You clean house. A house embodies its occupants. The house is not the body.
This an expensive house, more than you could ever afford. You are allowed to live here, allowed a room with four walls and a floor and a ceiling as a housewife is given spending allowances. You must work to earn your keep, you must earn the right to continually live here.
You live with family. Relatives richer than you could fathom are allowing you this space in this house, because they are generous. They will allow you a three-dimensional space you can almost call your own in exchange for your caretaking. This way they don’t have to waste money on you. You are paid in space.
Aunt lives in the upper floors. You have a perfumed key to her boudoir that you can only enter when she’s not home. Aunt leaves cigarette butts with lipstick on the filter crushed out in her many silver ashtrays. Aunt does not want the room to smell of cigarettes. It is one of your numerous jobs to aerate her rooms.
Cousin, or perhaps second cousin, or step-cousin, spends her days being small and pretty away at a private school. She is getting a degree in being lovely. She does not have to worry about a career, only being loved. She wears it well. Her judgment is cruel, because she does not think of you at all. She leaves no notes on the pile of laundry(is it dirty? To be folded?) and complains to aunt if you’ve touched her silverware. Her drain is full of the longest hairs you’ve ever seen. A pretty girl leaves a lot of waste, like a factory making iPods.
Then there is Frank. You’re not sure what relation to Frank you are, but he insists you call him Frank. This is for closeness, he insists. He wants you to think of him as a father. He can never remember your name and leaves briefs with skidmarks on the piano bench. He chews words like tobacco and carries the power of veto. They all do. The floor beneath your feet is not solid, at any moment it may dissolve beneath you, leaving you in the street.
The street. A mythological genius loci they remind themselves of on days they need to shiver. A place where one loses all social mobility and becomes an unperson. A sucking, needy vacuum that is never assuaged, no matter how much money one amasses
3 o’clock. You must polish the banister. 5pm. Take a net to the pool and skim. Four in the morning. You have forgotten to degrease the oven, so down you go. No request too small, no time too early.
You’ve used the wrong wax on the upstairs hall floor. Beeswax is out, microcrystalline wax is all the rage. You see no difference in the floor’s gloss, but aunt is sated. Teddy is visiting for the weekend, air out the Fern room for him and his prep school darlings. Some foreign relation desires different curtains in the Rose room, you are on hand to oblige. 2 o’clock: windows!
The house is four walls and a floor and a ceiling. This is the brief code you live by. Any aberration is simply an incident of design. Any further dimension is just a modification of the original space. All a house really needs is four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. Sometimes the relatives remark on a boathouse, a carriage house, a summer house that is across the country yet somehow still part of the house. These are fiction you must exercise from your mind as you scrub, mop, scrub, mop. Work develops its own rhythm that helps drown out the tedium.
You have heard the term “homebody.” Others have applied it to you. It comes with an implication, a feeling of fondness for the house and all it embodies. You feel no fondness for this house for it does not embody you. It does not embody the relatives, either. If the house can be said to embody anything, it embodies itself. The house is house-shaped, and reflects its own style. The relatives are not homebodies. The relatives seem to take every opportunity to escape living in the house.
The relatives are continually discussing, or about to discuss, or just finished discussing their latest vacation. While you have struggled buckets of soapy water up stairs they have been to several beaches, sealed in a bungalow so that not a single grain of sand got in their shoes. The relatives visit other cities to be seen visiting other cities, spending more time in stores than at landmarks. You have never traveled. You will never travel. Your world is the house.
You have honed your senses to the point where you can hear movement in remote parts of the house. Someone’s thrown their slippers at the wall on the next floor. There’s a scraping sound of someone snoring. All sounds crawl like ants on your skin.
Aunt complains to you that her third bathroom has not been restocked with toilet water. You heard the glug last night as she unstoppered the bottle and poured it all down the sink. Frank weeps to himself at midnight, and then wanks himself to sleep. Cousin visits the bathroom far more than usual, and her smile is getting thinner. They all think to leave their own indelible mark on the house, but they fail. You make sure of that.
