New Landscapes of Home

by Leah Givens
I'm going on vacation, and someone's coming to watch my cat.  Not just someone – the mother of the boy I once loved and will probably love again. (Only my relationships could be messier than my apartment.)  We have different standards of neat. To her, a “bad housekeeper” is anyone who doesn't steam clean the bathroom floor to lift out every bit of grime.

I can't let her come in and see actual trash, macroscopic dirt, dust bunnies that have grown wings and crawled under cabinets.  Even if she's just coming for the cat, I know she has an eye for clean.  But that means sorting through things that have paralyzed me with what-ifs, held me hostage in piles of paper and books, in white coats that for years have filled a chunk of closet, pushing today's work clothes to the floor.

I have the time.  The box for Goodwill, the bag for recycling.  Every piece is a process.  I find a laminated sheet in a crowded corner, flow chart descriptors of the most common dermatological diseases, folded to fit in a pocket.  Useful?  What if I go back to residency and see a rash I don't recognize?  I leave the page there and move on.

I delve into my bedroom closet.  Maybe easier decisions lurk there.  First, a row of shoes.  Boots I'd forgotten I owned, dress shoes I wore once to a wedding, a pair of sneakers I might be able to use now. I take these out for a closer look.

Nice padded walking shoes, still in good condition.  Why did I shove them back here?  Oh, I realize now.  Instead of shoelaces the sides are held together with surgical tape, the kind I had in my pockets when I was admitted to the hospital as a patient myself.  Now I understand the puddle of shoelaces on my dresser, a constant reminder without a source.  I guess I should consider them a badge of honor.  You only got your shoelaces back once you were released from the hospital, once you were no longer a danger to yourself and could be trusted with a vaguely noose-like object.

It was up to you to put them back together, the laces in the shoes. I never did. You never can get laces quite right again once you take them out, lined up perfectly in their holes. That was what I told myself, at least.  I never admitted that my skin crawls to touch those useless strings, imagine ripping off the tape that keeps a hard, desperate hold on the gape in the leather.

Years have passed, and the time has come to clean. But all this is still inside me. How can I throw it away?

***

I need to fit my laptop and camera bag in one small carry-on item.  I've done it before, squeezed both in the small backpack I carry to work, managed to zip it closed.  But it was tight, too tight, and the straps splayed across my back.

I have a bigger backpack, more designed for a cross-country trip.  It's hidden in a closet; I know just where.  I've tried to get it out before.  It's not heavy.  In fact, it's half-empty now.

A hospital wristband is still attached to the handle, like a luggage tag, with my name and the date, April of two years ago.  I wonder if that's when I went in or went out, and which time.  I guess it doesn't matter.  Enough that I clear the bag out, and quickly, since my flight leaves early tomorrow and I've put off packing long enough.

It's getting late.  The bag's almost empty, but just looking at it makes my stomach want to reject dinner.  I carried it through four years of med school, through a few months of internship, and then to the hospital as a patient.  Ever since, it's stood in the back of my closet as a reminder of it all, of a promise ending.

The bag is dusty, but still in good shape.  The nausea it inspires, though, is a definite downside. I pull it out, set it beside my other backpack and compare the two.  Is there that much difference?  I'm ready to shove the hospital bag back in the closet, but even with a biased eye, I have to admit it is huge compared to my daily notepad-holder.

Is carrying this blue bag with bad memories going to spoil my whole trip?  I have to move on.  Keeping it locked in the closet hasn't worked.  The bag has become a time capsule, stuck at the hospital, simmering in the past.  I'll stuff it full of hopeful things, keep its structure but start a new story.

***

I'm in San Diego.  It was a ride here, round red fields like cooktops giving way to spiderweb rivers, billowing spiderwebs swept up in tide pools and wrapped around tall mountains that fell off into space.  I knew then that this place was different.  The sun fell in layers, shifting layers as the shadow of the plane drove overhead.  The man next to me held a newspaper, glasses propped on nose, face a smooth leather.

“Wow,” I said, “I've never flown over this part of the country before.”

He looked over, surprised. “You say you've never flown ever before?”

I replied, a little louder over the plane's engine, “No, I've flown before. Just not over this part of California. These hills, the mountains...it's amazing.”

He shrugged, went back to the paper.  The flight passed. I gave up my usual magazine flipping to gulp in the view.  Even risked the embarrassment of snapping a few photos through the glass.

We didn't speak again, that man and I.  He was dressed for business, and there was just enough time to check the stock report.  But maybe he smiled a little inside, remembering that his world isn't everyone's everyday.

***

A sinking feeling consumes me like a rainstorm for one.  The woman watching my cat, the mother of my once-boyfriend, is organizing my apartment.  I'm in San Diego, hearing this for the first time as I call to check in.  The big-eyed tabby is new to me, only a few weeks past the death of her elderly owner of all her ten years and her adoption into my apartment just three floors down.

