• First steps

    by Mardith Louisell
    (*Category: Fiction)

    I was staying at my boyfriend’s house because he had hip surgery. He is an artist and had painted the wood floors in the living room black so he could get good photographs of his work. At one point the living room walls were also painted black. He repainted them white three years after I nagged him about it, but the white paint had left drip marks on the black floor boards. The black floor collects dust balls and dirt. Neither he nor I know where it comes from. My brother says that dust in the bathroom comes from our bodies but there’s so much, it’s hard to believe. When I was a teenager, I had to sweep the kitchen floor in our house. There wasn’t enough dirt to feel as though I had done anything worthwhile but I don’t feel that way about my boyfriend’s floors. I feel frightened. Sometimes my stomach feels queasy when I push the dust onto the pan and empty it in the garbage can. There is so much, as much as all the thoughts in my mind when I try to meditate. When I think of all the thoughts in everyone’s mind in a small quarter-of-a-block radius in a residential, not even high-rise, area, it seems the world must be overfull with people’s thoughts, with no room for even the one fruit fly that maintains a residence in my boyfriend’s kitchen.

    There are other difficulties in his kitchen. The beige counters show every crumb. He keeps bottles of vitamins on the counter on a Lazy Susan I purchased to make the counter manageable. The white plastic Lazy Susan is now covered with grease but I don’t have the energy to remove the thirty bottles of vitamins and clean it, knowing how soon it will get greasy again, and there is also the grease on the tops of the vitamin bottles. Then, too, he keeps his paintbrushes and bills on the kitchen counter.

    The hardwood kitchen floor is dirty because he has no mat at the sink. When I mentioned this, he said a mat would only get wet and that the wet cloth would hurt the wood. Other people must have solved this problem, I said. It’s because the wood needs refinishing, he said. This has been true for the sixteen years I have known him. I’ll get a plastic mat, he said. I foresaw a plastic mat full of water from sink splashing. I foresaw shoes on the mat making the floor even dirtier than it was without the mat. I hadn’t imagined that suggesting a mat for a dirty floor would raise insurmountable obstacles. I try to remember to just do one task at a time, although often at his house, the first task is the largest, in this case, refinishing the floor in order to have a cloth mat in front of the sink.

    My boyfriend had a magazine he left on top of the toilet tank after each time he used the bathroom. To help him use the toilet after his hip surgery, we had placed a raised toilet seat on posts in the bathroom. I placed it over the toilet several times a day and every time I did, the magazine fell. When it fell, I picked it up and put it back on the toilet tank from which I knew it would fall again the next time. Yesterday, without asking if he were still reading the magazine, as I usually do, I moved it to the shelf with twenty others. This morning, after discussing the cloth mat in front of the sink, I went into the bathroom to place the raised seat over the toilet bowl. For the first time, the magazine didn’t fall from the toilet tank and I didn’t have to bend down to the floor to pick it up and put it back on the toilet tank, where I knew it would fall again the next time. I smiled. I had forgotten I had taken this step. Tomorrow I would try another, though I hadn’t figured out what.

    • Does he leave all the windows open? That could account for so much dust. Also maybe a cleaning product that actually picks up the dust. I think artists produce more dust especially if they are using their home as their studio, I assume he owns this place because if I was his landlord and he was my renter I would be upset with all the black. Cost him a fortune when he left in security deposits.:) Soon, hopefully, you can go back to your own place. You are a great girlfriend. I would just have paid for a cleaning crew to come in and wipe his place clean and then he is on his own. Also, I would spend more time at my place. Men don’t care like we do. Loved you story and the spelling of your name Mardith.

    • I love how this brings the small struggles of our daily life into focus, revealing the weight of the existential choices we are always making. Of course, “men don’t care like we do.” That’s the special burden of being a woman in this world.

      • Reyne R.

      • October 5, 2012 at 8:02 am
      • Reply

      Really made me smile. Ah, the little things…
      Then I thought of what I do or don’t do in the comfort and privacy of my home that would drive another person crazy. I believe I just settle for the way certain things are in my home – crumbs on counter tops, big poofs of dust balls on floors you can really see when sunlight hits them, sticky spills on a refreigerator shelf & toothpaste glops in bathroom sink. Lucky I live alone.
      Interstingly enough, when I am in others’ homes, things I see (crumbs on counter tops, big poofs of dust balls on floors you can really see when sunlight hits them, sticky spills on a refreigerator shelf & toothpaste glops in bathroom sink) makes me think – that’s crazy,lazy, how can they stand it, etc. Mardi – good desciptive slice of life.

      • Ann

      • October 5, 2012 at 12:35 pm
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      Hi Mardi,

      This is a great topic! Knowing the boyfriend, his ways and his space, made it even more engaging. Enjoyed juxtapositions of dusty floors and minds. After I clean (sometimes this involves my boyfriend’s area of the house as well) I always feel clearer in mind and if I’ve done a particularly thorough job, I find myself in a state that I imagine to be akin to sanctifying grace.

      • Oscar Pelta

      • October 5, 2012 at 3:33 pm
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      the narrative of the daily as art, tres sec, beautifully crafted teh quotidian quota has been met, exceeded, and expanded to cosmic proprotions; well done Mardith

    • Dust bunnies as bountiful as the thoughts in your mind when you try to meditate—fantastic image. I think we can all relate to that. The horror of that much dust. The horror of so many thoughts fighting for attention when all you are trying to do is gain a moment’s peace. I’m bummed that taking 30 vitamins daily didn’t save your BF from hip surgery. Your writing is funny and real and evocative and thought-provoking. Thank you.

