I Come Undone Above the Sink

By the spring of my senior year of high school, I had developed a real infatuation with dishwashing. This impulse had precedent: some years earlier, it was the thought of vegetable gardens that featured most prominently in my B-Block Geometry daydreams. In that particular fantasy, I would sink my hands deep into soil, wrench some mangled weed or other from the earth — find its roots raw and dripping with worms. Good morning! I would think, and there would be dirt etched there in the cracks of my palms. It was the menial labor fetish dream of my sophomore winter, a season plagued by chemistry tests and then the flu and then flu2 and then makeup chemistry tests — godknowshowmany, certainly more than I could count. And, dammit, all I wanted to do was harvest some zucchini.

So the dishwashing thing was no surprise. There was something compelling to me in this gardening-adjacent image of myself, red-faced with exertion, hunched over a sink somewhere — somewhere commercial, fast-paced, where a thing like dishwashing could become as monumental a pursuit as the Oregon Trail or the Crusades or the building of Hadrian’s Wall. The ridges of steel-wool would cement themselves into the damp-flesh plaster of my palms, and I would be damned, damned good at my job.

These were deeply reactionary fantasies, of course: I was rotting into textbooks by my senior year, salivating over the thought of work-sans-worksheets. It was a 21st-century pastoral fantasy for the educationally-privileged — to desire this seeming antithesis to essays and equations, to imagine oneself sweating out some kind of academic toxin in the fields or greenhouse or kitchen. I knew, as secondary school slowly waned from sight, that college would be much like the past four years had been: punctuated by overcommitment and over-investment — overly-competitive, overly-intellectual, overly-dramatic. I knew, too, that most of these themes would be the result of my own foolishness — my own masochistic academic and extracurricular tendencies, which periodically stabbed me in the eyes like Polyphemus. “Who the fuck did this to me?” I would demand, stumbling blindly about in my cave. And — “Nobody,” I would reply to myself, trying futilely to shunt responsibility. “There is nobody to blame.” But of course there was someone to blame: me! LG! my very own self! What a farce.

Hence the farms — a place where I could not overcommit beyond what I could lift in my own two hands. Hence the kitchen — a place where the only competition to be found took the form of particularly stubborn-to-clean foodstuffs. The appeal was salty. It tasted like sweat.

I found the dishwashing job of my half-baked dreams at a local bakery. It was owned by two vegan social-anarchists and their small, angry dog. All three were hesitant to call themselves “small-business owners” because they didn’t like the connotations of the word “business.” The terrier barked ferociously at every male customer who dared crossed the store’s threshold, something like canine feminist praxis. One of my bosses, Bob — a ponytailed seventy-something — played in a folk-rock band weekends and evenings and considered that his primary occupation. The bakery just paid the bills. But the shop was famed locally for its dairy- and gluten-free goods, and frequented — ironically, or predictably — by wealthy white stockbrokers weekending in their Connecticut country homes. During the busy holiday seasons, Bob and Linda worked twenty-hour days and slept on cots in the basement, the phone and the oven timer taking turns waking them up.

The dishwashing was harder work than I had anticipated. The overheated, over-saturated skin of my fingertips flaked and peeled, exposing the raw flesh beneath. There was simply no respite from the sink’s gaping maw and its grungy, tiled backsplash — staring, always, at me expectantly. Two more pans, LG. A bread tin. A frosting bowl. A whisk. I sweated and heaved and huffed and lifted and trudged and held and lowered and scrubbed and soaped and submerged from June through August, stood in front of my sink like a king. It was a small and lousy kingdom, but I was a proud champion.

It is hard to quite pin down the satisfaction of emptying an overflowing sink into a toothless 2’x2’ grin: something like running through water — in slowmotion — before bursting weightlessly, at last, onto the shore. I wrote rapturous metaphors about my job all throughout the summer, frenetic odes to my fickle mistress. Poems that sound fucking crazy in retrospect. “Here is my two-by-two kingdom. Here is where worlds are cleansed and made new. Here is where Moses parted the Red Sea so his people could have bread. Where I part the Red Sea, so my dishes can make bread. Where my dishes part me, and I am come undone above the sink on a Saturday morning.”

I loved that job, you know, I really loved it.

