When my girlfriend and I met more than a decade ago, I was living in a dump.
The apartment was my first after college, a decrepit walk-up in a rundown little building next to the elevated train in Queens, New York. The walls rumbled when the N train whipped by every few minutes, and the floors and ceiling swayed amid the hum of the prehistoric looking water bugs that crawled — and yes, flew — around.
I’ll spare you the details on the bathroom.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, I loved my freedom in that little apartment with its shabby, lopsided furniture and cheap rent. I spent most of my time out, attending plays and dinners, and working, an endless barrage of a stacked schedule of work and play that brought me home mostly to crash.
Until I met her 12 years ago. She slowed me down, helping me to recognize the importance of home as a destination.
“What was this?” my girlfriend asked, pulling a black liquid in a plastic bag out of my fridge at arm’s length.
“Lettuce?” I guessed, acknowledging that most of the food in my kitchen was expired, many so old they formed a new chemical makeup.
With the pandemic’s intense focus on sanitation and handwashing, I can acknowledge how gross I was back then.
At the time, I didn’t see the problem in using Febreze spray to mask the stench on my clothes and sheets rather than just washing them or worrying about the science lab in my fridge. (I didn’t eat any of it. I ate out.)
My girlfriend was the exact opposite. She owned a big house on the edge of a beautiful park in upstate New York. You could lick the floors in her home — not that I did — they were so clean. Not a single magazine or glass was out of place. Everything was coiffed, ironed, organized, spotless.
“It feels so nice to get into a fresh, clean bed,” she’d say, tucking her hospital-corner sheets under her chin and inhaling deeply. I prayed she didn’t inhale at my place, which she braved every other weekend.
She must have really loved me — so much that she agreed to sell her house and move in with me. We found a charming apartment together in New York City. She wiped every inch of it down with bleach before we moved in.
She was diplomatic, even gentle, when she suggested I part with the wardrobe that was one shove away from total collapse, the bed that I’d shared with hazy former lovers and not enough changed sheets, and all else from my dilapidated former life. I was fine, even eager, to shed those decrepit parts of my past.
It was easy to get along when we first moved in together. We were so excited to entwine our lives after dating quasi-long distance for two years. It felt like vacation every day. If she disapproved of my messiness, she didn’t say — not at first.
But, like any honeymoon, the rose-colored glasses faded after a few months, replaced with a more sober, crystal-clear clarity.
I started to notice strange things. I would make the bed, only to see that the bed had been remade. I would wash dishes and catch her rewashing them. I’d say I was going to do laundry.
“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she’d reply. “I need to wash those sheets anyway. I’ll do it.”
I thought that her offer to take charge on the domestic chores was her way of showing love. While that may have been true, I learned that it was also her passive aggressive way of telling me I wasn’t doing it right. Her offer to handle tasks was a way to avoid living in dirt and sidestep calling me out.
We got married in 2013, and had a baby together in 2017. Sleepless newborn nights and co-parenting duties stripped away any respectful veneer we had maintained for the sake of keeping the peace.
“Did you wash these?” my wife would say, holding a glass to scrutinize it with weary, new-mom bloodshot eyes.
“Yes, I just did,” I said, because it was the truth.
She would proceed to show me the streaks and stains that still clung to the glass, and then she’d rewash everything I had just washed.
It was the same thing with the bed.
“Did you make the bed?” she’d say, squinting her eyes in an accusatory way.
“Yes!” I’d say, because I had, in fact, made the bed.
“You really should take more time and care doing it,” she’d say.
I felt deflated, because I really had taken extra care to make the bed.
“We aren’t living in a hospital,” I said one time as I watched her remake the bed with hospital corners.
“We aren’t living in a pigsty either,” she said. (I wanted to tell her that pigs were not naturally dirty animals, that they only rolled around in mud to stay cool because no one provided them a cleaner option. But I was married. I knew when to keep my mouth shut — most of the time).
Plus, I knew my wife was right. I don’t notice filth. It might be genetic or a condition that doesn’t yet have a name. I am really bad at cleaning.
When I walk away from a table after eating, I believe in earnest that I have picked up after myself. I grab a napkin or sponge and wipe up my crumbs. I throw out the garbage. I wash the dishes. I think I’m finished, that I wiped any trace of my presence. But I miss the huge puddle of olive oil on the counter, the sponge saturated with milk, the smeared blueberry on our kid’s face (I did wipe his face).
It’s not any better when I try to do laundry, cook or do handiwork around the house. I have turned adult sweaters into doll-size attire; dyed perfectly good white shirts purple; and managed to mess up the preparation of straightforward dishes like pancakes and cheese dip.
After nearly a dozen years, my wife’s obsession with domestic duties was starting to make my head explode.
Then Covid-19 hit.
A switch turned on in my head. Suddenly, sanitizing became an imperative, a matter of life and death. My clothes could have the coronavirus on them. I wasn’t going to wear them twice. Items shouldn’t be strewn on countertops. Everything must be wiped down. Hands must be washed thoroughly.
My wife became my pandemic hero.
When she cleans, she is keeping our family safe. When she asks me to do better, she’s asking me to do the same. I strain to memorize her meticulous moves in an attempt to emulate and self-protect. My wife is my cleanliness advisor, and she is going to keep our family alive.
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The shift from begrudging bystander to active listener probably doesn’t resonate with my wife, who I imagine would have appreciated my epiphany about a decade sooner. But then again, she probably isn’t thinking too hard about it. She’s too practical. She just wants a safe house.
Allison Hope is a writer and native New Yorker who favors humor over sadness, travel over television, and coffee over sleep.