Cleanliness is Next to Godliness
Throughout the night, my abuela’s slippers sloughed along the worn green carpet past my parent’s bedroom, where I lay awake terrified to move. My father had the type of voice that was incapable of whispering. All night his mother hushed him and warned against waking me.
“Shh! Vas a despestar al bebe,” she scolded.
I heard papa tell her that he was sorry then listened to him hurry back down the hallway. Abuela pushed the door open allowing the hiss and beeps from my mother’s life machines to pour into the room. In the huge bed, I pretended to be fast asleep while she tucked my blankets snuggly around my adolescent body.
“What time did he make a statement?” Paulie whispered.
“How should I know?” Evan said raising his voice.
“Shh! I don’t want to wake her,” Paulie hushed.
Sitting on Ian’s ladder back chair, I smoked out the window and held a bag of used-to-be-frozen peas against my face. Like my dad, Evan too had difficulty whispering. In what he thought was a whisper; he confessed that he hoped that I would realize that my presence in the flat, with the present situation, was awkward. He explained to Paulie that he would give me the money, if necessary, for my own flat. Paulie told him to stop acting like a fucking cow and calm down. Taking his advice, Evan wiped his eyes and slumped in the kitchen stool.
When I was 13-years old my mother died of pancreatic cancer. Papa, a foreigner from Spain, believed that family should take care of its own. Rather than putting my mother into a hospice, he brought her home. His mother warned that a child should not have to watch her mother’s death; it would haunt the child forever. An architect and realist, my father hired a nurse and transformed the traditional New England decor into a sterile hospital room.
A stream of light from the hall pushed itself into Ian’s bedroom. Leaving the door slightly opened, Paulie came in and sat on the bed. I offered him a cigarette.
“So I guess you heard that Ian was arrested?” Paulie asked.
After three xanax, my tongue felt too big for my mouth so I nodded and stared into the dark. The bag of peas was soggy against my bruised cheek.
“So what happens to him now?” I managed to ask.
Paulie shrugged and offered that other than Evan scrambling to hire him a lawyer, he really had no idea. Without warning, I burst into tears. According to Paulie, he caught me before I slipped off the chair and onto the floor. He’d helped me up out of the chair and put me back into Ian’s bed.
After my mother died, I slept for nearly three days and practically had to be carried at her funeral. My pediatrician explained to my father that I was in shock and that my body had shut down. When I finally woke up, my father was working in Boston and my abuela was at the grocery store. Alone in the house, I wondered through every room in the house saving the guest room for last. It was early March in Medford, Massachusetts and the wood floors under my bare feet were cold. To warm them, I tried balancing from one foot to the other until I began to tire. I put the mop and bucket full of cleaners down next to my cold foot and pushed the door until it smacked the wall.
The sun bore through the white fuzzy windows, onto the dusty stained floors. Before mom was ever diagnosed with cancer, she worked night and day keeping her house clean. A natural klutz, I often feared my mother’s reaction over something like a dropped red Popsicle melting into our sky blue couch cushion. Her reaction was usually the same – that it was a good thing that I was a beautiful child because God had left me with little else. I would stand next to her watching the white bubbles slowly turn baby pink. Once cleaned however, my mother would brighten and smile.
“Oh, see that, that wasn’t such a fuss,” she would practically sing.
We’d toddle off to the kitchen and raid the freezer. My mother’s favorites were the orange push-ups while I was a purist preferring the simple fruit flavored pops. I pulled the Windex from the metal bucket and sprayed half the bottle onto the fuzzy window. Coughing slightly from the chemicals, I used a dish towel to wipe the window down. The more spray I pumped from the plastic bottle, the less it smelled like death. I emptied the entire bottle of Windex and only had cleaned one window. I was able to see the back yard more clearly. I forced the window open and let in the late winter air.
