I did a friend a big favor, and now I'm paying for it

How did I end up reimbursing someone for a theft I had nothing to do with?

Published September 13, 2005 11:09PM (EDT)

Dear Cary:

Back in May, I let a friend of mine stay in an apartment I keep overseas. My roommate's girlfriend was also staying there, but the two people were not there at the same time and did not overlap in the apartment. The girlfriend didn't know about my friend because her boyfriend didn't tell her, as I thought he would.

During the course of my friend's stay there, some of my roommate's girlfriend's things went missing. She went ballistic and accused my friend of stealing them -- a charge my friend denies vehemently. Because of the drama, I have stopped talking to my friend, and the girlfriend moved out and broke up with my roommate. I should note that, in addition to my friend, other people had access to the apartment, including a cleaning lady, the concierge and other workmen. The one bit of evidence that the girlfriend has against my friend is that the spare keys were never left behind, as far as we can tell.

Well, after all of this, I offered to compensate the girlfriend for her losses. It's not a huge amount, but neither is it insubstantial. At the time, in June, the girlfriend declined my offer of recompense.

I saw her the other night for drinks with friends. She never brought anything up. But the next morning, she sent me an e-mail saying that seeing me reminded her that she had never gotten "over" the theft, and that she did want the money after all because she can't afford to replace the items. (Mind you, she works a very stressful, physically dangerous job in countries where theft is rampant, so I'm a little puzzled that she can't get over the theft of some clothes.) She then called me at lunch, as she was heading out on a trip, and threw around words like "this would be grand larceny in some states," and said that she didn't want to get the police involved because I'm not a legal resident in the country in which this all went down. She also said the original offer wasn't enough but that she would accept it.

I caved on the phone, but now I'm feeling like a chump. I think her tone, her veiled threats and her demands are out of line, considering she never paid rent while she was staying at my place and was as much a houseguest as my friend was. Also, how long is an offer good once it's turned down?

Am I in my rights to rescind my offer? I know it's not very nice, but I also don't think I'm being treated very fairly, either.


Steamed and Feeling Steamrolled

Dear Steamed,

Since you made the offer, it seems to me it would be good of you to follow through on it. While your roommate's girlfriend is not behaving graciously, the offer was not made contingent on her being a nice person. The offer was made, I gather, to settle the matter, to put things right regardless of who was at fault. I agree that you're getting the short end of the stick, but I still think the best thing for you to do, since you've offered, is to give her the money and move on.

Moving on, though, to me, means more than just putting the situation behind you and returning to the status quo. It means reevaluating who your friends are and who their friends are. It means asking why and to whom you extend such generous favors.

I understand that being generous with your stuff is a good thing, particularly when you are luckier than most. And I recognize that some folks' social lives are a little more fluid and inclusive than mine, so that you might extend rather significant favors to people you know only slightly, friends of friends and so forth. In return I suppose you expect they'll extend favors to you as well. It's a network. It may be casual on the surface, but it has its norms and expectations. Some of those norms were violated, throwing off the delicate social balance. That much I understand.

I would think, however, that you would now rethink how you use this apartment. There is, for instance, the danger of people simply using you for what you have, rather than valuing you for who you are. There is a distinct chill in the air about this whole matter, if you get my drift. Did anyone thank you profusely for use of the apartment? Did anyone recognize that, unforeseeable theft or not, they were still getting quite a bargain? You, I sense, have a code that you hope others will live by. This recent contretemps suggests that you've run rather far afield of those who share your code, and it's time to rein in the favors a little.

Maybe you have a reliable cousin who really needs a place to stay?

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