The apartment is a mess. She can never seem to keep up with the dusting or mopping, and has trouble organizing her shelves and her thoughts, too. But today is the first day of spring, or one of the first, and she’s going to get her things in order.
The high sun heats the bedroom. The alarm quit hours ago. She rolls out of bed and takes the sheets with her. She pulls off the comforter and mattress cover as the washing machine fills with hot water. She throws everything in and doubles the detergent. She looks at the perfect mold of her body that indents the right side of the naked mattress. It sags from holding her all night and some of the day, too. She picks up the sunken half and lifts.
The mattress bends in two, it creases down the middle before it gives and her side replaces his. A cloud of dust suspends in the light streaming through the window. Now, there’s a new hole on her side. He always slept toward the outside, his back to her with his legs tucked in like a cannonball. The crater’s still there where he’d sleep and face the wall. Why didn’t she get a new mattress? Why didn’t she start fresh? Instead, the dust and dead skin collected, and now the motes float in midair, a million shooting stars stuck in time, falling through space onto a nightstand.
Two drawers clogged with clothes and one shelf littered with half filled cups of water, dusty jewelry and pictures. She picks a frame up off the shelf, and spritzes a rag with Windex. She wipes the glass, and the dust turns to mud. At first, she doesn't recognize the faces smiling back. But each swipe of the cloth brings clarity.
This was her and her fiancé, five years younger just one year ago. She squints, and peers into the frame like she's looking through a stranger's window. Was this the ski trip to Colorado or Montana? Why didn’t he make her wear a heavier coat? It was so cold, and she got so sick. She holds it closer. Was there any way to see the mess he was going to make? Was there something that should’ve been said right there in the snow? Her grip tightens, and the glass pane breaks. Shards embed in her hand. Blood runs across the frame, over his face, across her chest. She puts the artifact back on the nightstand and rushes to the kitchen.
She runs water and stops the bleeding. Then, she notices the counters. They used to be white. Now they’re a shade of grey. She sprinkles Comet across the tiles. The sponge fills with hot water and she starts to scrub. She goes in a clockwise motion, then counter. She brushes away bread crumbs, soaks up coffee then gets stuck on a stain. She hasn't cooked in months and she only drinks white wine, so the red mark is a mystery. She digs at it. She puts her weight behind it. The Comet catches, the sponge holds and the tile’s top layer disappears, revealing a world below. A surface so bright and beautiful that she wants more. So, she digs. She keeps digging.
She remembers the clarity in the doctor’s voice. The way he said, “It’s everywhere.” He held up a picture, and her chest was lit up. White blotches scattered like shrapnel across her abdomen and a slight buzzing in her right ear grew into her left. The room shook and the doctor said something that she didn’t catch. He said something else, maybe something more, but it wasn’t him. “I wish I had better news,” the voice said. “I wish I had something else for you.” She didn’t say a thing, she didn’t move. “When you needed forgiveness and understanding, why didn’t you ask?” The buzzing was so loud, it was inside her skull. “Don’t you believe in something besides all this?” The voice said, “Where were you every Sunday? When you needed help, where did you go?” And as that sponge moved across that tile, she began to see just how many layers were underneath.
The counter runs under the cupboards. She looks up at all of the dishes in the cabinets. Stacks of ceramic, plastic and silver. The glassware is blotchy with stains and an uneaten remnant sticks to a fork. She draws a sink of hot water and tosses the plates and bowls, the tupperware and mugs, into the soapy water. She rolls up her sleeves, and scrubs each piece until her muscles burn. She cleans every inch of every surface. She gets into the depths of the cups and disinfects every utensil. She dries her hands, then lays everything out in a neat line on the white tiles. She drains the dirty water and opens a window. An April breeze carries azaleas and lilacs through the kitchen. Everything should dry by the time she finishes in the bathroom.
The door swings in and if you were sitting on the toilet, your knees would be a doorstop. Her reflection in the mirror above the sink is riddled with holes. She sprays the glass with Windex and wipes away watermarks, toothpaste and a handprint, a big one, bigger than her’s. She opens the medicine cabinet and finds five filled prescriptions each reading, “Take three capsules two times daily until all are taken.” Or all is lost, she thinks, whichever comes first. She’s seen these orange-tinted impossible-to-unscrew bottles before, but not this many. Not with names like bortezomib, chlorambucil, or gleevec. She’s never seen letters put together like that. She closes the mirror and turns to the shower.
The porcelain is a grey-yellow that isn’t welcome on any rainbow. Mildew sprouts at the base of the shower curtain. She sprays 409 and waits. She watches the chemicals work. They break down a microscopic world of cells. She heard once that we shed a coat of skin every month, and she’s been in this apartment for five years. She imagines all the different hers that have come and gone. That have been lost in the carpet or washed down the drain. That have disappeared into the pipes below. The smell of disinfectant fills her nose. She watches the spray foam up on the porcelain, and holds her head in her hands: all those showers and all that skin, all of it hers. And soon, what’s left? Something as small as DNA?
The doctor said it isn’t genetics. He said it wasn’t passed down from a relative. It was brought on by her body. Her cells. They reacted to something in her life - the air she breathed or the food she ate - and changed her. Maybe it’s the jacket she didn’t wear or the glass of wine she didn’t need. Maybe it’s that she didn’t get out what had to get out. That she never said the hard things or did the difficult. Maybe it’s because she didn’t organize every loss and sort every tear. And shouldn’t she be doing something other than cleaning on a Sunday?
She grabs a sponge and takes to the tub. She scrubs like she’s trying to sand it down to nothing. She digs up more white space. The porcelain sparkles the best it can. She rinses out the sponge and scrubs some more. Rinse, repeat. Rinse, relief. The whole apartment is spotless, save for one place.
She opens the mirror, takes out the prescriptions and moves down the line. She takes a handful of the first bottle, puts them in her mouth and swallows hard. Her throat burns as she opens the second bottle. Another handful, another swallow. The third, fourth and fifth bottles are opened and emptied in the same way. She caps each bottle and lines them back up in the medicine cabinet. The mirror closes.
The girl in the reflection looks back. With eyes and ears just like hers, she even has a freckle on the side of her nose. She holds out her hand and they reach for each other. Their arms extend, they move together. They reach for each other. They go as far as they can when a hand comes through the mirror. The girl in the reflection breaks into pieces. She stares at each part of herself. She leans in as close as she can. She’s not sure what she’s looking for, because it’s all right there.