the cleaner

I found the business card on the windshield of my silver Subaru. If the cheap flimsy paper wasn't a giveaway, the misspelled words and phone numbers chaotically arranged on each corner, should have been enough. Was this for housecleaning, window washing, or carpets -- and did it matter? It didn't, I needed my humble two bedroom apartment cleaned, and this card was demanding that I "call now." I did.

The first time I called I hung up at the beep; I guess I was startled by the computerized woman's voice. It terrified me in a way that felt incriminating, like I was a party to some sort of unseemly activities. I called back minutes later after I realized the paranoia was unwarranted. I left my information on the machine and waited for the return call when the negotiations would begin. I knew this part would be so much fun with my faithful guilt complex in tow.

Having guilt, though making me appear as a more understanding, sympathetic human, almost always puts me at a disadvantage -- and when it comes to the art of bargaining, my lack of game is particularly glaring. Being the daughter of a Spanish father and an apologist mother probably has something to do with this pathology.

I remember when my parents first came to visit me at college, we were sitting in a quaint, quintessentially Santa Cruzy restaurant and the lesbian couple next to us was discussing the genocide of the Native Americans by the Spanish. My father couldn't care less; he was more fascinated by the fact that two real life lesbians were just steps away. My gringa mother, on the other hand, had to enlighten me, in a raised voice no less, as to what really happened, "...because if the Spanish didn't come to America and domesticate the savages, they would have killed each other off long ago and we wouldn't be sitting here enjoying this lovely meal." So maybe now you can understand where this white liberal, self-loathing conquistador guilt complex stems from.

After a few games of phone tag with a boisterous man named Manny, we finally made contact. Oddly enough, it was like I was arranging for a prostitute through a pimp. "Ok, what do you want?" He inquired.

"Uh, what does she do?" I meekly wondered aloud. "Well, just about anything." I let him know the size of the apartment, and that most of the work would be with the kitchen and one bathroom in particular, the rest of the place just required the regular cleaning action. And although I knew that there was also something on the card that mentioned free laundry service for all first time customers, I decided to let that one go because I really wanted them to concentrate on the messiest parts.

Manny quoted me $200, ignoring the $40 to $90 prices that were listed-- I guess he knew who he was dealing with. But even I have my limits: "Um, yeah that's too much." He was happy to bring it down to $90 with the condition that I tell my friends about the company. There would also be the $20 tip for the lady. I didn't mind settling the gratuity ahead of time, even if she didn't deserve it; it spared me the stress of having to decide on my own. "On second thought, maybe you'd better have $120, just in case” Manny cunningly asserted.

Whatever. It was my first time, and I rather liked that all of these issues were coming up now instead of on the day of the job. "OK Mam, call me the day before the job otherwise we might forget." Isn't he supposed to call me? We established a time and I was off to tell my doubting Thomas of a husband—who just so happens to be named Tamas—what I had just arranged.

"You what!?" Don't get me wrong, we are not one of those couples, incessantly in disagreement or plagued by misunderstandings. We are both very reasonable and see eye to eye in most situations, save for cleaning. I hate to clean, don't have time for it, but can't function without everything being tidy. The husband, on the other hand is the beneficiary of my neurosis. Because I can't stand a mess, I take care of things before they ever get to that point. At least that was the case until I broke my ankle. For about four months cleaning was no longer a priority. This meant that he was in charge of the abhorrent housework; and for a man to be in charge of the cleaning means that the place turns into a shambles. He tried his best, but what I see, he does not and I didn't want to be petty so I let it go.

But when he freaked out about me hiring someone to clean I was slightly peeved. Fortunately, it didn't take too much coaxing on my part to get him to accept the fact that someone was going to come and, unless he was ready to do some serious scrubbing, he better be able to stay out of the way on Saturday morning.

The phone woke us up that day. The man on the other end was the pimp proxy but he identified himself as Javier. There was lots of noise in the background, so I barely made out that the cleaning lady would be at my place two hours after our scheduled meeting time. That was fine with me though because I still needed to do the preliminary cleaning and explain to my husband the necessity in doing so.

Tamas was dumbfounded. “I thought the point of hiring…”

“No dear, you don’t understand, we don’t want her to waste her time cleaning the easy stuff that we can do.” So just as he was about to roll his eyes, I rolled out of bed and for the next two hours dedicated my entire being to making our apartment as clean as possible. When I finally finished I lit a candle to mask the stench of cleaning chemicals -- wouldn't want her to think I was undermining her efforts. The phone rang. It was Javier again: "The lady is looking for someone to watch her son; she is running a little late."