You pine for a space that is not four walls, a floor, and a ceiling.
You are not a servant. You are not an accessory to be taken up when the mood suits them. Your family does not get the distinction, some days they call you by the wrong name. You lessen in their eyes as time goes by. You are no longer earning your keep by completing simple tasks. Your very existence in the house is in constant jeopardy. Refuse to fix Frank’s highballs? Out on the street you go. Ask a simple task from cousin? The street is always ravenous for new tributes. They have forgotten that you have ever been one of them, though maybe you never were. When they tell you to air out the Lily room, you think they are mocking you.
You have stained these walls with your labor. The existence of a room you did not know about is laughable, yet as cousin takes your hand—down, out past hallways you’ve been up and down a thousand times— and brings you to a door in the wall that cannot, should not be there, your humor dries up like a summer pond.
Cousin leaves you alone with this obscenity and the walls beat a rhythm: should-not-be, should-not-be. If there were windows you could check to see they serviced the same world as all the others, but the walls are blank, the pile of the carpet so deep it eats your sound.
They’ve played a cruel prank on you, the relatives. They know you cannot go outside, and so they have somehow expanded the inner space. Here, you explorer, they say with whiskey eyes and sour smiles, here Shackleton, here Carnarvon, here is a new space, untouched and all for you. Last year’s birthday gift of a new bucket pales in comparison.
You watch them now, you watch and resent and scrub on all fours as they bid beery cheer to each other and gossip and joke about nothing important. About if they want to produce more impossible architecture from nowhere.
Frank orders you to fish his golf clubs from his walk-inn closet. You can swear he’s never had a walk-in closet. You wait for it to spring shut once you’re inside, but it behaves like any other room, this usurper-space.
The house, once your ally against the relatives, has betrayed you. The only constant in your life has been four walls, a ceiling, and a floor. Even if you never got out into the world, you could be sure that, after a certain number of steps, you could reach the end of the house.
The relatives, they knew, didn’t they? They gave Tiffany glass smiles and swirled ice in scotch and spoke with Harvard inflections. They were probably lying when they talked about their national misadventures, the vacations, the yachting. They probably went no more than a hundred feet from your view, laughing at their clever ruse. Victory came not from travel, but lording over you the fact that they could leave the house and you couldn’t.
A conservatory sprouts from the walls like a toadstool. You want to break each crystal pane with your bare fist.
The relatives come close to showing concern, a first for them. Deep gouges have been appearing in the walnut molding, usually on nights when you sit up sleepless from their noise. They thought the house invincible, but they also lacked the wherewithal to check it themselves. You know. You could hurt the house. You know where its veins beat through paneled walls, each diamond eye staring blindly out into the world that may not exist. You are the true master of this house, and it dares to disobey you.
Aunt croaks concern about the number of caustic cleaning fluids you order from her. It’s alright, you simply want the house to be clean. You can’t get it to sparkle anymore, not with your old efforts. You wipe the banister with your forearm. Polish the granite countertops with your tongue. Use your dried blood as jeweler’s rouge on the wine glasses.
The solution, when it presents itself, is dishearteningly simple. There is no room for you. The place you sleep, four walls, a ceiling and a floor, were servant quarters in the logging boom. Not made for you. No, as the new master of such a tricksy house, You deserve something new. Something different.
Cousin asks why you are bringing power tools to the ballroom. You smile and reassure her, you’ve always known how to take care of the house, haven’t you? You are going nearest to the center of the house, so you can be at its heart.
You have all the keys. They knock and call and cry at the door but you have always had the power. You’re not even sure why you were ever unsure of yourself. They have needed you more than you, or the house, have needed them.
You slice boards and gouge tiles. You are cannibalizing other rooms to make your room, so it will be the best of the rooms. You will build into space, inner space, and you have no intention of stopping here. After this, you will build an inner yard, a street, perhaps even another house within the house, extending far into that inner space. Making a world for yourself. The relatives knock and call and cry at the door, because they are stuck. You are going places, now.
Four walls, a ceiling, a floor, and you.