      • Linda

      • October 5, 2012 at 6:39 pm
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      great – I love it – also knowing the boyfriend (for about 40 years by now) – I laughed out loud and can relate to the details of the story – beyond that though is the great sisiphean task of coming to some common way of viewing the homes we live in as more or different than a place to drop stuff so it won’t be in the way of the current project. The issue seems fairly universal; though I have to say yours may be somewhat more challenging than most – good grist for the mill – I’d love to hear more….

      • Mardith Louisell

      • October 6, 2012 at 12:09 am
      • Reply

      Thank you all for the wonderful comments and riffs. Sanctifying grace, exactly, beautifully put. “Quotidian quota,” too. Very funny, seeing the same stuff in someone else’s house but coming up with distinctly different takes. I will start looking more carefully. I love the juxtaposition of a moment’s peace with being bummed about vitamins. The narrator is indeed a great girlfriend! Mardith

      • Kay

      • October 6, 2012 at 9:10 am
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      Loved this essay. I wonder if writing about the frustrations of daily life helps you transcend them. Hope so. Kay

      • Kate

      • October 6, 2012 at 6:11 pm
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      Mardi–loved this piece. Unfortunately, the description bears an uncomfortable resemblance to my own house where the dust balls accumulate astoundingly fast, and I’m apt to find a toothbrush on the floor, a half eaten apple on a book shelf. Frightening, indeed. The part about the wood floor needing refinishing reminded me of Ben’s parents’ house. The medicine cabinet door has a yellow sticky attached to it that says “Do not close. Bottom needs planing.” That sticky has been there for five years.
      Great to read your stuff, and I smiled looking at your photo.

      • Paula Leahy

      • October 6, 2012 at 8:04 pm
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      I loved this piece. It kinda got me panicky, I could feel my shoulders rising because I so have been there. The other day I was making a cake..the mixer was on when I started so the flour, oil and egg flew all over the floor, the fridge.. you get it.. then, after cleaning that up I opened the cupboard above the cake pan and the coffee can fell into the cake, then as I was cleaning that up.. well you know.. it went on and on.. and I got the same feeling when i was reading your story…eeek.. could relate..

      and about all the thoughts.. very clever.. funny.. love your mind, but then I always did. Ps, good grief, you have not changed a bit..looking very good!

      Keep me informed of next piece.

      • Mademoiselle Marais

      • October 7, 2012 at 7:06 pm
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      Wow. I am grossed out now too. Dust bunnies never bothered me too much before, but if I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about them there will be hell to pay. Great Story!

    • As the “boyfriend” I would just like to point out to everyone that this piece is FICTION.

        • Brenda

        • October 8, 2012 at 10:14 am
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        uh huh. right.

      • Andrew

      • October 7, 2012 at 7:33 pm
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      A cluttered environment creates clutter in my mind. Ditto dust. It makes my thoughts dusty. I can deal with my mind, mostly, but somehow the clutter and the dust are beyond me. Thinking of cleaning makes me tired. This is why housecleaners will always find employment. They provide a necessary service that improves life. I feel the same way about janitors and trash collectors. Bless them, every one.

      • Norman T

      • October 7, 2012 at 10:44 pm
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      Perfect writing. Thank You.

    • I’m reading this in Italy, laughing out loud. Love the line “Other people must have solved this problem.” Story of my life.

      • Bodil

      • October 8, 2012 at 7:26 am
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      You brought up a question that I have had for a long time about dust. So I went to my favorite source Wikipedia.

      “Dust in homes, offices, and other human environments contains small amounts of plant pollen, human and animal hairs, textile fibers, paper fibers, minerals from outdoor soil, human skin cells, burnt meteorite particles and many other materials which may be found in the local environment.”

      Meteorite particles? That comes from outer space so in effect dust is really star dust and that makes me feel much better.

      • Brenda

      • October 8, 2012 at 10:21 am
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      I loved this piece. How you transform the specific details of your world into the familiar ones of my own (and everyone else’s) is amazing and wonderful.

      • Linda Brewer

      • October 8, 2012 at 12:16 pm
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      Loved the article and Bernie’s comment.

      • Susan Blank

      • October 8, 2012 at 4:43 pm
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      Mardi, this is excellent — the mat, the magazine, the dustball thoughts and more. I really like the tension between the narrator’s sense of trying to pull herself into patience and exasperation. Finally, as I said about the Jayne Mansfield short story, I think you have a great sense of narrative rhythm.

      • Elizabeth B

      • October 9, 2012 at 12:53 pm
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      That is a lot of dust – either that or you are better at meditating than I am. 😉

    • Love it! Gives hope to those who fear embarking on new long term relationships – change is possible!

      • vernal

      • October 12, 2012 at 8:13 am
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      to bernie

      it does not sound like fiction

      • Ginny

      • October 23, 2012 at 8:34 am
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      Love how you’ve set the tone for this short piece with the black floor and the black wall later re-painted with the white drips on the floor. And the dust! The fact that some of it is from our bodies is creepy. There’s a scene in “Bright Lights, Big City” where the narrator’s girlfriend has walked out on him and realizes that all she has left are her cells all over his apartment…one of those comical and sad realizations. Your piece captures for me how it is to care for someone, how extremely personal it is, how vulnerable we are and when we’re at our lowest, there it is, all that dust and every other thing we overlook everyday. It’s true, life is indeed very messy.

      • Christine

      • November 6, 2012 at 5:09 pm
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      What a great relationship these two have. The girlfriend’s devotion is obvious: she takes care of him, sweeps, moves his toilet seat back and forth, etc. The boyfriend’s devotion may not be quite so obvious. But, after all, he DID paint the walls white (OK, in response to nagging); he DOES agree to put a mat at the sink (yes, yes, plastic, but..); and he makes no complaint when his magazine is moved. Bernie, if this sweet person is you, take credit!

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