How to Clean House
What my mother does admit to me when she calls is that Finn is on another bender and she can’t possibly rely on him to help her clear out the house before Monday. She sounds so small and sad on the phone and I am in such a weird state of mind that I overlook the fact that I am being manipulated. She needs me. I can tell by the tone of her voice that she would also like me to offer to find him, just like the other times. This time, however, I am going to let him sit and pickle before I drag him back home. Besides, divesting the house of our childhood is enough pain for one weekend.
The house I grew up in, a Victorian that would have made Edward Gorey and Edgar Allen Poe clap hands in glee, was lit up like a birthday cake when I arrived a little after midnight. I actually thought a fire was the only thing that could save the place now. The house had been in sad shape since before I was born, but now it appeared that the entire structure listed to the left. The iron spire on the widow’s walk was actually bent. I wiped the traveling crust from my eyes and looked again. Yes, the house definitely appeared as if it were trying to turn its back on the neighbors. How my mother even found a buyer was beyond me. As a restoration project it would seem that the house would fall under the category of: “too late.”
I picked up my backpack and rummaged around the passenger seat gathering the remains of my fast food dinner from a rest area sojourn and then reconsidered before carting more stuff inside. What would be the point? I would only be carrying things out. I dropped everything and got out of the car and stretched, forestalling the inevitable. I was a little queasy and sore all over and the night air, cool for April, felt wonderful. I had been working so hard at school that my whole body hurt from pent up tension and anxiety and a diet high in sugar and caffeine. A part of me longed to throw myself down in the newly uncovered springtime grass and gaze at the sky until I fell asleep. Besides, I had no idea what state I would find my mother in; the range of emotions she could cover in a matter of minutes had always been frightening. While there was no doubt that range was what kept her employed as an actress, as a mother it was less of a gift than a handicap. I took a deep breath and gave myself a few extra minutes by slowly ambling around to the kitchen door.
The lights were all on in back as well, illuminating a mountain of large green trash bags that appeared as if my mother opened the back door and tossed them out without thought. Several were blocking the steps and I picked them up and added them to the pile. They were heavy and rattled as if they were filled with broken china wrapped in a miserly layer of paper.
When I walked into the kitchen, my mother met me with two bags in her arms, obviously on her way out the back door for another trash toss.
“Here, take these,” she said as she thrust the bags into my hands. As if it had been minutes not months since the last time we’d laid eyes on each other. The bags were awkwardly stuffed with random sharp edges poking through the thin plastic and very heavy. “Just add them to the pile out back. A dumpster is coming tomorrow.”
I took the bags from her but set them down by my feet and didn’t move as she turned and walked away. I called after her, “Hi Amy, how are you? I’m fine. How was the drive? Long. How’s school? Busy, what with my graduation being next month and lots of projects to finish. Coffee? I’d love some!”
My sarcasm stopped her in the doorway and she rested a hand on her hip. My mother and my older sister Kate bore a striking resemblance to each other. In fact, the hand on the hip thing was a mannerism they both shared and employed frequently when challenged. They were each tall and lean, small breasted with narrow hips and thick dark shoulder length hair – my mother’s grey kept in check by Clairol — and from the back they could be one and the same. It was only when you got up close to my mother that you saw the waddle of skin under her chin and the lines around her eyes.
But while Kate looked like our mother, the similarities stopped there, Kate longed to be a daddy’s darling and we all knew it. The only people in my family who had yet to admit the fact were Kate and our father.
When I had my mother’s attention, I lamely joked, “What’s in the bags? You finally broke all the dishes so you had no choice but to get divorced?” It actually would have been better had my parents physically lashed out at each other like that, but instead their drama had consisted more of head games and sex with strangers. Only once could I remember an airborne ham during a Christmas dinner.
She smirked and shook her head. “Trophies. Medals. Sporting paraphernalia.” She spat the words out like she tasted something bad.
“How do you know the boys don’t want this stuff?” I prodded. During their high school years my brothers had racked up an impressive laudatory haul.
Still frowning, she shrugged and spun on her heel out the door. Over her shoulder she called, “There’s coffee in the pot on the counter. Get rid of those bags.” When she added “please” as an afterthought, I could tell it was because she thought she had to. Welcome home.
I heard her ascend the front hall stairs, the dry wood creaking at the most minimal pressure beneath her light step. Doing as I was told, I dragged the bags across the floor, opened the back door, and rolled them down the stairs. Then I took a mug from the dish drainer and poured myself some coffee. I guessed that sleep wasn’t something I was going to get, at least not for a few more hours.
