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One night at dinner, my wife asked: “What would you think of bringing someone in once a week to help clean up?”
The potatoes, on my fork heading for my mouth, stopped after the words “clean up.” My heart pounded and my mind was yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes! Finally!!” But I remained cool. I furrowed my brow, looked around and innocently asked: “Are we that dirty?”
She responded that we weren’t, but that with both of us working things were getting left out.
Then I asked what I affectionately call the “considerate clincher” – the question that, if it’s structured correctly and hits the right notes, can get you anything.
I lowered my fork to the plate and asked, in my best calm but supportive voice: “But can we afford it?” In my head I could hear the screaming: “Of course we can! Of course we can!”
Without even lifting her eyes, she said it was no problem, we had room in the budget. And that was that.
I had died and gone to heaven. My mess was no longer my mess. If socks declared squatters’ rights on the floor for a week, what should I care? My shoes? Left could take a week-long vacation from right, no problem. They likely needed a break from each other anyway. And my war against dust bunnies would not be my war any more. The dirty rascals had a new adversary – a professional one.
Clean. Clean out. Clean sweep. All clean. Clean was a beautiful word. Or so I thought.
You see, my wife with her innocent question had cleverly – and yes, I would even say sinisterly – caught me in a cold, dark, windowless semantic trap. She had expressly and deliberately used the word “clean,” which, I was to learn, is a slippery little critter.
The night before our first appointment, just as if the fork hitting my plate signalled an opportunity for clarity, my wife announced that we would have to “straighten up” the house for the next day.
Like any male thinking he had been granted a reprieve from housework, I innocently asked if that wasn’t the job for the person coming in tomorrow.
No, she announced. Her job was to help clean, but she wouldn’t be able to clean if the house wasn’t straight.
I thought of asking why she couldn’t straighten as well, but felt my naiveté would not survive the answer.
“Straighten,” for everyone who hasn’t run into its stark glare yet, is a euphemism for the scrubbing, dusting, vacuuming and polishing that is always done prior to someone coming in to clean. The theory, apparently, is that no one coming to clean a house should arrive to a dishevelled, dirty one.
Cleaning, it turns out, is straightening’s Grimm stepmother. Cleaning commands straightening like a drill sergeant commands a parade square. Cleaning, I discovered, means to never need cleaning.
So that night, that wonderful night I’d been waiting for all my life, that night so pregnant with the expectation of freedom, I vacuumed, I dusted and I polished while my wife assessed, directed and adjusted. When all was straightened, the house had never looked so clean.
When I asked if at least the windows would be cleaned tomorrow (for how can you straighten a window?), my wife said, quite matter-of-factly: “Oh, she doesn’t do windows. We will have to look after that next week.”
I had been hoodwinked, bamboozled, conned, duped, flimflammed.
Clean does not mean to make clean, unsoiled. And it is not a state of being. It is the happy, do-nothing hum you hear after straighten has sung. Straighten is an opera, clean is a ditty.
Vera came the next day and has come every week since. She shows up with a bucket, a mop, a tray of fresh, clean cloths and cleaning supplies of all descriptions. She greets each of the dogs and asks each how their week has been. Their tails wag and their eyes sparkle. They love her.
She and I have become fast friends, too. I hear about her children. Her trips. Her mother with bursitis and a slight limp. And every time, after she slips on her house shoes, Vera smiles and says the house is so clean, where can she begin? Maybe we don’t need her this week? If my wife is at home and hears the question, she sing-songs the answer: “Oh, it isn’t as clean as it looks.”
But the floor that Vera cleans, I polished the night before. And the dust bunnies she searches for with the vacuum, I vanquished hier soir.
I straighten. Vera cleans. And that is how it is.
There is nothing to be done. I can feign injury or, as I tried last week, a sudden-onset allergy to cleaning products, but neither was successful. And nothing ever will be.This week I had a glimmer of release. My wife asked if we could do without Vera.
But it was a question with a close relationship to “Do you hate my mother’s pot roast?” or “Do I look fat in these jeans?”
Sure, you could answer yes, but what would be the point except for self-immolation on the pyre of marriage? Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice … well, you know the rest.
David Bannister lives in Calgary.