“Sure thing! I’ll be at your place in ten minutes.”
Possibly no other sentence fills me with greater dread. Someone is coming – anyone – to my apartment. They will be here, in the space where I live, and they will cast their unblinking, all-seeing eyes upon the quality of goods which I keep, the housekeeping skills which I maintain, the very essence of how I live my life. And surely they will… what? Laugh? Weep? Run screaming back through the door from whence they came? They will know me for what I am: not someone who lives like a man, no, but more like a chimpanzee. And not one of those smart, aren’t-they-just-like-us kind of chimps. A dumb one.
In the time before a guest arrives at my apartment, it is all a matter of triage. What is the most pressing dirt concern? What is the thing most in dire need of scrubbing, scouring, or polishing? What can be organized, or scraped, or put away? Could I hide it in a closet, or under my bed? Could it be shoved out the window by force, or simply sprayed with water and bleach until approaching a kind of simulacrum cleanliness?
If the time measures in hours before someone will be on my doorstep, all will be well. It will be hard-won, certainly, but I can get the apartment into viewable condition. I will run with a renewed vigor, the kind of spirit and efficiency I never approach unless faced with the threat of great and terrible bodily harm. In one hand is a bottle of cleaning spray, in the other some device to rend dirt from every available surface. I get to work.
I polish the bathroom, and rinse away days worth of scuzziness and water-stains. I vacuum and sweep the floors, and clean the television, which I don’t use, and all the mirrors. The dishes, so continuously galling, will be washed. My desk is wiped clean and organized, and the bed is made. The garbage is organized and taken out, far away from me and where I live. Garbage? Why, I never produce it anyway!
If the time is less, if I have under an hour or only minutes, my strategies lean more toward the desperate. I rinse the dishes desperately with boiling water, and promise myself to do them greater justice once the interloper is gone. I throw a heavier comforter down on the bed, over-top so the horrible disarray of bedclothes below is hidden from view. I put on large, fluffy, absorbent clothes and roll from one edge of the room to the other, soaking up whatever filth thrives on the floors, and stuff it with the rest of the laundry into the bathroom. I then seal off the bathroom, and will claim it unusable later. Why? I’ll think of an excuse if I am required to. Because the toilet exploded. Because the sink turned into a vortex into another dimension. Because there are three full-sized unicorns living in there, and I haven’t figured how to get them out, or, alternatively, live with and provide for their needs.
Why this desperation? Why the lurching, harried, headless chicken frenzy to scour and finesse and hide?
Because in a lot of ways, the standards you hold for “liveable” for yourself are very different than what you hold for others.
When you live alone, you develop a certain level of self-comfort. With your noise, and your patterns, and your needs, but also with your filth. It’s your filth, after all, so why not become used to it? You have thresholds, certainly, points at which garbage will be taken out, or surfaces scrubbed, or laundry laundered. But those thresholds become greater and more difficult to breach with every passing moment spent alone, as you just simply grow not to care.
But these thresholds are different for your guests. You hear someone is coming, and you start to take a serious look around. Someone else is going to see the apartment. They are going to see how you live. Suddenly, things are nowhere near acceptable.
For one, why is the laundry everywhere? Why can’t I reach the hamper? When I’m alone, the mounting pile of clothes strewn half-way across the apartment is more of an art piece, a way to appreciate the wardrobe I’ve assembled; under the eyes of a guest, it is slovenliness. What about the unwashed dishes? Cherished memories of enjoyed meals for me, but horrific, food-shellacked symbols of immaturity to others. And what about that smell? What is it, anyway? I don’t really know, or care, and I’ve come to think of it as simply the musky, homey scent of a home well-loved, but maybe others won’t see it that way.
With this line of thought, the standards we hold ourselves to seem precipitously low. I live like an animal, I start to think to myself. And I’m certainly okay with that. But I’m not sure I’m okay with anyone else thinking that.
Because other people don’t live like this. They do their dishes, and their laundry, and their taxes. They polish the silverware, and the mirrors, and the windows. They open the doors and allow fresh spring breezes to tickle and enliven the fabrics. They cook immaculate meals and never spill a single droplet, so succulent and well-crafted their food. The bed never needs to be made, because when they sleep, they do not even move. There is never anything to scrub in the bathroom, because they are so naturally clean and tidy as a person that the bathroom is there more as a conversation piece than as anything to be actually used. They would never do anything so pedestrian, so common, as to shed their skin willy-nilly all over the place: like any good modern person, they wait a week, and remove a single later of epidermis manually, like a prim Victorian snake, before folding, pressing, and putting the shorn skin into neat, well-labelled disposal bins.
How am I supposed to live up to these other people? How am I supposed to hide all of my crap?
They can’t know that I am not like them. If they learn this about me, they will never speak to me again, knowing, as they do, that I am barely more evolved than a St. Bernard. And so I make a deal with myself. I will clean the apartment and hide and scour and pull off a ruse. They will never know. The apartment will be clean for exactly as long as it needs to be, and then I can allow it to fall back into disarray once they have departed.
The guest arrives. They cast their horrible, hawk-like gaze over the floor, the walls, over me. They nod approvingly. “You keep your place so clean,” they murmur, in susurrus Received Pronunciation, “my home is never this nice.” This is a lie; it is code of the modern bourgeoisie Person. It is a way of confirming, through mutually simpering self-deprecation, that we are not One of Them. One of the unclean.
The conspiracy has worked.