Where is the good noise? We are the true virus infecting our host, Mother Earth. The thoughts are profound, so I smile my way into another theory worth debating at length with my partner. Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” sneakily makes its way into our YouTube search histories. Remaining still enough to listen to my partner’s breath rising and falling every time we fall asleep at night is a therapeutic exercise. The following day, the sun’s rays lay their edges on our window sill at six in the morning. We wake up with this tremendous amount of light pouring through our New York City pre-war home. As if to fill a maternal void, we decide to adopt a short-haired cat I am initially allergic to, hoping that I will eventually stop sneezing. My cat friends remind me that it will be a struggle, but that soon enough, I won’t have to continue taking allergy medication. The many sacrifices we make for happiness are truly endless. I’m immune to that now, so I think about what it means to be alive during such a time.
One afternoon, I walk into a grocery store to buy food for our new cat companion. An older man who is checking out his items behind me suddenly asks if I am buying food for a cat before doing so for myself. The question strikes me because between our nervous laughs and my jokingly replying, “No, I just really love and care for her,” I sense that this old man’s question is rooted in a much deeper, troubling reality. The reality that whether or not we want to admit it or not, we are being forced to look at ourselves in ways that test our need to live. Beyond our rented apartments or private homes, we have stepped into a world, again, that is transforming in ways that transcend what former president Barack Obama meant when he said he was running on a ticket for change. Party lines cause me to feel more confusion than an urgent need for unity. Before I turn off the television at night, I wonder who else is turning off their screen too. By the time I look back a second time to see if the old man on the line is still there to debate these ideas with me, he is gone.
While driving home after this interaction at the store, I remember when I studied in Central America at the age of nineteen. I have always believed in respecting and honoring a culture that was far removed from the one of excess I had been so indoctrinated with in the United States. I then had the privilege to live in Cuba for a week and thought the same. I was back in one of my island homes, and I saw this in the faces of the people who looked so much like my own. The old man on the checkout line didn’t understand the foolish necessity in buying food for an animal before myself, so he framed his disbelief in the form of a bad joke. I then wondered if his partner had once bought food for their pet before considering him — perhaps I had struck a nerve. I have had many more encounters like this during the past seven months, and I’m losing count of the ones that have followed.
Before walking back into my apartment building with our cat’s food, I think about how structured time has ceased to exist. I revel in that fact because I no longer get paid to check myself at any person’s door. I work for myself during a time when others wish they would have started side hustles sooner. Friends and family are a lifeline, a necessary antidote to anything that is devoid of love lurking in the corners of every major city and rural town in the world. I make love with every morning I rise from my bed, and with those big, white sheets that don’t stay that color for too long because my sweat, my roundness and my smells are too much for my own body sometimes. They often protrude, smacking everything around me. The mask that we are forced to wear now — we ironically can’t and don’t seem to want to remove it. We’ve always been wearing masks, facades in tow, trying to arrive at what we think we know, but do we really want to know who we are beyond the superficialities? What are we really covering? Now is the only way forward. During this period of pause, we are now fresh and wide open.
I briefly meet and work for people from all walks of life, social classes, races, ethnicities, religions and political viewpoints — they welcome me into their homes peppered all over New York City. This city is my home and always will be, but the people I help don’t always know or care about that. Cash is always king. The intimate looks I get into their private moments teach me more about life during this quarantine than any other time. This kind of work was a side hustle once. I like to think I am free. Yet, I still wonder if they see me beyond my name, my hands, my face and words. Can they see books and love letters in my eyes? The struggle to know is real.
More often than not, my clients do not know I am college-educated, so they treat and speak to me as if I am just another immigrant, woman of color whose body they can use for things they can’t ever fathom doing themselves. I don’t allow them to know the truth. My body has always been and continues to be a vessel for complete devotion to a higher life force. My working body, within their homes, transcends and breaks through each wall in every room they inhabit — my labor has a higher purpose, you see? In reality, they pay me in reparations, again, again, and again — and because of that, I can’t lose.
I used to clean the homes of strangers after I left corporate office spaces, part-timing my body and imagination. During this quarantine, I think a lot about that time and its many meanings. I think about how my mom and her mom used to do the same. I remember how it felt to do this, so I’m going to tell you my side of our story.
Cleaning their homes is like uncovering secrets in the form of tangled hair, dust and grime. Cleaning their homes is remembering where the keys went after searching for five minutes, and it’s suddenly difficult to walk that line between fiction and reality. Cleaning their homes is a wealthy stranger sitting in the living room behind me, in their Upper West Side castle, and I’m trying not to laugh at how silly this situation is. Beyond moving cheekbones and lips, cleaning their homes is like washing feet that do not need to touch the floor, because tangled hair, mucus in the drain, dust and grime belong in their homes and not somewhere over our heads. Cleaning their homes is, as they open the door, I say yes, and yes, and yes, even when the floors and walls don’t know any better but to fold open and give themselves to me on my full lap.
Cleaning their homes is like scratching backs that itch without lotion in order to soothe the cracks between fingers accustomed to work and travel, through the tunnels. Cleaning their homes is like finding their keys and remembering why my ancestors were forced to close their own doors, our backs and arms firm and pressed against brick walls like the ones I almost felt in more than one narrow hallway. I’m tired of begging for things to change, so I create my own happiness, cleaning and de-colonizing every corner of my body where there is aching, molded dirt. America, I need you to find the strength in cleaning up your act too.