Geniuses Are Rarely Tidy This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category.

December 21, 2013
More by this author
My parents are making their bed. Struggling to shove an enormous pillow into a pillowcase still stiff from the dryer, my father mutters, “I feel like I'm stuffing raw beef into a balloon over here.”
My mother laughs and makes sure that the sheet is even on both sides. When the pillow finally flops into place, they look at the bed with satisfied smiles. “Mm, clean sheets,” my mother sighs, as though she's devouring dark chocolate almond bark. She smooths a crease in the blankets with reverence. You can tell that she feels, physically, some kind of relief.
My room, on the other hand, probably gives her ulcers. In contrast with my parents' smooth white-and-blue walls, my room is plastered with endless paraphernalia, including (but not limited to) needlepoint, old birthday cards, and photographs. To my credit, the floor is clear, but only because my clothes are heaped artlessly on a chair in the corner, the chair intended as a reading nook. My desk is clean enough to be functional, but I never put my laptop away.
And we don't even talk about my closet.

• • •

“The problem isn't cleanliness,” my mother claims. “The problem is clutter.”
She's right. While I did go through a brief stage where I had an arbitrary and unfortunate aversion to showers, I have never really struggled with hygiene. My face is almost untouched by acne scars, my clothes always smell faintly of detergent, and you won't find moldy pizza crusts in my bedroom. Even when I was little, it wasn't that the things I owned were dirty; it was simply that they were everywhere.
My mother referred to it as the Tessie Trail: anyone could find me simply by following the string of books, jackets, and toys strewn behind me as though I had dropped them as I went. In fact, that usually was what happened. I was simply no good at picking up after myself. Everything else was so much more important: the dragon in hot pursuit of my American Girl doll, the smell of grilled cheese from the kitchen, the bouncy ball under the couch. There was too much to do, always, to worry about organization. And getting rid of things was never an option. Finally, with some defiance, I taped a sign to my door that read “Geniuses are rarely tidy.”

• • •

The first time I saw “An Inconvenient Truth,” I was astonished by the trash. Unbelievable amounts of trash, sliding out of monstrous trucks into jewel-bright incinerators and endless, nightmarish landfills. The voice-overs played in my ears whenever I lingered over my own small trash can, grimly informing me how much people throw away yearly. Throwing things away became a cause of revulsion and, eventually, guilt.
To make things worse, I had always believed that inanimate objects were alive. This, at least, I can mostly blame on my parents.
“Go get Mrs. Spraybottle,” my mother would say every night, wielding my hairbrush in one hand. She was referring to the bottle of detangler on the back of the toilet that conversed with me in an accent my mom had picked up in high school French.
My dad would clean my face with “Mr. Washcloth,” who also had a special voice, and every night I was told my bed was “happy to see me.” So it should hardly be a surprise that I started to murmur apologies and thank-yous to my toothbrushes and flossers when I threw them away. Empty paper towel rolls, socks with gaping holes – nothing deserved The Trash, because it would be burned alive or left to rot, alone, forever. So I kept it all, saying, as so many hoarders do, “You never know. It may come in handy some day.”

• • •

My clutter was hardest on my mother. She is a person who finds beauty in empty jars, clean expanses of wall, and surfaces with nothing on them. She attacks messes with as much viciousness as she would attack someone who had threatened her daughters. Living with me presents a challenge, which peaked in sixth grade.
It began because my bed was too small. Not for me, but for me, two pillows, five stuffed rabbits, two extra blankets, a doll, a mouse in a corduroy dress, and a sizeable elephant. I had to move them or sacrifice sleep.
“But they'll be offended,” I explained, anxiously fingering the silky ear of Pumpernickel, one of the rabbits. “They'll be mad that I took the bed for myself.”
“Sweetheart,” my mother said. “They'll be fine. You need your sleep, so the toys need to move.”
We went back and forth for a few minutes, and finally she shrugged, and said, “Honey, it's your choice.” And so I curled up as an inchworm might (that was the only way to fit on my bed) and thought about this.
True, I had to practice ­contortionism to sleep at night. It was also true that this was completely avoidable, if only I was willing to sacrifice the comfort of my toys for my sleep. But how could I choose myself over the things I loved enough to share a bed with every night, the creatures that comforted me when I was scared or sad for the past ten years? It was the same dilemma I'd encountered when standing over my trash can: How could I choose to condemn a plastic wrapper to a fiery death, especially if it meant the planet would continue to be poisoned? How was it ever fair to choose myself over the things that had done so much for me?
My view of the world, the only neatly organized thing I possessed, was divided into piles of “good things” and “bad things.” I didn't understand that empathy, like all good things, turns sour when there is too much of it. I didn't understand that there comes a time when you need to bite your lip and move the toys to the dresser, or move the tearful e-mails from sick friends to the “trash” folder. It's a hard lesson: Sometimes you need to take care of yourself first.
We have more battles before us, this lesson and I, to determine who will change the other first. But until then, if anyone needs pencil nubs, paper shreds, used notebooks, or shoeboxes, come find me.
I've got a whole bunch in my closet.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

This work has won the Teen Ink contest in its category. This piece won the May 2014 Teen Ink Nonfiction Contest.

Join the Discussion

This article has 1 comment. Post your own now!

Godinspiresher43 This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 30, 2014 at 8:02 pm
I really enjoyed your story. It was very funny and entertaining to read. You have a good writer's voice and your word choice was spot on. I'd love to read more. :)
Site Feedback