For one romantic night away, two days of cleaning, prep, and angst? This neurosis is not like me. Someone else staying in our home was never a big deal. But then came lockdown, and an easy domestic chaos that never ended.
Our recent trips have been separate and brief, no dogsitter needed. Now, we want to travel together before we turn decrepit, the next pandemic arrives, or the world blows up. To ready the current dog, who is even clingier than his predecessors, we decided to start with just one night away.
And I flew into a panic.
Seeing our home through a stranger’s eyes meant registering the mascara stains on my makeup cloth, the darker ecru sweat stains on our cream sheets, the bras looped over a closet doorknob. Through the house I flew, stuffing stuff into closets, glugging bleach into the washing machine, sweeping and scrubbing. For the first time in years, I registered the odd miscellany of mismatched sheets and pillow cases crazystacked on a top shelf—and realized that the assortment of remedies below could stock an old-fashioned apothecary.
What would the dogsitter make of us? He is young; he has yet to accumulate extra supplies, favorite objects, odd medicaments, old but loved clothes. He may never.
Why did I care? People have their own lives to lead, and they are far less interested in mine than I fear or hope they are. But I need this reminder because I am interested in theirs. Years of writing profiles taught me to pay attention to the physical stuff people surround themselves with. Years of devouring murder mysteries proved how many clues all this stuff contains. Our dogsitter will know that I feel the need for twenty-seven lipsticks, some so old they taste funny. That we remain fond of childhood stuffed animals. That we keep piles of reference books just in case we need to reread The Dead Sea Scrolls in English, brush up on Warfare & Diplomacy in Pre-Colonial West Africa, or consult Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words. Google cannot take us to these places.
For parties, all the detritus gets swept into the laundry room. The dogsitter’s scrutiny will be more intimate. He will live in our cozy carapace, in either snug comfort or existential horror. Our hotel, by contrast, will be neutral: no one else’s personality will intrude upon the experience. But living in someone else’s home is like being trapped overnight in an elevator with two sales reps from the company five floors up.
He shows up early, before I can do a last wipe-down of the kitchen. I demonstrate the quirks of the boxy thirty-year-old TV that refuses to die, the primitive Roku box perched on top, the button we use for changing channels because we gave up on an array of confounding remotes. “There are lots of DVDs,” I add brightly. He repeats the word in wonderment. He has not watched a DVD in half his short life.
I decide not to mention the vinyl collection and turntable in the other room.
“The jug in the fridge door is for compost,” I say instead, worried about what he might imagine we do with a stained container of rotting cores and peels. I show him the recycling, aware of the million ways we do not live sustainably. Standards vary so widely these days, and information changes so fast, that on the sliding scale between austerity and waste I have no idea where we land.
How people lived was more similar, I suspect, in the Years of Conformity. The years before the class gap yawned wide, ideologies pulled us all in different directions, and tech made it possible to chase eccentric interests all over the globe. We still share the same needs—food, softness, warmth, safety. But there is another layer now, an endless array of choices that send us flying off in different directions. All that seem clear are the extremes: self-abnegation or hoarding. The vast space between them is a gray blur.
The thought jolts me: I left a gray-blurred Swedish dishcloth—the stained one I use for real messes—out on the counter. Will he think we use it on our dishes? Stained, a word for sins and permanent ruination. No wonder people love stainless steel appliances and buy toxic stain removers by the gallon….
Oh, well. Much as I hate my slovenly housekeeping, I hate sterility even more. I forget about the house and have a wonderful weekend.
The dogsitter, it turns out, is not the least judgmental—at least, he does not wince or smirk, and he sounds happy to return in March. The dog adores him. Relieved on all counts, we write a check and say goodbye. Pandora’s box has been safely entered and exited.
But my new ease wobbles when I pull out my desk drawer and see half a chocolate bar, slid out of its wrapper and forgotten. A siren call for a mouse with a sweet tooth, and surely there is one among the family that has been stealing the dog’s kibble and stashing it behind the lazy-Susan cabinet. That was a secret I kept from the dogsitter, and now this chocolate is another. Here it sits, naked, shedding bits of dark chocolate on a jumble of pens.
Naked. That was how I felt when we left. Ashamed at how far we had slid into messy comfort. Aware, if I am to lie on a couch, of how my immaculate, minimalist mother would react. Since her death, I have embraced my husband’s lower standards. (Or were they always, deep down, my own?)
The new goal: to live at the fulcrum between privacy and hospitality. In a house set up for our comfort but ready to welcome others at a moment’s notice. Never as immaculate as my mother’s, never as let-go as lockdown left us.
Seems it was not the dogsitter’s opinion of us that terrified me. It was my own.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.