Spring Cleaning

April 12, 2012
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When I was about eight, my mother declared the second week of April to be “spring cleaning week” and so it would be for the rest of my life.
Evidently I was getting to that point in my life when kids become far too content with having their mothers cleaning up after them and clearly that did not sit well with mine. So, for that whole mid-April week, my father, my twin brother, and I would be given a long, detailed list of chores that we were expected to complete within that week. Years later when my little sister, ten years my junior, got old enough, she got her own list too.
From that point on, no matter how old I was, I would still make myself a chore list to complete in the second week of April. When I was in college, I made a list for my roommate, who did not appreciate the gesture as much as I thought. When I got married, I made a list for my husband, who ended up having me do most of his work. It became a constant in my life.
But the best part about spring cleaning is when, during the rummaging through your closet and the sorting of the mess of papers in your desk, you find those little sentimental gems that used to mean so much. When you sit down with your old school notebook or a ratty stuffed animal and a soothing wave of nostalgia washes over you, wiping all of your stress away as you sit holding that little bit of your past in your hand and you hope that it will give you even the tiniest glimpse of those simpler days.

When I was a child I had this voice-activated password diary that I carried around with me everywhere. I loved the sneaky feeling it gave me; that the mundane things I had done each day or the cutest boys in my class were akin to government secrets that deserved to be confined underneath the cheap plastic cover and tattered sparkly stickers that said things like “Girlz Rule!” and “Flower Power” and one of the Backstreet Boys which my brother had scratched off all the members’ faces with a safety pin after a particularly nasty fight.
When my mom had to take me with her to run errands and I thought of something I wanted to write down, I’d run to an empty room or, if we were shopping, crawl into the middle of a clothing rack (because those were like impenetrable fortresses when you’re a kid) and whisper the password there so that no one could hear me and steal my secrets.
It was short-lived.
Eventually, when I grew tired of constantly replacing the batteries and became frustrated when it didn’t recognize my voice, and so I started wrenching the cover open without saying the password. It would give way easily.
At first I tried to think it wasn’t so bad, my secrets were still secure, but the magic soon wore off and the diary was given a new residence at the bottom of my closet where it was soon covered with books I had read too many times, clothes that had gone out of style, and other broken toys I no longer had any use for. Things that were so easily forgotten.
Forgotten until spring cleaning week. When boxes are overturned, clothing sorted into piles, and dust rags and washcloths and paper towels gliding over every surface. I found it one April when I was collecting books to donate to the elementary school and sat down on the floor with it in my hands, running my fingers over the fading stickers. I wrenched open the cover, wincing at the angry cracking the joints made, and spent a good thirty minutes reading through my old secrets, all misspelled and scrawled in crayon. One of them said: “I hate Aaron (my brother’s name)! He stole all of my dolls, without even asking, so he and his stuuuuuuupid friend Jared from next door could play Godzilla in the sandbox. They kept stepping on them making monster sounds and they still have sand in them! He’s so dumb. I wish Mommy would take him to the orfanige and trade him for a baby sister.”
Kids can be so cruel, I thought, turning the page. It was blank. I had reached the end. Disappointed, I randomly flipped through the pages, having them fan my face with a papery breeze, and spotted a bit of writing towards the end. I furrowed my eyebrows and flipped back to that page. The handwriting was neater and in pen.
It was a note I had written in sixth grade to my future self. I read it with anticipation building in my stomach. “Dear Future Abby,” it said. “So I just found this while I was cleaning out my closet for spring cleaning week. Is Mom still making you do that? It’s such a pain. Well, I’m in sixth grade right now. I have Mrs. Eisenhower for reading and Mrs. Cowell for math. They’re both pretty nice. My best friend is Katie. Are we still friends in the future? I hope so ‘cause we already promised to be friends forever and I don’t like breaking promises. Aaron is still a butthead. He’s probably still a butthead in the future too. He and Jared still pick on me but it’s okay because I’m too busy taking care of Liza. She was just born last year and she is the cutest thing I’ve ever seen! Even though she’s my baby sister, I sometimes act like I’m her Mommy. Also, I have a crush on a boy in my class, but I won’t tell you who ‘cause I don’t want Aaron to read this. Aaron, if you’re reading this, STOP SNEAKING IN MY ROOM!!
“Anyway, I really hope that, in the future, I’m a straight A student and I have a boyfriend and that I get a job as an actress. But it’s ok if that doesn’t happen. I hope that, many many years from now, I’ll be very happy no matter where I am or what I’m doing. But I still want a boyfriend so make sure Aaron and Jared don’t scare one away. Love your friend, Abby.”
I closed the diary and put it back in the closet. Some things deserved to withstand time. To not be forgotten.

There were so many smells in my room. So many that if I were to lie down and close my eyes I can identify each one. The sharp scent of red nail polish my little sister had spilled one day, the chocolatey smell of the brownies I had snuck up from dinner, the must and dust from the ceiling fan that I never bothered to clean, even during spring cleaning week.
And most of all, there’s the smell of him. I could feel it lingering, absorbing into my skin. It floated around the air, thick and heavy, filling all of my senses.
It had to leave. I had to purge it from the air and, at the same time, from my life.
I grabbed a bottle of air freshener from my bathroom and faced my room with the air of an army general staring down the enemy. I pointed the nozzle, my rifle, at the open air and sprayed. And sprayed. And sprayed. Before I realized it, I was yelling at the smells as each misty squirt of air freshener solidified my resolve. “Begone from my room you pesky odors!” I declared to the air as I sprayed.
“Our time together was fun, but now your time is up!”
“If you had really wanted to stick around you should’ve said so a long time ago because now it’s too late!”
You know, I have more important things on my mind! I have SAT’s and college applications and school and friends and family to think about!”
“Did you really think my whole world revolved around you? ‘Cause it doesn’t!”
“And just because we grew up next door to each other doesn’t mean I’ll forgive you!”
“Just because you’re my brother’s best friend doesn’t mean you can just show up whenever you want and think I’ll talk to you now!”
“Give me some time to think, goddammit!”
My fingers were cramped and sore. The red indentations from the bottle’s handle flared fiery red into my skin. But my purification was complete. I stepped back to inhale the overdone perfume of air freshener.
There was not a single trace of him. At the same time, there’s no acidic smell of nail polish or warm scent of old brownies. There’s no more of him, but there’s no more of me as well.

