circle the drain [narrative] – The Brown Daily Herald


cw: abuse

First step: the water must be boiling. It must hurt when you touch it. Second step: pour a quarter glop of dish soap in the sink. Let the water run over the stopper so as not to waste any. Step Three: Watch the bubbles rise like clusters of white clouds, until they are at a height comfortable with the surface of the water. When my father taught me to do the dishes, he told me to always start with the plates, stacking them at the bottom; then the cutlery by sliding them against the walls; then the cups by turning them sideways with the surface of the water. He said it’s best to wash the dishes with a washcloth, so you can reach the awkward corners of plastic containers and the rounded bottoms of cups. He hated sponges and those weird dishwashers that dispensed soap – the ones that filled up after a week of heavy use.

Housekeeping was important when I was little. Everything had to be spotless; the counters had to be wiped down, the stove cleaned and sanitized, the pantry and cabinet doors wiped down daily. Our living room was vacuumed every day and dust was never allowed to settle anywhere. Growing up, it was up to me and my siblings to maintain our small living space, which is normal for most households, but our dad seemed to take it a little too seriously.

As far back as I can remember, my father worked in the restaurant business. He worked in various restaurants. When Chili’s stopped cooking meat on hot grills and switched to electronic stoves, that’s all my dad talked about for a month. When Applebee cut his vacation pay and sent him a measly check for $ 1.75, his supposed Christmas bonus, he handed it to me, muttering sarcastically, “Buy yourself something good.” And when Red Lobster threw away a bunch of waiter aprons and order books, he grabbed a few for my brother and me. This made the game at the “restaurant” in the red dirt in front of our grandmother’s house after school much more realistic. Chili’s, Applebees, Red Lobster, Weck’s, Country Family Kitchen, Olive Garden and Doc’s Diner. A waiter. A waiter. A waiter. A dishwasher. A cook. A dishwasher. And a cook. My dad had a lot of experience in kitchens, which may be why he was so particular about ours.

At first, my relationship with cleaning and washing up was in a bad mood. It was causing anxiety, invisible hands clasped around my throat, an invisible knife against my stomach, with its invisible blade brushing my skin. My father was an alcoholic with a temper. The number one cause of her temper tantrums: a “messy” house. My dad’s definition of “messy” was an un-wiped refrigerator door in a freshly cleaned kitchen; it was a disorganized pot holder in an alphabetical pantry; it was a school bag left on a vacuumed sofa or a TV remote control upside down on a clean coffee table. Eventually, “messy” became synonymous with dangerous. What if we cleaned ‘the right way’ before our dad left work, helped prepare dinner ‘the right way’ before bed, and cleaned up after dinner ‘the right way’ before? that our father did not retire to the garage, so we would retreat under the covers – a safe and unspoken space – and run away to school in the morning, to repeat it all over again. The cleaning made me anxious. Did I take everything out of the microwave? Did he notice that piece of rice in the back? Are the sofa pillows properly installed? Does it seem to be tilted too far to the left? Is this spoon clean enough? Scraping it with my fingernail doesn’t work, should I use my teeth? Butter seems too close to cheese. Maybe if I tilt it closer to the milk it will look better? This continued until I left for college.

The summer before my junior year at Brown, things got a little tricky. My dad harassed me over text messages and on the phone when I was drunk, and all of my anxiety, spread like wet rags on an overflowing kitchen sink, made the surface of my skin sticky. Old tics and thoughts stuck inside my mouth, forcing their way down my throat one by one. It got to a point where I thought someone was still looking at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I swore I saw the dark silhouette of a person. Something was hunched over my shoulders, his eyes sharp and critical, as I washed the dishes or collected the trash in the common room. If I didn’t do things “right” then I was convinced that something wrong would happen. I felt like I was twelve again, in my dad’s house, hyperventilating in the bathroom because we ran out of dish soap and knew I would be blamed for spoiling dinner without dishes own. The cleaning, and everything associated with it, seemed invincible. I thought I was always going to feel this – scared.

Fast forward two years, and I live off campus with two friends. One day while I was doing the dishes, one of my roommates glanced over my shoulder and said, “You always do the dishes so fast, it’s impressive. I froze, my fingers gripping the dish brush uncomfortably, before letting out a calm breath and laughing.

“Truly?” I asked.

My roommate nodded.

“Washing the dishes was an important thing with my father. He hated dishwashers, I say.

My roommate gave a little “ahhh” and looked up.

” Yes he really I hated dishwashers.

The conversation ended with a small laugh from both of us. I turned to the sink, feeling a little sad, but mostly a little amused. As far back as I can remember, my brain went on autopilot while I was cleaning. Nothing seemed real, and all I could hear was white noise. When I finished, everything seemed disoriented to me as I came back to consciousness, allowing me to feel sensations and react to things again. But something about that moment, an unexpected exchange between friends – a brief interruption, rippling like scattered soap suds – changed my perspective. I can to be here while I clean in this space. I can let my thoughts fill the sink and spill onto the floor without dangerous consequences, line them like wet cups on a drying rack, then put them back in a warm cupboard. From that point on, the cleansing slowly turned into something more therapeutic.

Every day I remember that the friends I live with are nice. They are understanding. They are compassionate. They cook me lunch after class or surprise me with linguini pasta – because regular spaghetti noodles are boring – for dinner. They make me coffee in the morning, three spoons (or four if we’re feeling adventurous) in the French press, and fill the jar with sugar that always runs out. They watch movies with me in our living room, leaning against worn sofas as we walked up two flights of stairs in the summer heat. They tease me about candles and I tease them back – “the apple cinnamon spice is the top fall candle.” I would lie down in our living room without feeling uncomfortable or in danger. I dance in the kitchen and slide and slide on the parquet in our hallway with my socks on. I have found a space with people who are close to my heart and who care about me. Where I can just exist, the way I need to. I can be present while I clean here. I can be present here. i can be here.

Of course, I’m still scared. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my fear. Things will always be complicated and pesky anxious thoughts will always be pesky anxious thoughts – a ring stain on the sink that fades away with each passing day. I don’t expect everything to heal quickly. I don’t expect every cleansing session to be therapeutic. But, as I allow myself to be present again, I will appreciate and recognize the tranquility. I’m going to take my time, run lukewarm water over my hands: not hot, not hard. I will close my eyes, listening to the broom hairs crash into the kitchen floor. I’ll be humming to music, a collection of Broadway hits and animated J-pop songs, a serving spoon turning into a fake microphone. And as I near the end of my thoughts, I think back to a night’s work at Andrews. I always volunteer to mop the floor. Everyone hates mopping the floor, but I love it. After explaining why, one of my coworkers just nodded and smiled. “I understand.” He said, “It’s like meditation. I had to think about it a bit, but in the end I accepted. What might have started as an anxious tic with traumatic origins has turned into something peaceful, something meditative, and ultimately healing.

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