Running water

I’ve been married more than 20 years, but there’s always something new.  The other day, I was talking to my wife about her upbringing and learned something striking: she was 26 years old when she first lived in a home with indoor plumbing.

It was only a few months before I met her.  Her parents had already immigrated to the US a few years before and on a snowy January night in 1987, she arrived at Dulles Airport.  They brought her home to their apartment in Vienna, Virginia. It was a standard apartment for an American family, two bedrooms, a balcony overlooking the complex’s swimming pool, a little kitchen,and most miraculously, a bathroom with a flush toilet and with a shower, complete with hot and cold running water.

Up until then, if she wanted to bathe in the winter, she had to trudge down to the public baths, which meant she didn’t get to bathe often; relieving herself in the middle of the night meant traipsing across the yard to the frigid privy.  In the summer, she could hose herself off with cool water from the tap, but a hot-weather trip to the privy was even less pleasant than one in the cold: the stench and the flies.

It seems to me–me, the child of an ordinarily prosperous American middle-class upbringing–that such a childhood must have been traumatic.  Certainly, I would have found it traumatic, and I think of myself as much less dainty than my neatnik spouse.

And neatnik she is.  She keeps the house spotless.  Not just “picked up”, as my mom used to say, but deep-down clean.  Things like the underside of drawers and the backs of furniture are wiped down, never dusty.  Ordinary debris like food wrappers and socks are whisked away in a few minutes if she’s anywhere in the vicinity.  Sometimes, I have the semi-hallucination that I’m standing waist-deep in a briskly flowing river; anything I let go of will be swept downstream and out of sight.

Maybe that’s what makes her so obsessionally clean: around here, compared to her gritty Third-World birthplace, it’s easy to do.  Endless streams of hot-water, shiny porcelain and nickel fixtures, fancy chemicals, nitrile gloves, huge polyethylene sacks for the trash, vacuuming robots–why not be clean, when it’s so easy?

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