Cleaning Up to Settle In

“When someone hands you a flyer, it’s like they’re saying ‘here, you throw this away’.”  -Mitch Hedberg


Many people hate flying.  I usually love it.  However, when I left America to go to Korea for my second year of teaching English, I made the mistake of flying with a fucktard company called United Airlines.  A mechanical delay in Chicago caused a missed flight in San Francisco, an hour spent in a customer service line, a 24 hour layover, a morning flight to Vancouver, followed by a 12 hour flight to Seoul.  Upon arriving, I learned that my luggage had been lost along the way.

I blinked back tears in the airport, already wearing my only pair of underwear for the second day in a row.  And then I began the last lag of my journey to Pohang.  I felt both exhausted and pissed off throughout the five and a half hour bus ride.

I arrived outside of my apartment complex at 1 a.m.  I had to work later that day, but I was just so relieved to have finally made it home.  And, I was moving into a new home with a bigger fridge and more windows.  My coworker and neighbor, Samantha, had finished her teaching contract and left Pohang that morning, and I was changing apartments.

I walked up the staircase and stopped at my new apartment door, two rooms down from my home last year.  I opened the door and was greeted by the smell of dog.  I turned on the light and immediately saw a water bowl and crusty food dish with some pellets left over from her shih tzu.  I was too tired to be mad.  I dropped my backpack, de-clothed, and went to bed, only to realize that my jet lag prevented sleep.

After a restless night, I gave up on trying to sleep and decided to start settling in.  Little did I know how much work I’d have to do before I could make someone else’s apartment feel like my own.

When I had moved out of my apartment down the hall, I’d done a major scrub down, also known as a Move Out Cleaning.  This kind of cleaning sucks to do, but in America you don’t get your security deposit back if you leave your home trashed.  I’d moved nine times in eight years and was too cheap to ever leave filth in my wake.

Samantha had done no such final clean up.

I first did a brief walk through to assess how much stuff she’d left over for me to sort through.  There was stuff in the closet, stuff throughout the kitchen, on the kitchen table, and in the closet.  Even the washing machine had some wet fabric crumpled and sitting in the bottom causing the kitchen to smell faintly of mildew.  So, basically, not one piece of furniture was left empty.

Before I started cleaning, I wanted to rearrange the furniture and make the room feel like my own.  I thought it’d be step one to making the apartment mine.  I shifted the bed, dresser, desk and big chair until I found an arrangement I liked.  I threw away the dog toy that had emerged in the shuffle, and swept up the rectangles of dust and hair from where the furniture had been.  I already felt a little better.

During my move out clean in early December, I had decided to swap dressers with Samantha in preparation of my return a few months later.  I had emptied out my large dresser, wiped every drawer inside and out, and exchanged it with the smaller dresser and a TV stand from Samantha’s apartment.  Now that I was back, I was happy to see my old faithful dresser.  As I opened the drawers, I found that four were empty, two had a few several things in them, and two were filled with shit.


I picked up an empty garbage bag and carried it to the dresser.  I began sorting and dumping.  Leftover nail polish: save.  Unlabeled stacks of Korean medicine: toss.  Collections of pencils, highlighters, and pens: test out, save some, toss some.

Once the drawer was empty, I cleaned it out for the second time in two months, but this time to remove another girl’s hair.  Then I wiped up the dribble that ran down the front where something brown had spilled and hardened.

I periodically interrupted my cleaning to unpack.  I still didn’t have the luggage that was lost somewhere between North America and Asia.  However, when I left Korea, I’d also left behind all the clothes and shoes that I didn’t want to travel with.  I picked up my bags from a friend’s house, relieved to find extra underwear and jeans.  I unpacked my sandals and tennis shoes.  I had already thrown out the slippers and flip flops that Samantha left behind, and now I opened the shoe cabinet expecting emptiness.  Nope.  A pair of teal sandals with a note sat on the top shelf.  “You might be able to fix these.  If not, throw them away,” it said.  I glanced briefly at the broken plastic circle on the top of the sandal, and immediately threw the shoes away.

Why couldn’t she have sent me an email asking if I wanted her things?  “Hey Anna, I have some broken sandals that you might like.  Also, do you want my empty lighter, a few tablespoons of canola oil, or my dog shampoo?” she might have said.

“No thanks, I’m cool.  Just the sheets, towels, dishes and spices, like I told you in December,” I would have replied.

“You sure?  I have a lot of stuff and I don’t want to throw it all out,” she’d send.  “Like, those huge bottles of shampoo and conditioner that you inherited a year ago and gave to me.  I know you didn’t want them in 2010, but I still have them.  I can just leave them in the bathroom for you.  Ok?  And I know you have straight hair and all, but I didn’t use up my hair straightening cream.  You probably won’t have any use for it, but I‘ll leave it behind just in case you want to start straightening your already straight hair.  Mmmkay?”

I dreamed up endless ‘what if’s’ conversations as I hauled out my third bag of garbage and returned to cleaning.

In between cleaning and unpacking, I had to work.  I’d been out of work for nine weeks and had just hit the point where I was sick of being idle.  Now I was making up for my days spent relaxing.  I still couldn’t sleep well at night, and so my work days began with a large coffee because I feared nodding off at 4 p.m.  Every night and every morning, I resumed my cleaning.

