One time, a man left his watch on my roommate’s bedside table after a one-night stand. We Googled it the next day to see how much it cost: it wasn’t a Rolex, but it was expensive enough that he’d reverently arranged it the way watchmakers do, with the caseback balanced gently atop the bracelet. She put it in a Ziploc baggie (to contain its dark powers) and waited for him to text her. Days passed. Weeks passed. Almost two months passed. Since their one-night stand, she and I had moved from that apartment, and the watch had moved with her. She felt that it was too expensive to give away or sell, but she didn’t want to reach out to her hookup—he hadn’t texted her at all after the night they met, and she was hurt. The watch haunted her.
Then one day she got a text, as though from the grave. It went something like this: “Hey! Hope you’re doing well. Do you still have my watch? I just realized I never picked it up.” The likelihood of the man “just realizing” he didn’t have his watch—a watch which was probably an essential accessory to his hookup ensemble—is slim. I’ve hypothesized that he wanted to wait long enough before reaching out that there was absolutely no chance my roommate would think he wanted to take their relationship beyond their hookup.
I would have gotten rid of it after two weeks. When people refer to “squatters’ rights” they’re usually talking about adverse possession, which basically means that if you’ve occupied a patch of land or a residence over a specified length of time that varies by state, it becomes yours. I believe in a similar, modified finders-keepers rule for personal items left behind after a one-night stand. I think that if you leave something cheap or cheap-ish at someone’s house (a beanie, a part of your Halloween costume, or the miscellaneous stuff that falls out of your pockets when you take your pants off) you have one week to coordinate its retrieval. If you leave something expensive or essential at someone’s house (a wallet, or an heirloom) you have two weeks. Beyond that, it is theirs to dispose of or to keep forever.
But when you’re sure you don’t want a hookup to go anywhere, how do you go about recovering the item without making it weird? For starters…
Recover the Item as Soon As Possible
If she texts you about the lost item the day after your hookup, don’t tell her you’ll pick it up “next time you’re in the neighborhood.” Ask her to bring it with her to work the following day, or to some similarly neutral meeting place, and then do a quick and impersonal handoff. You can pretend you’re spies exchanging documents if you watched a lot of Alias growing up.
Don’t Tell Her She Should Keep It
If you don’t care whether you get the item back or not, don’t just tell her she should keep it: It’s an old-fashioned reflex, but every time a guy lets me keep something of his, I treat it like a letterman jacket-ish token of his affection, even if he left it at my house by accident. If you don’t care enough about the item to pick it up from her, and if you want to shut it down, tell her it’s cool if she throws it away. Do not suggest that she mail the item to you. You’ll find it on your doorstep covered in burning feces a few days later.
But If It’s an Earring…
If you’ve already established that it was a one-night stand, she probably just wants to erase you from her memory as quickly as possible, and having your stuff around—and the specter of your return one day—makes that harder to do. In my hookup days, I would always thoroughly clean my apartment right after the guy left in the morning, just to put a finial on the whole experience. If a guy left something at my apartment, I threw it away without guilt. (Unless wearing it gave me a celebrity-on-a-walk-of-shame vibe, in which case I would absorb it into my wardrobe.) Once, in the middle of a long and regrettable streak of dating men with earrings, I lifted my comforter during my morning apartment cleanse to find a little jade earring. I kept it in a dish on my bookshelf for a few days, and then I threw it away. The guy and I ended up dating for a few months, and later he asked me if I’d ever found the earring. I lied. “Bummer, it belonged to my mother,” he said. Honestly, I probably would have thrown it away even if I’d known, just because having it around made me nervous.