December 3, 2011

The Pile of Stuff That Was My Life

“This will be my gift to you,” said the girl. “I’m giving your apartment a deep clean.”

“That sounds great,” said David, concerned. “But don’t go nuts.”

David finally tries to let go of a few kitchen utensils.

The girl had semi-moved in, semi in that she was looking for her own place to live, having had enough of downtown Chicago’s pristine desolation. But the move was taking its toll. She was setting up in New York with no job, little money, and a half-finished novel. A cat and a dog were moving to New York, too. And a MacBook Pro, which received affection equal to or greater than the pets.


“What do you mean, don’t go nuts?” She stepped a foot toward, mock threatening. Semi mock threatening.

“You’ve been under a lot of pressure, baby. Strain. You’ve been strained.”

“You know what?” she said. “You’re a twat.’”

How had this come about? wondered David. He had barely known this woman when he had remarked in passing that selling his apartment had turned out to be more difficult than he’d expected. It had been on the market for a year.

“You have to stage it,” the girl said. “You’ve lived here a long time. You don’t see how deeply lived in it looks. You need to take a layer off.”

“A layer.” David thought of a band-aid and how ripping it off hurts.

The girl had visited New York with her anxious dog, Bolo. Meanwhile the cat, George Sand, remained in DC, looked after by a pet sitter while the girl looked for an apartment. House cats never get the chance to go on adventures, though they yearn for adventures, more so than dogs. Since losing Sam the cat, David’s life had become narrower, a surface existence, as though he had lost a human friend instead of just a cat. And maybe this was why he wanted to leave the apartment where he had spent thirteen years with Sam. This was the reason, and not that the neighborhood had become a circus, a destination for post-teens tottering on three-inch heels. He had to leave because Sam and Clarissa haunted it. His apartment projected an aura of failure, or at least a slow decline that a habitat follows when only one person lives in it for too long. David recently had found one of Sam’s whiskers, stashed in a dusty corner. Sam had been dead for over two years.

The girl, doomed for a sublet in Queens, had warned David when they first met that she cried unexpectedly over almost nothing. David hadn’t seen this yet, but he felt it was coming, like a slow front.

“Am I going to need to bake cookies?” asked David. He had heard about some of the classic techniques of home staging, including the belief that the smell of baking encouraged sales.

The girl thought he had made another joke. “No, you twat. But look, you’re cute and a bit useless. I’m going to clean and organize. It will sell your apartment.”

“Don’t you need to look for an apartment for yourself? And a job? Aren’t you too busy to do this?”

The girl’s faced darkened. “It will help me focus. I’m doing this for you, so you’d better appreciate it.”

She had threatened to do the apartment makeover for a week, but mostly she stayed in David’s apartment and smoked pot. When David came home from work each day they would re-enter the hedonistic bubble begun in DC. Even years later, David would remember – maybe the only real image remaining from that time – the way she held in one hand the pipe and lighter, her fingers curled around them, unyielding. She found focusing on her problems exasperating, so she bundled all her tasks into a single statement that she directed toward David’s penis. She spent nightly eternities bringing to bear her entire repertoire of history and skills and sheer misdirected energy to elicit a response that she wanted from the other parts of her life.

One morning the girl announced that today was the day. An open house arranged by the real estate broker was coming up and now was the time for the makeover, the staging.

“Okay,” said David. “But be careful.”

“What’s that supposed to mean, be careful?”

“Nothing. No, nothing.”

The girl bit her lip and kissed David as he left for work. She was right, he conceded. The place looked shabby, missing for fifteen years what it had always needed. The outcome of this exercise excited him. He realized even before anything had changed that he had been living in that apartment in the same way as when he had first moved in. He had lived there as though lacking any kind of expectations from life. But things had changed. He was significantly older. Middle-aged. Advanced in his career. He made more money now and although his bank account grew, it was left mostly unused. He didn’t know how to live, basically. Maybe the girl could help. She could turn his apartment into a home.

David recounted to his colleagues what was happening. They were skeptical.

“You sure she’s moving out?” laughed one of them.

“She helping. She’s got a lot going on. She needs a distraction.”

“The last time a woman needed a distraction, you almost got hooked on Klonopin.”

And what if the girl did move in? What would be so terrible about that?

It was when David got home that he realized he had let something out of the bottle. The girl stood in the center of the living room, next to an enormous pile of kitchen things that she had extracted from the cabinets and shelves.

David wanted to say, What the fuck? But he was speechless. She hadn’t even cleaned the apartment. There were still stains collaring the cabinet knobs. The sink still looked begrimed. Instead, she had become more interested in emptying the place, ripping out the stitches of David’s fifteen years.

Wow, it was a big pile. The uncertainty on the girl’s face made it worse. It was clear that she had expected a compliment. She hadn’t prepared for David’s speechless shock. David saw the juicer that his father had given him years before, shortly before he died. And there was the smoothie machine that he had used extensively after the stomach surgeries. A ceramic teapot he had bought when he thought that drinking tea would make him appear classier. One of Sam’s old bowls.

“What should I throw out? What do you want me to throw out?” asked the girl. She sat on the floor and began to cry.

David was surprised by how much stuff it was, how much he had collected. He recognized every bit of it and felt a vague regret.