"This is too perfect," Ellie said while scanning the clean lines of the tiny vacation apartment they'd rented in Osaka. "It's like being in a bento box." She slipped her shoes off in the depression at the doorway and shuffled out of the way so that Gordon could step inside and see for himself.
Gordon shook his head. "We'd absolutely destroy a place like this in, what?"
Ellie finished the thought. "Fifteen seconds? Three minutes?" They both missed the cue to share a laugh.
"Don't touch anything."
The ferry to Miyajima glided into port, locking itself in place like the snap on a new shirt. Ellie picked at the pilled sleeve of her coat. "I feel like a slob here." Gordon told her not to worry, but how could she not worry? They walked up the gangplank to the village which, like everything else, was perfect. "How do they do this? They work twelve hour days but there are perfectly manicured plants in front of every house. Everybody dresses well. Look at that–" she pointed at a deer eating an ice cream cone from a child's outstretched hand. "The deer? They have tame deer."
Gordon squeezed her shoulder. "I don't know." He kicked at the ground with scuffed sneakers. "I think the pavement is cleaner than my shoes."
They bought a tea set from a little boutique on one of the narrow walking streets. The proprietor was elderly and treated them with the utmost kindness, accepting Ellie's money with a bow and a smile. When he placed the bagged tea set in her hands she bowed back. Too quickly, she was sure. "Thanks. Arigato uh, goz, uh--" but the phrase had been lost completely to her, she didn't know if she was saying thanks or you're welcome which didn't matter because she couldn't finish the word anyway. The old man's face did not register the slightest offense.
Outside, Ellie handed Gordon the bag. "We are barbarians."
The cab from JFK sped over cracked and uneven roads, past ugly houses. The driver farted with great abandon, not even shifting in his seat to disguise the sound. The smell was earthy, perhaps fungal. "I don't want to see the apartment," Ellie said, modulating her breath. Gordon gave her a why not look, but he knew. "Remember how, before we left, we cleaned the place up? So that it would be nice to come home to?" Gordon coughed in such a way as to signal that he remembered. "Can you imagine what it will look like?" He shook his head. The driver farted again.
There had never been a no shoes policy in the apartment but as soon as they unlocked the door both of them scooted out of their footwear. Ellie nodded, acknowledging the new unspoken rule. At least they were on the same page. "God, this place." She ran her finger behind the toaster, loading it with crumbs and dust. "See how we live? This has to change." On the spot, both of them swore they would stop being slobs.
Gordon took notes as Ellie made proclamations. "First step, we inventory everything: clothes, dishes, whatever." Gordon asked when they should begin, both of them had to be back to their respective offices in the morning. "Let's start early, before work. We can't keep living like this."
They had Chinese delivery for dinner and were in bed by six. Jet lag. Both of their suitcases stayed packed.
Gordon woke up to little sobs. "What happened?"
Ellie's face rose from behind the foot of the bed, flushed and red-eyed. She held up the ragged little bag that contained their tea set. "It's broken. I packed it wrong and broke our fucking tea set. Look at the bag." It was torn and the lovely creases had been squashed out of it. "He cared about this. The old man really cared, you could tell. And I ruined it." Gordon got out of bed, pulling on his pants from the day before. He knew better than to attempt to talk her down. Between sniffles she said, "I'm calling in sick."
When Gordon got home that evening, the place was spotless. There were three garbage bags in the living room in front of the coffee table, each were labeled: clothes, knick-knacks, garbage. Ellie's cheeks were flushed. "We need to throw these out, donate these, and sell these. Immediately." Gordon wavered. He was going to ask if he got a say in the decision or maybe inquire about how many items in the bags belonged to him, but Ellie's face made it clear that questions would not be viewed in a favorable light.
"I can take those to the curb in a minute." He walked over to the couch. "Long day." He flopped down and laid his head back. The apartment was already looking nicer. The new cleanliness was comforting and they had made a promise to each other not to be slobs, but what if they were wrong? What if they threw away all of their stuff only to end up wanting it again? What was the backup plan?
"Take your shoes off." Ellie sighed while Gordon unlaced.
