weekend, I’m thinking of washing all her bed linens five times with vinegar and washing the walls of her room. (The vinegar smell is supposed to disappear after a day or two.) The idea that I’m imagining doing these things without telling her just makes it all worse. My husband will be home for three weeks, and his mother is coming to visit too. I can’t imagine how that will go. I’m at my wit’s end. But I value her friendship so much. She’s such a good person deserving of kindness, and I love her dearly. Some might say: If she has an odor problem, a good friend would tell her to help her. But that just seems cruel.

A: Whew! I am right there with you. I’m so weird about how my home smells. It’s not just that I don’t want it to smell bad—I don’t want it to have any smell that I didn’t choose. Or, God forbid, a smell that I can’t detect and other people can! I’m constantly airing it out to a weird degree. All that to say, I can totally understand how this would be intolerable.

My best guess: The cat is peeing everywhere and your friend is doing a bad job cleaning it up and then trying to use other scents (something patchouli-ish) to distract.

But I don’t know. Either way, I think the way forward is to approach this aggressively, without thinking “My friend stinks,” which is an idea that’s currently giving you a lot of guilt and angst about the hard time she’s had lately and making you want to tread lightly. Reframe this as “Something in this house stinks, and the people who live here are going to solve it together.” After all, you don’t really know what’s causing the odor, and you didn’t say that it seems to travel with her body. You can even say you feel terrible that you’re hosting her in a place that smells so bad and really want to solve it so she can be comfortable. So, tell her you’re not sure whether a mouse has died somewhere in a closet, a chicken breast has failed to make it to the refrigerator and been left in the cabinet in a grocery bag (this happened to me in college! It was a nightmare! We called the RA, complaining about the smell of “shit in the walls”), if there is a mold issue, or some other weird occurrence is afoot. But insist that you’re going to be cleaning everything, asking everyone in the house to do the same (including, yes, vinegar on her walls), and not using any scented products until you get to the bottom of it. Good luck!

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