Step one: The water needs to be scalding. It needs to hurt when you touch it. Step two: Pour a quarter-sized glop of dish soap into the sink. Let water run over the cap, so you don’t waste any. Step three: Watch the bubbles rise like clumps of white clouds, until they’re at a comfortable height with the water’s surface. When my father taught me how to wash dishes, he told me to always start with the plates, stacking them at the bottom; then the silverware, slipping them against the sides; and then the cups, turning them sideways with the surface of the water. He said it’s best to do dishes with a washcloth, so you can reach tricky corners in plastic containers and the rounded bottom of mugs. He hated sponges and those weird soap dispensing dish scrubbers—the refillable ones that break after a week of serious use.
Cleaning was important when I was little. Everything had to be spotless; the counters needed to be wiped, the stove scrubbed and sanitized, the pantry and cabinet doors wiped daily. Our living room was vacuumed everyday and dust was never allowed to settle anywhere. Growing up, it was me and my siblings’ responsibility to maintain our small living space, which is normal for most households, but our father seemed to take it a bit too seriously.
As far back as I can remember, my father has been in food service. He’s worked at various restaurants. When Chili’s stopped cooking meat on fire grills, switching to electronic warmers, that was all my father talked about for a month. When Applebee’s cut his holiday pay and sent him a measly check of $1.75, his supposed Christmas bonus, he gave it to me, mumbling a sarcastic, “Buy yourself something nice.” And when Red Lobster tossed out a bunch of waiter aprons and order books, he snagged a few for my brother and I. It made playing “restaurant” in the red dirt outside our grandmother’s house after school much more realistic. Chili’s, Applebees, Red Lobster, Weck’s, Country Family Kitchen, Olive Garden, and Doc’s Diner. A waiter. A waiter. A waiter. A dishwasher. A cook. A dishwasher. And a cook. My father had a lot of experience in kitchens, which might have been why he was so particular about our own.
At first, my relationship to cleaning and dishwashing was ill-natured. It caused anxiety, invisible hands tight around my throat, an invisible knife against my stomach, with its invisible blade grazing my skin. My dad was an alcoholic with a temper. The number one cause of his tantrums: a “messy” house. My father’s definition of “messy” was an unwiped fridge door in a freshly mopped kitchen; it was a disorganized potholder drawer in an alphabetized pantry; it was a forgotten school bag on a vacuumed couch or a TV remote facing the wrong way on a clean coffee table. Eventually, “messy” became synonymous to dangerous. If we cleaned “the right way” before our father got off work, if we helped prepare dinner “the right way” before bedtime, and if we cleaned up after dinner “the right way” before our father retreated to the garage, then we’d retreat under the covers—an unspoken safe space—and escape to school in the morning, only to repeat it all over again. Cleaning made me anxious. Did I get everything out of the microwave? Would he notice that piece of rice at the back? Are the couch pillows settled right? Does this one look like it’s leaning too far to the left? Is this spoon clean enough? Scratching it with my nail isn’t working, should I use my teeth? The butter looks too close to the cheese. Maybe if I angle it closer to the milk it’ll look better? This continued until I left for college.
The summer before my junior year at Brown, things got a little more complicated. My father harassed me via text and over the phone when drunk, and all my anxiousness, strung out like wet rags over an overflowing kitchen sink, made the surface of my skin sticky. Old tics and thoughts stuck to the inside of my mouth, forcing their way down my throat one by one. It reached a point where I thought someone was always watching me. In the corner of my eye, I swore I saw the dark silhouette of a person. Something was leaning over my shoulders, its eyes sharp and judgmental, while I washed dishes or picked up trash in the common room. If I didn’t do things “the right way,” then I was convinced something bad would happen. It felt like I was twelve years old again, in my father’s house, hyperventilating in the bathroom because we ran out of dish soap and I knew I’d be blamed for messing up dinner with no clean dishes. Cleaning, and everything associated with it, felt unconquerable. I thought I was always going to feel this way—afraid.
Fast forward two years, and I’m living off campus with two friends. One day, while I was washing dishes, one of my roommates peeked over my shoulder and said, "You always wash the dishes so fast, it's impressive." I froze, my fingers clutching the dish brush uncomfortably, before releasing a quiet breath and laughing.
“Really?” I asked.
My roommate nodded.
“Washing dishes was a big thing with my dad. He hated dishwashers,” I said.
My roommate did a little “ahhh,” and raised her head.
“Yeah, he really hated dishwashers.”
The conversation ended with both of us chuckling. I turned back to the sink, feeling a little sad, but mostly a little amused. For as long as I could remember, my brain went into autopilot while I cleaned. Nothing felt real, and all I could hear was white noise. When I finished, everything felt disorienting as I returned to consciousness, allowing myself to feel sensations and react to things again. But something about that moment, an unexpected exchange between friends—a brief interruption, rippling like scattered soap suds—shifted my perspective. I can be present while I clean in this space. I can let my thoughts fill the sink and spill onto the floor without dangerous consequences, lining them up like wet mugs on a drying rack and then returning them to a warm cupboard. From then on, cleaning slowly turned into something more therapeutic.
Everyday, I’m reminded that the friends I live with are kind. They’re understanding. They’re compassionate. They make me lunch after class, or surprise me with linguini pasta—because regular spaghetti noodles are boring—for dinner. They make me coffee in the morning, three scoops (or four if we’re feeling adventurous) in the French press, and refilling the ever-depleting sugar jar. They watch movies with me in our living room, leaning back against worn couches we carried up two flights of stairs in the summer heat. They tease me about candles and I tease them back—“cinnamon apple spice is the superior fall candle.” I lay in our living room without feeling uncomfortable or unsafe. I dance in the kitchen and slip-and-slide on the wooden floor in our hallway with my socks. I’ve found a space with people I care about, and who care about me. Where I can just exist—in whatever way I need. I can be present while I clean here. I can be present here. I can be here.
Of course, I’m still afraid. I don’t think I’ll ever get over my fear. Things will still be complicated and pesky anxious thoughts will still be pesky anxious thoughts—a ring stain on the sink that fades with each passing day. I don’t expect everything to heal quickly. I don’t expect every cleaning session to be therapeutic. But, as I allow myself to be present again, I will appreciate and acknowledge the peacefulness. I’ll take my time, letting warm water run over my hands: not scalding, not harsh. I’ll close my eyes, listening to broom bristles swoosh and swish against the kitchen floor. I’ll hum along to music, a collection of Broadway hits and anime J-pop songs, a serving spoon becoming a faux microphone. And as I’m nearing the end of my thoughts, I think back to a night while working at Andrews. I always volunteer to mop. Everyone hates mopping, but I love it. After explaining why, a coworker-friend of mine just nodded and smiled. “I get it.” He said, “It’s like meditation.” I had to think about it for a bit, but eventually, I agreed. What might have started as an anxious tic with traumatic origins has become something peaceful—something meditative and, ultimately, healing.