Making a Marriage Magically Tidy

Jun 09, 2017, 11:30 AM

By HELEN ELLIS

I have the reputation of living what Marie Kondo might call a magically tidy life. My tights are rolled like sushi, my tabletops are bare and my kitchen is so clean I could perform surgery in it.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was 23, I left my New York City apartment with a panty liner stuck to my back.

Yes, it was used. Yes, earlier that day, I had taken it off and tossed it onto my bed like a bear throws salmon bones onto a rock. Once it was there, I guess I forgot about it. It was probably camouflaged. I promise you there was other stuff on the bed. My bed used to look like a landfill.

Maybe I threw my coat over it and it stuck. And then I put my coat back on and rode a bus 30 blocks with a panty liner between my shoulder blades. Nobody said a word. I didn’t know it was there until my date gave me a hug and then peeled it off like he was at a burlesque show in hell.

This was not the man I married.

The man I married walked into my apartment and found Pop-Tart crusts on my couch. I can still see his face, bewildered and big-eyed, pointing at the crusts as if to ask, “Do you see them, too?”

I shrugged.

He sat on the sofa. It is my husband’s nature to accept me the way I am.

It is my nature to leave every cabinet and drawer open like a burglar. My superpower is balancing the most stuff on a bathroom sink. If I had my druthers, I would let cat puke dry on a carpet so it’s easier to scrape up. If druthers were things, and I had a coupon for druthers, I would stockpile them like Jell-O because you never know when you might need some druthers.

But it is one thing to accept a slob for who she is; it is another to live with her.

A year into our marriage, my husband said: “Would you mind keeping the dining room table clean? It’s the first thing I see when I come home.”

What I heard was, “I want a divorce.” What I said was, “Do you want a divorce?”

“No,” he said. “I just want a clean table.”

I called my mother.

She asked, “What’s on the table?”

“Oh, everything. Whatever comes off my body when I come home. Shopping bags, food, coffee cups, mail. My coat.”

“Your coat?”

“So I don’t hang my coat in the closet — that makes me a terrible person? He knew who he was marrying. Why do I have to change?”

She said: “Helen Michelle, for heaven’s sake, this is a problem that can be easily solved. Do you know what other married women deal with? Drunks, cheaters, poverty, men married to their Atari.”

“Mama, there’s no such thing as Atari anymore.”

“Helen Michelle, some women would be beaten with a bag of oranges for sass talk like that. You married a saint. Clean the damned table.”

And so, to save my marriage, I taught myself to clean.

Not knowing where to start, I knelt before the TV at the Church of Joan Crawford, who said, as Mildred Pierce, “Never leave one room without something for another.”

Yes, I’ll admit she had a temper, but she knew how to clean.

You scrub a floor on your hands and knees. You shake a can of Comet like a piggy bank. You hang your clothes in your closet a finger’s width apart. And, no, you do not have wire hangers. Ever.

I have wooden hangers from the Container Store. They’re walnut and cost $7.99 for a pack of six. I bought them online because stepping into the Container Store, for me, is like stepping into a crack den. You’re an addict trying to organize your crack, and they’re selling you pretty boxes to put your crack in.

Pretty boxes are crack, so now you have more crack. But wooden hangers are O.K. They’re like mimosas. Nobody’s going to OD on mimosas. Wooden hangers give you a boost of confidence. They make you feel rich and thin. They make a plain white shirt sexy. You promise yourself you’ll fill one closet, then you’ll quit.

But I didn’t quit. To keep my buzz going, I asked my husband if I could clean his closet.

He asked, “What does that mean?”

I said: “Switch out your plastic hangers for wooden ones. What do you think I mean?”

“I don’t know, something new for S...