I shuddered when I tasted the coffee. It was swill of the worst kind: hours old. But I drank it anyway. Who was I to be so choosy? I followed the trail of cigarette smoke and found my mother upstairs, collapsed in a chair in the middle of the room that used to be George’s, her legs hung over the arm and her feet swung back and forth as she leisurely blew smoke rings into the air. The room had been ransacked: dresser drawers hung open vomiting a trail of clothes awaiting their fate, the shelves and walls stripped of George’s swimming medals and trophies, the life size poster of Greg Louganis I had given him years ago as a joke because I knew George had secretly lusted over him. It was such a familiar mess that if it wasn’t for my mother’s presence in the room along with the missing possessions and the economy size box of garbage bags, I could almost trick myself into thinking that George still lived here and that I still slept across the hall.
I bent down to pick up a pile of t-shirts off of the floor and hugged them to my chest before I realized that the horrible odor, a combination of mold and cat piss, was coming from the pile.
If I was queasy before, now I was sure to hurl. “Oh my God,” I gagged as I quickly dropped the whole lot back onto the floor and pulled at my own t-shirt to shake off the stench.
“You know how George had a habit of putting things away wet. From the smell of things I’d say those drawers haven’t been opened since before he went away to college,” – she ticked the years off on her hand – “that’s a good six years of mold.” I noted her voice had a throatier timbre, probably from the smoke. She took another long deep drag off her cigarette and squinted at me through the haze.
I walked across the room and pushed aside the threadbare madras curtains to open a window. I rattled the old frame trying to coax the wood up without breaking any of the tiny multiple panes of wavy glass and wedged the first thing I could get my hands on, an overdue library book on South America that was probably the remains of an old school assignment, on the sill underneath the window to keep it open.
I stuck my head out of the window and took a series of deep breaths, slowly filling my nostrils with fresh air. Reluctantly, I pulled my head back inside and looked over at my mother. “When is everyone else getting here? Why don’t you have George do his own room?”
As I watched her expression it slowly dawned on me that she hadn’t called any of my siblings. “I’m the only one coming?” I swallowed back bile.
My mother turned slightly in the chair to face me. “I’m tired of begging the others. I knew you’d at least take pity on me here all alone.” She sighed as if she were bored by her own voice before she reconsidered and added “Well, except for Finn.”
I opened my mouth, made a noise of protest and then stopped. Obviously, this was to be her mantra for the weekend. Poor deserted Marilyn. She was right about one thing: We all left as soon as we could and honestly, it seemed expected of us to do so. The lives of my parents had been full enough without the four of us. I wanted to say that maybe if she’d acted like she wanted us around, maybe we would have stayed, or at the very least come home every once in a while without resentment. Of course now she was moving to a studio apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where there simply would never be enough square footage for anyone but her. A cachette she had called it. More than once I wanted to ask her why she’d even bothered with children, but I didn’t have the nerve. The fact that I even thought to pose that question made me sad and I felt a little wrench in my stomach when I considered what her answer might be.
She seemed to realize I wasn’t going to fight her over her last comment and looked at me with an arched brow. Quietly she went in for the kill, “It’s a good thing I have a life because obviously none of you are going to keep me company in my old age.” She swung her legs easily off the arm of the chair, limber as a teenager, stood and walked to the doorway.
“Mom…” There was nothing I hated more than a pity party, but we’d already gotten off on the wrong foot and she was filling up the balloons in anticipation of a real blowout.
She waved her hand at me or maybe it was in the general direction of the mess that was George’s room. “Bag all this up, will you? I want to have all the rooms cleared out by the time the dumpster gets here and then…” She yawned and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “Then we’ll deal with the rest.”
I heard her footsteps retreat and then the familiar sound of her bedroom door closing. If there was a sound I associated with my childhood it was that: the lock catching in the latch of my mother’s door. I stepped uneasily away from my fresh air source afraid for my stomach. I didn’t shut the window. I surveyed the mess and my stomach flipped again. Fuck it. I was going to bed.
My room was just as I’d left it the last time I’d been home almost a year and a half ago when Polly and I got the apartment off campus and returned to pack the van with my belongings and take it all back to Providence. I’d left so little of myself behind that the room now had a monastic look to it.
