When you first walk into the house, you have to find a place to start. You can work from top to bottom, bottom to top, front to back, back to front, or anything in between; it just matters that you find a place to start. This methodical movement from room to room is something you’ve learned from the moving company you worked for two summers back. If you don’t organize the house, you’ll miss something: a shelf of knick-knacks that could have fit into the box you just closed, the cobwebs behind the hutch.
Your homeowner suggests, start in the loft. It’s summer, so as the morning goes on, despite the fans and the air conditioning, it gets unbearably hot by midday. You take her advice. Even in the winter, you begin by lugging the heavy canister vacuum up the two flights of stairs; its muscle memory.
You walk into a stranger’s house and let your body lead itself from room to room. Dust the ceiling corners. Wipe down the surfaces. Lift and put down each decoration. Vacuum the upholstery, then the floor. Swiffer the hardwood. Mop the tile. Let it dry before you put back down the bathmats or the cats’ bowls. For three hours, your body moves outside of yourself, and you are a mass of habitual movements in a liminal space.
Your playlist sings in your ears through headphones attached to your phone in your pocket. Wireless headphones mean that you would catch the wire less as you moved, but you forgot to keep them charged, and the thought of being alone with yourself for three hours is unappealing enough to make this inconvenience worth while. Florence and the Machine sings in your ear words you have heard one hundred times. Don’t touch the sleeping pills, they mess with my head. Your lips mouth the lyrics as you dust above your head. Did I drink too much? Am I losing touch? Your hips lean into step with the rhythm. Did I build this ship to wreck? You twirl around on your socks to wipe down the desk.
Her son owns a computer built for running video games. You only notice this because you dated someone with a hobby of building computers. Your feet have walked through MicroCenter more times than you ever thought they would. It looks branded, so you don’t think he built it himself, but you’re never sure. His bookshelves still hold the typical male reads: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, The Hobbit, Star Wars, the Eragon series. You remember your homeowner telling you he was a freshman in college, so you wonder when the last time he actually picked up a book on his own was as you envy the shelves. There are piles of books strewn about your bedroom floor. An overflow from the bookshelf you stole from your father’s room, the two shelves you rigged into your closet with binders and glass Coke bottles, three dresser drawers, and a shelf above your TV.
Your mind seems to operate separately from your body as you clean this townhome in the rich part of town. Except when it comes to the cats.
There are two orange tabby cats, nearly identical unless directly beside each other, that live in the house. Neither of them like you much, but you still do your best to stay on their good side. The first few weeks you cleaned, you never saw them. They holed up in the corners of rooms and ran up and down the stairs while your back was turned. Cody reveals himself first; he’s the braver of the two. You know his ‘sister’ is Chloe, and she has a lighter coat, but she doesn’t let you see her until the summer is over.
She’s napping in the master bedroom, which is the room you need to go through to get to the bathroom. When you step through the doorway with the vacuum, you expect her to bolt, but all she does is lift her head and widen her eyes a little. It probably isn’t a coincidence that you had to feed them the last time you were in the house since your homeowner was running late. You move between the master bathroom and hall bathroom to transfer the rags, chemicals, scrub brushes, a toothbrush, and mop. She still doesn’t move. While you clean the bathroom, she returns to her nap. There is a smile on your face as you move through the bathroom. Because despite the fact that you have never owned a cat, being that your father hates them, you still care if they like you.
You know that your homeowner is single because when she toured you through the house, she gestured to the long, jet-tub in the middle of the master bath and chuckled nervously while pointing out the poor placement it. Whereas your first thought was how nice a long bath with your significant other would be in that tub. What tips you off to her being a divorcee is the one time you clean her son’s room and you find a note from a care-box that his father sent him at college.
In the bathroom, you can’t take too long to clean the mirrors. If you do, you become entranced and pick at your face for an indiscriminate amount of time. Any and all imperfection that you have and can see as you lean closely into the mirror will distract you from your job. Instead, you swipe quickly, focus on your music, and blink rapidly, never focusing on your skin.
You give yourself one hour to clean the bottom floor. That is not too far-fetched since the only major cleaning is in the kitchen, and that only takes 30 minutes. When you move to clean the stainless-steel stove with a microfiber cloth, it takes everything in you to not scream at the top of your lung as a large spider crawls out from her hiding spot. It takes that much will-power because of your arachnophobia, natural skiddishness, and the fact your homeowner is on a phone-interview upstairs. You don’t dare breathe. Only after the spider stays still for two minutes do you even consider taking slow, direct steps backward to the vacuum. This isn’t home, so you can’t ask your brother or dad to kill it for you for them to refuse or be too drunk anyway before you decide instead to sleep on the couch. Heart pounding in your chest, your sweaty hands white-knuckle the too-short-for-comfort vacuum hose, and you shakily remove the spider from the oven. After a few concentrated deep breaths, you go back to cleaning the kitchen.
The house speaks to you more than your homeowner does. Now, you know that is not because she is snide or does not want to talk to you, it is just that you are doing her a service and it is hard to talk to those that are so intimate with you yet so distant. The pictures you dust put on display a loving mother who has put her divorce far behind her. Four cat bowls and two separate placemats show a woman who cares about the cats her son originally wanted. Old carpets and walls in need of paint tell you they are renting. Leather couches speak of wealth and a trust of the cats that still have their claws. The constant sticky dirt that covers the middle bathroom her son uses points to a disregard of hygiene and respect of home and mother. You note that they must have divorced while he was still young. Job complete, you walk out the door with fifty more dollars.