A few days ago, I scrubbed the sink clean and lifted the steel trap out. As I knocked the trap against the trash bin to dislodge the sopping wet food particles that had collected there, it occurred to me that I made an egregious error in judgment in August of 1995.
I’m quick like that sometimes.
It was three weeks after our wedding. My husband, Tim, was mercilessly scrubbing the kitchen sink of our new apartment. It was clear he was angry about something. He didn’t do anything vigorously. Except, perhaps, drink Diet Coke and program his computer. Anything that might cause him to break a sweat was anathema. Cleaning the kitchen fell into that category.
It wasn’t laziness, exactly. He was generally tidy, avoiding the making of a mess so as not to have to clean one. But he was also raised by a lovely June Cleaver type. She kept house and said things like, “Oh, Timmy, leave those dishes for the women,” when, one year, he rinsed some mashed potatoes off his Thanksgiving plate and tried to put it in the dishwasher.
Tim and I had already had the very first domestic squabble of our marriage that same sink-scrubbing morning. Standing in the galley kitchen in the light of the refrigerator, I plucked the orange juice carton from the door to accompany his breakfast cereal. Overnight, it would surely have settled. I didn’t want him to drink juice from the top that was too thin, nor from the bottom that was too thick. Only Goldilocks orange juice for my husband.
So I shook it. Hard. Up and down for a solid five seconds to mix it perfectly.
Tim’s face pinched with anger. “What did you do that for?”
“You just ruined it.” I looked at the carton trying to figure out what he meant. He let out a huff of disgust. “Now it’s all full of pulp and the junk that settled to the bottom. Why would you do that?” He said it with the same bewilderment and grief as though I had hit the gas pedal to commit vehicular rodent homicide on an innocent squirrel in the road.
So just before lunch when I saw him come dangerously close to breaking a sweat at the kitchen sink, I wondered, Now what?
“The sink is disgusting,” he said. It was empty. I had put the dishes in the dishwasher after breakfast. “You didn’t clean the trap.” He made a show of corralling the crumbs and then plucking the trap out of the drain and emptying it into the trash can.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” I said. We were going to eat and put away dirty dishes twice more. I’d clean it when we were done making messes for the day.
He didn’t look up. He didn’t answer. There was a palpable miasma of aggravation oozing out of the kitchen. Its effect on me was immediate. I hated the thought that I had disappointed or displeased him. Clearly, I had missed out on some essential, compulsive sink-washing gene when my parents were handing out DNA. I felt like a failure. As a perfectionist, my resultant sense of shame was momentarily unbearable. I spoke in a conciliatory tone. “Now that I know it upsets you, I’ll keep it clean.”
Therein lies the mistake. And it only took twenty-five years and a Netflix documentary called The Ripper to realize it.
Stay with me.
The Yorkshire Ripper was a serial killer active in the north of England during the 1970s and early 80s. As the years dragged on and the death toll of female victims mounted, the police advised women not to go out alone at night. Women should always be accompanied by a man. They should observe a curfew of 10 p.m. As I watched the show, trudging along on the treadmill, I thought—that’s unfortunate, but it makes sense.
The women of Yorkshire rebelled. They formed a protest called “Reclaim the Night” and marched through the streets after dark, posing a pivotal question: Why not curfew all the men instead? They’re the ones committing crimes. The women weren’t raping and killing anyone. If only women were let out at night, they’d be plenty safe.
I hit the emergency stop button on the treadmill.
What a revolutionary idea. It felt as though someone had just blown open the rusted doorway of my mind. I would never have thought of that. It made me realize how conditioned I was to accept that the world must be ordered according to prevailing male-centric expectations.
And so while I tapped the trap against the trash bin for the umpteenth time of our twenty-five year marriage the other night, I wondered for the first time why Tim had assumed that it was my job to keep the trap clean in the first place. And why had I so quickly jumped on board with his assumption?