A few years ago, the doctor told my grandma — then eighty-two — that she had to stop shovelling off the roof herself each snowfall. She has been shrinking with age, my grandmother — once taller than me, and then my height, and now a bit shorter. Her arrhythmia has grown more erratic. Her bones have brittled. Her skin has thinned to tissue-paper translucence.

But my grandma is also one stubborn bitch. No surprise then, really, when my mother, sister, and I come home from the supermarket, or the post-office, or the Apple Store, and find Dot perched guiltily on the gutter. “I had to do it,” she says — sometimes sheepish, other times defensive. “What if the roof collapses in? What if the gutter detaches?”

“What if you fall off the ladder and die, and no one is here to call 911?” my mother retorts. She takes no prisoners in this game they play. “I don’t think that’s how Dad would want you to go out.”

And then Dot does this fluttery thing with her hands: a shrug limited to her wrists, not even a full rotation of the shoulders. She’ll be back up on the roof next month, of course — the month after, too.

Predictably, my mother is just like my grandmother, and they are both just like my great-grandmother. And I can only assume that my great-grandmother took after my great-great-grandmother, and she after hers, and on and on and on and on in an endless spiral of psycho-stubborn women. I theorize with a friend once about the inheritance of matrilineal traits. “I bet we’re workhorses all the way back,” I tell her, “my family. I bet my thrice-great-grandmother’s thrice-great-grandmother was up to the same shit back in the shtetl or whatever.” She probably invented gutters just to clean them in the wintertime. And she probably kept doing it past ninety and ninety-five and one-hundred, just for the pleasure and privilege of spiting her anxious daughters and granddaughters. They would someday do the same, of course — it was their birthright and dowry and communion.

My friend thinks I have inherited this capacity for over-zealous menial labor, and I sometimes think she might be right. The trajectory is not hard to follow: visions of my mother raking our whole yard in one afternoon turn into visions of myself in preschool with both arms full of toys at clean-up time, visions of the dishes and visions of the dirt turn into visions of myself picking up a shift at a homeless shelter during freshman year — folding three-hundred pillowcases in one night, always offering to clean the bathrooms come morning.

The way women in my family deal with unsavory tasks is to volunteer for them. I have my twice-great-grandmother’s name, my grandmother’s eyes, my mother’s jaw — and this.

So I got a job my first semester of college babysitting for a local family — to help with their youngest, a little boy. Most of my classmates work as research assistants or in laboratories, or are so preoccupied with their own extracurricular madness and academic frenzy that they haven’t the time to fill out Excel spreadsheets or cross-reference citations for $12 an hour. And they certainly haven’t the time to change diapers or pick up toys or do the dinner dishes or mop up vomit. (Although the job is mostly activities of the more life-affirming sort. And it is nice to spend time with people outside of the 18-22 sort.) So I am not surprised by their skepticism when I tell them that I babysit.

Because, sure, some days are more difficult than others. Some of them feature fluids of one gross kind or another. Like when I am cooking dinner once, and the baby pukes and pukes during my overly-optimistic appetizer course — pukes all over my hands and arms and watch and shirt and his own arms and hands and shirt and torso and diaper and the high chair and my cell-phone and his apple slices and his cheese-stick and the hardwood below us. He keeps puking as I remove him from his chair and keeps puking after we’re both on the floor, covered in this milky gray-white sludge. We eat supper on the ground two feet from the mess.

That night, after he is bathed and brushed and secure in his crib, I return to the stale vomit that has congealed throughout the kitchen. Puddle by puddle, I make my way through the room on hands and knees. While I am doing it, I can’t help but imagine what all my friends must be doing: reading and writing, p-setting — and there I am on the slick wooden floor, staring down white cheddar and stomach acid.

But how could I feel cut up about it. It was work that needed to be done, after all — and someone had to do it. Specifically, I had to do it, because I was paid to it. But that’s the easy answer. In truth, money felt almost secondary to whatever it was I had inherited from my grandmother — that near-primal willingness, that matrilineal compulsion, to do the job at hand, however shit it may be. Especially to do the shit ones. And to do them to completion. Because work is a thing that exists in negative space. Tasks pull their doers into them. If you don’t clean up the vomit, or pick the eggplants, or wash the rolling-pins, perhaps no one ever does — and then what? Things left undone mold and rot and waste away and worsen exponentially. They punish indiscriminately. They are not possible to circumvent or avoid. I could have left that house right then and gotten on a bus and headed west, never stopped and never looked back — but the kitchen would still be waiting to be cleaned.