The mid-afternoon light snuck between the wool drapes and warmed my bare shoulders. Still very groggy, I hugged the pillow tightly, smelling in it Ian’s hair. Barely five weeks had passed when we had snuggled up in this bed watching Rambo and Rocky films. On the yellow sheets I dried my tears and tried to convince myself that I could stand. When I pushed myself up against the pillows it caused the room to swirl around. My cheeks dried to my teeth and gums. Next to my Virginia Slims, was a tall glass of juice. I took a huge gulp, wiped more tears and called out for Paulie. The house was empty. Believing I could stand, I swung my feet over the bed and landed on one of Ian’s t-shirts. When I tried to pick it up, the room swirled again and on top of my feet and Ian’s t-shirt, I threw up the juice.
I somehow managed to get to the kitchen for a clean rag. I sopped up the sick from my feet and noticed, on the counter, doughnut holes and a note from Paulie. He had rushed off to do a lunch shift and would be home around four o’clock. I quickly cleaned up my vomit on Ian’s floor and brought the rag into the bathroom to rinse it out. I stopped at the sink, turned on the water and looked into the mirror. The entire left side of my face was red with his hand print while the right cheekbone and directly under my eye was a purple-bluish black. I splashed the warm water over my face and into my mouth. Staring at the startled look in the mirror, I had hoped that the water, like the pink suds, would have washed away the red and bruises.
Evan slammed the front door, tossed his keys onto the portable counter and put the grocery bag down. He noticed me and said a defeated hello. I quickly wiped my face and laid the dirty rag on top of the washer.
“How are you?” he seemed tired of asking.
Aware that Evan did not want me in his flat, I shrugged and kept it short.
“Okay, I guess,” I feigned perky, “Look I have a terrible deadline to make, so I’m going to change and get out of your hair.”
He was exhausted and terrified when he spoke. From his grocery bag he pulled out the New York Daily – a local news rag and dropped it onto the counter top. On the front page, tucked in the right hand corner was a split image of me taken outside of Ian’s loft. On one side of the photo, I appear to by crying and cupping my face. The other side is a shot of Ian in handcuffs being escorted by the police. The headline was very dramatic.
“Conlin’s old fling, falls into the wrong crowd.”
“His lawyer says that this sort of shit is only helping Carlo’s case,” Evan stated
I nodded and wished for Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
“This shit is not helping him!” he repeated.
I rushed back into Ian’s bedroom and quickly tracked down my belongings. I opened the window slightly to air out any remaining smell of vomit or stale air. I threw my Hobo bag over my shoulder and tried to cover myself with large sunglasses. Evan stopped me and I believe tried to apologize.
“It’s been a long few days,” he sighed.
He continued, “If the cops decide that he’s caused enough trouble they could have him deported and serve the jail sentence in England – maybe up to 15 years. This shit, is not helping!”
He shouted at the New York Daily then tore it to pieces. Evan must have noticed that his outburst startled me because he quickly wrapped his hand around his mouth. On the counter, next to the doughnut holes, was a matchbook, The Ale and Anchor, Red Hook, Brooklyn, NYC. Evan turned his back to me and reached in the fridge for a beer. I don’t know why I felt that I needed to steal it but I grabbed the matchbook off the counter, shoved it into my pocket, told Evan that I was sorry and tried to leave the flat.
“Nora, please, I’m sorry…I’m just…” he trailed off unable to finish his thought.
“It’s okay Evan…” I tried to say.
“Okay! What of any of this is okay? Your face looks like someone shoved it into a pot of boiling water and you stand there and say, ‘it’s okay’?” he blurted.
“Evan, stop yelling at me!” I told him. “I just want to know if he’s okay.”
“You don’t have to pretend with me Nora, that stupid fuck truly deserves everything he has coming to him. If I were to go back through the years and gather back all the bail and lawyer fees for that bastard, I’d probably be as rich as he is,” Evan complained.
Before I could stop myself, I heard myself ask, “Has he asked about me…I mean…is he okay?”
Evan’s eyes went dim and he took a long swig of his beer.
“No, he has not asked about you,” he lied.
My mind went blank. I slammed the door, ran down the stairs and headed out into the wet street. In the flat, through the small windows, the downpour was barely visible. I hailed a cab and headed back to Ian’s loft.