I binge Marie Kondo’s Tidying Up and end the week with less joy than I started with. I’m in one of those ruts where I drop Layla at school and return home, so I can sink into our sectional. I get up to let the dog out. I get up again to retrieve Layla. I fix us a semi-balanced snack, before indulging in an afternoon of tween-friendly television.
Seth isn’t aware of my couch consumption. I only couch while he’s at work, and again when we couch together after Layla’s in bed. When I’m couching alone, I choose shows he won’t watch—basically a bunch of reality TV mixed with intermittent episodes of Gilmore Girls.
I still manage to wash the breakfast dishes and wipe down the counters. I order dinner and arrange for it to arrive by six-thirty. I told Seth I won’t cook until we finish unpacking, and he doesn’t seem to notice that no one is unpacking. Every day, I shift some boxes around to simulate progress.
When Seth asks about my day, I offer detailed accounts of my dog walks. Turns out, I’m adept at describing walks I don’t take.
After finishing all eight episodes, I restart Tidying Up the next morning. I’m rewatching “Empty Nesters” when the dog noses me in the crotch and proceeds to pee on the carpet. This makes me angrier than it should because now my neglect is exposed, pooling in a pungent puddle, soaking into the beige fibers. Seth prides himself on how quickly he potty-trained the dog, how smart she is. It’s two hours later than I normally let her out, and this stirs something in me, like once again, I’ve let my couching go too far, so I peel myself off the cushions, leaving behind a body-shaped imprint in the brushed twill.
I take the dog for a walk. She lunges at squirrels and growls at gray-haired women. I will not tell Seth about this walk.
When I loop back to the house, a woman is standing on my cement steps holding a mop. She has dyed-orange hair, her knuckles cluttered with skull rings. A blue plastic caddy sits by her feet full of nozzled bottles and multi-colored cloths. She is wearing a black T-shirt that reads, ASK ME ABOUT MY TRAGIC BACKSTORY.
“I’m Mindy,” she says.
“I wasn’t expecting anyone,” I say.
“I’m here for the deep clean and unpacking, maybe some tidying?”
I can’t help but wonder if viewing Marie Kondo’s series in rapid succession has triggered some kind of intervention. I should tell Mindy I didn’t start watching the show to adopt a minimalist lifestyle or revolutionize my underwear drawer. I started watching because I’m drawn to images of hoarding, of what happens when someone gives up, or gets a little stuck, like the widow in episode four. During my last couch phase, I was sucked into a Hoarders marathon but stopped after the dead cat episode. I winced my way through the human waste house, but couldn’t continue after the frozen cats.
A wasp burrows into a gap in the peeling siding. Mindy rubs the sides of her arms like she’s cold. She tells me Seth hired her.
“Do you really want people asking about your… past?” I say.
“Oh. My boyfriend gave this to me.” Mindy pulls on her shirt near her chest. “He’s a writer.”
I picture a gloomy guy shuffling through life with less joy than me, less joy than the frozen cat lady. Backstory is the worst kind of clutter.
“And you help people organize?” I ask.
“Whatever anyone needs, really.”
I tell her I need to stop hating my house.
She scrunches up her face in this adorable grin like she thinks I just need to unpack, settle in, make this cramped single-level structure a home, so I try to explain how it’s more than that, how my post-move funk can’t be scrubbed away with a microfiber cloth.
“I never thought I’d live in a house like this,” I say.
Mindy frowns like maybe I’ve offended her. I worry she lives in something smaller or sadder, on a less desirable block with fewer trees. Seth often accuses me of having expensive tastes, of wanting the wrong things. I blame it on a long line of adults telling me I could be anything if I applied the appropriate amount of effort. I blame it on my bland, untragic past.
Mindy glances back at the street, as if she is waiting for someone else to show up.
“I only mean that I will never love this house,” I say.
“And that’s important to you? Loving your house?”
Mindy has to be at least fifteen years younger than me. I’m assuming she’s not a mom or introvert or homebody. She has an octopus tattooed on the inside of her wrist. Or is it a squid? Either way, it’s clear she finds joy in experiences, not interiors.
“Is this where you ask about my backstory?” I say.
She laughs and I can see the judgment melt from her face. I wonder if it has melted off mine.
“I’m sure there’s something we can do,” Mindy says. She points to my door. I shrug.
She follows me into the living room where the off-white couch sags over the worn rug. Where the two front windows are too small and old and smudged. Where the ripe scent of dog piss hangs in the air.
The dog charges into the room, barking.
“Is it friendly?”
"Sometimes," I say.
The dog sniffs the toe of Mindy’s Doc Marten boot and walks away. I thought the dog might pick up on my uncertainty, my general distaste for strangers at the door, but she only nips or growls when it’s inconvenient, like the time she bit Layla’s friend’s dad in the wrist.
“Nice TV,” Mindy says. The sixty-inch screen looms over the brick hearth, surrounded by mauve walls, pricked in nail holes. “Have you considered a fresh coat of paint?”
“There are too many shades of white,” I say.
“Just find an influencer’s home you like and ask for the color.”
Will white walls make this living room any less dim? Any less awful? “Sometimes I’m convinced minimalism is just as bad as hoarding. Both are misguided attempts at exerting control,” I say.
“But isn’t that what everyone wants? Control?”
Mindy is beginning to sound a lot like the robot therapist I internet-chatted with a few weeks ago during my first attempt to get off the couch. I’m tired of standing, so I sink back into the sectional and stare at the gray-black screen of my TV. Instinctually, I reach for the remote and spin it on my thigh. The tip of my shoe brushes the still-damp splotch of pee. While she’s here, I should at least ask Mindy to address the stain.
“How did Seth find you?” I ask.
“We were seated together on a flight to Newark. He asked what I did, and I gave him my card.”
I sometimes forget my husband half-exists in this other world full of executives in suits and young women on planes—long weeks hunched inside chandeliered conference centers and hotel bars. Most of my days are spent at home, shouting at two-dimensional hoarders and a difficult dog. Tonight, Seth expects to return to a spotless kitchen. A grateful wife. But I heard a high percentage of hoarders go back to hoarding after professional help. What if the same is true of couching?
“You can have the TV. And the couch,” I tell Mindy.
“I can’t take those,” she says, but her eyes tell me otherwise.
“Consider it a tip. For helping me rip up this carpet.” I retrieve the box cutter that’s been sitting idle on the counter for weeks and hand it to Mindy. She isn’t convinced, so I grab a boning knife from a box of kitchen tools and stab the baseboards until she joins in.
We pass the next two hours cutting and gouging and sweating. We haul the shredded carpet to the driveway and pile it beside the couch and TV. Mindy says she’ll be back later with her boyfriend’s truck.
Before I rush out to pick up Layla, I circle the living room, assessing the crusty remains of carpet padding, the water-stained floorboards, and exposed nails, the empty wall above the mantel. The space is raw and unlivable, a less-than-blank slate, but there’s a satisfying ache in my arms, a vague warmth.
The room no longer smells like dog pee. It smells like dust-coated lives and the quiet deaths of rodents. It smells like the end of something, but if I scrape through enough layers of filth, maybe I can erase the home’s muddled backstory. Maybe buried beneath all this dread, I’ll find a flicker of joy.
Abbie Barker is a creative writing instructor living with her husband and two kids in New Hampshire. Her fiction has appeared in Cincinnati Review, Cutbank, Berkeley Fiction Review, Pithead Chapel, Monkeybicycle, Superstition Review, Best Microfiction 2022, and other publications. Read more at abbiebarker.com.