In the third week of quarantine, I stream The Minimalists on Netflix. Both of these white guys sound like pastors preaching sermons. Our apartment is 900 square feet. I share a bathroom with my two children and my son is entering puberty. He routinely misses the toilet bowl and I have to sweep a chunk of toilet paper along the seat to ensure that I don’t sit in his piss. My daughter spends most of her time laying on my bed upstairs to escape from her brother and me. She closes the door and I don’t see her except at mealtimes.
We’ve lived in Berkeley in this apartment for 18 months. It isn’t that I don’t like Berkeley; it’s that there is nowhere private enough to escape to in an apartment this small.
It’s halfway through The Minimalists that I decide we need to purge. I know that when the moratorium on evictions is up, I will have to leave this shitty apartment and move somewhere. I lost all my tutoring hours because the schools have all closed. I pay for groceries and gas and take out with my credit cards, which are close to maxed now. The kids ask me how many toppings they can choose on their pizzas because they know that each pick costs another dollar seventy-five and I think they know that I can’t afford pizza or toppings anymore. Unemployment is shit, but once it finally kicks in, I’ll have cash for food.
According to the unemployment office, I have to look for a job everyday of every week in order to receive benefits. I call the line for questions because I want to know what happens if I lie on the form and they find out. It isn’t that I don’t want to look for a job or don’t want to find one, but I worry about what will happen to my children if I leave them in the house alone for 8 hours a day. I wait for 2 hours listening to the elevator music and the voice repeating: Your call is important to us. We are currently experiencing a high call volume. You may be able to find the answer to your question on our website. Would you like us to call you back? Your call is important to us.
I think we need to purge because I know this won’t last forever and I know it’ll be easier for them if we have fewer things to leave behind. But I don’t know where to start. Toward the end of The Minimalists, the guy with the blonde hair talks about investing in quality essentials: well made wardrobe items that never go out of style. T-shirts for kids are on sale right now for 6 dollars at target.com. I wonder if I could fit into a children’s L. Maybe XL? I could go with the always in style plain black. I order four in neutral colors.
Netflix suggests Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I start the first episode while I boil water for pasta for dinner again. This is the third night in a row that I’ve fed them pasta. After dinner, my children cloister in their shared bedroom and whisper about my weakening mental state. I keep watching Marie.
She says to begin with clothing. I empty my closet onto my bed, the bed I used to share with their father. He moved 2 states away to work. We were supposed to follow shortly. But there is not enough money for moving so I stay stuck Berkeley with the kids. We are beginning to realize that we like our lives better this way. He stopped sending money when I stopped saying I love you. He calls the kids every other night which feels like enough for now.
Once all the clothing is on the bed, I am supposed to hold each piece and decide if it sparks joy. I think about the way Marie describes this spark of joy. I run through ten t-shirts and 3 pairs of jeans before I find something that sparks joy. A cashmere sweater in camel that my father purchased as a Christmas gift last year. I felt special wearing it on Christmas Day, but I think I am allergic to cashmere because my skin lifts into red welts wherever it touches. I haven’t worn it since New Year’s Eve when I layered it over a silk tank that doesn’t fit anymore. I place it in the joy pile anyway and pull a long sleeve black t-shirt from the no joy pile to wear underneath.
After an hour, I have a heaping no joy pile and 10 items to keep. Impractical as it may be to keep only 10, I wrap the no joy pile in plastic trash bags and set them on the street. The bags are gone the next morning.
The kids’ father calls in the afternoon. He tells me he has $100 he can venmo if I need it. “I don’t,” I say, even though I really do. He asks to talk to the kids. I call them down from their turrets, towers, cells. They take my phone and disappear.
After clothes, Marie says books. I have three bookshelves. I pull every book off the shelves. The stacks cover the floor, the couch, the bottom stair. I survey the spines. I remember where I purchased most of these, which were gifted to me from people I care about, which were on syllabi from professors I admired enough to keep in my collection. I hold every book. Every book sparks joy. But I imagine how many boxes I’ll need to take them anywhere. How much space to transport.
The boy brings the phone back. “Dad’s still on,” he says.
“Thanks,” I say. I juggle the phone, Tenth of December, and Mrs. Dalloway.
“They said you have books all over the living room. And you dumped 3 trash bags full of clothes on the street.”
In the silence, I think about what to say. I want to tell him that I’m preparing for the end of things. But this seems too dramatic and I remember when we watched Doomsday Preppers together, when we could still laugh with each other, that the people who are preparing for the end are always hoarding, not purging.
“Everything ok?” he asks.
“Sure,” I say. “How’s the job?”
“Good. As good as I can expect, I guess. Given, ya know, the limitations because of quarantine.” He waits for me to say something. In another time, I might have told him how great he’s doing. How much I appreciate all his hard work. How much I miss him. Instead, I am quiet waiting for him to push the conversation forward.
“So when do you think, um—” I know what he’s trying to get out, but I don’t want to give him anything. I listen to the kids whispering upstairs while he hedges.
He clears his throat. “Are you coming?” he finally blurts. “To New Mexico?”
I wait and listen to him breathe. I think, three weeks ago, I might have said yes without hesitation. But now?
I place Tenth of December in the joy pile. Dalloway goes to no joy along with most of my other books.
“Hey,” he says. “I have to go soon. So?”
“No,” I say. “I don’t want to move to New Mexico.”
There isn’t anything. Just his breath, his sigh. He knew, I think. He must have known.
“Ok,” he says.
After dinner (pasta again), I make the kids help me cart all the books to my car. I kept three. The rest go into the trunk.
I drive the books to the library. The library is closed because of quarantine and we are all at risk. Goodwill, closed. The elementary school, closed. The coffee shop I love that has walls of books, closed. I leave the books under a garbage bag in the park near the library. They look like a boxy snowman with no face. But it isn’t winter and it doesn’t snow here. I hope that someone will find them and know what to do with them.
