The other day I caught myself about to say the following to someone I love very much: You need to dry your feet so you don’t track water all over my clean floors.
I didn’t say it, obviously; I choked it back in horror and crept into a cave for several days to reflect on how things had gotten this bad without my realizing it – how on earth I could have turned into the type of person who refers to something as as unlovable and quotidian as a floor as something that could ever be mine? A person doesn’t just say “Careful of my clean floors” once and then never again. It’s the beginning of a lifetime of calling out “I just mopped!” and having rules about not opening the windows after sunset because of the bad night air and having a favorite cleaning rag and monitoring how many paper towels your guests use. If you claim the floors like that, that’s it, everything’s over. The floors will claim you right back, and for the rest of your life, you’re responsible for keeping them clean. It’s like alcoholism where the real problem is that first drink. Once you’ve said – once you’ve had the conscious thought – “You’re tracking water all over my clean floors,” that’s it. The show’s over. In fifteen years you’ll be telling your daughter things like “blue isn’t really her color” and “I’m just trying to help you look your best; there’s no point in getting snippy with me” and I don’t even have kids.
It wasn’t one of those “Oh my God, I’m turning into my mother” moments because to the best of my recollection my mother has never said anything like that. Maybe June Cleaver, or Diane Amos the Pine-Sol lady, but I’m definitely going to have to reach way further back in time than my mother for the origins of “my clean floors” deep within my soul. Better to look to the past than to the future, because what is there to hope for? People who say “Careful of my clean floors” never also say things like, “I’ve noticed the floors are getting dirty. Have you noticed it too? Can we set aside some time to clean them together?” They clean the floors secretly, and in the dead of night, and for the primary of purpose of getting one over on the other people they live with. It’s a hop, skip and a jump away from saying things like “When I’m dead, then you’ll realize how much I always did around the house,” and all I want people to realize when I’m dead is how much they were all in love with me.
I cast my mind back. I investigate my own spirit. But I find no source, no origin. When did it begin, this rot in my soul? When did the house claim me? When did I become The House Noticer? Walk past the fridge, register idly There are thumbprints on the handle. Gotta clean them off. Crumbs in the vegetable drawer, too; someone’s going to have to lift them out with a damp paper towel. And the Pledge gets the dust off the kitchen table but it doesn’t do a thing about the water-glass rings, so someone’s going to have to find out what does that. Are any of the bath mats damp? Wait for the afternoon light to come in the windows so you can see just how not-really-clean all the surfaces really are, giving the lie to the idea that you live in a world filled with order and sense. The house has a secret language all for you, and the last thing in the world it wants is for you to share that language with someone – anyone – else.
The house doesn’t want the floors clean. What the house wants is a Clean Floors Monitor, eternally bound to the state of the floors, always admonishing, always testing, ever vigilant, eyes trained forever downward to catch an errant crumb or a shower-fresh footprint. What the house wants is for you to leave your mother and your father, set up enmity between brothers and sisters, and marry the floors. Well, I won’t do it. Come on over and keep your shoes on.