For the most part, I was a throw-out machine.  But while some things are easy to guiltlessly throw away, like a lone toe sock or an empty jar, other things are harder, like clothes, books, jewelry, CDs, and full bottles of hair products.  I filled up two bags of still-usable things and carried them to work one morning.  I’ll throw this stuff in the teacher’s lounge with a note saying “free!” I thought.  Pawning it off on other people instead of throwing it all away allowed me to not feel like an enemy of the environment.

The bathroom wasn’t too messy, it was just cluttered.  The toiletries cabinet was completely filled.  I grumbled as I discovered the samples of skin whitening cream.  I’m not Asian.  I don’t have any use for Asian products like this.  Garbage garbage garbage.

After I conquered the dresser and bathroom, I knew I had to attack the one area I was dreading the most… the kitchen.

The previous year, I had often seen the black grime that collected in the track of the sliding door that split the kitchen from the main room in Samantha’s apartment.  Korea was a dusty place, and I’d had to clean out my own sliding door track twice a week to prevent build up.  I hadn’t asked her ahead of time to clean it up for me.  I’d assumed she’d want to clean out her own filth.  I’d also assumed no woman would leave behind her “Safe Suds” adult toy cleaner for the next resident when she moved out.  Silly Anna.

I sprayed cleaner on the black gunk for the 20th time in three days, got on my knees and began scrubbing.  Momentarily giving up on the onyx-colored side, I slid the door the other way to expose the less used side of the floor track.  This side was only charcoal-colored.  I picked out a fossilized dog treat, threw it away, and scrubbed until the track turned white.  Success!

When I moved on to the sink and stove area, I thought about a conversation I’d had with my mother the night before.  I’d been venting about how sore I felt getting stuck with this extreme household work load.  “Use your cleaning time in a meditational way,” she’d said like a hippie.  “Try not to feel angry when you’re cleaning.”

I wiped out the cupboards trying to put a positive spin on things.  I was a big fan of trying anything once. Often times I found myself doing something I never would have put on a bucket list, but was happy afterward that I’d done them.  I reflected on some stranger days in my past and tried to put this cleaning hell in perspective.  I made an imaginary checked- off bucket list.  Dance with a leper on Easter Island, check.  Write my name on a John Lennon tribute wall in Prague, check.  Clean up after someone else when moving into Korea, check. Any way I swung it, I couldn’t make myself like what I was doing. 

Samantha was a sweet tooth and I was not.  Having lived two doors down from her room and working next to her for a year, we were well aware of each other’s food and drink preferences.  For example, I hadn’t consumed honey since I was prepubescent, but she put honey in her tea.  I guess she’d forgotten this, because she left me a nearly filled bottle of honey.

I imagined another email from her.  “Hey, I’m leaving a bag of sugar and some honey that I didn’t use up.  They should last you the rest of your life, in case you decide you want to start eating sweet things.  Anyway, they’ll be in the kitchen, beside an empty paper cup, on top of some spilled salt and dead leaves.”

Ironically, she’d left behind a surprising amount of cleaning supplies.

I’d listened to three full CD’s as I cleaned the kitchen.  I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.  I started an Adele album at track 1 determined to finish by track 18.  Her bluesy voice soothed me.  I unstuck the portable stovetop from the small counter and all of my fingers were immediately covered in the goo that coated the back and edges of it.  I’d gotten to the point where discovering more slop was the norm.  So, not mad at all, I began spraying and wiping, my verbs of the day.

I began playing a mental game called ‘name that substance.’  Light brown flaky things stuck to the side of the cupboard; onion peel, obviously.  Mini mashed yellow colored balls and brownish stuff in the sink trap: old corn and meat, of course.  As far as the bright orange gunk that coated the stove and had splattered to the kitchen walls, I was at a loss.  Maybe she pan-fried marmalade, I thought.

I cleaned the kitchen to a satisfactory level, and decided to enjoy a workless weekend.

After two days of drinking and dancing with my friends, I had to face Monday.  I woke up to beautiful weather, perfect for hiking.  NO!  No hobbies until this place is immaculate, I thought.

The only obstacle left was the closet.

First, I took out a knot of about seven cords.  I untangled them and wrapped each one individually in a compact ball of loops.  Then I pulled out a suitcase that Samantha’d left behind.  It was heavy and had a broken zipper.

Inside was an empty box for a French press, an answering machine and a VCR.  How prehistoric!  It was like a time capsule to the 90’s.  I was totally unsure of why this was here, but it was just more shit for me to dispose of.  Then I peered to the back of the closet where I saw the worst surprise yet.  Mold.  The entire bottom two feet of the closet walls were covered in mold.  I guess it’s bleach o’clock. I thought, grabbing a fresh role of paper towels.

Again I imagined an email from Samantha.  “Hey!  I’m just doing the last of my packing.  I figure you might quit hating mushrooms long enough to eat the cream of mushroom soup that I never got to.  Also, there’s a shit ton of mold in the closet, but I don’t feel like cleaning it.  Would you mind…?”

And I’d probably cave in and say, “Fuck it.  Leave it all for me.  I can sort it out.”


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