Once upon a time there was a cleaning lady. She cleaned houses because it was next-to-impossible to find a “job” that paid well. It was next-to-impossible to find a boss who could handle requested schedule changes due to stuff that came up with any of her four kids. It was also next-to-impossible to find a job suitably near where she needed to live. Finally, it was next-to-impossible to find a job that could accommodate the life of moving from place to place, due to one relationship breakup after another (all while being that mom of four).
Being a cleaning lady had its positives; however, there were some negative features, which she tried her best to ignore. For one, there was the children getting older and every once in a while, one of them would express their embarrassment of their mom being a cleaning lady. This she mostly remembered came out of the mouths of the oldest, Crystal, and the youngest, Calvin. She tried to defend herself, of course, by mentioning some of the job’s benefits (being your own boss! Choosing your own hours!) or mentioning that although she was a cleaning lady, she did have a master’s degree! This always resulted in the child pointing out she wasn’t, “Using her master’s degree.”
Once she had an unfortunate clash with a customer. It happened. Sometimes people were weird in one way or another. That particular woman, after having some conflict over scheduling, ended with a snide comment to the cleaning lady: “You know, I’ll bet you’re a cleaning lady because you can’t handle taking orders from authority! You have problems working for others! You can’t keep a real job!” As ridiculous and rude as this was, it did resonate with the cleaning lady; in fact, it hit a raw nerve.
Yes, she did have a problem working for others. She was shy. She didn’t get along with bosses. But that was because they had too many rules. Were so demanding. Like, you couldn’t take time off in the same week for both picking your kids up early (because there was no daycare that day) and for a kid needing a doctor’s appointment. You could only take ten days off in one year with pay, including all holidays. Holidays were vacation days. When you had a baby, you were allowed six weeks off without pay and if you didn’t come back after that you would lose your job.
The tradeoff was worth it. Yes, there was no paid time off, but she had multiple different bosses, any of which she could chose to get rid of and replace whenever one became a problem. And there was no job stress. Clean everything. Clean it the best. Practice made it easier. More efficient. An added bonus: you got a workout.
This is no rags-to-riches story. The cleaning lady was not Cinderella. The cleaning lady was an unfortunate woman who made a wrong choice about marriage and children; a choice which affected her whole life and had an endless domino-effect, as in: one bad choice resulted in another bad choice, and so on… you know how it goes. Therefore, the cleaning lady, who started out as a graduate student in English Literature, went from lost and meandering in the lofty garden of good and evil, to careening down the gritty path of life’s evils on a motorcycle with no helmet and no brake.
First it was the college boyfriend. He was a nice enough guy. But he needed to find his career path and it took him to Rhode Island. He became the long-distance lover of the graduate student in New Hampshire. The graduate student was lost. She needed something to anchor her, to guide her. Love would have worked. But she sensed he did not love her strong enough because, because she was a dumb graduate student. She sensed he could tell she was not good enough. Not good enough to be a PhD student, which would have to be the next step. Not smart enough to publish articles. Not assertive enough to teach. Not clever and creative enough to write.
She was going NO WHERE; unlike him, who was ON THE FAST TRACK, BABY. And so, she broke up with the college boyfriend before he could see how much of a loser she was, wasting her money on grad school, realizing she was totally inadequate at the things her degree would qualify her for: teaching English, for example, or being a scholar, becoming a writer. She had no idea at the time, that there were other jobs for people like her, Literary Agent Intern, or Magazine Article Writer, but it wouldn’t have mattered because she was afraid to move to a big city, alone, certainly, where such jobs were. And besides, she was starting to fall in love with where she was, which was New Hampshire.
The graduate student met a neighbor. He was handsome. He had a sports car. He had lots of guy friends over all the time and they rode dirt bikes in the street, jumping homemade jumps of plywood and old tires. She had never met anyone like that; not in the suburbs where she came from, and not at the state college where she had gone. Mesmerized, she watched these guys from her hilltop apartment she shared with two others.
One day she realized she had road tar all over her new car. She had a new car because to add to all of her feelings of fear and inadequacy, her father had recently died, cruelly at a young age of fifty-one, and with the insurance money, her mother bought her a brand new little car. She tried to clean the tar off, and since this was before she was a cleaning lady, and she was especially ignorant, she used the rough green side of her kitchen sponge on all the tar on her car. She scrubbed it all off, pleased. Until the car dried and revealed, to her horror, it was terribly scratched everywhere! The moment of embarrassment and fear was akin to the moment she realized becoming a graduate student in English Literature was a terrible mistake. The whole car, barely six months hers, was covered in scratches, demonstrating her vigorous scrubbing with the rough green pad.
How, why, could she not have noticed or comprehended that the sponge would scratch the paint?! She thought it was tougher than that! Having no money and no great ideas on what to do, she had to drive it that way.
Perhaps a week later, she was walking her little dog past the handsome neighbor’s house, when she noticed two things: one, from the looks of his garage, the cars, the things in it, he seemed to work on cars. And two, one of his two dogs, which always barked at her and her dog, was missing. She took her walk, going all around the lower neighborhood, then came back to pass the handsome neighbor’s house again, and this time, the neighbor himself was out in the yard. The two of them said hello, and she ventured so far as to say, “Where is the other dog? Didn’t you used to have two dogs?”
To which the handsome neighbor replied drily, “My ex-wife took it when she left me.” He smiled. She could feel the bitterness. She asked him about the garage, the cars. At this point she noticed another guy in the garage, who was buffing or polishing, and stopped to see who his friend was talking to.
She smiled with embarrassment and told the handsome neighbor about her unfortunate car-scrubbing mishap. Amazingly he said, “That can be fixed. It’s the clear coat. Probably a good mirror glaze will take it out.” She had never heard of a clear coat or a mirror glaze in her life. But he told her to bring it on by the next night, and they would fix it, no charge.
