I told my best friend, Angelique over the phone last week I no longer deep clean. The new Connie only cleans on the surface. Shocked, Angelique questioned if I scrubbed the garbage cans before I put a new plastic bag. Though I admitted I still did, I confessed I no longer wiped the top of my refrigerator with Tilex every week. Long gone were the days that I crawled on my knees to remove the dust between the vents at the bottom of the refrigerator too. I shook my head and counted the lost hours spent color coding Holden and Rubencito’s closet, bills organized in hanging files by dates, Con Edison in the front, National Grid in the center, Verizon in the back.
All necessary tasks needed to maintain order. A false illusion, I know, but for years I armed myself against the imperfections of life with a bottle Fabuloso and a sponge. Certain that perfection was a shield for life’s jolts.
If there was ever a cleaning Olympics, well Mami would medal for sure. Mami left her hometown of Chalan once she turned eleven to work as a servant at her Tia’s house in Barranquilla. Cleaned houses to put Joann and I all through Catholic elementary school and later high school. Even now at eighty-one, Mami runs a rag across already clean surfaces, pushes a mop on spotless floors. Self worth and cleaning intertwined long ago for Mami. How much? How fast? Mami bragged, no me ganan limpiando.
Mami scheduled spring cleaning several times throughout the year. Made to rise early on a weekend morning or on a non school day to limpiar, twelve hours of cleaning awaited it. Given the task of the blinds, I pulled them down from every window of the apartment, and placed them in a tub filled with warm water and PineSol. I sat on the closed toilet seat and ran a sponge across each fold. Blessed and cursed with an active mind, the mindless act of digging the dirt from the tight spaces of the blinds corralled my thoughts, if only for some time. I watched the clean water grow murky and gray with dirt. I drained the water once all the blinds were wiped clean, and ran the blind under cool clean water. Once finished with the blinds, I helped Mami move furniture, vacuum in between the cushions of the sofa, dust the wooden entertainment center and the many figurines that decorated the sala.
A vacuum not enough, Mami rented a rug shampoo machine, later she bought one. Joann and I took turns using it through the apartment, I pulled the lever that activated the shampoo through the bristles, and watched the foam soak into the rug. Mesmerized by the circular motion of the brushes, as they left damp imprints on the rug, like tufts of hair left in whirls. Mess and stains disappeared, and the only thing left to see was the order of things.
On these marathon cleaning days, Mami painted the window sills, the door frames, and the old steam heaters. Flaked with rust, now a fresh shimmer gray coated each one in the apartment. Throughout the day Mami stood in front of Joann and I, her hands on her hips, dressed in a bata and chanclas. A smile spread on Mami’s face, as she surveyed the apartment. Clean. Mami recounted about Chalan, her country side village so poor that homes only had the basic pieces of furniture, but that despite the lack, cleanliness was abundant.
Hours after the apartment was cleaned I sank into my bed, the smell of the rug cleaner filled the air. Fresh sheets and blankets beneath me, everything around me deemed perfect. Fooled, I mistook the illusion for a love of cleaning.
As a teenager I was never asked to clean my side of the bedroom. I organized my closet, drawers, night table, even my backpack with great care. I ran the vacuum quick under my bed, careful to not stick my head underneath, fearful of being sucked below. Hours spent hiding under my bed, even reading below the mattress, a reminder how I longed to escape as a child. I was twenty-one the year I lived in Colombia, I cleaned the floor of the room I slept in with a cleanser called cerolina once a week. I spilled the strong-smelling liquid on the floor, and ran a brush across the floor, a dull matte, luster stripped. Sweat dripped down my face as I rubbed the back of my hand across my forehead, as if homesickness could be removed. I spent most of my Sundays the first two years I was married cleaning. Our first apartment, gleamed, hopeful that it hid the fact that I hated cooking, found baking a bore, and thought home decor pointless.
My obsession with cleaning took to over drive once I became a mom. Plagued by a bout of depression after the birth of my daughter, coupled with the anxiety of motherhood. Cleaning felt familiar, safe, and do able. Worried I was not a good mom nor a good wife if dust accumulated on the shelves, and dresser drawers were not stacked with neat folded t-shirts, leggings, or underwear. I felt less than. I cleaned with vigor and on a strict schedule, judged others that didn’t or did very little. Smiled in their messy homes, smug with the thought of my tidy and in order apartment. Proof I was better. My cleaning rituals only got more elaborate once I had my son, frantic that if I didn’t wipe the back of the toilet twice a week, I was not fit to be a mother or a wife.
Soon resentment sunk in, and I scrubbed the stove while I stared out my kitchen window. I thought of the seasons blended into one another, years lumped together, and how my life grew distant from me. Sundays were just one prolonged goodbye, and I felt the loneliest and saddest on those days. Desperate to escape the monotony, I sat with my friend Kristin on the benches of Shore Road late in the evening some Sundays. We smoked Marlborough Lights, sipped wine from solo cups we brought with us, and watched the sun fade into the horizon. I thought of how little I read now and the small bits I wrote, I too had faded.
It’s been a few years since I fled my home on those endless Sundays. Scaffolds now placed in my life to keep everyday from becoming one dragged out Sunday. No, huge chunks of time devoted to cleaning, and have since divided my time to include me. The gym, reading writing, praying, and appointments to acupuncture draw me away from my own cleaning marathons. I still long for what cleaning gave me, a sense of protection against all that can go wrong. But, I realized that absolute sense of control does not exist, and my only real chore is to surrender.