It wasn't easy.  The first few days she hid under one green couch, suspicious eyes flashing like tiny floodlamps when I peered through the dust thickets to try to lure her out.  She wouldn't eat, wouldn't drink, wouldn't use the litter box.  I came home from work expecting to find her excrement behind that same couch since it seemed she'd never left the spot.  But she'd been too scared even to do her business.

So when she finally crept out, ears low, eyes big question marks, and made a gentle approach to rub her muzzle against my leg, I wanted to swear I would never leave her.  From then on she clung to me like a baby to its substitute mother.  She stayed within inches on the walk to the refrigerator, tangling tail and paws in my path.  The bathroom door was her enemy.  After her mewling became too pitiful to bear, I gave in and allowed her to wander on the tile while I used the toilet, though I drew the line when she put a paw on my knee and prepared for a leap onto my lap.

I thought she should have had enough of that, resting warm on my thighs for hours under the constant stroking of my left hand as my right tried to type.  Well, occasionally one or both got absentminded.  

Dissatisfied with my petting, she would leap to the top of the desk chair so she could critique my work from above my head.  I didn't much mind.  She was a compassionate cat, willing to overlook a misplaced comma in exchange for the timely provision of wet food and fresh water.

She had just learned to trust me.  Strange noises, neighbors slamming doors, all sent her fleeing into some invisible corner.  Putting her through another separation so soon after her previous owner's stroke hurt my heart.  How would she know I was only leaving for a week, that I hadn't died and left her alone a second time?

I wondered if I should have adopted her, unstable me with my unsteady home.  But the alternatives were worse: her former owner's cousin, self-proclaimedly “not a cat person,” was ready to let her join the feral cats roaming the alley. We convinced him she'd be better off at an animal shelter.  But at ten years old, her life might end sooner there than it would have on the street.  This not-cat person had already let her water bowl go dry, saying, “Well, the toilet lid is up. Can't she just drink from there?”

So I took her in, and Jane agreed to take on cat-sitting duty while I was gone.  I tried to clean before I left, vacuuming wildly, bagging recycling, washing the last of the dishes. The cat scattered, pawing nervously at her sisal tower.

I thought I had it under control.  The mess, that is.  Sure, the bedroom was awful, clothes everywhere.  I'd been drowning in the smallest sizes under the stress of residency but then had to buy bigger and bigger at consignment shops as time in the hospital and heavy medication put on weight.  But Jane didn't need to go in the bedroom.  The cat food was in the kitchen, bowls in the hallway, litter box next to the bathroom.  And all those areas seemed reasonably cleared. Clean, no.  But clutter pushed aside, pathways walkable.  In, out, feed, water, scoop, done.  Right?

So it felt like she was standing beside me instead of half a country away when I heard her voice over the phone saying she was doing a little “reorganizing.”  Oh, the cat was fine, ran and hid, but seemed to be eating and drinking.  But my apartment!  She was briefly at a loss for words.  Only briefly.

“You have so many clothes!  They're just everywhere.  Did you think about taking some to Goodwill?  I could help you sort them.  Well, I hung up what I could, the ones on the floor and on dressers.”

My mind spun.  Those were the dirty or questionably wearable clothes, not ones that belonged in closets with clean shirts and coats.

“You really didn't need to do that,” I got out, choking down a thousand other things I wanted to say.

“And the cat hair,” she continued, “it's all over too!  I thought about vacuuming, but I didn't want to scare the cat.  And then I decided to sweep, but I realized I'd have to organize everything first.”

I didn't know what to say. “Oh, the cat's used to the vacuum,” was what came out. “I actually vacuumed right before I left.” It was true. I vacuumed around things, moved what I could, avoided what had been there a while.  How could I have missed so much? This was one of the reasons I'd put off getting a cat in the first place: the fear of becoming a hoarder of the past, now jumbled up with dust and fur into an unsanitary stew.

“Well.”  Her tone made it clear she found that hard to believe. “I've been cleaning. So when you get back, a few things may be in different places. But I think you'll be able to find them.”  Cheerfully, she said this.

I'm in a sunny artists' community, glass blowers blowing and jewelry makers displaying their wares.  This information, though, makes the daylight suddenly seem less saturated, the once-brilliant reds and yellows of the shops and street tiles a few shades duller.  What is there to say?

I think back, trying to recall if I ever hinted at giving her permission for this.  Knowing her obsessive-compulsive tendencies, I apologized for the disarray of my apartment when she came to get the key.  She offered to take out any trash she saw, and I made a visit to the dumpster before I left.

Then, jokingly, so I thought, she said, “If I really can't stand it, maybe I'll do a little cleaning while you're gone.”  I laughed, told her to go ahead, not like I was making a dent in the mess.  I thought she was kidding.  That at most, she might wipe off a counter.  But I guess that was permission.  I wonder what awaits me at home.  Embarrassment, I'm sure.  Maybe progress.  It might take someone else's eyes to make you see yourself sometimes.

