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April 27, 2010
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Nothing grounds you quite as well as cleaning up a stranger's mess. With absolutely no perspective, you can concentrate on the act of soaking, scrubbing, throwing things out, mopping things down. You become a connoisseur of cleaning, and cleaning becomes (said in the lowest, thinnest whisper imaginable) serious business.

Cleaning up after someone else gives you an attainable objective. Sometimes more than one. On February 14, 2010, I had only one objective, but it had twice the normal power: to get this house clean enough to move into. The previous tenants had left the house in a state of utmost squalor, and making it sparkling had become a part of our future rent. Because my family wanted to move and had no qualms against unattractive chores, providing they benefited us all, we had taken on the task. By the end of the day we had all given up on the house, but for the time being we were deeply involved. If not with gusto, we at least cleaned with concentration.

I was thankful that I had not completely lost my childhood sense of masochistic adventure. The cupboards were coated with grime and mouse shit, but that was okay. Surely, if I had an awful enough time my ability to have fun would kick in eventually. I'd just have to sacrifice a few things, first. Like my ability to ever eat again. But that was a small price to pay when you looked at the amount of self-decided worth I could achieve: my pride! My dignity! Wanting to vomit and burst into disgusted tears was worth that, wasn't it?

My sister and I had planted ourselves in the kitchen, and had determined that that was where the entire town's wildlife had made home. Within minutes, my thin plastic gloves reeked with the musty scent of a feral animal who had been contained for too long. Most of the stench was wafting from a small pantry tucked in the kitchen corner. I opened its door, looked down, and immediately closed it again. I turned to my sister. She grinned at me, obviously having already seen the mangled rodent body lying on the floor, amused at the effect that even this tiny amount of gore had on me.

"Chloe?" I said. "Would you please get that out for me?"

"Yeah," she said, with the same pitying bravado she used whenever I begged her to humor my phone-phobia and renew my library books for me.

She stepped forward, but I was already changing my mind: this wasn't pride! This wasn't dignity! Suddenly determined not to be the wimpy vegetarian of the family, I stopped her.

"No. No, it's fine. This is pathetic. I'll do it."

She raised her eyebrows, but acquiesced, and leaned across the sopping counter to watch.

I snapped down my gloves. Closed my eyes. Took a deep breath. Opened my eyes, and swung open the cupboard door.

There is something wrong with me in that I find a dead body looks like a dead body. Rats, dogs, humans, elephants: they all feel the same. A dead relative isn't surreal. A dead bird isn't distant. After death, they're nothing more than sloppily sewn-together sacks of dough, and the closer I get to them, the more I feel like a sack of dough myself. They're not scary, but they are disturbingly easy to comprehend. It's the circle of life, I suppose - I feel the same way about babies.

Sashi, the dog I had grown up with, had been put down a few years ago. We all cried and petted her goodbye, but that hadn't been enough for me. The morbid curiosity that had plagued me all my life made me rest my hand on her back as she was given the euthanizing shot. Her life left her body in less time then it took her legs to collapse. In one instant I was touching a dog, and in the next I was touching a body. The shift was impossible to forget, equally fascinating and horrible. What was strange was the feeling of vacancy, and the sudden realization that a body really just is a body, and hardly a part of us at all. It was a magic trick: now she's here, now she's not! It made me wonder at open-casket funerals - once the life is gone, a corpse has nothing to do with the previous inhabitant. Why would you want to look at something so alien and random?

The mouse was still attached to the trap that had killed it. I picked up the trap, and the corpse swung back and forth while I stared straight ahead and breathed, "Ew ew ew ew ew ew ew ew ew." In the background, Chloe was giggling. I wrapped the body in a scrap of fabric, and held it in my hand. It felt small and completely unrealistic. It felt like how I would have explained a dead mouse when I was five. My sister held open a garbage bag, and I dropped the mouse in. Then I went back to scrubbing, scrubbing as hard as possible, and talking frantically about how I was never going to do that again unless it was for the sake of a disabled single mother of seven in a third-world country.

The owners of the house arrived to help us clean, eventually. They were a husband and wife, and the first thing the husband asked was what had become on his mouse trap. My sister and I exchanged glances.

"Um," I said. "We threw it out."

He mumbled about not wanting to buy a new mouse trap. I apologized. He nodded in my direction, and then reached out for the large black trash bag.

"It in here?" he asked. Without waiting for my reply, he started to rummage through the bag, pulling out all the spoiled food I had tossed. My sister watched him work, but I turned back to a sudsy counter while he pulled the rodent off of the trap, and reloaded it with poison that he had kept in a peanut butter jar, ominously labeled "DO NOT EAT."

The great thing about cleaning other people's messes is that you're taken out of context of everything but soaking, scrubbing, throwing things out, mopping things down. In that environment, most of what you find irritating about yourself has to make way for unadulterated productiveness. Sometimes, though, what you find irritating about yourself becomes provoked, and jumps up to bite you. I left the house feeling ill. Because of a mouse. Because of what my mother would call my sensitivity, and I would call my stupidity: stupidity of my emotions, retardation of my logic. I grabbed my brother, and the two of us walked out amidst the cleaning, choosing instead to get semi-lost on a long road that led to a Rite Aid and a cemetery and eventually a dead end. We made up stories for the dead people, involving aliens and giraffes and beach parties in L.A., and soon I was feeling fine again, and I promised myself that if "feeling fine" could only be achieved through this sort of nonsense, well, I would become an alien giraffe party-goer. Anything to avoid becoming the sum of my parts. Because when you took my parts and looked at them individually, my fate seemed so clear: I'd be that author, the one who half the reading population enjoys and the other half finds boringly introspective, living alone and making my own bread, and my health would always be on the brink of collapse, and I'd be crazy in not a cool way, and I'd be the victim of either suicide or a tragic accident (the scholars never could decide), and future generations of English students would speculate about my family life and sexuality. People who were so disgustingly fragile became that.

I never wanted to be the sort of person who wound up posthumously elegant. I'd rather be repulsive all my life, and retain my repulsion in death. I'd take small steps to make myself a gross, but real, human being. If I was grim or morbid, at least I wouldn't contradict myself.

With this in mind, and in an attempt to gather what bothered me about my interactions with the world, I turned to my proudly omnivorous brother.

"God," I said. "I really need to start eating meat again."

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This article has 2 comments. Post your own now!

sunnyhunny This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. said...
May 19, 2010 at 2:19 pm
Wow.  You definetly have talent.  Some of this confused me a little.  Is this about yourself?, because if it is, you were talking in the third person when you wrote the description for this piece.  Even though some aspects of this piece I could not wrap my mind around, it was not because it was poorly written, but because you are exceedingly inteligent and thoughtful.  You may be disgusted by this, but I think it's better to feel painful emotions rather than none at all,... (more »)
Tessa I. This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. replied...
May 19, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Thanks very much!  I'm a little confused about where I was writing in third person, but I'll look out for that.  And yeah, I know it's better to be emotional and thoughtful - just sometimes it's more difficult.

Thanks a lot!  :)

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