The carpet in our apartment was a complete mystery to us, shielded by the layer of garbage that had drifted down over it, like a new-fallen snow composed of magazines and old clothing. Our entire bedroom floor was covered from wall to wall, buried deep under a three-inch layer of old books, bras, unwashed dishes, bits of clay, aborted sewing projects, pigeon feathers, pine needles from a Christmas tree that had stayed here until April, old jars sloshing with dill pepper juice, a rolling pin, the remnants of an AT-AT Walker, semen-smeared videotapes, and more.
We walked from bed to bathroom without ever touching shag, adopting a rolling gait to accommodate the way the capricious layers of the impromptu "floor" might slip out from under us.
I lived in hell.
Bari and I weren't clean people by anyone's standards, but both of us were seized by the unique and indefensible idea that we were neater than each other. We were blind to the toxic wastes we spilled, filled to brimming with an insane confidence that the garbage pit we lived in was created only by the messes of the other one. After all, I'm the neat one; she fucks everything up.
Therefore, cleaning the house is not my responsibility.
It became a deadly game of chicken. Cleaning the house was tantamount to admitting that you were responsible for the mess in the first place... And neither of us could bear to do that. We secretly despised each other already; she hated me for my insufferable arrogance and constant need for ass-kissing, and I hated her for her lack of drive and continual inability to focus. But we couldn't admit that. We were trapped in a shitty apartment with a jobs we hated and not enough money to survive on our own...
Our only source of self-respect came from not being the one responsible for this. The apartment could self-destruct, the outward metaphor for our disintegrating relationship - but the alternative was to admit fault, and just cleaning up the shit without trying to pin blame on someone.
We were constitutionally incapable of that.
So weeks went by between cleanings, and each cleaning became less and less effective. Dishes were a particular aggravation; since neither of us particularly felt like cooking, whenever either one of us grudgingly boiled something for mutual consumption we felt it was our due that the other one clean up the mess. Of course, the other one had usually cooked the night before, so the fate of the dishes remained in a stinking limbo...
The end was, of course, that we used dishes with an uncanny economy. No dishwasher load was run before every last piece of cutlery and saucer we owned had been soiled - and cleaning up involved finding a chair to move the old dishes to first, since they were piled so high in the sink that we'd had to swivel the faucet out of the way to make vertical room. We positioned plates carefully to avoid the collapse of the entire stack, as if it were a game of Jenga - except that Jenga pieces generally aren't covered with slicks of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.
One day, I was thrilled to realize that I had finished up the last dish - Bari would have no choice but to clean the dishes today! I left for work with a spring in my step, realizing that when I came home it would be to a clean kitchen.
I returned to find Bari eating macaroni out of the inside of a pot lid. She looked up at me, unimpressed.
"You know," she said, "We need to buy more dishes."
God help me, she was serious.
The dishes became such a problem that we began going out to dinner rather than fight over them, spending money on Denny's meals that we really couldn't afford. And in many ways, it made it worse, since every meal we spent out was another day that dishes weren't getting done. Meat deliquesced in the sink while we waited, the water turning a fibrous gray.
One day I returned to find that the sink had gone so far that maggots had not only blossomed in a glass of old milk, but had actually birthed a host of flies. (I found the glass later, wormed through with empty husks.) It was the middle of January, and the living room seethed with clouds of fat buzzing blackflies; they would settle on the walls, then rise up in a swarm when you walked past, bouncing stupidly off of your cheeks and landing in your hair.
The stores did not sell fly repellent in January. I discovered that Formula 409 was a perfectly acceptable substitute and spent three days hunting down every fly and administering carefully-controlled doses of lemon-scented death.
The messes piled up further, fueled by our twinned obsessions. I loved books and videotapes, and as a buyer at Borders headquarters, I returned home every day with armfuls of review copies of books that I would never read. They were dumped on the floor and vanished instantly into the mess, as if I was a squirrel burying reading material for the winter. For her part, Bari loved second-hand shops and went on trips to come back with hamper loads full of hats, gloves, and kicky dresses that she might one day wear; at one point, she had a five-foot-high pile of unused clothing to choose from which she added to every day, like Roy Neary making a model of the Devils' Tower out of silk and pleather.
We made occasional forays against the mess now, but it had achieved a momentum of its own. Our apartment was unique in that most homes have the majority of their items stored vertically, along walls in closets, bookcases, and dresser drawers; our apartment's storage was both vertical and horizontal, with the entire floor acting as additional storage space. So when we cleaned, we had the very real and pressing problem that our apartment was too small to accommodate everything we owned.
It took two hours' of cleaning just to empty a five-by-five patch of carpet, exhaustively sorting through the various items we found and categorizing them like archaeologists. This produced about a good-sized suitcase's worth of storables. But would we put them?
We couldn't put it all back where we had found them. Our closets were already filled to bursting. And putting what we had just retrieved somewhere else in the apartment would have involved cleaning out another five-by-five space to put it in - which would, in turn, require us to clear out another space to hold that merchandise, and so on ad infinitum.
In short, our squalor had advanced to the point where our only option was cleaning up the entire house at once. Rather than face that reality, we just picked up tiny areas at a time, dumped the remnants in the least-filthy section of the living room, then declared victory and went to bed.
The ferrets didn't help, either. Not that we noticed their odor amidst the unique scent of rotting food and musty clothing, but the combined ferret shit from a pair of healthy mustelids piled up until it reached ankle-deep, nostril-stripping looped piles of pure brown foulness. I could not clean the ferret poop up without a massive asthma attack that left me gasping for days, and I asked Bari to do it... But despite her claims that she'd get to it, it never got done.