So there was no use for self-pity. Mopping the floor makes the world turn like any other gig. If I cleaned up dinner, then my employer could come home and do his own work — big-time stuff, important stuff. Thinking about things that could really help a lot of people out someday. If I washed the dishes at the bakery, Bob and Linda could crank out the tea-loaves faster — and maybe we would get out early and my bosses would go out for dinner that night, support some other reluctant “small business” downtown. Customers could buy whatever wheezing little sugar concoctions — maybe have more bearable afternoons because of it, maybe drive safer on the highway because they’re feeling just fine, mm hmm. So on and so on. The work demanded closure so that all these other infinitesimal cogs could turn. There is nothing to do but do.

If only things were, in fact, so simple. The politics of labor are a whirling Charybdis of gendered expectations and racial microaggressions and socioeconomic snobbery. My friend describes to me a dinner-party her roommate hosted at her family home in Boston: about two dozen people came to cook supper and eat it together and all the various and lovely things in between. But at the end of the night, just as the women began to do the dishes and wipe down the countertops, the men began to Uber nonchalantly back to campus. “Can you not do that yet?” my friend asked one of them. “Can you help clean up first?”

But he’d already called it, he said, and couldn’t cancel. He had his rating to think about, after all. And he had to get going. Did they mind too terribly? He hoped not. Tasks create a negative space, sure, but the people who fill this pulling emptiness are more often one thing than another. It is no surprise, perhaps, that my workhorse-tendencies are a matrilineal trait. It is no surprise that I have less-than-zero trouble getting a job in childcare. I stumbled, not long ago, on a short essay that Toni Morrison published a few years ago in The New Yorker: it is called “The Work You Do, The Person You Are,” and it is about one of Morrison’s childhood jobs as a part-time housekeeper for a woman referred to only as “She” and “Her.” The woman demands too much lot of Morrison’s labor. And Morrison complains to her father, who says: “Listen. You don’t live [at Her house]. You live here. With your people. Go to work. Get your money. And come on home.” Morrison lists the four takeaways she took from that job and that conversation, which are:

  1. Whatever the work is, do it well — not for the boss but for yourself.
  2. You make the job; it doesn’t make you.
  3. Your real life is with … your family.
  4. You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.

And she concludes, “I’ve had many kinds of jobs [in subsequent years], but since that conversation with my father I have never considered the level of labor to be the measure of myself.” And I felt that conclusion more truthfully than I felt anything around that time, except maybe Joni Mitchell’s “Carey” or the taste of apricots in summertime. I have never felt — whether on hands or knees scrubbing, or hunched over a garden-bed, or elbow-deep in soap suds — that my work was beneath me or made me lower by virtue of doing it.

But I have been somewhat troubled by my complicity in all this negative space, by my quickness to volunteer my hands and time again and again and again and again and again and again and again. It is difficult for me to reconcile my easy inclination to do the dishes with my fervent and unironic and closely-held desire to be a raging burn-it-all-down feminist. Someone unafraid of making a mess. Because —  

— in February of my freshman year, a girl wrenches a broom out of my hands like she’s pulling a goddamn fire-alarm. “What the fuck are you doing?” she accuses me — accuses, because her words constitute no question. It is obvious, after all, what I am doing: I am sweeping.

It is the context that upsets her. We are at a party when it happens — in a room packed with bodies like an over-crowded church pew at 11 AM mass. I am wearing the new dress I bought specifically for this event. I am a little drunk. She is drunk, too. Everyone in that room is drunk-drunk-drunk, actually — and perhaps I am the least drunk, and that is why I end up with the broom: “Do you mind?” the boy asks me when he places it in my hands. “Maybe just try to get the glass out of the way?” He looks at me with eyes that don’t seem, quite, to know what has just transpired — don’t seem to understand the position into which he has put me.

I don’t quite understand it, then, either, with my fuzzed mind and vision. I hadn’t even noticed the broken bottles on the ground through my drunken haze. But I accept the broom, because it is not an unprecedented gesture for him to hand it to me.