The next night she brought her car over and they pulled it into the garage. She didn’t know what to do with herself as the friend got started “Mirror-glazing,” which was sort of like teeth cleaning, only with a much larger spinning electric buffer, and some glaze product that definitely didn’t smell like mint. After a few minutes, the handsome guy came out of his house, along with a high-pitched angry woman, whom he was fighting with, something about things she had left behind and now wanted, and something about her not being allowed to take anything and he would see her in court. As if the argument wasn’t enough to instill the mood with tension and stress, to her horror, the graduate student discovered that this woman’s name was HELEN — her name — another Helen!
After the other Helen left, and the handsome guy did a little work alongside his friend, he took Helen-the-graduate-student in to see his house, his yard. He also got a beer, a gold can, casually popping the top and swigging almost the whole thing as he led her into his pool area. Awkwardly he asked her out, grinning pathetically. Awkward and pathetic because it was not more than a few minutes after he was arguing with his wife. The graduate student said she had a boyfriend. Which still was true, she hadn’t yet sent the letter she was considering sending.
After three occasions of the handsome neighbor asking the graduate student out, finally she said yes. She agreed to go on a motorcycle ride, motorcycle borrowed from the friend. He took her all over, on streets she had never gone down, and he took her on the bridge, over to Portsmouth. At points he traveled at such high speeds, she thought surely this was how her life would end. She cried. She tried to get his attention, banging on his leather-coated arm.
When they finally made it back he told her, “That’s why I don’t have a motorcycle anymore, because when I get on one, I just want to go FAST!” He grinned and laughed. Apologized. She sulked and left.
But they went out again. They went downtown with her housemates and his friends. Dancing, one of her favorite activities. He drank too much and she agreed to walk home with him. She loved walking and it wasn’t far. Back at his house he had another beer and put on his favorite record. And he cried. She didn’t understand what his crying was for. She had never experienced a depressed person before. She didn’t understand. She could not comprehend his marriage and impending divorce. She could not comprehend his life of hard work, a dual-income marriage with no kids, cocaine, drinking, skiing, cruises. He said very little; this information came out later.
If there was ever anyone spiraling down and out of control, it would have been him. The graduate student could not have known this. He was a heavy drinker, perhaps a case of beer a night. She could not have known this either. He was thirty-two years old and longed for kids, like his slightly older brother, who had three. The handsome neighbor and his wife had given up cocaine; he first, he said, his wife reluctantly second, after watching some friends lose everything and go to prison. Then one day his wife began waitressing as a second job – and — began an affair with the bartender, another younger man like her husband. She was thirty-nine years old.
The graduate student had never tried cocaine, had never been around an alcoholic, was just barely considering the concept of having a baby. She was twenty-five and could not even image what it was like to be thirty, let along thirty-two, or thirty-nine. She could not imagine having a real job. She had never had one. All she knew was, this handsome guy was of a whole different world…the adult world. With a mortgage, an impending divorce, a maddening desire for children, a 1980 Corvette with glass T-tops, a Ford F150 truck, a dirt bike, a pool, and a waterbed.
This was a very different world from her graduate apartment, her student loans, her days writing papers in the library. But she could have his world if she wanted it because one day, leaning up against his silver-blue truck, the handsome guy implored “come away with me on a cruise! Let’s have a baby together! I’ll take care of you! You won’t have to work; you could stay home and take care of the baby.”
The cruise idea was a bit far-fetched, but the baby part could be done down the street in the waterbed. Having never had a real job, and very little job prospects with the master’s degree in English Literature and the teaching qualities of a doorknob, the prospect of becoming a mother to this man’s very handsome children seemed do-able, even fulfilling.
Within four months the handsome guy said, “Maybe we shouldn’t see each other. My mother thinks I should go on a healing retreat to get over my marriage. Maybe this isn’t the right time to be dating.” Unhappy with him and his incessant drinking, but pregnant with his child, she was once again scared. She couldn’t imagine being a single mother unless one already had a career previous to getting pregnant. She had never heard of social services, child support, day care. “No,” said the graduate student. “I’m pregnant. We can’t break up.” So that was it.
Six years after their marriage and three kids later, a divorce was issued. The first for her, the second for him. And after two more problematic boyfriends and a quick marriage to the next willing bachelor, resulting in one more child, the Cleaning Lady was invented in the wake of another impending divorce.
Certainly, the Cleaning Lady didn’t happen overnight. Even with the trouble of the alcoholic ex-husband, and the trouble of the soon-to-be second alcoholic ex-husband, there was a time when the graduate student thought maybe she found her calling – a true career path, that of Library Director. At the peak of this path, she had one year under her belt at a small library in a tiny hamlet of a town. She was the DIRECTOR – a town position on par with the other department heads, the chief of police and the fire chief!
It wasn’t long though, before the library director’s second husband went from bad to worse, stealing her money, drinking while watching little Calvin, getting fired from job after job, and embarrassing her by drinking in the library after hours!
One day the library director bumped into her former library janitor at the post office. This lady told her she was now a Full-Time Self-Employed Cleaning Lady. She charged more than the money she made cleaning the library and she had great jobs working for old ladies who really needed her. Well, this bit of news was all it took. It was tough holding a “real” job with those four kids and there was a very high chance she was going to have to move again, due to expenses.
The English major/graduate student/library director, humiliated by her embarrassing husband, desperate for more money to live on besides her child support from the first husband and social services to help with food and utilities, advertised her cleaning services in the local paper. Thinking on all the times she had too much housework and no one to help, she called herself The Extra Housewife.
Karen Flynn has a MA in English Literature from the University of New Hampshire.