by Annie Murray
Damian Gavin was pretty much exactly what I expected. Tall, dark, and marginally handsome, he wore lavender tailored dress shirts with too many buttons undone and leather flip flops. He did something with debts and mortgages, and when he was home, he was usually in his office, the door half open and revealing jittery legs and ardent pencil-chewing.
I was his cleaning lady.
My best friend Caitlin and I had fallen on hard times—both financially and with each other—during the year we spent abroad as World Travelers after graduating from a small private college in Ohio. We were living on the south coast of England and in a last-ditch effort to save our trip (and friendship), we were cleaning Damian Gavin’s penthouse. Usually, he left as soon as we got there.
His flat was impressive in its size, its newness, its faint smell of paint and carpet fibers, in its south-facing wall that was not a wall but a wall-sized window that, six stories up, revealed a dramatic view of the English Channel. But it was unimpressive in its perpetual state of just-moved-in. The walls were white; the carpets, beige. No pictures hung, no photographs taped to the fridge or propped up on end tables.
No end tables.
No couch even, for the first few weeks we cleaned Damian Gavin’s apartment. Just ambient light and stacks of paperwork, communities of clutter.
We slipped into a routine. Caitlin did bathrooms. I did kitchens. Caitlin dusted and vacuumed. I mopped and ironed. On our first day, I carried my bucket to the kitchen, and she headed straight for the bathroom. I turned the tap on to let the water run hot. Spraying the countertops with a citrusy foam, I jumped when I heard Caitlin scream.
“What is it?” I called, dropping the bottle and running to the bathroom.
Caitlin stood between the toilet and the bathtub.
“Pubes! Everywhere!” She grimaced.
From my post in the doorway, I could see the wiry black hairs stuck to the tub. “Maybe they’re chest hairs?”
“They are not chest hairs.”
I laughed, the sound smacking against the silver fixtures and ceramic tile. “Well,” I said. “You’re the one who loves bathrooms.”
We decided early on that we would hate Damian Gavin. It had nothing to do with his extraordinary rate of hair loss and everything to do with the fact that inside his apartment, Caitlin and I found some small plot of common ground. We began piecing his life together through opened mail lying in relaxed trifolds, receipts, empty bottles of paracetamol. Lager in the fridge, frozen dinners, chopsticks wrapped in wax paper. Sometimes our discoveries were amusing, a broken cork floating in a bottle paired with boxer shorts bearing a merlot stain. Someone had too much to drink last night, eh? Sometimes they were infuriating, a receipt for an ironing service that had charged him more for four shirts than we did for two full hours.
One day Caitlin walked into the kitchen with an odd look on her face. She handed me a greeting card.
“He’s a dad,” she said simply.
I opened the card and a picture tumbled out. Picking it up, I looked into the big brown eyes of a baby with a dark shock of hair and a smile revealing a not quite full set of teeth. The front of the card said, “For Daddy.”
I tried to keep hating Damian Gavin, but I couldn’t seem to get it right after that. There was suddenly something profoundly sad about the emptiness of his swanky penthouse, a shape having been made, the outline of what was missing. It wasn’t a couch after all, or an end table. The place pulsed with the absence of a baby gate, the lack of sippy cups.
I set the ironing board in front of the window-wall, and as the steam rose off Damian Gavin’s boxer shorts, I looked into the unbroken expanse of water, the blue-black vastness and the green slivers that hinted at sandbars, shallow patches, disruptions beneath the surface. The occasional sharp white of a capping wave that balanced for a breathless second before collapsing into the infinite folds of the sea. The pier carved into the water with such obvious futility.
Did Damian Gavin sit in the emptiness of the beige and white room, in a t-shirt and boxers, and stare out the window during the quiet of night? Did he wonder if that dark-haired baby was fussing on the shoulder of a woman he’d once known? I imagined her shoulder to be freckled; her neck, swanlike and pale. How long had it been since he had held that baby? Held her? I bet Damian Gavin replayed conversations in his head, not just theirs, but insignificant conversations, ones he’d had with clients, with friends, probably even with us. Did I sound too curt? Will they think I’m a jerk? Perhaps he fell asleep on the soft beige fibers, not wanting to disrupt our crisp hospital corners and calculated pillow arrangements.
I developed a blister on my index finger. Damian Gavin never dried his clothes completely, and they’d fall from the dryer, tangled in themselves, damp and aggressively wrinkled. I’d iron the same item over and over, letting the heat slowly dry dress shirts, trousers, undershirts, and socks. Steam and sweat clung to my skin, and my index finger turned red and angry. But looking into ocean and listening to Caitlin hum as she scrubbed the bathroom sink, I could understand Damian Gavin, and I could forgive him.
Annie Murray lived on the southcoast of England for five years and is currently working on a travel memoir about her time there. She has just completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the NEOMFA program. She will be teaching part time as YSU this Fall.