The first thing I did after moving back home to the city and getting my new job was rent my first apartment. I split the cost with my college roommate, Jessica. She had an assistant teaching job at the local middle school and I had obtained one of the most boring jobs in the world. A desk worker in a cubicle at a publishing company. Instead of creating my own art and seeing it splashed across the covers of novels and textbooks or featured in prominent magazines, I was crushing or fulfilling other artists’ lives.
As soon as we had finished setting up the apartment, I drove back home to visit my parents and my sister. Aaron was overseas fighting in the war. I can still remember the day he told our parents that he wanted to join the army. My mother’s eyes had been red-rimmed and raw for weeks. I had locked myself in my room, sobbing, until he came in to sit with me and we had watched all of our favorite movies together, sitting at the foot of my bed, pretending our days would always continue like this.
I had told my mother beforehand that I was coming that day and so she had invited all of our neighbors and family friends to a surprise welcome home party. All of the neighbors.
I knew there was a good chance Jared would be there. I was counting on it. He had gone to school in-state and moved back in with his parents. The last time we spoken was at graduation. Some kind of fake and ritualistic “good luck at college” and “keep in touch.” But we never did and that didn’t sit right with me.
And there he was there, looking the same as usual. Straight black hair, long enough the brush the tops of his ears; dark brown eyes, solemn now but still with a bright glint; the same height, several inches taller than me so that when I look straight ahead I look directly into his collarbone. Nothing different except the forced smile on his face. We exchanged polite hello’s and I quietly asked how life was going for him.
He ignored me and walked away.
It was a bit of a shock at first. Then I figured maybe he was too busy thinking of how to get away that he hadn’t heard me. But it continued throughout the entirety of the party. I attempted some kind of communication and he would turn his head away just in time to find someone he was apparently dying to having a conversation with. It was as though my every move was a little warning light flashing in his head. Big neon signs that read: “Danger: Do Not Approach. Do Not React. Do Not Communicate. Do Not Give Even the Slightest Sign of Acknowledgement to Her Ability to Breathe.”
I could see him sitting right in front of me at the dinner table, a mere foot away perhaps. His hooked fingers on the seat of his chair betrayed his feelings, fingernails scratching in futility at the solid wood.
The eight-year-old in me whose dolls were stolen to become victims in a Godzilla game was not going to let this slide. It’s so childish what I decided to do, but for all I know, it could have been just that which helped me to succeed. The way I saw it, you can’t ignore something - or someone - that’s directly in front of you, that you can feel near you, staring at you. So I stared at him. I stared until he shivered with a sense of foreboding. He knew I was there, lying in wait. He would steal a glance or two here and there to check to see if I was still staring. I was. He struggled to hold onto his cold facade and continued to ignore me.
Go ahead, I thought. You can close your eyes to everything you wish to forget, but I will keep mine open and stare until you finally see me again.

The attic is cold. It’s cold and I’m shivering. I can feel the tremors snaking up my spine like little earthquakes rumbling underneath my skin.
I sit here among the relics of my past in my sister’s attic. “Come on over,” she had said over the phone. “It’s spring cleaning week and I’ve been dying to get rid of some of this junk. So if there’s anything you want to keep, tell me now.”
She’s so much older now. So close to sixty and yet I can still see the little girl that spilled nail polish in my room and tried to blame it on fairies. Aaron is old too. He walks unevenly now; the old gunshot wound in his leg still gives him trouble every now and then. That’s why he’s not up here and I am.
I try to rub my hands over my arms. Nothing. Breathing on my fingers? Still nothing. Shoving my hands in my armpits? Nothing once again. It’s an escapable chill that hovers like a thick cold sheet over my body.
I busy myself with sorting to keep my mind off the cold. I can hardly read the titles on the book spines. Why Liza couldn’t do this herself I’ll never know. Jobs like these take the life out of me.
It’s so funny, isn’t it? Life, that is. So easy to break up into little pieces. Birth, childhood, teenager years, college years, adulthood, middle ages, a grandparent at last, death. At the start of each one, you look back and think, “Wow...how did I get here so fast?”
You can wake up one day, young and refreshed, ready to conquer the world and then you go to bed old and weary with aching joints and wrinkled skin.
I can hear Jared calling me from downstairs. He wants to leave in time to see our grandson’s football game. Men, I think derisively. No appreciation for sentiment. I hobble down the stairs, slowly, one at a time, and shiver again, this time at the sudden flood of warmth that relaxes my clenched shoulders and my curled fingers.
I feel so old now. My life is made up of little flashes that pop up every now and then. Big events, the little ones, and, my favorites, the most insignificant details I never thought I’d remember. Those are so fun to think of. And then when you mention to people, they give you an amazed look and say, “How did you remember that?!”
There’s no real way to answer that. After you clear out the old and unwanted, you can reveal the forgotten. Little constants that mean nothing to anyone but you. But those are the ones I love the most.

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