It wasn’t as though it was her specific “fetish,” per se. She didn’t “mean” to do it… not at first, anyway. But as time went on and she grew increasingly to resent her domestic prison (even if partially self-imposed), she did, in fact, get a perverse thrill out of putting the dishes away in a “soiled” capacity. The thought of how it would enrage Christian to no end. He was so certain at the outset of moving in with Amara that he could “train” her in the ways of his own cleanliness. The thing was, he wanted her to now be the one to carry the torch on ensuring the place was “spick and span”–his words, not hers.
He was quickly disappointed to find that Amara was not as malleable as he had once been led to believe. Indeed, her dogmatic personality made it impossible to tell her anything. And the more you tried to tell her, the more she would dig her heels in, refusing to comply. “Amara, would you mind doing the dishes tonight?” he asked after she had just spent her entire evening cooking him roast lamb with a side of mushroom risotto. Surrendering your entire self to a man is an art. Like everything else, I do it grudgingly, she thought to herself, riffing off the Sylvia Plath line. Christian wouldn’t get it even if she wanted to share that notion out loud with him. He would say she was being dramatic. Maybe she was. Or maybe that was the gaslighting at work.
Before Christian or any boy in a girl’s life comes along, she is gaslit no matter what. By a society that still insists on “conventional roles.” On a woman’s implied subservience. This comes most manifestly in house chores, still so rarely shared equally. Amara saw that from the beginning, watching her mother do the cooking and the cleaning, in addition to working a full-time job as a concierge at a hotel. Her father, meanwhile, worked in the more “sophisticated” atmosphere of finance. He made enough money to support them without her mother needing a job. But her mother was the one to explain to her at some point, while folding laundry and looking haggard from a day’s work, “No matter what, Amara, you should always seek your own employment. Even if you don’t ‘need’ to. You never know when the rug could be pulled out from underneath you, and the person you counted on can no longer provide.”
She didn’t realize in the moment that her mother was warning her of their own imminent future. Almost as though she predicted 1987’s Black Monday. For that was when her father lost everything. He didn’t even come home that night. He was hiding… from himself, from them. From the unavoidable truth that they were now broke. In fact, her father never came back at all. She heard at one point that he fled to Tahiti, to the home of an investor friend. At least, that’s what the private detective she hired years later told her. Amara kind of liked this idea: her father a coward, a “Paul Gaugin of finance.” It was glamorous, she told herself. He didn’t abandon them, he sought the life he had to. They were merely collateral damage in his quest.
Amara saw that her mother was right. Her lesson was valuable. Never count on another to support you “forever.” The bottom was always sure to fall out from under you. Without the cushion of your own money, where would you fall? Christian told her several times already, even though they had only been living together for four months, that he was happy to cover rent if she needed him to. He was aware that her “career” as an “artist” wasn’t taking off, and though he tried his best not to mock her for her attempts, it came out in the not so subtle digs of their dinner conversation. Simply asking, “So what did you ‘do’ today?” was Christian’s manner of throwing down the gauntlet for Amara.
She would sneer and reply, “Well, apart from being your dutiful hausfrau, I finished a collage that’s been stumping me for the past couple weeks.”
He tittered, trying to suppress it but Amara had already heard him. She glared at him until he explained himself. He shrugged, “I’m sorry. It’s just… what could possibly be ‘stumping’ you about a collage? Slap some glue and magazine clippings on paper and you’re done.”
Amara slammed her fork down and got up from the table. “You know what? I’m suddenly put off my appetite. I think I’m going to head to the office and work on another ‘easy’ collage.”
Christian rolled his eyes. “Amara, come on. Why are you getting upset?”
She stared at him. “Don’t fucking pretend that what I’m feeling isn’t valid. That you didn’t just belittle me and what I spend my time doing. Otherwise you’re going to know what upset really means. ‘Cause so far, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.” With that, she stalked away, leaving Christian alone with his red wine and pork chop.
