We walk into my bedroom, where the Tidying Expert senses immediately that I have too many books. The term “book hoarder” is on the tip of her tongue. She wears a fresh mint-green cardigan and peers menacingly over a clipboard.
“We’ll start by putting the books in the center of the room,” she says, pointing to a bare spot on the carpet next to the cat.
“Pull them off the shelves?” I ask, already reaching for Thornton Wilder, who has been piled on top of Percival Everett, who has been piled on top of Eudora Welty.
“We’ll discard the ones you won’t return to,” she says crisply, as I bring stacks of books to the dumping ground. Soon, we are waist-deep in Willa Cather and Dennis Johnson, Sharon Olds and Millay, Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers.
The Tidying Expert holds up a pale pink paperback I’ve had since high school, Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.
“Does this spark joy in you?” the Tidying Expert asks, waving the book at me.
“No,” I say, thinking of Heathcliffe and Catherine. “Great heartbreak and longing, actually.”
“Toss,” she says, cruelly, flinging it toward the trash pile. The cat flees underneath the bed.
The Expert holds up Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City.
“What do you feel now?”
“The weight of adulthood.”
“And this,” she says, holding up Amy Hempel’s Collected Stories.
“That there’s more to say, but we’re better off not saying it.”
Next she holds up a Charles Dickens. “The spine doesn’t look cracked,” she observes, raising a well-plucked eyebrow.
“Some books you have to grow into,” I say, avoiding her eyes. “Or it could be a replacement copy.”
“Toss!” she says, a fiendish note of pleasure in her voice.
“What about this one?” she asks, clutching Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. “How does this book make you feel?”
“Inadequate,” I say. “As if I should take myself more seriously.”
The cat, sensing a pause in the conversation, creeps out from underneath the bed and rubs her neck against my shin.
“Does the cat bring you joy?” the Expert asks, eyeing the cat suspiciously.
“Yes,” I say. “And the severed heads of mice. We’re keeping her.”
Next we move to the desk area, where the Tidying Expert is appalled to find plastic bins full of novel drafts and copyedited manuscripts. “Will you ever look at these again?” she asks.
“Never,” I say.
“Toss!” she says.
“Do they bring you joy?”
“Copyedits are like being eaten alive by piranhas,” I explain.
“Perhaps if you were more discerning with adverbs and commas?” she says, a smug grin on her face.
“Is copyediting also your area of expertise?” I ask.
“No,” she says. “But someone who collects magazines and cracked china shows bad judgment and an inability to let go.”
“Your living space,” she continues, “is an externalization of your mind. If your living space is messy–”
“Oh,” I say.
“If this room is an externalization of my mind, I feel absolved. My mind is a mess! Two novels percolating, maybe an essay collection about primates. And all that swirling around my anxiety, scraps of remembered conversation I want to put in a story, a mental to-do list about submissions and thank you-notes to book stores that are two years too late. In fact, this room looks altogether too clean.”
The Tidying Expert rolls her eyes.
“Have you seen my internet search history?” I ask.
“Thank God it doesn’t take up space,” she says. “Let’s move onto your closet, shall we?” she asks, looking fatigued. She walks over to my bureau and opens my sock drawer.
“You should really pair your socks,” she says, shaking her head.
“Aren’t matching socks sort of aspirational for a writer who works from home?” I ask. “Some days I don’t even wear pants.”
She looks at me with a blank face.
“How do you hang your pants?” she asks.
I return her blank face.
“Do you even have pants?” she asks.
“Yoga pants and leggings.”
“I mean slacks. Pants for grown ups.”
“Sure,” I say, remembering a few pairs. “I keep my fancy clothes in the closet for readings.”
“Good,” she says. “Let’s go there.” Then, after rifling through my meager selection of unused slacks, she moves to the tops and selects a blue silk blouse. “How does this make you feel?”
“That sometimes I have better taste than ability.”
“Toss.” The Tidying Expert then finds my stack of childhood journals, stuffed inside a shoebox on the floor of the closet.
“How do these make you feel?”
“As though I want to listen to Boyz II Men, and talk about souls. And Keanu Reeves.”
“Why do you live with such clutter?”
“I’m nothing without my clutter!”
“When I was young, I used to experiment with stacking socks vertically,” she says. “I realized all the ways I could use shoebox tops to organize toiletries.”
“When I was young, I locked myself in my room and listened to the same George Michael song over and over again and underlined Sylvia Plath poems.”
“Listen,” the Tidying Expert says. “I think you’re making this harder than it has to be. Even a child can find joy in tidying.”
“You’re welcome to bring some children over and let them tidy my house. I can’t really afford a house cleaner right now anyway.”
“Your productivity would only increase with cleanliness!”
Exasperated, the Tidying Expert gathers her carefully hung trenchcoat and handbag, one I bet doesn’t have any ink stains on the interior lining, or free-floating Moleskin notebooks. She walks to her clean car, which I know has no past-due library books underneath the seats, or rogue breath mints stuck to the inside of the console.
I step outside to wave goodbye.
She starts her car and rolls down the window. “Just think,” she says. “If you tidied, you’d have so much peace.”
“I know,” I say, imagining the bare living room, blank desk space, and clean mind. “And no conflicts, no inspiration. I’d have nothing whatsoever to write about.”
The Tidying Expert nods at me, and drives off into the horizon, a soldier of order battling the ceaseless mess of the world.
Me—I collect it—hauling it back to my desk, fighting with it. I line my drawers and the inside of my head with sticky, beautiful, confounding mess.