Monday, February 16, 2009

Dishwasher Disaster


Just days after I received my MFA degree, I got officially engaged (the idea had come up before, in a very unofficial moment). Perhaps my husband was afraid that otherwise I'd decide to go back to Chicago, where I was living before I attended graduate school. There had not been much danger of that, really. By staying in New York, I would be close to my family—the main reason I came back East rather than doing graduate work elsewhere—and also, New York still held its lure as a vital place for someone interested in the publishing industry. I was jobless and was waiting to find out about residencies at artists' colonies to which I had applied, all the while remaining pragmatic and working on employment options in the city. While in this state of limbo, I had a good amount of time on my hands, and much of that time I spent in the apartment that my husband then shared with his brother and another friend. Their place was on East 92nd Street, on the fifth floor of a brownstone walk-up; theirs was the top floor, plus an aerie comprised of two small rooms that opened onto a rooftop terrace. It was easy in those unscheduled days to make social plans, and so we offered an invitation to another couple (friends of his) and made our debut as an official domestic pair, hosting a dinner to start the tradition of conjugal hospitality that we hoped to extend to the mingled circle of our acquaintance. I don't remember what we cooked up to serve to these friends. And I don't much remember what we talked about once they arrived (other than recalling a brief moment of hot debate about Franco-Arab prejudices). Of that night, I remember in detail only one thing: the dishwasher disaster. Backtrack a bit. I was alone in the apartment for some time before anyone came through the door, including my husband to be, who was out working; including also his roommates. In their absence I was—or anyway I declared myself—responsible for cleaning the bachelor kitchen in preparation for our couples' evening. There were dirty dishes to be washed, an average amount (one could imagine it much worse). I loaded the dishwasher, poured in liquid detergent, and set the machine to work. In the meantime, I scrubbed vegetables, or cleaned shrimp, or performed some other culinary tasks, then decided to freshen up with a shower before anyone arrived. At this point, in self-defense, I should say that I had always done my dishes by hand in the kitchen sink. I acquired this habit from my mother, who did the same despite her having an automatic dishwasher available to her. I complained sometimes about doing dishes, but really I kind of liked it. I found it relaxing, even hypnotic—long before I understood that what I was doing when I washed dishes by hand was a form of zen meditation: dishes for the sake of dishes; focused only on wash, rinse, dry. Also in self-defense, I was not in my own kitchen. (This fact seems to be a good excuse, at least momentarily; it's also what amplified the feeling of desperation.) The bottom line? OK, yes, I should've paid more attention—or maybe I had paid attention; maybe I had actually noticed that what I poured into the liquid compartment of the dishwasher was regular dish soap. Of course, it's possible (I'm hoping) that you have made the same mistake. If you have, you know what greeted me when I came out of the shower and back through the kitchen: the floor quite wet already; a rabid, frothing foam of soap bubbles oozing out from the cracks around the dishwasher door. With good probability that my fiancĂ© would come home soon and discover my blunder, I was in a complete panic. I had no idea where the men of the house kept mops or sponges with which I could absorb the overflow, though I could (and did) look in the usual places. The more immediate concern was that I had no idea how to stop the dishwasher without making things worse by breaking the machine or who knew what else. (If I opened the door, would a mini tsunami of water and soap bubbles overtake me?) I did stop the dishwasher, somehow. Or else the dishwasher continued but the bubbles stopped oozing out. I managed to clean the floor. I remember at some point determining that it was safe to open the door to the washer, and I remember that my heart sank at the sight of a dish-den full of white fluff (no more water at that point, just "dry" bubbles in every open space). I pulled the dishes out, rinsed and dried them by hand. I scooped out the cavity of the dishwasher and chased the froth down the sink with tides of tap water. Somehow, I did manage to remove all evidence of the mishap. Eventually, I gave some vague excuse about why the dinner preparation was not further along when my husband-to-be showed up to tease me. No one was ever the wiser, but I am still (nearly a decade later) haunted by a sense of domestic ineptitude—a lingering fear that this early episode was perhaps not just an average accident but rather some kind of omen. I have of course, by now, mastered the art of dishwashing detergent. And I will always argue that the onus of  domestic duties does not in any event rest solely on my (read: the woman's) shoulders. Still, in a small frothy crevice of my mind, I drag this memory around like a secret shame and wonder what it means to me.

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