One look at the house and I already wish I’m anywhere but here. Laundry is scattered all over the matted carpet in the living room and dirty dishes are playing a game of Jenga in the kitchen sink. It’s impossible to be gone for more than a couple of days without the house becoming a site of utter catastrophe. I make a mental list of what I’ll need by the end of the day: laundry detergent (preferably lavender-scented), Band-Aids, new dishes. I notice one of my mother’s medication bottles on the floor and assume she needs a refill.
I begin by picking up all the clothes so I can throw them in for a wash, careful not to set off any of the traps masked under the protective layer of laundry; it’s sometimes difficult to determine whether the traps are set for pests or for humans. After the traditional sweeping and dusting, I move to the kitchen. I always start the dishes last, a habit I formed through the trauma of my first job. I was in charge of cleaning the dishes of people celebrating a birthday or of families too lazy to cook for themselves. There was something about those families that made me instinctively curl my hands into tight fists and made my face twist the way it did when I had to stand in front of a restroom stall while on cleaning duty. I wanted to take a picture of their smiling faces, hang it in my living room, and label it, “The Lost Reality.”
Before I can begin the dishes, my mother shuffles into the kitchen with a bottle of pills in one hand and an empty glass in the other.
“Cleaning dishes so early?” she says, leaving her glass next to the sink.
“It’s actually already one o’clock, so… not that early,” I say.
She places her pills in the cabinet above the stove. “Always have something smart to say, don’t you? You get that from your fa—” Her words catch in her throat, and she instinctively glances at my father’s picture on the fridge, absently scratching her arm and peeling off the scabs that are already there. She shakes his existence off her tongue and continues. “Look, just do me a favor and wash my cup. And make sure you get those giant orange stains off.”
“Ma, those aren’t stains. Those are the designs.”
“Oh. Well, scrub them off, anyway. They’re ugly. And make sure you clean those dishes right. You know how I like them,” she says, walking back to her room.
“Whatever you say, Ma.”
I’m already used to her ridiculous requests. Last week, she wanted me to paint our cow cookie jar all white. Her rationale was that it was unbecoming for any creature to have black spots on their skin. I didn’t have any white paint, so I painted it yellow instead.
I found it shattered the next day.
As a creature of habit, I start with the plates, and I pick one up from a set that I bought recently. The way the gray border circles the muddy center reminds me of how a freshly dug grave would look after an April shower. It’s a shame that I have to work on the dishes, since I’m actually fond of this set. I bring the dish over my head and smash it onto the floor, shattering it into six large pieces and many other tiny bits. I grab the glue and begin putting the pieces back together, forcing parts to fit like a toddler playing a puzzle. I push the dish-turned-mosaic off to the side and pick up the next plate, then the next, and the next. Small fragments of glass become embedded into my fingertips, staining a majority of the plates. I’ll just have to tell my mother that I decided to paint the dishes again.
Once I complete the plates, I move on to the cups. Compared to plates or bowls, cups are trickier because they tend to be smashed into miniscule pieces, making the job of gluing it back together arduous. I decide to work on my mother’s cup first. I know that I have to get the designs off, because I don’t want to have to calm my mother down when she finds out I didn’t do the dishes the way she likes them.
Better to indulge the beast rather than provoke it.
A sponge won’t get rid of the designs on the glass, so I grab a knife and begin scratching off the ink. Each stroke leaves thin lines engraved into the glass, but I continue anyway since my mother won’t care about the marks as long as it’s clean.
I try to convince myself that when my mother sees that I did the dishes the way she likes them, and that her cup is stain-free, it will bring us closer to mending our relationship. I often fantasize about what would have happened if I had never moved out. When I left, it took a piece of my mother, and then when my father… well, it was the final blow.
All that matters to me now is her happiness. This is my punishment. This is my redemption.
The glass’ screams refocus my attention to my task, and as I push the knife into the cup for one last stroke, the cup shatters into my hand. I let out a shriek and quickly throw my undamaged hand over my mouth, holding back the rest of my gasps of pain. Two inches of glass is lodged into the center of my palm, and I gently tug on it, testing just how rooted it is. I count to three, hold my breath, then finally pull it out and watch as the pool of crimson flows off my shaking hand and drip onto the remains of the cup in the sink. I quickly eye the broken pieces to see if it I can salvage them enough to reconstruct, but I realize it’s beyond reparation.
My mother rushes in a few seconds later, darts her eyes between my hand and the broken glass, and says, “Were you able to get the stain off?”