This boy and I belong to an insular little community in which he outranks me by virtue of longevity. People outrank him, too, and others outrank them. But each of these people especially outranks me — because on this particular night two years ago, I am still brand-new to the space. A real mover and shaker there, yeah, in the sense that I move around the furniture and the alcohol and various messes when asked, and shake up garbage bags to make more space in their beehive-hollows when asked. Each of us — the boy who gives me the broom, included — must spend our respective first semesters doing these things, in exchange for never having to do them again afterwards. And I am something like amenable to — or at least unresolved about — that system, at least at first: because the designation gives me a sense of place that I appreciate even in its monotony. When the doorbell rings, I know to answer the door. When the bar is empty, I know to carry up more beer. And so on. Someone has to do these things, after all — why not us, me? Besides, the work gives me a reason to come by in the first place. Not to mention something to do with my ever-fidgety hands.

And yet — I sober up as soon as the wooden broom-handle hits my palm, and am promptly overwhelmed by a strange shame that I feel twice-over: a shame that comes with taking up the broom, and a shame that comes with losing it. For a few moments, I know so acutely that I am a woman cleaning — at a man’s bidding — in a room with a lousy ratio, with far more men than women — who, lost in their intoxicated rapture, couldn't give less of a damn about the state of the floors. But I am stupid with the certainty that they notice me: the lone sweeper in all the frenzy and heat of the room, the only person not dancing or flirting or grinding or kissing or grinning. There is neither rhythm nor calm in this sweeping, as on the farm or at the dish-station. Rather — I feel like I have been asked to publically flagellate myself by doing this. For a few moments, I cannot help but wonder: Does it look like I’m being punished for something?

I don’t quite remember the chronology of events that occurred in that three-minute spiral, just the blue-black feeling of this twofold chagrin. “What the fuck are you doing?” the girl accuses. And then: “Stop sweeping. Stop sweeping. Stop sweeping.” An incantation, spat. The wrenching away. Then one of two things happened: either I took the broom back and finished the job, or I darted from the scene like a rabbit across a highway. I do not remember which. I wish sometimes that I did, but mostly I am grateful that I do not.

When I wake up the next morning, I am more hungover from this altercation than from the vodka I’d sought out afterwards. It is all I can think about. The shame makes me want to seep in between two couch cushions and stay there indefinitely. My mother doesn’t know what to tell me — other than that I should have told the broom-giver No if I didn’t feel comfortable with the task. She uses the same voice that she uses with Dot, and I feel five generations’ worth of myself shrug and sigh. We are all sitting on the roof together in the snow. If only things were so simple as No and a ladder’s descent.

Nonetheless, a few months later — after an impulse decision that sends me promptly, furiously, spilling my guts to everyone in a twenty-foot radius — I tell the boy-who-handed-me-the-broom-back-in-February all about this night. “I was so ashamed,” I spout to him, vibrating uncontrollably on the balls of my feet. It is possible that I am cupping his face in my hands as I said this. It is possible that he has heard this story before. “I was so incredibly, incredibly ashamed. I don’t think I’d ever felt that way before.”

“I’m really sorry that happened,” he tells me. He says other things, too, but those are the only words that survive my comedown. And I believe him when he says them, because he is a good and fine and thoughtful person — and I have never been opposed to a little cleaning, certainly. But I am still dumbfounded by the complexity of that situation, no matter how futile it is to replay my memories of that party. And for the rest of the semester, that girl is on my mind every time I carry or clean any damn thing. I have no recollection of her face or height or voice — just the knowledge that all of these things exist, and that they had been exerted, once, in my direction. Just the knowledge she was disappointed in me, maybe, or wanted to protect me from something, maybe — and both implied a certain failing on my part. The shame — sickly-sweet, violet-tinted — followed me everywhere. It was not a question of whether the “level of [my] labor” was “the measure of myself” so much as it was a question of what the hell had I been doing to the entirety of womankind?

It looked a little like this: imagine that that magnetic negative task-space opens up and starts sucking. It’s a sudden sinkhole on the highway, and it’s holding up traffic again. Jesus, the I-91 is always clogged this hour of day — can somebody please take care of that? But the cogs can’t turn unless somebody bites the bullet — which is how we know that somebody is about to get pulled into this freaking hole! It’s just begging to be closed, after all. It has to be closed. But — by whom? Who will step up? Do we have any volunteers? Ah, the magician’s lovely assistant. She is so good at disappearing. The sinkhole closes over her head, and the cars can go on driving — make it home before the kids go to bed. But come to think of it, we can’t see our lady anymore. Where, exactly, has she gone?

