She had been working on the manuscript for ages. It was part of the only reason she felt obliged to return to her parents’ house after losing her job in 2008. She wanted to take it as a sign from the universe that this was the only viable excuse she would ever get for being a “deadbeat.” Her sole chance to finish something that she hadn’t been able to when she still had the time. Back in college and during the precious few months in between graduation and finding employment. No, she found drinking to lament the loss of her youth to be far more important than completing a novel. One she was certain no one was ever going to pick out of the slush pile anyway. But the circumstances that aligned now–giving her a bit of severance and the “open” door policy her parents had promised should the economy tank (something they predicted before everyone else)–made her believe this was her moment. The only moment she would ever get to truly unearth if she could “become” a writer. For one does not “become” such a thing unless they are published and paid for their work, society deems–and rails the doctrine into everyone else judging you for making false claims when all you do, all day, every day is write. But still you are just a bum. Or at least that’s how Isabelle felt whenever she tried to veer from telling people what she did for a paid living as opposed to what made her go on living.
This theme was one of the central focuses of her book, a sweeping epic in the style of Ulysses about a girl who wanders through her hometown performing menial errands for her mother, forced to explain to each person what she’s “doing”–in short, justify her existence to narrow-minded people secretly jealous and contemptuous of those with the gumption to live the artist’s life. Of those who would dare turn their nose up at what Western capitalist society has to “offer.” If Isabelle could, she would run as far and as fast from her parents’ house as possible. But she needed a place with the quiet and seclusion of such a milieu to finish her work before fleeing. Like Rilke said, “aloneness” was paramount to artistic production. It’s hard to be alone when you’re homeless. Which she surely would be rather than endure another moment of Mother’s ceaseless preoccupation with cleaning. Though never officially diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, Isabelle had long ago determined there could be no other explanation for her unwavering need to “wipe,” “polish,” “organize” and all other manner of verbs pertaining to the act of cleaning. She had forgotten how bad it was until moving back in. Had managed to block out how pronounced it felt during her high school years when she couldn’t even leave a pair of dirty underwear on her own floor for more than a second. It made her feel diseased. Like Mother was doing her the courtesy of housing such a dirty creature for nothing in return. It sorted her decision to move to the other side of the country, to California, as soon as she got an acceptance letter. Father, meanwhile, spent most of his time at work to avoid the cleaning benders, the sense of always being in her way.
Yet Isabelle figured if she cordoned herself off in the office, she would be immune to Mother’s incessant movements with various tools of “maintenance” throughout the house–from brooms to vacuums to window dusters. And, for the first few weeks, Mother did put on a good show about having reformed her ways. The performance was quickly dropped right around the time when Isabelle was getting into her proverbial “zone.” That period during the writing process when everything is flowing, you can see every storyline and arc ahead of you–all you have to do is write fast enough and without interruption to get it down on the page. She was about halfway through the novel (having already started it those few years ago) when Mother barrelled through the door with her vacuum, sending the stack of papers from the manuscript that Isabelle had just printed flying. Mother hurriedly picked them up, unconcerned with crumpling the paper, just with getting it out of her way. In fact, in all the years that Isabelle had begged Mother to read something of hers (for she had a number of articles and short stories circulating in various print and online rags), she never had. It wasn’t an outright refusal, so much as a patent denial that her daughter considered herself a writer. That she was a writer. Isabelle reckoned Mother would have preferred if she simply got married and found some sort of “stability”–as though that would be the solution. A magic panacea that wouldn’t instead turn out to be yet another problem. For that’s all men knew how to create. The only thing they were gifted at wreaking. Well, that and reeking. They got in an intense argument about it after Isabelle broke up with her college boyfriend, who wanted to move back to Boston and had done just that once they graduated. He was here now, Mother reminded. In case she wanted to give him a call, maybe catch up. Mother seemed to be ignoring that the wonders of social media had already informed her he had a new girlfriend. Mother bristled at this and kept cleaning. Just as she was now, right when Isabelle was in the thick of inspiration. She shouted as much over the vacuum and Mother balked, telling her to not have such an inflated opinion of herself. In short, not to take herself too seriously as a writer because she needed to start focusing on finding a “real” job pretty soon. That her grace period was rapidly tick tocking.
Several more weeks in this encampment designed by the OCD Queen was driving Isabelle insane. She worked at night, when she was sure Mother had to be asleep. It was integral to finally printing out the manuscript that bleak November day. Gray and rainy, as it always seems to be on the East Coast. Oh how she yearned to return to California, even if its tectonic plates would rocket it off the country eventually. She wouldn’t mind being condemned to an island of slow talkers and tacos. It was preferable to whatever strange sense of superiority this part of the world possessed. Watching the last page print out, she placed it at the back, making that satisfying shuffling sound as she tapped the bottom of the pages against the desk to align them all. All she needed to do now was read through and make her signature notes with red pen. Something she spent the entire rest of the night doing as the rain glutted the gutters and taunted her in some inexplicable way. She fell asleep on her book, the soothing sound finally lulling her into submission. But would her manuscript ever get that same benefit?
She heard it before she saw it. The crinkle, crinkle of pages being sucked up into the vacuum. The many pages she had spent all night editing. She turned to see her mother fervently whooshing the vacuum on the carpet, any pages fluttering from the air would be subject to getting ripped apart as they were enveloped by the machine. The machine that was but a callous and unfeeling extension of Mother, who seemed to be particularly on one this morning.
“What the hell are you doing?” Isabelle screamed in horror. Had her mother genuinely despised her so-called non-profession so much that it had come to this passive aggressive gesture.
“It’s filthy in here. I need to clean.” There was something glassy about her eyes, something entirely inhuman. Isabelle didn’t want to see it or acknowledge it. Maybe the look had been there her whole life. That glazed over countenance concerned with one thing and one thing only: cleanliness. It’s next to godliness, after all. Except there is no god. So what was it really next to? Nothing. Isabelle was overcome with a rage so severe, she couldn’t control it. She lunged at her mother, prying the vacuum out of her clenched, veiny hands and smashing it repeatedly against the wall until it ceased to make its vexing whirring sound. Mother watched Isabelle as she gathered the wreckage of all her pages.
They’re now taped together and resting comfortably in a special envelope Isabelle is taking back to California. Just that and her computer, as she was forced to make a hasty getaway lest she witness her mother’s coronary and be forced by her remaining shred of a good conscience to stay. It was an unbearable few months, some of the darkest ones in her life that she was only able to turn a blind eye to because of that book. The book that, in the end, won her a Pulitzer Prize. Mother never made mention of it the following year, the only token of her ability to address what Isabelle had now been declared by society at large to do for work being to bequeath her with a quill pen for Christmas. It felt pointed.