That night, she couldn’t sleep, staring at the ceiling as a streetlight flooded into their room to prevent it from descending into total darkness. Christian slept soundly next to her. Unbothered. As for Amara, she was struggling to remember why they had decided to move in together. Things between them were at least “adequate” before they did. They had their separate lives and Christian couldn’t monitor her 24/7. Then she remembered she had been amenable to his suggestion because the landlord had decided to raise the rent arbitrarily and she knew she would be unable to afford it. She didn’t tell Christian about it–it was mere happenstance that he had decided to suggest moving in together just when she needed a break on expenses the most. Thus, her enthusiastic reaction had been misinterpreted by him to mean that she was excited about taking things to “the next step” in their relationship as opposed to being relieved to have some amount of her current financial burden lifted. She should have known then that they were doomed if this was the real reason she was pleased about the new development in their dynamic.
The first time he pointed out that the dishes had been put away in an uncleanly manner was about a month in. He had taken out a glass to pour himself some water and saw that a brownish and sticky film was staring back at him from the rim. He turned to Amara, who was at the kitchen table collaging, and said, “You know, you put this away dirty. How could you not see this?” He thrust the glass in her face now, and she swore to God it was all she could do to keep from swatting it right out of his hand and letting it shatter into hundreds of pieces on the floor. She contained herself, and the rage that had been boiling for weeks as she came to learn what she had sacrificed in order to adhere to the so-called “logical progression” of monogamy.
Instead she replied mellifluously, “Why no, Christian. I had no idea. I’ll clean this for you right away.”
He was more disturbed by her sugary sweet obsequiousness than pleased by it. Yet he did nothing to assuage her of the belief she had done something wrong in her unspoken “domestic duties.” He watched her soap the glass, suddenly aroused by the sight of her meticulous rubbing with the sponge, at which time he came up from behind her and proceeded to pull her skirt down and press his hardness into her so that she could feel it. As she let him penetrate her while she washed the glass, she found herself repelled by the idea that this was what turned him on. It was the instant of a palpable shift in her attitude toward Christian. Where once she could find “good” in him, now she could find none. He was just another cliche, and he, in turn, made her one by proxy.
In the endless days that followed, she continued to test the boundaries of her penchant for psychological warfare. He was so clean. Yet so fucking disgusting at the same time. The way he picked his teeth for what felt like eternity with a piece of floss. The way he stood in front of his closet scratching his balls as he searched for the perfect matching ensemble. She wanted to stab him with a dirty knife. That it was dirty would be more affronting to him than the stab itself. She let this thought pass as she stared at the butcher block, contemplating which blade to use to trim the fat off the steak she had bought for dinner. She wished she could trim the fat off her entire life. Start over again with nothing but the bare minimum and work her way up. But it was too late. She had done exactly the thing her mother had advised against: become dependent upon someone else for “patronage.” She felt trapped like a rabbit in a cage. Behind their eyes, you could see that they were frantic, plotting some grand escape that would never come to pass. She was much the same.
To channel her frustrations, she put the dishes away dirty. Until finally, one night, unable to take the sight any longer, Christian proceeded to empty all the cabinets of their dishware and break every last plate, bowl and glass as he let them careen to the ground and shatter. Amara smiled as she watched, delighted to see that even Christian had limits for how long he could stay repressed. But when he saw her smirking at him, it made him all the more belligerent, prompting him to pick up a shard from what had been a Royal Doulton plate (it had been a gift from his mother) and lunge at her face with it.
“Keep smiling, bitch. I dare you.”
She couldn’t see him fully anymore, he was too close to get the complete portrait. But what she noticed was the baring of his teeth, as though he was a rabid animal. And he was. She had understood that now. It was what all men were underneath the accoutrements of their suit and tie–these emblems of civility. But all Christian had wanted was a “little woman” who would soothe his ego every day and in every way. She suddenly wished he would just flee to Tahiti like her father had and leave her in peace. But this was the moment they had been building toward from the beginning of their move-in. So she did… keep smiling, that is. All through the slashing of her face with that dirty shard. The resin of what she thought might have been the potato casserole from last week even flicked into her eye as he kept jabbing at her flesh. Even Joan Crawford didn’t get this upset about wire hangers, she reckoned. And that notion, too, made her keep smiling until he had obfuscated her entire countenance with blood and mangled flesh.
When he was done, he dropped the shard, spit at her and demanded, “Now why don’t you fucking clean up in here?”