The gentle pull of work-needing-to-be-done is not so benign after all. It is bad, I think, when the “sense of place” it gives you is located somewhere beneath the earth’s surface. And it is bad when women, mostly, are the ones finding themselves pulled in.

I have learned that it is possible to be your own highway and your own sinkhole. Even when I am no longer expected to run after the doorbell or clear the dinner dishes, I find it impossible to stop. I don’t know how to exist in the space without a purpose. Sometimes people will catch my hand as I get up, physically restrain me from launching into a task — make a face at me and then pointedly ask someone else, a new new member, to do so instead. And this makes me feel fucking crazy. So in the fall of my sophomore year, I run for a position that will allow me to clean again, and run errands, and answer the door, and do all the other things that nobody else wants to do — and I win because people know I get the job done, that I never say No, that I honestly kind of get off on it. The only caveat is that I am supposed to delegate downwards all the things I don’t do myself. It is the first time in my life that I entrench myself in a vertical hierarchy of any kind and I am not without misgivings about the ethics of this.

It is especially hard for me to do this last thing — the delegation. Not because I want to hoard responsibility, or maximize my control, but because I have become overly cognizant of the shame coded into labor in this space. Cognizant of how it signifies newness and unbelonging. Cognizant of how it looks to people on the outside. And cognizant of this, too: that the broom incident could happen again, and it would be my own fault now — if I were to delegate carelessly, and a wheelbarrow’s worth of political burden was to descend on another unsuspecting girl.

But if I were to consciously ask a boy instead, to seek him out — ah, there’s a boy right there — well, that would come with its own set of problems. Like the fact that a lot of people think I have it wrong, actually, that I am the only one invoking gender here in what is, in fact, an egalitarian and ungendered system. And that it is, in fact, actually worse in the long run to implant all this hand-wringing about gender where there theoretically ought to be none. So I can’t ask a girl or a boy now. So I do it myself. After all, I have volunteered for the position I occupy. It’s just different for me, I figure. It’s a whole different ball game.

And for a while I really think that I’ve won, too. That I have fixed the bug in the code. That I have applied chemotherapy to cognitive dissonance, striking at the heart of the problem before it could metastasize. That I have, in fact, sidestepped the politics entirely. My labor, coded in another language entirely.

Here is what this circumvention looks like: Once I find an ice cream cake melted into a puddle on the table. I had just been watching a movie with friends and could still hear the television tinny in the background. It was 3 A.M. If I had asked them for help, they probably would have helped me without complaint — laughed at the grossness and stupidity of the situation, made it into some kind of game. But then again, maybe they would have just expected me to pass it down the chain of command, wouldn’t have even gotten up from the couch. Judged me for what I would have done instead. What I did do instead.

So, I don’t ask, don’t risk it. I can’t. This is a shameful task, and it’s late, and everyone’s tired. Too horrible to delegate. Instead, I take off my long-sleeved shirt so I can wipe the mess into a trash bag with my bare arms. It is a disaster that transcends the possibility of paper towels — at least three feet in diameter and encompassing three surface areas, table and stool and floor. It is sticky and viscous. An open cut on my hand fills with chocolate, a poultice of chocolate, and stings wickedly. Eventually, by chance, someone does find me there — they hold the bag open to catch the sludge as I scrape it with my arms. It takes thirty minutes to clean and I smell like candy afterwards.

The funny thing is that I can’t tell, you know. Who swallowed what. Whether I swallowed this work or it swallowed me. Whether my own cognitive dissonance had metastasized. Because I thought for many months that it was the former, and that I was protecting people I cared about from getting their own brooms taken from their own hands, that I was doing the right thing, the merciful thing, by using whatever power I had there to depoliticize other people’s experiences. It didn’t matter that I was doing so much myself, because that was the only way to safeguard the people around me from the various unsavory connotations of this labor. And so I fixated on my willingness — the fact that I had volunteered — like some kind of protective talisman: it made me genderless, classless, and, most importantly, inexhaustible. But the time would come when it was made clear to me that most people hadn’t noticed or cared about what I had been trying to do, and that I had done all this work and also all this thinking alone. That some of them, in fact, even felt resentment towards me — thought I was making things harder on myself just so I could claim some half-off-everything-must-go martyrdom on my way out. And so I can’t tell, you know. Who swallowed what.