Twenty minutes later there was a pounding at the front door. It was the Javier, the lady and her son. Javier was handsome, though shady, he acted as if he had no idea of the price I'd been quoted by Manny, or the work I'd requested. And Rosa, before we even had a chance to be properly introduced, rummaged underneath my sink, presumably in search of cleaning products. Unsuccessful, she headed over to the guest bathroom and remained inside with the door closed for several minutes. I could only imagine what she was doing when I heard the toilet flush, not once, but twice.

In the meantime, Javier was getting the cute little boy cozy on the sofa; while I stood awkwardly in the middle of my own living room not sure of what to do with myself. Unabashedly, Javier told me that Juan would like to play Play Station. "Um, Ok" I figured if I could make the cleaning lady happy via her son, she would do a really good job. But there was a slight problem. I'd never played Play Station and my husband had locked himself in the bedroom tending to his own work. "Sweetie Pie?" My face was red and I couldn't believe what I was about to ask him. "The kid wants to play video games." "Kid!? What kid? Who?" "She brought her kid, I know it's weird but we want her to be happy and do a good job, it'll be fine, come, come PLEASE." He was surprisingly a good sport about the whole thing, though I did sense the schadenfreude he was considerately attempting to repress.

So as my husband made painstaking efforts to find an age appropriate game for Juan, I was being hustled by Javier and Rosa. Apparently the efficacy of Zout is short lived--old wine stains, coffee, shoe prints were once again rearing their ugly faces. First it was $150 to do the whole place, then $100, finally down to $80. I'm a sucker for a good deal and a clean carpet, so I figured it wouldn't hurt to "ask my husband" who by this time had retreated to the bedroom again. "Dear, he's offering us a really good deal to clean the carpets." The simplest look of disappointment speaks volumes. I reported back to Javier that my husband didn't think we should do it now.

Fifteen minutes later I was still trying to defend the honor of the current status of our carpets. Thankfully, Juanito interrupted to ask me to ask Tamas to come help him. The brat now needed to know how to shoot. "Uh, love of my life…" without hesitation he helped Juan and then started to return to his sanctuary, but not before Javier got on his case about—that’s right— the carpet. I couldn't deal with it, so I went over to the kitchen to see how Rosa was doing. She had started cleaning the microwave and was doing a really good job; I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was going to give it away. Javier finally gave up on the carpets and said he was going to go pick up another woman to help Rosa. “So maybe now I can relax a little” I quietly mused.

Gun shot noises, spaceships and yelling resonated through the wall of the living room into the room where I was holed up. Oh, how I cowered at the thought of telling Juan to turn down the TV. But for less my own good than that of my husband's, I softly stepped over to the remote to adjust the volume. Juan was bored anyway and wanted to play something else. "Too bad kid, you've exhausted my patience." I think to myself.

And then sixty excruciating minutes later there was another knock at the door. This time Javier was with an elderly woman named Lupe who I understood to be his mother. Javier, then, without so much as a “good bye” swept Rosa and Juan out of our place and let me know that Lupe would finish up.

Within twenty minutes I hear Lupe in the kitchen cursing in Spanish, "Ay dios mio, este hija de puta!" Basically that Rosa who had spent the last two hours cleaning was incompetent and didn't do shit. I ran out to ask Lupe if she needed anything. She was disgruntled all right. She said there was no way she could finish in an hour and that if I wanted her to come back to finish I should call her directly and yeah, "Rosa did a horrible job." I told Lupe that I didn't know there was a time limit and that we just agreed on what would be completed. It didn't faze her. Why argue? I went to the closet and dug out the vacuum. I helped her while she focused on cleaning the stove.

Once the stove was shiny I asked Lupe to start on the less manageable of the two bathrooms. After half an hour, she came out, did some perfunctory dusting and then said, "All finished." Since I had already paid Javier there were no further exchanges necessary.

After she left, I ran to the bathroom to do the inspection. It looked no cleaner than what I had already done. Mildew was still on the shower doors and soap scum was on the walls of the tub.

I rushed back to the kitchen, where both Rosa and Lupe must have spent a combined time of three hours. At first glance the kitchen looked great-- a clean stove has that affect. But with a sharper eye, I saw that the stove fan was still covered in grease and the top of the refrigerator was dusty. Sure the stove was sparkling, but then I looked closer and saw that one of the burners had snapped out of place. I spent the next forty minutes trying to figure out how to fix it. Unfortunately my husband revealed himself at the wrong time when I was down on all fours, scrubbing the kitchen floor, which had merely been swept by Lupe and I think Rosa too.

So as I sat there, with sweat dripping down my brow, looking up at my husband with that smug, "I'm about to make a smart ass comment" face of his, remarkably, I didn't feel like such the fool after all. My apartment was a lot cleaner than usual and I learned a huge lesson: don't exploit people unless you’re prepared to duly compensate. What was I thinking?

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