***

I returned home, happily.  San Diego was wonderful, but winding like the veins on an old man's hand.  At least to a migraineur in the back seat, dizzied and spun ten times in half as many miles.

By then the Midwest had unfrozen and broken into slanted, steady sunlight on straightforward streets.  What a difference a week and thirty degrees can make on your outlook.  Maybe it was partly me who'd made the change.  How could you not change, touched by the harsh hills and the slick-soft tongue of a gentle giraffe, leaning in to accept some leaves?  And the trees, their bark piecemeal and twisted, stories within whorls within worlds.

I made tree portraits, like self-portraits but with the self removed, so that only light and shadow and sunbleached bark remained.  The telephone repairman down the street gave suspicious looks as I kneeled at the roots of a gorgeous multifaceted pine standing guard outside the house where we were staying.  It's a camera, not a gun, I wanted to say, pointing.

***

Back from the airport, I held my breath as I fumbled with the lock to my apartment.  What was it hiding now?
You leave a cat alone for a while, and you expect some destruction.  Plants chewed up, photos knocked down. Even a miss of the litter box out of spite.  But it wasn't just the cat I was worried about.  It was a more destructive, restructuring wave of organization contained within the tiny body known as Jane.

She had offered to cat-sit even before I'd committed to my new addition, assuring me she hunted down her diabetic cat for its shot twice a day already.  “Time for your nee-dle,” she would chant, high-pitched, syringe in hand.  Stopping by to fill my healthy cat's bowl would be no big deal.

So I took her up on it.  Would have been almost rude to refuse.  Besides, isn't that what neighbors do, trade favors when the time comes?

I'd been to her apartment.  I knew she was neat.  Immaculate.  The floor shone like a showroom.  No clutter, no dust bunnies or papers or stacks of to-be-dealt-with mail.  Uncertainty does not exist.

To each his own, I thought at the time.  I didn't know she would bring her reign of certainty down to meet my mess.  Until it was too late.

And I stood at the locked door of my apartment, hoping I would recognize it as home.

It wasn't really that bad.  It's not like she took anything, rifled through my jewelry and stole like some common criminal.  She just rearranged it.  It and almost everything else.  A blue and green beaded bracelet I'd left twisted on a box top, she untangled and placed in a perfect circle, next to my watch, which she'd aligned like a full moon at its leather-strapped horizon.

Her eye for detail worried me.  If the watch and bracelet hadn't escaped her notice, neither could have the miniature dust clouds gathering along the baseboards, circling desk legs.  Shame sunk in deeper than the shock of change.  Where had she been, what had she touched and worse, what had she found too disgusting to touch?  What must she think of me now, this woman who once told me she hoped things would work out between me and her son?

The living room was like a hotel post-party, trashed, unrecognizable – but the opposite.  It had been un-trashed, and the result was equally spooky.  The floor was clear, empty, strange.  Books that had been hiding in piles were now stacked on a table by size, smallest to largest.  Titles visible.  Another stack was papers, sheets that had filled every corner like clover, now plucked and gathered.  I'll never sort through the weeds to find a few blooms.  I pause.  Was I ever going to look though them?  Or were they just a wrinkled groundcover over hardwood loneliness?

On to the bedroom.  That had been even worse, a rough hilly landscape of clothes, some dirty, some half-worn, others too big or just contaminated by the creep of floor dust.  Now these, too, had been razed to reveal a pristine patch of floor around the neatly made double bed.  I hardly recognized it.  I went to the closet to investigate.

A neat line of shirts and coats, surprising only in its normalcy.  Hangers once empty now filled.  I looked closer.  Oh, no.  The smelly, hair-ridden jacket I'd reserved for cold mornings volunteering at the animal shelter was mingling with work clothes.  Sweaters that needed washing, shirts sharing dirt with their neighbors.

There was more, much more.  I looked down.  Two shopping bags on the floor, stuffed and bulging with the rest.  Pants, shirts, everything tossed in.  Better a mess to sort out than one filling the floor, she must have figured.  At least the threat had been contained.

It was too much; I couldn't go further.  From her secret spot the cat crept out, tail up, wondering at what sounded strangely familiar.

“Yes, it's me,” I said, relieved to see her jewel eyes as bright as I remembered.  And a full fur coat, bristling at first before settling down.  At least Jane hadn't vacuumed her bare.
Like most people, Leah has many lives. She spends too much time photographing store mannequins, trees, and her beautiful niece. As a member of the St. Louis group Writers Under the Arch, she has written a novel and published a few pieces of short fiction and poetry. She received her M.D. from Washington University in St. Louis in 2008 and worked in Alzheimer's research for several years. Her roommate is a talkative guardian cat named Tiger. Leah's website is www.leahgivens.com.

© 2012, Leah Givens