That poem I wrote about dishwashing, the one about parting the Red Sea and whatever other sudsy fever dreams emerged from my day job, was inspired by a spoken-word piece by Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie. (My dishwashing days and slam poetry days so conveniently coincided.) “Bean Meditation,” it’s called. In it, Brown-Lavoie rhapsodizes about harvesting a crop of beans, about the physical labor it requires: “It’s so fitting to find ourselves kneeling in the field,” she says, “for these moments when work feels like prayer … This gratitude has a gravity to it, the core of the earth pulling me to my knees.” I like this image — one of the innate spirituality of a hard day’s work, the most underrated thing that Adam and Eve gained in leaving the Garden.

This is the thing I lost these past two years, between all my odd jobs and futile attempts at constructive deconstruction: the ability to labor mindlessly, the ability to volunteer unselfconsciously for such labor, the ability to find something good and right in this work. How impossible it all still is for me to parse out — when to do, when to refrain, when to sweep, and when to stand still. It is funny, almost, the juxtaposition of this small drama: how the completion of a difficult or laborious task can taste so convincingly of empowerment, but be, in fact, so false — the sweetness of rot, in which one is complicit in one’s own subjugation.

Depending on whom and when you ask, labor is a penance or a pilgrimage; or a route to enlightenment; or a route to your lover’s heart. It is a way of honoring the gods, of honoring yourself, of earning your keep, of practicing mindfulness, of being egalitarian, of being an agent in your own life. It is a calling, an inclination, a moral obligation, a necessary evil. It is never just that which it is: sore shoulders and knees, a sunburned neck, four hours spent alone with your thoughts, a thing that must be done. It is never allowed to exist with such simplicity. How could it, though? — when labor has always been a thing policed and forced and underpaid and over-expected. That is why, perhaps, Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie speaks only of “moments when work feels like prayer,” only moments: because they are fleeting things, quickly sullied by all that they connote. A friend reads an early draft of this piece and mentions some of Jenny Holzer’s Truisms, aphorisms and clichés, American truths that Holzer manufactured in bold text in the late 1970s to electronically render in public spaces. Many of them directly contradict one another: MANUAL LABOR CAN BE REFRESHING AND WHOLESOME (Uh-huh, I think, so true) and LABOR IS A LIFE-DESTROYING ACTIVITY (Uh-huh, I think, so true).

It is a strange and stubborn system, this, wherein my own willingness to do such work is, in practice, a one step forward, two steps back kind of affair. Wherein all the women in my family shovel and rake themselves into the grave because it is all we have ever done: female-bodied hosts in which a gender expectation has become an ethos, a lifestyle, a way of being and of breathing. You know, it is virtually impossible for my grandmother to not do the dishes when she sees them in the sink. She inevitably fills the negative-space they create. She does not complain.

It is without any acknowledgment for the nuance of history that these jobs keep demanding their doing. Which is perhaps how, the summer after freshman year, I find myself working at an archaeological dig on a small Danish island. The weather fluctuates erratically there: some days, it is fifty degrees and cloudy, with twenty mile-per-hour winds that whip up our loose soil into malicious dust-storms — and other days, it is seventy-five degrees with air as thick and viscous as peanut-butter. There is digging to do. In particular, there are 150 post-holes — the sites of wooden beams that once constituted homes or fences or countless other structures — to excavate. So, more accurately: there is a lot of digging to do.

But — “I fucking love these post-holes,” I say to whoever will listen. And I do. Because there is a rhythm to the labor of scraping and lifting and hauling that is familiar and ancient. Because work like this gives me plenty of time to think. Because the post-holes don’t care — not really, not really — who is digging, or why, or what the politics of such digging are. They just demand to be dug. And maybe, just maybe, if I dig long enough and deep enough, my shovel will meet a girl’s ribs.

And when all the dirt has been cleared off of my body, and I am lying there in the sun and air — well, I tell myself that I will linger this time. That I won’t be so quick to go back underground. I can’t help but wish, though, that I had something to do with my hands.