I walked over to my desk and turned the latch on the windows under the eaves. I only had to shimmy the swollen fragile wood gently to swing them open and out. I flopped back onto my bed and surveyed the remains. There was the desk and bed and a random grouping of items I had left behind for no other reason than I ran out of room. On the shelves was a squirrel family I had been inspired to make after squirrels infested the eaves under Kate’s old room. There was also a fuzzy llama made from an old bathrobe and a white terry cloth cube with a face, which I’d named Tofu.
The walls behind my bed were still collaged with maps torn from a discarded atlas. I’d drawn routes on them with crayon and little pushpin flag markers to denote places of interest along the way. Imaginary road trips I’d planned for the day I’d be anywhere but here.
I rolled over onto my stomach and bit down hard on my lip to quell the pain as my swollen breasts met the mattress. There were other things I would have to deal with before I worried about getting a job. Soon I would have to face the fact that being tired even after twelve hours of recuperative sleep wasn’t because I had totally screwed with my body by staying up all night to work on my projects and sleeping all day. Soon I would have to face the fact that the underlying constant nausea I felt wasn’t a virus. Soon I would have to face the fact that I needed to go to the drugstore for a pregnancy test.
I closed my eyes and fell into a deep dreamless sleep woken only from the sounds of an inhuman chattering and the rustling of garbage bags below my window. When I reluctantly rubbed apart my crusted lids, I half expected it to be morning. But it was an hour before dawn and the raccoons must have crawled from the woods to ravage scraps from the trash bags. I sat up in bed unable to sleep and considered going downstairs for something to eat but given the state of the kitchen I figured there was probably nothing. When it was obvious I wasn’t going back to sleep anytime soon, I swung my legs out of bed and padded across the room and out into the hallway. I stopped outside my mother’s room and tested the knob and was surprised when it turned. My eyes adjusted to the dark and I could make out a teetering pile of framed photos she’d removed from the walls in the hallway, mounds of clothing and stacks of books and distinguish them from the form of my mother sleeping on her back, arms flung off to the side like she was reaching for something. I couldn’t remember the last time I had wandered into my mother’s room in the middle of the night looking to be comforted. It was George’s room I usually sought out, his narrow twin bed and the slim spot of mattress he afforded me as I used to curl up next to him.
So I was surprised when she asked in sleep-thickened voice, “Did you have a bad dream?”
To my amazement my mother moved over and swatted the space next to her with an open palm. I accepted the invitation and adjusted my body into the rippled waves of the already warmed sheets. The bed linens had the combined smell of my mother’s perfume and cigarette smoke.
I thought my mother had fallen back to sleep when she asked quietly, “Is everything okay?“
“I’ve just been going for weeks and not getting much sleep. I think I’ve confused my internal clock.” My voice sounded loud and strange in the dark.
My mother rolled over onto her side so that she was facing me but her eyes were still closed. “You never needed a lot of sleep.” She paused. “When you were a baby I would find you lying in your crib with your eyes wide open. You had been so quiet I thought you were asleep, but it turned out you had probably been awake for hours. Watching. Listening.” She swallowed. “You never even cried when you were hungry. I was so worried that I would sleep right through and forget to feed you; I had to set an alarm to wake me every three hours when you were a newborn. Your father hated it; he used it as an excuse to sleep in his study until you were eight months old.” She pulled the sheet up around her shoulders and tucked it beneath her chin. “You never complained Amy. Never fussed. It was like you knew something that I didn’t.”
I held my breath. I had almost no stories from my infancy. If it hadn’t been for Kate and a project she was doing for school that had her documenting a family member, which coincided with my birth, there probably wouldn’t be any baby pictures of me either. My mother startled me when she said, “Maybe that’s why you are an artist, all that watching.”
I sighed. Recently I had begun to worry that without any real future plans I was nothing. My degree and fours years of projects in a portfolio did not make me an artist. Without school and coursework defining who I was, what would I do? And, surprise, surprise, did my mother really think of me as an artist? “I’m scared,” I finally admitted out loud.
“Everyone is scared, Amy. Everyone. The trick is to close your eyes and look away before the bad part.”
“Is that what you do?”
I hadn’t been looking at my mother. I had been staring up at the ceiling but I sensed she had opened her eyes and I was right. Her face was inches from mine on the pillow and I couldn’t help wonder if this had been my father’s side of the bed. How long had it been since she had shared this bed with anyone? Was I naïve to think that she lived a celibate life in this room since he’d left?
