My Dirty Little Secret

I’m a slob. If the Salvadoran grout demon couldn’t cure me, no one can.

WE HAVE REACHED THE lace-up-shoe stage here at the House of Chaos—the point at which it’s dangerous to walk across my flypaper floors in slip-on shoes. Flip-flops, mules, clogs? You’re gonna lose ’em. Stick with the lace-ups. Just how bad could it be, you ask? True story. While on vacation several summers ago, we got a frantic call from a neighbor. “I hate to ruin your trip,” she hyperventilated. “But your house has been broken into! They totally ransacked the place! All the drawers are hanging open, stuff is thrown all over the floor. It’s a total mess! Should I call the police?”

I have many excuses, rationalizations, and justifications for my current messy state of affairs, several of them far classier than my little Dogpatch deserves.

1. I’ve been on a book tour, okay? It’s hard to go from “Will madame be requiring turndown service tonight?” to “Mom, Porgy threw up on my bed!”

2. By puberty, I’d cleaned the equivalent of my Aegean stable and never wanted to see Mr. Clean’s bald head again for the rest of my life. As the oldest daughter of a large military family, my Saturday mornings were not spent with Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny but with mildewed grout and a can of Ajax cleanser. For me and my five siblings, KP was a game and the loser was the sucker who ended up cleaning. This meant that the end of every meal signaled an epidemic of digestive emergencies. Whoever made it into the bathroom first got out of doing dishes and was that night’s big winner. Which left some of us KP losers in a permanently grumpy state about the whole tidiness thing.

3. We’re just slobs. I tried heroically to hang on long enough that Baby Man might be born under the sign of the punctilious Virgo. I knew that he wasn’t going to get the neat gene from me or El Hubbo. We’re both Capricorns, sign of the Goat. Nuff said.

Whatever the reason, the answer is obvious: Hire a cleaning person. The problem with this solution is revealed in my use of “cleaning person.” Someone who can’t bring herself to say “maid” has issues. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I was a maid. In France. And not for the warm, open, friendly people France is so famous for. Non. My French people had pas de problème calling une domestique “une domestique.” Actually, I was an au pair, or “young woman of foreign extraction assumed to be a slut theoretically hired to care for your children though you will ask her to clean la maison and wash out your husband’s underwear.”

Oui! C’est vrai! By hand. The undies suds request was the straw, or bibliothèque, that broke this camel’s back. It came after seven months of indentured servitude and led me to rethink my original plan to learn French by working for a family. The fly in the ointment (or le turde dans la boule de punch ) was that practically the only person I ever talked to was le two-month-old bébé I had been hired to take care of. And his French was even worse than mine— le petit idiot. Consequently, the only new phrases I’d added to mon vocabulaire were “passez le Hoover” and “sudsez les Jockeys.”

Perhaps this was why I flunked personnel management. In spite of my paid-up lifetime membership in the International Communist Party, I have no philosophical problem with putting my boot on the neck of a worker of the world. On paper it looks good. Maid does what she does best: clean house. We do what we do best: mess house up. The problem was I just could not choke out phrases like “Más atención al grouto, por favor.” Plus, I work at home, and having a maid bustling about would have distracted me too much from being a member of the ruling oligarchy. Merry Maids, with their impersonal corporate scrim, seemed the ideal solution until I discovered their secret: Don’t use water where a swipe of baby oil will do. Though our microbes enjoyed the moisturizing facial, las Merries left the house slick as a Jiffy Lube bay.

Then glorious Gregoria stepped into our lives. A bright, energetic native of El Salvador, demon on grout, cheerful as a spaniel in water, delighted to work every other Saturday, Gregoria was a lemon-scented dream. We settled quickly into a happy routine. Every other Friday evening, we’d bring in the backhoe and clear away the heavier debris. The next morning, Gregoria would pull up in her red minivan; then while Baby Man watched cartoons, Gregoria and I would clean and gab. It was exactly like the Saturdays of my youth, except everyone won.

Apparently Missus Gregoria (I couldn’t convince her to call me anything other than Missus Sarah) enjoyed our Saturdays as much as I did because she began arriving earlier and earlier and staying later and later. I worried about her getting home to her husband and three children. Missus Gregoria did not. She talked about leaving the Pentecostal church that forbid her to wear pants or cut her thigh-length hair. Months passed. Her cleaning became desultory. She’d dust the same book again and again. Near six o’clock one Saturday, I asked Missus Gregoria if she was staying for dinner. She burst out crying and whispered that her husband was trying to kill her. That was why she no longer had any energy. We made calls. I sent her off with lots of appointments.

Two Saturdays later, sunny as ever, she brightly announced that it had all been a misunderstanding. Her husband had not been trying to kill her; he’d just switched her to decaf. We continued happily working our way up next to godliness until the moment when I could no longer ignore the obvious. “Missus Gregoria,” I asked, “are you pregnant?” “Oh, Missus Sarah, I hope not.” I sent her off with a home test kit.

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