August 7th was moving day, a day I had anticipated with equal parts dread and excitement since the dead-end of January. I had been living in a spacious apartment that was, woefully, over a mile from my classes and from the majority of the people in my program. I had been isolated on my own little island for months, and while I loved the space, the affordable rent, and the Kroger just a few blocks down the street, I was tired of the parking tickets, the unreliable bus schedules, and the anxiety of getting home at two in the morning after a night out.
So in January I signed a lease on an apartment only a few minutes walk away from campus. In my eagerness to snag a place, I barely glanced at what I was actually signing myself up for, noting only that the new apartment was roughly half the size of my current living situation and that the living room windows opened up not to the outside, but to the space underneath the staircase. No matter, I thought, before cheerfully crowing to my future landlord that I could always turn the crawlspace into a private reading nook.
“Oh, it couldn’t possibly support your weight,” he chuckled.
And still, I signed my name both on the lease and the first month’s rent check.
August 7th was moving day, but on August 5th, I received an email informing me that my new apartment was ready and that I could pick up the keys that afternoon. After the hand-off, I unlocked the door to Apartment 2 and saw, for the first time, the actual shape of the space, emptied of all the telltale signs that a person could live here happily. The place stunk of mildew; the carpeted areas were damp; the linoleum was scratched badly; the bathroom tiles were bordered by moldy grout; the inside of the old, wood cabinets smelled sweet as rot; the heating vents were clogged with dust and hair; and, the very last straw, a half-empty box of ant traps had been left, thoughtfully, underneath the sink by the previous tenant. Dazed, I sat on the living room floor, only to realize my shoes were still on. The place felt so far from home that I had not even thought to take them off.
I returned the next day with a trunk full of cleaning supplies, which my mother had left me a year ago and which had been unused for roughly the same length of time. When I was in college, my mother always used to clean my room on move-in day. As I heaved my suitcases and boxes into the room, she would be busy mopping the floors, wiping the insides of drawers, and disinfecting the window shades. I would watch her out of the corner of my eye, exasperated by her obsessive scrubbing. Now, armed with equipment I could barely use, I wished I had watched her more carefully.
The effort expended cleaning up my new apartment was both great and totally in vain. Turned out, I was very bad at cleaning. I could not vacuum in a straight line. My wiping left sticky streaks across every surface. The bathroom grout stayed the same unrelenting shade of black no matter how I scrubbed and sprayed. The lack of results failed to perturb me in the least, and I found myself, hours in, squatting on the bedroom floor, maniacally trying to extricate the dust caked inside the bedroom heating vent with the corner of a Swiffer cloth.
This is disgusting, I suddenly thought, though I didn’t pause my scraping. How had I managed to forget? How was I actually touching an object that had turned my stomach the day before?
I saw, in my cleaning frenzy, that what I was doing was not actually cleaning. In reality, I had probably done very little to combat the dirt and mildew colonizing the apartment. What I was doing was touching the squalor, and in doing so, I was not so much removing the grime as I was declaring it mine. A shower that I could not have imagined myself stepping into lost its fearsomeness once I had raked my nails against the moldy corners and found that my fingers had not fallen off. I finally understood my mother’s own cleaning frenzies. She had wanted to face the filth, and remind herself that a bit of dust, a spot of mold, a swallowed spider, would not kill her, would not kill her daughter. She was containing her own squeamishness, and I was now following in her footsteps.
The dust would return, it would always return, but a foe once faced no longer strikes the same degree of queasiness in my heart. That day, I came to terms with the fact that Apartment 2 would never be a sterile, sparkling living space. But that day also, the space became livable to me.
I finally gave up on the heat vent. Instead, I circled the rooms, looking for nooks and crannies I would normally never touch. I touched the rusted water stains on the ceiling, the puckered grey linoleum underneath the stairwell, the corners of the vegetable crisper. Then, with the apartment looking no different, I tucked away my cleaning supplies. Then I took off my shoes and I felt the bleach-gummied floor with the soles of my bare feet.
Lillian Li is a graduate of the University of Michigan's Helen Zell Writers' Program. Her novel, about an upscale Peking duck restaurant outside D.C., is forthcoming from Henry Holt. Her work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Guernica, Granta online, and Jezebel. Follow her @ZillianZi
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