In week six, I try to help my son log onto to his weekly meeting for school. The math teacher asks the students to give one word that describes how they are feeling right now. Scared. Angry. Tired. Lonely. Isolated. Annoyed. Hungry. Tired. Fine. I think about what one word I’d give. Maybe we are all one word. Joy. I wish my word were joy.
In the one hour meeting, the math teacher only talks about feelings and neglects numbers. I think both the kids are missing things that are essential until I realize that no one knows anymore when or if things will return to normal. At least the math teacher is trying. All the others have given up. The science teacher, his favorite, sent an email:
Dear parents, students, and families,
I am so sorry I have not been in touch. I will post work on canvas. On a personal note, my wife has cancer. I don’t know how many of you know. I will do my best to connect with every student this week.
I remind my son that we cannot know what Mr. Grue is dealing with. We cannot know what happens behind anyone’s front door. Life is a mystery.
“Is that why you threw away all the books?” he asks. “Because of what we’re going through?”
“No,” I say. “I didn’t throw the books away. They just didn’t bring me joy anymore.”
“What does,” he says.
I don’t know what to say so I let the moment linger there. After too long, I find the answer he is looking for.
“You do,” I say. “You bring me joy.” I tuck my knuckle under his chin and tip his head up like when he was little.
He smiles, but doesn’t laugh.
“Marie says letting go is even more important than adding.” He rolls his eyes.
Week seven, I tackle the paper. I stop watching Marie because the people on the show keep too much. They don’t know how to purge, how to let go. I read somewhere that financially intelligent adults keep seven years of paper records including bank statements and tax documents and claimable receipts. I empty bin after bin into the recycling container outside my building. I complained last month about how no one but me pulls the blue can to the street anymore. The response from building management was that no other tenants use the recycling. And we all wonder why the world is ending.
I keep social security cards, birth certificates, marriage license. I tuck them all into a blue folder that used to house my critical theory notes, but has only recently been housing dust.
I list my car for sale in week nine. We’ve been locked inside so long, even a walk to target is a treat. My son and daughter escape to the park across the street for hours at a time. I tell them to wear masks even when outdoors. They listen, I think. But at least they leave. They see the window paint. $6000 OBO. She asks, “What does O-B-O stand for?”
“Money, love,” I say. “It stands for money.”
I have my eyes on a mini RV I saw on sale in a lot in Richmond on one of my “drives.” I tell them, “Mom’s going out for a drive. Do not answer the door. Do not leave the house. Answer the phone when I call.”
I drive. I wander and weave in my car. This is a luxury, I know. Unmasked, out of the house, free. I drive when I can’t stand to be near them another second. I drive when I need fresh air. I drive when I can’t breathe. I drive to breathe. I pass the dealership that has RV’s. They are small, maybe too small. But I think I could live with them in an RV that size. And how much cheaper that RV would be than rent. How much could the loan be on an RV? Nowhere near $3000 a month.
After paper is Komono, says Marie. The kitchen, the garage, the everywhere else. Komono is easy. I need a pasta boiling pot. I need a skillet. I need 3 plates, 3 mugs (because mugs can hold any liquid), 3 bowls, 3 spoons, 3 knives, 3 forks, the chef’s knife I begged for, a single cutting board, the electric tea kettle, and the Aeropress. We have no garage. The kids help me cart bag after bag to the garbage. We fill the bin. I know the other tenants will be furious, but I don’t care.
Their father calls again in week ten.
“Off the grid,” he says. “That even possible?”
“No,” I say.
“New Mexico is nice,” he says.
“Have you reconsidered? She texted that you are throwing everything away. Planning a move?”
He sounds triumphant, like he’s won a game to which he doesn’t know the rules.
“Sure. Want to talk to them?”
I hear them chittering away to him upstairs while I bag more things. This picture of the beach. That picture of our vacation in the snow. The art I insisted would be great in the living room. The throw pillows, two table lamps, fourteen assorted knick knacks, six battery powered LED candles.
“For you,” my daughter says, thrusting the phone toward me at the bottom of the stairs.
“She says you’re talking about an RV? What the fuck?”
“I won’t speak to you if you curse at me,” I say.
“Fine. Fine,” he says. “But what is going on? You can’t just drive away.”
“That’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair.”
She looks at me from the middle of the staircase. I feel her disapproval in her downward glare. I know what she wants and I know what he wants, but I think I’m past giving anything to anyone.
Week twelve I get an eviction notice I know the landlord can’t serve. I haven’t paid rent in 3 months. This won’t last forever.
Marie says you save the sentimental items for the end.
I’ve loaded all the KonMari essentials into the RV. It is cheaper, monthly, than our apartment. And it has a toilet, so I’m not complaining, yet. The kids’ room is last. There is so much in the closet and under the bed. We pull everything out. It all needs to see the light. They shout and rave about what they need and want to keep.
“I won’t make you throw anything away.”
I pause for great effect surveying the room, the heaps of things they haven’t seen, haven’t touched, haven’t even remembered.
“But.” I can’t finish so I leave them with their room, their things.
“What sparks joy?” I hear him plead. “Joy, sis. Only the joy pile.”
“Everything,” her voice returns exasperated. “Everything.”
When we drive away, I know we’ve left a mess and I feel bad. I know it will be my landlord’s daughter, our neighbor, who cleans it all up. But I had no money for the dump, no money for extra boxes. I left it all for someone else.
“Where are we going?” he asks.
“At the moment, we are driving north.” This is a dodge.
“Isn’t dad east?”
I say, “Marie says, ‘The best way to find out what we really need is to get rid of what we don’t.’”
I turn the dial up on the radio and drive.