Within a week Ellie succeeded in transforming the apartment into their very own bento box. Gordon knew better than to ask about whether she'd gone to the office at all. A few mornings before, he paused at the door, implying the question with a tentative glance. "I don't have time for that right now," she'd said without looking at him. The subject was dropped. Arguments made his stomach hurt.
That weekend Gordon sat on the couch in his sock feet while Ellie gave the tour of the newly bento'd apartment, along with the rules: "No more than ten books in the house. One in, one out. Same goes for pictures, knick-knacks, souvenirs, kitchen goods, pants, shirts. Everything has to be justified." Gordon picked at his sweater. "That, by the way, needs to go." He should have said something, he liked his sweater even though it was a bit worn, but she was right. What was the alternative? Get in a fight? Keep living like a slob? He slid the sweater off over his head and handed it to Ellie. She gave him an ever so slight bow, folded the sweater, and placed it by the door in a small box marked 'donations'.
A few weeks later, Gordon came home to Ellie sobbing on the couch. When he rushed to comfort her she pushed him away. "Take off your shoes," she said between sniffles.
Gordon kicked his shoes off. "What happened?"
She pointed at a worn spot on the arm of the sofa. "See that? I was just watching tv and I don't know, fidgeting. I mean, what's wrong with me?" She demonstrated by flicking at the little scuff with her fingernail. "I can't even show you without making it worse."
Gordon couldn't help but notice how beautiful she was. Every hair in place, makeup subtle but perfect, each piece of clothing neatly pressed and matched. He put his arm around her but she pushed him away, saying something about how she didn't want to crease her outfit.
Rent was a problem, of course. Ellie had been let go after her first week of no-call no-shows and that left Gordon's salary, which was barely half of what hers had been. The first month wasn't that big of a deal, they were selling things off anyway. She refused to look for work. "I'm afraid that if I get another job, we'll just become slobs again. Look at you," she said, pressing her palm against the creases in Gordon's sport coat. "You can't even keep yourself together, how are you going to keep the apartment clean?" Gordon wanted to remind her that they wouldn't have an apartment if she didn't get another job, but he knew that was a futile line of reasoning, so he held her instead, but gingerly, as not to muss her hair.
Gordon thumbed through a pile collection notices. Ellie had arranged them in ascending order based on their surface area and thickness. There were never more than ten notices in the stack--as per the one in, one out rule. The consistent height and shape made the notices feel manageable but its reddening hue betrayed the seriousness of the situation.
The shower came on. No doubt Ellie was in her bathroom slippers, waiting for the water to heat up. Gordon knew he could walk out the front door right then without her noticing. He wouldn't even have to pack, since he'd salvaged some of his own things from the donation bags, just in case. They were waiting for him in a storage locker on the west side. Ellie would say that his barbarian life was waiting for him, if she knew.
Gordon looked over the apartment, briefly seeing it as it had been before: the overflowing bookshelf, the counter dusted with crumbs, too many dishes packed into the cupboard. Not particularly dirty or untidy but compared to the catalog-perfect life Ellie had created for them, it was chaos. She was right, they had been living an uncivilized life. How could he betray the promise they'd made? How could he be so ungrateful?
The stack of collection notices contained one from the west side storage facility. The letter was mid-sized, so it had been inserted toward the middle. Gordon slid it out and placed it into the recycling bin.
Ellie had done an amazing job with the pillow. Truly, it was the centerpiece of the entire sleeping arrangement. Bundled newsprint, tied like a parcel. A bit firm, but worth it for the clean lines. The black bodega umbrella was her idea, too. It sat at a rakish angle, keeping the sun away as they snuggled in on their perfectly folded felt bedroll. Foot traffic was relatively slow on the corner, it was away from the main pedestrian thoroughfare and obstructed with overbuilt scaffolding.
Gordon's gloves were fingerless wool. He'd snagged a thumb while gathering recycling and Ellie demanded that he cut the tips off the other fingers to match. It really did look good, he was glad that he listened. Their life had reached a perfect equilibrium. Personal tidiness had become both work and play.
"You know," Ellie said as she tightened twine over the pillow, "it's like meditation, keeping everything in its place. I don't think I could imagine our lives any other way." She paused to even out the knot with her fingernail. "I'm glad we got rid of the apartment." Gordon nodded as he settled into his side of the bedroll, being careful not to scuff the cardboard with his boots.