It is the summer of 2012. My husband and I walk into the sunny foyer of a house in Rocklin, California, holding our infant daughter. We are staring at its inside walls, upon which we plan to hang adorable photos. They will detail numerous moments worth remembering in our growing family’s lives.
Sunlight pours in from open wooden shutters surrounding the ground floor, up a level into the white tiled kitchen with a central island, and down into the lowered family room. Sliding glass doors open into the intricately landscaped yard beyond a peaceful, white wooden deck.
The elderly couple who live here glance at our faces, checking for hints. They relax when we smile.
Such nice people, this charming elderly couple, but they can’t manage the stairs anymore. They admit to a faded brown stain in the white dining room carpet that simply refuses to budge.
We shrug. It’s a tiny blemish in an otherwise perfect house.
Now it’s the summer of 2016. My husband and I have spent the last two weeks trying to scrub out four years of family, hoping to erase ourselves before the drones arrive.
The drones are scheduled on Saturday the second, part of a fancy video technique arranged by our real estate agent. They take an ariel view of the premises before zooming through rooms.
She also gave us the number of a good contractor, who has been scrambling in 108 degree weather to help fix up the place. He power-washes the stains and chalk marks that none of our scrubbing could conquer. He fills in the wall divots from clumsily-opened doors.
He fixes the outside devastation that toddlers, chickens, Sacramento heat and the California drought hath wrought. He uproots plant corpses and lays down sod, filling in everything else with black bark.
He works long hours, always chuckling about needing to beat the drones. He brings in a couple of other guys to help.
Meanwhile, we’re dumping and scrubbing like our lives depended on it. We take down photos of our kids in preparation of showing the house. We look past them, for the first time, to all the stains and marks. There are always drips of something red or brown. All over the windowsills, peeking out of the corners, and cresting along the walls.
Some forensic expert could find the point of origin in these splashes (“someone short fell… here… and apple juice sloshed out at a 25 degree angle along this wall), but to us, it’s the most tedious game of Magic Eye imaginable. Look along this bumpy white perpendicular surface and try to find beige patterns that don’t belong.
Oh! Looks like someone once got ahold of an orange marker. These pumpkin slashes were clearly intentional and spontaneous art.
It never ends, these decaying nooks and crannies. We find imperfections every time we look.
My husband and I were both such tidy people before having children. I detested any superfluous clutter and he spent ages inching furniture back in forth until it was perfectly symmetrical. “An off-kilter angle makes people uncomfortable,” he would tell me, as I watched him in disbelief.
We try… we try so hard, but we’re treading water. We’re swimming in clutter. Kids walk into a room and explode it by the time it takes to follow them. You always find errant Legos and forks. If not with your eyes, then with your vacuum or feet.
We have baby gates all over the house from attempts to contain the madness. Here’s the one we set up to block the bookcases when our kids were tearing up my books.
Brontë even went though a paper-eating phase. She would tear long vertical strips along the edges of her favorite pages, before stuffing the curly words into her mouth. She made a point of eating Princess Jasmine once.
We childproofed every drawer and every cabinet, but Bridget’s tiny hands could still snake up and around. She would grab lipsticks and eyeliners and grind their pretty colors into the white walls and bathroom carpet in a three foot radius in the time it took for me to get upstairs.
The carpet in the bathroom is white, because EVERYTHING IN THIS ENTIRE HOUSE IS WHITE. White walls, while tile, white grout, white linoleum, white carpet, white railings, and painted white wood. The porch is white. The microwave, oven and refrigerator are white. Doors, electrical outlets, and moulding… all white and all covered in a fine mists of stain.
Whoever thought white carpet in a bathroom was a good idea? This place is a giant petri dish for calculating entropy. What’s the big idea with designing complicated white surburband castles? It’s like people are TRYING to make everyone’s life a pile of suck.
What’s so bad about a little color? Natural wood is perfectly nice, as is gray grout. White inevitably gets dingy the more you handle it. You find your movements growing more ethereal, as if proper residents would float about the place.
Why do we do this to ourselves? White plastic appliances are terrible. They yellow, no matter what you do. I’m convinced it’s oxidation.
White shirts or tablecloths are alright. You can throw them into the washer with some bleach and they’re good as new. White carpet, though… Even adults have trouble with that. You step wrong once and down goes the coffee. Your fumble is now recorded for all time.
But small children? They’re walking time bombs of poor motor skills and no sense of consequences. They constantly move, almost shaking, never fully sitting, fumbling with whatever’s in their hands and forever taking on too much. They’re arms-waving enraged when you try to help them, yet drop practically everything they ever hold.
They never drop it straight down, either. They spray it across the room in an enormous arc like they run around with high-powered fans behind them. Every meal containing rice is shot into a million crevices as efficiently as though it had been loaded into a machine gun.
You try to control it, but it’s impossible without tying your kids to the wall. Toddlers are ingenious. One time, Brontë was taking a bath when she pulled out a giant block of Parmesan and started taking bites.
I have no idea how she got her hands on it or where she kept it stashed.
Saturday, the drones are coming. Thursday, we panic and hire a professional cleaner. There isn’t any more clutter, but we need someone skilled to attack the surfaces and floor.
She works for six hours. We come home and the place looks nice. John takes the day off on Friday to help me tackle anything left. We send our kids to their grandparents’ house to spend the night so we can hurry up and take the pictures the next morning without crazed midgets unraveling all of our hard work.
We move out the cat trees, we out away extra appliances, we clear surfaces and extra furniture, packing everything into the garage. Everywhere we go, we find new drips and splatters and marks. We grab sponges and use the rough sides to circle the blemishes out.
We wake up the next morning to hide out toothbrushes and trash cans in the garage. I work on the dingy fireplace is still dingy. John notices the chalk art on the outside window screens and takes them apart.
The drones are coming at one o’clock.
We don’t eat anything, because we can’t mess up the kitchen. It’s all white.
It’s one thirty and the drones aren’t here. John checks his email history and realizes the appointment was originally scheduled for two o-clock. Maybe there was some miscommunication on their end. We call our real estate agent because we don’t have the drone photographer’s contact number.
Our real estate agent is camping. She doesn’t answer. Maybe she doesn’t even have a signal.
We wait around until two and I’m getting dizzy.
Two passes. It’s 2:15.
We call again, just in case.
It’s two forty-five when we leave a note on our unlocked front door and head out. We need food.
We return later to find our pristine house undisturbed. Quiet. Something is wrong, but we need to pick up our kids.
I put my head in my hands and sigh.
Our house is perfect today.
I don’t know if it will ever look this good again.