Leaving the grocery bags in the hallway was a risk, but not a big one compared to allowing the virus a foothold in her apartment. Jeanne had an established routine intended to keep it clean.
She left her shoes in the hall, being careful to step out of one and into her apartment, and then the other, and noticed a quarter-sized smudge at knee-level on the outside of her door. She’d seen it before, as there were various scuff marks below it. The hall was just filled with scum, and her strategy had been to avoid it instead of trying to remove it. Isolate it.
She took off her jacket and spread the inside on the floor, then knelt in the doorway and unloaded the dozen or so items from her shopping bag, carefully avoiding touching it and keeping her knees on the inside of the threshold and placing the items on her unfurled coat. When she stood, she peeled off her gloves and threw them behind the door. Her unpacking gloves were on the table on the other side of the door, along with her sanitizer spray and stack of reusable wipes. Jeanne rubbed sanitizer on her hands and up past her wrists and onto her forearms, singing not two but three refrains of Happy Birthday. Then she donned her unpacking gloves, sprayed sanitizer on a wipe, and reached down for the first item.
The cardboard box of pasta looked clean enough but Jeanne knew that what she looked for was invisible to the naked eye, hiding in plain sight. Holding it in her left hand, she wiped the sides and one end of the box, then flipped it and wiped the sides again along with the other end. Patches of cardboard seemed to darken like they always did when she got them partially wet, but they’d dry and, better yet, maybe that meant she was killing bacteria and virus embedded in the paper fibers. She placed the box on the kitchen counter as far away from the sink as possible, walked to the door and dropped the wipe in the grocery bag. Just because the package said “reusable” didn’t mean doing so was a good idea.
A rigorous rubdown of her gloved hands with sanitizer and she was ready for the next item, an apple. Fruit was harder to clean because organic material was porous, which meant that even the best cleansing of the exterior might not touch germs that had worked their way deeply into the item, or had been there since it had been a seed. She put an extra dose of sanitizer on a new wipe and rubbed the apple until her hand got tired, then changed hands and did it some more, so much so that she could see the white interior through a few spots through skin she’d rubbed away. Good. She also put it on the counter, though not next to the pasta because it would end up in quarantine in the fridge for a few days before she’d eat it.
The wipe went in the grocery bag, she sanitized again and readied a new wipe for the next item, and so it went until she had put all the packaged goods on one side of her countertop and the apple and a green pepper on the other.
Then she flicked the last wipe into the bag in the hall and crumpled it shut and carried it into her apartment and directly to her garbage bin, which she opened with her foot. The bag fell to the bottom, followed by her unpacking gloves. Her mask would stay on until she’d sealed the garbage and finished her routine.
Jeanne rubbed her hands, which were abraded raw from so much washing and alcohol. But they are near full clean. So many lines crisscrossing her palms, some of them deep crevices that could harbor any number of dangerous diseases. She rubbed them together and thought of how many things she’d touched just that day, not to mention throughout her life. Doorknobs. Touchscreens. Elevator buttons. Products on shelves and clothes on hangars. Other people. So many handshakes, so many times she’d touched them and so many times they had touched her. High fives. Pats on the back. And sex.
Jeanne was not going to let the virus touch her, not now and not ever again, now that it had been exposed as an evil agent trying every which way to get into her apartment, into her body. It might be everywhere but it wasn’t going to be anywhere in her apartment. Not now, not ever. The pandemic would pass but her vigilance would remain absolute. Once she’d seen the underlying truth, she could never look away. She couldn’t see it but she saw clearly what she had to do.
The next step in her routine was to put on another pair of gloves and prepare another wipe, and open her front door to move her shoes onto her coat so she could cleanse them, top to bottom. She was careful to place each cleaned shoe by the doorway and not back onto her coat. Once that was done, she folded her coat on itself and used her foot to open the second garbage bin she’d placed by the door, then stripped of all of her clothes and underwear and dumped it all, too. After peeling her gloves off she added them to the others she’d dropped into the first bin, she sanitized almost violently and then twice washed her hands at the kitchen sink.
A stomp on the second garbage bin let her take the edges of the bag and tie them into an airtight knot, pull it out, and add it to the other sealed bags in her laundry basket inside the front hall closet. Taking them to the laundry room required an entirely different safety regime which she’d implement tomorrow.
Jeanne was cold, and having wide-open windows in early spring didn’t help things but there was far less likelihood that virus could waft up ten stories versus taking a ride on the central air circulating through her building. This step in her routine required a warm shower and lots of scrubbing, followed by a jolt of cold water to kill anything that remained on her skin. Then she would get dressed in an indoors outfit, which in these pandemic times amounted to a sweatshirt and sweatpants, both dark grey so they didn’t have to get washed as often as her outdoor togs.
She avoided looking at herself as she passed the mirror on her way to the shower and spent 20 minutes soaping up and washing off three times, giving her long hair a double wash before applying conditioner in hopes of replacing some of what she’d undoubtably and purposefully removed.
Getting dressed was fast and Jeanne allowed herself a moment to pause afterwards and look out her bedroom window. The breeze felt nice against her face and there was no doubting it was a nice late afternoon. The sun was just starting to paint the buildings across the street golden yellow, the sky above still a cloudless bright blue. Such open spaces! Jeanne was always comforted by the though of the emptiness of the air, its transparency even though it was physically present. The idea was so very clean.
Jeanne returned to her kitchen and picked up the box of pasta, having let it sit the longest on the counter, and opened her cupboard and put it on the shelf. It was then that she noticed a black smudge just under the cellophane window that she hadn’t seen before. She lifted the box and held it closer to her face. It was a smudge, all right. How it got there was anybody’s guess. What was it? She didn’t ponder the question long because she knew the answer.