One day I found gray worms squirming in a half-liquefied pile, and it was all I could do to weakly shove it all into three grocery bags and carry it to the curb, my lungs and stomach both completely incapacitated. But then I thought differently: It was the middle of summer. Fuck her if she's gonna make me clean up ferret shit when she knows what this does to me...
She didn't drive that often, but I figured that dumping three bags worth of wormy ferret shit in the back seat during a ninety-degree July would fix her little red wagon. I left them there.
(As it so often turned out, though, Bari avoided my evil plans through a combination of luck and her astounding ability to not worry about critical details. Months later, when I moved, I asked her whether she had ever found my little package; as it turned out, the car had either been towed or stolen, and she'd never bothered to find out what had happened to it. That's right; her car, all four thousand pounds of Nissan Sentra, had disappeared from the parking lot and it wasn't anything she had followed up on.
(Later on I checked it out myself, and the management had no records of towing it. For years, I imagined the determination of the carjacker who sprung the door open on that Sentra as he stepped into what must have been a solid wall of vinegary, seeping rankness, his eyes watering as he realizes that he must get this car to the chop shop today or his family will go hungry.
(Gini supposes that the car just melted from the ferret shit. That's a better theory.)
We lived this way merrily until one day, the management raised the rent on us again, this time by $50 a month. Time to move. Actually, the packing went pretty well; as stated, the problem was not so much cleaning but storage space, and I used the opportunity to throw out cartloads of old books and magazines. The rest went into neat little boxes, which I could categorize as I saw fit.
The only problem was the deposit. It was $750, which I fully expected to lose, but I did not want to be countersued. I had to get it into at least acceptable status, and Bari was out of town visiting her mom - so I called my friend Jim in once we got moving.
The apartment was a mess, the carpet a shorn ruin. Despite my packing up everything valuable, the house still looked like the day after a big frat party. The floor was littered with the shorn limbs of toy superheroes, tiny clumps of dried ferret shit, hand-made beads that Bari had made and discarded.... We quickly determined that if I hadn't packed it, it could be thrown out.
The walls were slicked with filth and poster tacks. The kitchen floor, once a proud whitish-tan, was now a smudged blackish-gray, like the bottom of a fish tank. Jim and I went to throw away the last of the cabinet foodstuffs, the things I decided I didn't need any more, like gravy thickener.
I tugged. The thickener was stuck to the shelf.
Jim and I got on opposite sides and tugged as hard as we could, but we could not separate the thickener from the shelf; the jar sat there, a tiny monolith to our incompetence. And then I had my brilliant idea: I rearranged the shelves so the thickener was on the bottom shelf, below eye-level, and then turned it upside-down so the gravy thickener hung like a stalactite.
Voila! Problem solved.
The only thing left were Bari's clothes, which I hadn't dared to touch since they blocked the way to the cramped laundry room. If you wanted to approach the washer/dryer - I didn't, as Bari did all the laundry - you had to teeter-totter your way over a pile of laundry so huge that you had to duck to avoid hitting your head on the ceiling. We gamely tossed her clothes into sack after sack, and it took eight garbage bags full of clothing before we could see floor around the drier.
It was then I discovered a vital truth: In the two years we had lived there, Bari had not once thrown out the lint trap. Oh, she'd emptied it - Bari was no fool - but she had never said, "Hey, maybe this lint should go in a bag somewhere to be thrown away." There was an afro-sized heap of old laundry lint atop the drier, daring me to move it.
"Hey, Jim," said I. "You wanna do this?"
Jim laughed. No fucking way. And did I mention this was the room where Bari kept her pigeons (she called them doves), so the room was also tufted with ragged pigeon feathers and streaked with pigeon shit?
My inhaler was empty. Of course.
I shoved the lint into a bag, old laundry dust billowing out into the air; my lungs ripped open like wet tissue paper. I could barely breathe. It felt like a moist fist was squeezing my lungs. But somehow, I managed to stay in there long enough to 409 the place and skedaddle.
I could barely stand, so Jim picked up the living room while I sat by the closet and stuffed things into a garbage bag. From the living room, I heard Jim say:
"Cool! Pepper spray!"
Now, on the way down here, Jim and I had been joking about how every comedian finds the same joke. This was shortly after mace had been outlawed, and every security-conscious woman had switched to pepper spray. And Jim and I had both noticed that at least three comedians had made the same basic joke - But what if you're attacked by a Cajun? Cajuns like pepper! Ha ha ha.
"Yeah," I said. "Bari had that when she worked in the liquor store."
From the living room, I heard a faint psst.
I had just enough time to think no, he wouldn't - would he? and then my eyes burst into flame, my lungs went up like the Hindenberg. I raced into the living room to find Jim hunched over, his eyes streaming tears, the pepper spray fallen to the floor where Jim had tried it out - I grabbed him by the shoulder and hustled him onto the back porch, where there was open air.
"Jim," I heaved, trying to fight through the campfire that he had stoked in my trachea, "What the fuck were you thinking?"
"I didn't think it would be that bad!" he coughed.
It was another hour before we could go back in and pick up the rest. I moved to the other apartment in solitude, Bari broke up with me for being an asshole, and I never got that messy again. I have my moments of filth, but never again will the carpet vanish entirely.
Oh. And two months later, I received a $150 refund check from Lake in the Woods Apartment Housing. Somehow, they hadn't used up my entire deposit.
I wonder what their other tenants were like.