The short, Freudian answer was to blame it on my parents and preceding generations. That was the culture into which Tim and I were born. The more troubling answer was that I simply lacked the imagination to envision the matter any other way—a suboptimal condition in a writer. Was the kitchen sink dilemma really just a one-directional imposition of a male-centric worldview onto me? With the wet trap dripping over my hand, I stared into the trash at the remnants of dinner. Something stank. And it wasn’t just the onion skins and smooshed garlic carcasses.
Time for an experiment.
I couldn’t do anything as drastic as quitting the house, becoming the major wage earner and seeing if Tim assumed the domestic duties of the household. It simply wasn’t practical. But what would happen if I returned to my originally scheduled trap-maintenance program? At the very least, I could define my job with my rules. I might even go hog wild and let the dishes build up.
The first day, I allowed the dishes to languish in the sink and only cleaned once after dinner. I felt like a lightning bolt might strike me at any time. The second day, I dropped my bowl into the sink, scattering granola willy-nilly. The dishes built up until after dark. It felt like freedom.
After dinner on day three, Tim still didn’t make a move to help with the dishes. But he hadn’t gotten angry or complained when I left them either. Day four while I finished my meal, he started picking up the dishes and placing them in the dishwasher. He didn’t go so far as to clean the trap. And neither did I.
Day five, I forgot that the chimney sweep was coming mid-afternoon and was painfully aware of the mess in the sink when I let him in. It’s the first thing you see when you enter the house. But I stopped to ask myself, am I embarrassed because of some ingrained association between female responsibility for domestic cleanliness and fear of judgment, of a diminished sense of human value?
Turns out I just like it better when the sink is clean. I decided that the point was, twenty-five years ago Tim should have simply asked me if I wouldn’t mind making sure the trap was empty because it grossed him out to see food in there. And I should have said, sure—I’ll be certain to do that when it’s my turn to clean it. Part of the steel trap incident was ingrained gender assumptions and part of it was simply the pains that any young couple goes through when adjusting to a new person in their space.
In the interest of fairness, I then asked myself if I had thrust any gendered assumptions onto Tim regarding his role in the domestic sphere. I thought about it hard, for five whole seconds at least, and decided.
Okay, yes. There was that issue with the basement. We live in a very old house. The cellar has a dirt floor and fieldstone walls. And spiders. Lots and lots of spiders. There are bridal veils of cobwebs hanging from the ceiling when you first open the doorway. The inhabitants are leggy with knobbly knees. Some of them died a century ago and have fuzzed over with white mold to make oddly shaped snowflakes. There are garden spiders with solid legs and tiny jumpy spiders that scuttle along and hop several inches unexpectedly.
And then there’s Lenny.
He’s the don of my creepy basement underworld. He lives in a deep gap between two of the field stones. The staircase descends straight to his front door and then turns ninety degrees so that your left shoulder brushes up against the wall the rest of the way down the staircase.
I don’t go there. Ever. In fact, if a bad guy wanted to kidnap my children, all he would have to do is take them to the basement. I would miss them terribly.
Lenny must be nearly three inches from leg to leg in any direction. He’s dark-colored and hefty, plainly visible from ten paces when he creeps out of his lair to size you up.
So when the boiler broke and there was no heat, I sent Tim below with a virgin ratchet set to fix it. He didn’t know anything more about boilers, or ratchets, than I did. But fighting arachnids and fixing machines, I decided that’s a man’s job and no backtalk about it.
So tomorrow, when I find myself over the trash can, trap in hand once again, I’ll take some consolation. At least the thought experiment sprayed a little WD-40 on the rusty hinge of my assumptions. Maybe I’ll ask my daughter to take the trash out and think about which stocks she might like to invest her savings in. And maybe I’ll ask Tim and our son to clean up after dinner, trap included, so I can have a little more time to work on an essay. I certainly will not tell them to let the women handle it. And as for Lenny, maybe the next time something needs fixing in the basement, I’ll reach for the ratchet set.
And still hand it to Tim.
E.O. Conners has also had work in Lowestoft Chronicle.