Putting the box in her sink, Jeanne disinfected her hands and then washed them three times, donned another pair of gloves and got a wipe wet, and set to removing the stain.
It was stubborn, evidencing no change after repeated rubbing and scraping with her gloved fingertip. She put it back in the sink so she could rub harder but still nothing. There was an abrasive cleanser under her sink but she couldn’t open the door with her infected gloves on, so she just kept on rubbing. And scrubbing. And rinsing.
And scrubbing again.
Jeanne had no idea how much time passed but when she noticed a bead of sweat roll down her temple she stopped, picked up the package, and ran it under a splash of water to clear away the suds. Not only was the smudge gone but so was most of what had been under it, leaving a blank spot that was more translucent than white, and measured about the size of her thumb.
She held it closer to her face. The spot wasn’t blank because of the absence of packaging color, it was as if it wasn’t quite there. She tapped it with her index finger and it felt just like the rest of the box. It just didn’t look the same.
Putting the box back into the sink, Jeanne started rubbing its entire face in wide wipes. Again, before realizing if or how much time had passed, she noticed that much of it was translucent, too. Little of the color or commercial logo remained and she focused on the corners before splashing it again. She kept working on the remaining surfaces of the box until her wipe was covered in colors.
She held it up, and it was as if it wasn’t there.
There was something in her hand, evidenced by a faint glimmer of an outline or maybe it was a hairline distortion in the distance just behind the box that moved when she rotated it. It was like a lens that alternated between slightly cloudy and almost transparent. The package didn’t look as much wiped clean as it seemed wiped away, gone from one reality and hovering somewhat in another.
Jeanne moved over to put the box away and noticed that there was a slight discoloration on the surface of the shelf. She rubbed it with her gloved thumb and it make no difference, so she pulled out another wipe and sprayed it with sanitizer and gave it the same treatment she’d given to the box of pasta, over the course of what could have been minutes or days.
It disappeared, too, like it was there but not consistently. Jeanne tapped it with the knuckle of her thumb and heard it, then laid her gloved hand flat on it. But it was translucent like the box, so the countertop below it was visible somewhat, and the picture changed depending on how she looked at it. She put the should have been the pasta on what would have been the shelf and walked over to her windows, crossing her arms before catching herself and getting her elbows wet from her gloved hands. That was a mistake Jeanne wouldn’t normally make but this wasn’t a normal situation.
It was much darker now, the apartment windows across the street glowed far more brightly than the sun that was barely visible behind the buildings. In each window were people trying to avoid intrusions by the virus. The lights were evidence that they were OK, at least as far as they could tell. It was an ongoing, relentless battle between what they knew and what they feared, only they couldn’t see the enemy. Lights meant they were alive but weren’t much help since the fight was microscopic. Elemental, maybe at the level of the very fabric of space. Lights didn’t illuminate any details for this truth.
Jeanne stared at the building directly across from her window and after a while its edges started to become indistinct, as if she couldn’t take her eyes off of the windows so she sensed the sides of the building but couldn’t see them. Level upon level of detail in front of her. A black spot on one of the windows just to her left. No, wait, it was on her window. She scraped at it with her gloved hand. It didn’t change.
Jeanne shuddered and crossed her arms and the stopped. Her gloves were wet, and now her elbows were, too. It was time to keep cleaning.
She went to work on the apple and pepper next which was hard because the surfaces were uneven, so she spent a lot of time making the smallest movements to clean every nook and cranny. Sometime later, both pieces of produce were all but see-through, their edges flickering in and out of visibility when she moved them into the fridge.
Then, the wiped clean the other items from her visit to the store, followed by the shelves on which she subsequently placed them. It was as if the sanitizing wipe was attached to her hand because she didn’t stop there but started on the outside panels of her kitchen cabinets. One after another they disappeared. By the time it was pitch black outside, the cabinetry was no longer there except as an afterimage or memory.
The counters came next and then the stovetop, oven, and microwave. Jeanne discovered that it took more work and liberal applications of sanitizer to clean plastic and metal but she never stopped or even let up her effort. The virus was not going to survive in her apartment.
Jeanne pondered what used to be her kitchen and the thought occurred to her that the floor was an obvious safe harbor for virus, as were the walls and ceiling. She took her stepladder and wiped her ceiling clean, putting so much strain on her neck and shoulder and arm muscles that she could barely move when she was done. Looking up hurt, first and foremost, but it was as if she were looking into a thinning cloud hovering above her head.
The walls were somewhat easier but took approximately the same amount of time had she been tracking it, and then she got to wiping the floor, starting first at the doorway and then cleaning all the way to a small space at the sink in which to stood.
That’s when she noticed that she had no cloth wipe in her hands, nor was she wearing any gloves. She looked over toward the windows and it was not just the dead of night outside but there were no lights on in the buildings that surrounded her. Without form or color, her kitchen seemed as though it was part of the nighttime sky, or that she was floating in it.
It was clean. There was no virus hiding there.
The rest of the apartment had to come next, but as Jeanne reached for another wipe she noticed that she couldn’t see her fingertips. She could feel them but they were as clean as the objects in her apartment that she’d wiped. Her skin was red where it was visible again, about halfway down her fingers, and there was a black spec just below the second knuckle of her right index finger. She rubbed it with her left thumb but it didn’t go away. She rubbed it some more. Still no change.
That’s when she took off her clothes and starting wiping away fingers and wrists and
[This story is from the upcoming collection Strange In Place]