The house is large.
There are animals and a damaged man and curated plants and old floors that bend. There is furniture and dust and good light from the south side of Williamsburg.
I clean the house to restore order. The house is usually a mess. There is plenty to clean.
I clean the house to feel of use. To soothe the procrastination that plagues me, that wraps it’s firm arms around me like a gentle abuser. To distract from my trained avoidance of what needs to be done. Of the things I don’t want to see.
Which magnets are mine? I place them back on the double-doored fridge after dusting. Mallorca. Warsaw. Colorado. How could we begin to separate them?
So I stay.
I pick up his dress shoes when he kicks them off into the living room – the old, soft wood clanging loudly under their sharp heel. I worry briefly about the neighbors as he explodes through the heavy door, talking loudly of trips we must take that we cannot afford. I count his mood stabilizers on those days, four left when there should be three.
Other days he cooks me glazed salmon and sweet potatoes. A red card with my name on it lies propped up on a full vase of poppies, clean water under their neatly cut stems. Four pills when there should be four.
I clean the house to feel of use. The love meant to keep me safe burns through my fingers like the wax I scrape off the floor. I clean the house as I ignore my mother’s calls as my work stagnates, as the Zoloft script sits unused in the drawer.
I scrub the bathroom floor to watch the tiles change color. Their pale yellow comes through. My guilt eases. I clean the house to busy my mind, the fog makes anything else difficult.
Cleaning I can do.
I do the laundry so often the hamper is always empty. The bottom of the hamper is peaceful to me. I walk back to look at it, my hands heavy by my sides, smelling like fabric softener. I stare at the wrinkled fabric, eggshell white, my claim to order.
I shrink his sweaters that were supposed to be dry cleaned. Merino wool. He holds them up, shrunken. I’m usually meticulous. Maybe the tasks blinded me. Or maybe I didn’t miss the tag. Maybe it’s a small revenge.
I vacuum the floor as the cats cower in the corner, wondering undoubtedly how one can be so attached to this vicious machine. I use it on high power.
Normally I clean alone, scrubbing shamefully, like picking at an ingrown nail after it’s bled.
Sometimes, he’s there.
You know that’s not necessary, baby.
This is the shrapnel of what was our best story. Our convinced invincibility, his charm and charisma at its shiniest peak, his booming laugh ripping through a damp field in a hot Spanish summer as we made impossible promises that would surely save us both.
While he’s at work, I reorganize the pantry, scrub the shelves, and place the hot sauces next to one another, organized by size. They stand there, observant, their bottlenecks sticky. I talk myself out of wiping them down. That would be too much.
I place the Tupperware inside of each other and the lids off to the side. I run the dishwasher so often that we are always out of soap.
I would love to buy the soap. She never asks!
He tells our therapist as I sit on the soft leather couch with my arms crossed.
I can’t risk it.
But I don’t say it.
I make the bed every morning, turning down the wrinkled sheets as I walk to either side, two or three times each. The dog splays out on the left corner when I leave, sighing.
I clean the house to feel of use. To prove how much I do, how much I carry.
I fold the t‑shirts that unfold themselves. Whites to dark. Grays in between. I carry the Windex back and forth, wiping down the mirrors as I avoid my own eye contact, my nails dirty from the dust.
I rub leather butter on the couch, an old Chesterfield that sits regally in the massive living room, the bookshelf the man built towering above it, dust floating slowly through the beams of light hitting the charcoal wall we painted that spring. The pale gauzy curtains blow upwards, one now curled and black at the bottom from the last day I begged him not to smoke inside.
I dust the books I don’t read as they glare at me. The sponge is too small, but the couch shines.
I clean the house as the life we built falls apart, as the different versions of him fight for center stage.
I clean the house as our depressions rub off on one another, as the promises we made prove shallow, like the water under the dead flowers we both ignore until they stink.
I clean the house as I try to right it. I busy my poor, foggy mind.
I finish and then there’s nothing left.
But the house is large. The dust always rises. There will be plenty to clean.
So I clean the house.
Mona Kirschner is a Brazilian writer based in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Longreads, Catapult Magazine, The Porter House Review and other publications. In 2023 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize.