Out, Out Damn Spot! When is it OK? To Hire ‘Help’?

There comes a time in every New Yorker’s life when she realizes that she simply can’t keep up-and I’m not talking about the Joneses, or the latest in beachwear or celebrity hotspots, or even the eternally exhausting rat race. Nope, it’s the dust bunnies that truly get me down. They’re an insidious breed, these furballs of dust and detritus. And no matter how diligently I clean my one-bedroom apartment, no matter how anal-retentive I am about picking up after myself, if I’m not religious about my weekly chores-if I don’t keep an eagle eye on my countertops, creviced baseboards and streak-prone mirrors-there will undoubtedly be mutiny from below. They sneak up on me, these little beasts. The other day, I peered behind my bookcase just a day or two after having removed a whole colony of the hateful clumps, and what do I see but a fresh batch-taunting me, dancing around in rebellion.

My kitchen is a many-headed hydra of scuffmarks on the floor, stubborn scum on the stove and sink and, of course, hair everywhere. (Oh, the curse of dark, curly hair.) The bathroom leaves me winded, the closets deeply depressed, the pantry downright pathetic and my living room-well, the last time I ventured in there to clean, I ended up collapsed on the couch pondering the futility of it all.

It’s not that I am a particularly messy person; it’s just that the act of living is inherently untidy-padding from room to room kicking up fresh dust as I go; standing in front of the window eating pretzels while yapping on the phone. I watch the breeze come through the open windows, bringing with it a steady stream of pollen, grit and unidentifiable city grime. I may only spend a few hours a day at home, but during those hours I somehow manage to leave a trail indicative of a full-time layabout.

What’s a girl to do? The logical answer would be to shut up and clean up, right? I mean, it’s all so very ridiculous-to be whining about my housework woes when I have the good fortune to live in a friendly prewar building, free of annoying neighbors, scummy landlords and more insects than one would expect. I’ve got hardwood floors, the occasional decorative molding and an all-white kitchen. And it’s all mine-the ultimate pleasure of solo living. No kids careening around, no pets muddying up my throw rugs, not even a slobby roommate to blame for the crumby couch or water rings.

And therein lies the rub: While there’s no one else to nag about the mess, there’s also no one else to rely on for the unending clean-up. Sure, I could make myself a little construction-paper job-wheel (remember those from summer camp?) to track the swirl of daily/weekly tasks, but I’d find my own name under each and every dirty duty. So I’m left with the dust bunnies, feeling like I’ve failed my duties as a Real Simple–reading grown up, wondering if a fine film of dust might be following me out of the house, too.

I get little sympathy from my neatnik mother on all of this.

“Liz, it’s simple: get a housekeeper,” she says. “Have her come once a month, O.K.?”

“I can’t,” I whine. “It’s complicated, but I just can’t.”

What’s so complicated? Well, I feel guilty: guilty that I am an able-bodied, single woman who is incapable (O.K., let’s be accurate-unwilling) to adequately clean her apartment. I understand people who have kids and husbands and generally more complicated domestic situations wanting household help, but me? Guilt.

What’s more, I complain that my finances are tight, that I’m living on a writer’s salary, and yet I’m considering forking over the better part of 100 bucks to have a strange woman scour my tub? Let’s face it: When unmarried, under 30-ish friends admit they’ve hired “help,” there’s often a knee-jerk eyebrow raised, a sneer that says, “What, you’re so rich now that you can’t hang with Mr. Clean? Is that Ikea-branded studio so immense that you can’t reach all the nooks and crannies?” (All bets are off once you’re hitched; the road to domestic bliss is often paved with housekeeping dollars.) But I’m not rich, my apartment is tiny and I’m not too cool to clean.

Mostly, I feel like the consummate prima donna who wants windowsills without grime and a toilet bowl you can see yourself in. I’m an antibacterial brat, only without the elbow grease.

With the battle of the bunnies raging on, I recently decided to stuff all my moaning and do something with my good-girl angst. You know, fish or cut bait. Shit or get off the pot. Clean or be cleaned.

I chose the latter.

I called Roseanne, a woman recommended to me by friends. At 8 a.m. on Friday morning, she arrived at my door, coffee in hand, with an easy smile, a lilting European accent and carefully pressed jeans. Twelve hours later, I opened the door to my apartment and was greeted with lemon-scented heaven. My bed was a smooth, inviting and billowy tableau of cotton; the bathroom twinkled. The moldings were no longer moldy.

It was the apartment I’d fallen in love with, but had forgotten. The one with a partial view of Central Park (if you open the window, lean out and crane your neck really hard), marble accents in the Lilliputian bathroom and just enough closet space to accommodate a swirling stew of black shoes, black purses and black pants. It’s even got a tiny island in the kitchen that begs for baskets of fresh fruit, as well as a cozy living room worthy of a monthly book-club meeting.

I was thrilled. I felt clean. Antiseptic bliss, if you will.

The next morning, I called Roseanne and left a message, thanking her for her good work. I scheduled another visit.

The thing is, my newfound cleanliness has brought with it a whole new slew of problems and a fresh batch of emotional baggage-it hit me before the shine had even left the floors, before I’d even sullied the sink. It may be clean now, but it would eventually get dirty. And then what? Somehow, I guess I thought of it as a one-time deal. I was wrong. Now that I’ve had someone do the dirty work, I realize that I’m totally hooked-dependent on someone else to fight my battles. How difficult it is to actually live in a sparkling clean apartment! I can’t invite friends over for fear they will water-spot the stainless steel of my sink or secretly deposit gum wrappers between the cushions of my couch!

And I also have the frenetic process of “pre-cleaning,” the burden of getting my apartment in “ready” mode for the arrival of Roseanne-stashing dirty laundry and piling up books, magazines and papers so that she can actually get to the surfaces. Is it possible that it takes longer to pre-clean than it would to clean?