“If you use anything except an ashtray to put your cigarette out in, I’ll come over there and cut your fingers off, and then you’ll have to smoke with your penis,” she said to me on the phone the next day.
I’m sure that’s what she said. I’m sure I couldn’t have misheard. Still: Her psychosexual baggage? Mine?
It was the morning after she’d spent 10 hours throwing away everything I thought I owned. “Good, now get out,” she’d said to me—in my own apartment! The brute!—the day before.
She was a personal organizer, a life coach, a cleaning woman. And for a full-fledged member of the OCD-riddled, slovenly packrat set, letting this aggressive stranger into my house was like a secret rape fantasy that had been drunkenly, accidentally, horribly, delightfully fulfilled.
So fucking hot! But—oh, yes—so degrading.
On the day of our appointment—she’d been referred by a friend last fall, who found her through a friend—she’d come strolling down First Avenue like Mary Poppins. She looked like a former nurse, which is what she was. She was maybe in her late 30’s, short. I was outside smoking, so I could warn her about the disaster that awaited in my apartment. I let her in. I’d already purchased her Ajax and Murphy’s, as she requested.
She was a very brand-conscious violator.
She started with comfort. “It’ll be all right; this’ll all be fine,” she said. She swore she’d seen apartments nastier than mine—and isn’t that what every would-be Murray Hill date rapist says? You’re not ugly like everyone says you are.
And she only cost $25 an hour.
Back when I’d lived up on the fourth floor of the same building, but with a roommate, we had a weekly housecleaner, mostly because I was such a slob. She was Czech, too, like me, but a real Czech. Or maybe Slovak. How would I know? She was Susan Sontag’s assistant’s house cleaner. In any event, whatever we were, there was an immigrant-vs.-American tension there, mostly because I am a repellent First World mess.
Also, she would say problematic things sometimes, like, “Why are black people so laaaazy?”
Anyway, a little over a year ago now, when I moved downstairs in the building to my own apartment, I went it alone as a statement of adulthood—besides, Miss Slovak-or-Czech could never have handled what lurked below.
Building on its 100-year-old tenement quirks—a window between the living room and bedroom? A pronounced lean to the southeast?—the first-floor apartment had been designed, if you could say that, with a certain meth chic. Flurries of mania had produced surprisingly intricate and impossible details: overhead lights held together with packing tape; a hallway enthusiastically half-wallpapered; the bathtub removed and an incredibly gay and tiny glass-partitioned shower crappily constructed in its place. The two men who had lived in this apartment had claimed to be interior designers of some sort. One had also been a host at a local semi-swanky restaurant, and that was the one I had seen outside on the street one night, surrounded by cop cars and an ambulance, in handcuffs. His head was shaved; he ranted. Off he went and never returned. Wasn’t long after that that the apartment came available.
The dump of a floor-through had been shoddily divided into two apartments, actually, by means of a pressboard closet; two locked doors connected a hallway of sorts and made for a shared bathroom. And when I tried to go from front apartment to rear, a tiny slithery dog made a go for my ankles.
Apparently, someone still lived back there.
Confusing! So I slowly began work on the front of the apartment. In time, I’d removed the hideous kitchenette that had been constructed of a plastic sink and a fake marble counter and rubber tubes that ran water from a poorly installed junction in the bathroom pipes. And soon enough, in the course of my labors in the front apartment, I met the faux-hawked fellow who apparently lived on my new lease.
He wasn’t going anywhere, he said. The real former tenants, who had sublet to him, hadn’t let him know that the time was up, and he had nowhere to go and no money. He had problems, he said. In turn, I told him that I guessed that his problems had become my problems, no matter how little interest I had in them. I may have slammed his door in his face. My door. Whatever.
So he stayed for a few months.
In fact, since the accidental tenant had come with the apartment, I considered just getting it over with and dating him. At least that way I’d always know where he was.
When he was finally gone—just disappeared one day—I tore out the wall illegally separating the two apartments and took down the mouse-shit-encrusted fake-wood wall paneling, and the bloody EKG hookup tags that he’d adhered to the kitchen window, and threw away the rotting kitchen cabinets, and pulled up the orange extension cords that snaked through injected foam and under doorsills.
I threw away the bottle of Nair in the kitchen and the lice comb in the bathroom.
By the end of last spring, I’d rehabilitated the apartment, if rather poorly, and installed bars on the windows at my own expense, and capped the plumbing and patched the hundreds of holes in the walls and scrubbed the parquet and faxed copies of my lease to the phone and electric utilities so that they’d void the outstanding shut-off notices. And then summer came, and I started spending most of my time out of town.
So the remnants of last June’s poker game sat on the dining-room table until late September. Coffee cups and endless piles of pre-primary election mail and publicist-sent CD’s and unwanted magazines covered the floors. The kitchen magically filled with wine bottles, as if the apartment were the Overlook Hotel.
And all that’s why, after fewer than nine months of living on my own—much of which had already been spent throwing other people’s disasters away!—I sought out the cleaner. And in that one day, in just 10 hours, she ripped it all away.
Free! I was naked and unashamed! I’d survived her brutal, probing onslaught!
But then I looked closer. She had thrown away all those freelance checks, the ones I’d warned her were on my desk, the blue ones that I hadn’t deposited so that I wouldn’t spend them. And my mailbox key. And all my 1099’s.
At first I thought it was no great loss—after all, the racist Czech had once thrown away a year’s worth of receipts, and I’d lived through that, mostly by filing endless extensions and pretending it hadn’t happened.
So I laughed it off. The cleaner just had a few more hours of work to do, she said: The refrigerator, unopenable with its glasses full of black sad sticks that were once asparagus and something that was once milk, and then the clothes disaster, some storage odds and ends.
But then a month or two went by and she didn’t call, not even to get the $150 I owed her—she had worked six hours more than the four I’d pre-paid. I didn’t call her either.
And I realized I was mad.
Finally, she did call. Twice. And I never called her back. I had already cleaned the fridge myself, taken care of the clothes, gotten the checks reissued, made peace with my accountant. I had gone on to buy rugs, from eBay—Finnish ones—and I even vacuumed them all by myself. Maybe I really was a grown-up now.
And so I froze. A quandary: One. I owed her money—that was clear. Two. She had thrown away many of the sort of documents that make accountants cry if you don’t keep them for seven years. Three. She had hurt me. Four. But then, hadn’t I liked it?