Making a Marriage Magically Tidy

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Modern Love

I have the reputation of living what Marie Kondo might call a magically tidy life. My tights are rolled like sushi, my tabletops are bare and my kitchen is so clean I could perform surgery in it.

I wasn’t always this way. When I was 23, I left my New York City apartment with a panty liner stuck to my back.

Yes, it was used. Yes, earlier that day, I had taken it off and tossed it onto my bed like a bear throws salmon bones onto a rock. Once it was there, I guess I forgot about it. It was probably camouflaged. I promise you there was other stuff on the bed. My bed used to look like a landfill.

Maybe I threw my coat over it and it stuck. And then I put my coat back on and rode a bus 30 blocks with a panty liner between my shoulder blades. Nobody said a word. I didn’t know it was there until my date gave me a hug and then peeled it off like he was at a burlesque show in hell.

This was not the man I married.

The man I married walked into my apartment and found Pop-Tart crusts on my couch. I can still see his face, bewildered and big-eyed, pointing at the crusts as if to ask, “Do you see them, too?”

I shrugged.

He sat on the sofa. It is my husband’s nature to accept me the way I am.

It is my nature to leave every cabinet and drawer open like a burglar. My superpower is balancing the most stuff on a bathroom sink. If I had my druthers, I would let cat puke dry on a carpet so it’s easier to scrape up. If druthers were things, and I had a coupon for druthers, I would stockpile them like Jell-O because you never know when you might need some druthers.

But it is one thing to accept a slob for who she is; it is another to live with her.

A year into our marriage, my husband said: “Would you mind keeping the dining room table clean? It’s the first thing I see when I come home.”

What I heard was, “I want a divorce.” What I said was, “Do you want a divorce?”

“No,” he said. “I just want a clean table.”

I called my mother.

She asked, “What’s on the table?”

“Oh, everything. Whatever comes off my body when I come home. Shopping bags, food, coffee cups, mail. My coat.”

“Your coat?”

“So I don’t hang my coat in the closet — that makes me a terrible person? He knew who he was marrying. Why do I have to change?”

She said: “Helen Michelle, for heaven’s sake, this is a problem that can be easily solved. Do you know what other married women deal with? Drunks, cheaters, poverty, men married to their Atari.”

“Mama, there’s no such thing as Atari anymore.”

“Helen Michelle, some women would be beaten with a bag of oranges for sass talk like that. You married a saint. Clean the damned table.”

And so, to save my marriage, I taught myself to clean.

Not knowing where to start, I knelt before the TV at the Church of Joan Crawford, who said, as Mildred Pierce, “Never leave one room without something for another.”

Yes, I’ll admit she had a temper, but she knew how to clean.

You scrub a floor on your hands and knees. You shake a can of Comet like a piggy bank. You hang your clothes in your closet a finger’s width apart. And, no, you do not have wire hangers. Ever.

I have wooden hangers from the Container Store. They’re walnut and cost $7.99 for a pack of six. I bought them online because stepping into the Container Store, for me, is like stepping into a crack den. You’re an addict trying to organize your crack, and they’re selling you pretty boxes to put your crack in.

Pretty boxes are crack, so now you have more crack. But wooden hangers are O.K. They’re like mimosas. Nobody’s going to OD on mimosas. Wooden hangers give you a boost of confidence. They make you feel rich and thin. They make a plain white shirt sexy. You promise yourself you’ll fill one closet, then you’ll quit.

But I didn’t quit. To keep my buzz going, I asked my husband if I could clean his closet.

He asked, “What does that mean?”

I said: “Switch out your plastic hangers for wooden ones. What do you think I mean?”

“I don’t know, something new for Saturday night?” He did the air quotes: “Clean my closet.”

My new ways were so new he assumed I was making sexual advances. It’s understandable. So much dirty talk sounds hygienic: salad spinning and putting a tea bag on a saucer. It’s like Martha Stewart wrote Urban Dictionary.

My husband opened his closet and stepped aside. The man trusts me. I rehung his closet with military precision.

He said, “I never knew it could be this good.”

We kissed. And then I relapsed.

I don’t know how it happened. Maybe it was leaving the Dutch oven to soak overnight. Maybe it was tepeeing books on my desk like a bonfire. Maybe it was shucking my panties off like shoes. And then my coat fell off the dining room table. And I left it there because the cats were using it as a bed. There it stayed along with laundry, newspapers, restaurant leftovers (that never made it to the fridge) and Zappos returns.

My husband played hopscotch, never uttering a word of contempt, seemingly O.K. to coast on the memory of a pristine home as if it had been a once-in-a-lifetime bucket-list thrill like white-water rafting or winning a Pulitzer. Sure, he could have put things away, but every closet except for his was bulging and breathing like portholes to other dimensions.

I scared myself straight by binge-watching “Hoarders.” What do you mean that woman couldn’t claw her way through her grocery bag “collection” to give her husband CPR?

That was not going to happen to me. So I gave books I had read to libraries. Clothes I hadn’t worn in a year went to secondhand stores. I gave away the microwave because I can melt Velveeta on a stove.

And then came Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.” Or as I like to call it, “Surprise, You’re Still a Hoarder!”

Her big question is, Does it spark joy?

I took a harder look around my home and answered. Boxes of novel manuscripts that were never published did not spark joy. Designer shoes I bought at sample sales but never wore because they pinched my feet did not spark joy. My husband confessed that his inheritance of Greek doilies and paintings of fishing boats from his grandmother did not spark joy. So out it all went.

And what is left is us. And my husband is happier. I’m happier, too. Turns out I like a tidy house. And I like cleaning.

Dusting is meditative. Boiling the fridge relieves PMS. Making the bed is my cardio, because to make a bed properly, you have to circle it like a shark. And all the while, I listen to audiobooks I would be too embarrassed to be caught reading. Not in the mood to clean a toilet? Listen to “Naked Came the Stranger” and see if that doesn’t pass the time.

The downside is that my husband has created a monster. I burn through paper towels like an arsonist. My vacuum has a headlight, which for fun I joy ride in the dark. And I don’t do it in pearls and a crinoline skirt. It’s not unusual for me to wear an apron over my pajamas.

I say: “Hey, it’s me or the apartment. We can’t both be pristine.”

Without hesitation, my husband will always choose the apartment.

Sometimes, I invite him to join in my efforts, offering him the most awful tasks as if I’m giving him a treat. I’ll say, “I’m going to let you scoop the cat box,” or “I’m going to let you scrape the processed cheese out of the pan.”

My husband says, “You’re like a dominatrix Donna Reed.”

I say, “Take off your shirt and scrape the pan, dear.”

He takes off his shirt and scrapes the pan. In our 21 years together, my husband’s nature hasn’t changed.

Me, I’m a recovering slob. Every day I have to remind myself to put the moisturizer back in the medicine cabinet, the cereal back in the cupboard and the trash out before the can overflows. I have to remind myself to hang my coat in the closet.

And when I accomplish all of this, I really do feel like a magician. Because now, when my husband comes home, the first thing he sees is me.