“I think that was the difference between your father and me. Richard faced everything head on. I averted my eyes to the tragedy. “
“How long did it take you to figure that out?” I asked the question because I didn’t want her to stop talking. I had never had this kind of intimacy before with my mother. I knew it was tenuous at best, and might only last until the sun rose and everything reverted back to normal.
She laughed. “I knew it before I married him.”
“And you did it anyway?”
“I was looking the other way, remember?”
“And you were pregnant with Kate?”
“I was.” She yawned.
I touched my stomach, and in that moment I wanted to tell her my secret but I held back. I was too aware that this kind of sharing wouldn’t last, and too afraid of her judgment. “But you were crazy about dad, weren’t you? When you married him?”
“Yes, but it was the kind of crazy that takes over your life. The kind that consumes everything in your path and makes you feel like you have a fever. But when you come out of that kind of crazy, it is, to say the least, disorienting.” She closed her eyes again looking like she was ready to go back to sleep.
She sighed into the pillow and the features of her face settled into a mask of placidity. I was reminded of a series of photographs a friend of mine had done for his senior thesis: a photographic essay of his girlfriend sleeping. He’d photographed her every night for a year without her knowledge. When she found out she broke up with him because she didn’t know what else he might do while she was asleep. I thought it was perhaps because he had shown the world a side of her she herself had never seen and that was what she was most afraid of.
“I’m too old for crazy,” my mother murmured.
I stroked the slightly swollen pouch of flesh that was my stomach. “What am I going to do?” I whispered.
“You will do what you need to do, Amy.” My mother urged. “Now go to sleep.”
I didn’t want her to stop talking but even as I fought it I felt myself drift off as well. The next thing I knew it was morning and my mother was standing over me with a cup of coffee.
She shook my shoulder and I moaned.
“You slept in your clothes.”
I opened my eyes enough to see her frown and then I closed them again. “What time?” I asked.
“Six-thirty. Come on. The junk isn’t getting into the Dumpster all by itself.”
I tried to sit up but the combination of coffee and my mother’s perfume that she thought covered the cigarette smoke conspired against me. My mouth felt all watery and I pressed my tongue against the back of my front teeth before I swallowed. Everything felt tight, including the clothes my mother felt it necessary to point out that I’d slept in.
Eventually I managed to really open my eyes and say, “I need to take a shower.”
She sighed in annoyance but released the pressure on my shoulder. Her voice had softened just a little when she said, “Fast, okay?”
She searched for a place to put the coffee on top of the crowded nightstand. As she moved things around to make room for the mug she picked up a framed photo and stared at it for a moment. While she did, the corners of her mouth tugged downward and her lip trembled slightly before she dropped the frame, face down, into a pile of clothing and books on the floor next to the bed and left the room.
As soon as she shut the door, I reached over the side and picked it up. In the photograph Kate is a toddler squinting at the camera while wielding a shovel, and Finn is still a baby propped upon a lump of sand at the beach on Long Island by hands I knew to be my mother’s. I took a moment to look around her room in the filtered daylight. The heavy violet curtains she had drawn against the sun sagged off the rod and the shadows on the ceiling made the grey circles of smoke damage from years of my mother’s cigarettes seem darker and more menacing like ominous spots of cancer on an x-ray. I figured the state of dishevelment the room was in could go either way: she had already started sorting through things for packing and discarding or this was just how she lived.
After the shower I opened windows to let in the fresh air as I towel dried my hair and brushed it out. My hair was heavy and wet through my t-shirt, but it felt oddly comforting. My stomach had settled enough for coffee and I was just pouring a cup when my mother came into the kitchen from outside.
“Well,” she said with an edge of criticism in her voice as she gave me a serious stare, “that’s a very familiar look.”
Instinctively I stood up straight and sucked in my stomach. “What look?” I asked.
She laughed off my attempt to appear together. “Amy in the morning – wet hair, bleary eyed, sucking coffee.” She moved quickly through the room after that and I heard the front door open.
I followed her just in time to see a truck backing up into the driveway with a large blue Dumpster on the back of a flatbed. I walked out onto the porch and stood next to my mother. The sky was absolutely perfectly blue – not a wisp of cloud anywhere – and the air still held the remains of a cool night. Together, in silence, we watched the Dumpster’s slow release into the driveway. It wasn’t until it touched ground that I realized it entirely blocked in Polly’s car, sealing my fate for the weekend. There really would be no escape until the Dumpster was full.
* * *
Excerpt from chapter two of The Summer We Fell Apart. Published with permission by HarperCollins ©2010.