Kalyani is one of the more than 70 women whose essays appear in What She Said, a Madison-area story collection published by A Fund For Women to celebrate its 20th anniversary. These are the stories of Women on a Mission to improve the lives of local women and girls. The book sold out within weeks of publication. To request that AFFW reprint the book–and to reserve your copy–send an email to MHeinritz@madisoncommunityfoundation.org by March 24. See the cool book trailer here!
When my cell phone rang just as the last meeting of the day was commencing, it took all the restraint I could muster to keep from answering it. I was sure, absolutely sure, that it was my contact at a large healthcare system, agreeing to invite me up to give a lunch-hour presentation on the intricacies of a new wellness intervention.
Having declined the call, I made a whole-hearted effort to remain engaged in spite of my sleep-deprived state. I had to show that I was tough, unwilling to allow something as base as human emotion to influence my ability to be effective in the workplace; however, the moment we wrapped up, I stepped out to check my voicemail, only to encounter a message from the apartment management company, letting me know that they received my intent to vacate and had a showing scheduled for Friday – in less than forty-eight hours.
As if working half of the holiday isn’t enough, I thought to myself, now I’m to go about a cleaning spree? Damn it to hell.
The thought of tending to all that my son had left behind when he boarded a plane destined for San Antonio was beyond daunting. In fact, it left me all but paralyzed. Since Jäger had departed, I’d avoided the reality of my empty nest, making my professional life my primary focus, lest there have been any question that it wasn’t before. Regardless of who reached out to comfort me in the early days after sending my eighteen-year-old son to basic training, I begged off every time, spending my evenings working on my laptop and managing a good two to three pages of reading in bed before my eyes grew heavy and I drifted off to sleep, doing it all again a few hours later.
Arriving home, I slopped some leftover Pad Thai into a bowl and absentmindedly brought the cold noodles to my lips as I weighed the merits of pulling together my reports, screwing it all and going for a run or getting a jump on some long-overdue housework. With ambivalent thoughts about running a Fourth of July 5K the next morning, I decided that I might as well clean. There was so much to be done, and I knew that avoiding the unavoidable would only create more stress. On the bright side, a glass of wine could be added to the evening’s agenda. Whereas I wouldn’t dare drink while working or working out, I had no problem sipping whenever I passed my glass with a bottle of cleaner in hand.
Changing into a t-shirt and shorts, I threw my favorite Ani DiFranco CD into my laptop and turned the volume up to a rather unimpressive max before making my way to Jäger’s bathroom to tidy that which would never be dirtied again. Flipping on the light, I was greeted by several varieties of Axe, lined up in a row, Ironman cologne and in the shower a bottle of Old Spice Swagger. I can’t count the times that I returned from an early morning bike ride, knowing that Jäger was awake given the manly scents with which I was accosted. Standing there before his array of products, I missed my baby so very much.
Regardless of the emotional connection, what does one do with half-used deodorant, cologne and bodywash? Should I donate them to St. Vinny’s, I wondered, or keep them on hand for his visits home? Given that he wasn’t due to return to Madison until the holidays at the soonest, chances were I’d have fresh supplies awaiting him; nevertheless, I moved the bottles into my linen closet, allowing them to find a home on the bottom shelf between my Q-Tips and just-in-case package of Monistat. Yet, I couldn’t resist the urge to spritz myself with his cologne just once before putting the last bottle in its place.
Once the droplets had settled upon my skin, I inhaled the scent, feeling very much at home emanating a solidity and sureness that I so often masked with more floral aromas. In spite of the face and curves upon which I’d been complimented on occasion over the years, I was no longer the foolish girl who, time after time, sacrificed her integrity and security for the approval of a man. Indeed, it was only the fairer sex who had grown capable of breaking my heart.
Returning to Jäger’s bathroom, I gathered the rest of the toiletries, moving the toothpaste and toilet tissue into the master bath while tossing his toothbrush and an empty bottle of shampoo into the trashcan. Then, I took a healthy swig of cabernet before returning with the Windex, Soft Scrub, brush and rags.
For the most part, a relatively light cleaning was all that was required; yet, the shower, I’ll admit, was another story. Pulling back the curtain, I found the stall to be ridden with residue and grime; but, any dread of the task I might have experienced was easily superceded by the palpably heartbreaking quality of the endeavor. I wasn’t ready to wash away my son’s presence; but, just as he walked away from his clothes, his laptop, his closest friends and his home, I knew that grasping for what once was and is no longer would only exacerbate the pain. Thus, I got to work, first spraying the cleaner and then letting it be for a moment before calling upon the muscle required to loosen the hold of too many yesterdays.
Once I got started, the momentum of my work carried me beyond the emotionality to a place where all that lay before me was the task at hand. As I worked the brush against the porcelain, I noticed a tapestry of meaty blue veins upon my forearms, the consequence of years of physical training combined with the exertion of the present moment, and I discovered I was okay with that. These were no longer the supple limbs of youth but the arms of a woman who was strong and resilient and perhaps just the slightest bit jaded.
With the final rinse, I stepped back to admire my work and realized that I was all but drenched with shower water as well as my own sweat. It felt good to let go of all expectations and displays of daintiness; thus, rather than lightly flicking the hair from my eyes, I pushed it back with an open palm.
Shrugging off my wet clothes, I sauntered into Jäger’s room and headed toward his closet, where an array of solid-colored shirts hung, organized in no particular order. I then pulled a charcoal v-neck from the hanger, which couldn’t have fit more perfectly, and grabbed a pair of tattered jeans from his bureau.
Having had enough for one night in spite of the early hour, I threw myself onto the living room sofa and reached for the book that I had intended to read but knew I never would. I simply shifted my gaze toward the ceiling, trying to make what I could of Jäger’s absence, my newfound freedom and the dissonant turn of events that had brought me to this place.
When I awakened the next morning, I reached into the kitchen cupboard and grabbed a coffee mug, which I filled to the brim, before grabbing a slightly spotted banana from the bunch. It wasn’t yet light out; and, glancing toward the windows, I found myself face-to-face with my own reflection. I watched as I sipped my coffee, no longer a young girl in a flimsy nightie, but a mature woman who knew what did not fit and remained open and curious in the quest to find out what did.
A graduate of Northwestern University with a degree in literature, Kalyanii is the author of a collection of poetry, two stage plays, dozens of short stories and hundreds of articles. Her previous essay “Beat by Unlikely Beat” appeared on True Stories Well Told in August 2013. She currently works as a counselor and meditation instructor and enjoys wiling away her free time manifesting her culinary inspirations and reveling amid the magnificence of nature.