Eleanor had to start getting rid of some of this stuff. It was getting ridiculous. It came to a head when she was putting underwear away after her Monday night laundry session. She couldn’t close the drawer. She yanked it out, dumped it upside down on her unmade bed and started rifling through the pile of white and pink froth. She counted out 27 pairs of Hanna briefs, the only kind she ever wore. Not those bikini things, come on, for eight-year olds maybe. Bikinis on these hips? But 27 pairs. When had she lost control?
Thoreau was right, Eleanor thought. Possessions were a burden. They confine you, make fresh starts almost impossible. She should have listened to her mother. “Never buy anything unless you feel you can’t possibly live without it,” she’d told Eleanor, time and again. Someone else said something good, too, about the more things you have the longer it takes to keep them fixed, clean, accounted for, and safe from junkies on the prowl and hoodlums in general. Eleanor thought that was exactly right. And why hadn’t she been the one who said it.
The underwear started it all. That, and what Lily Tomlin said on Merv Griffin last night. She said one part of her wanted to have a bathroom like Ann Margret’s. The other half wanted only a burlap garment hanging on a hook somewhere. Eleanor could seriously relate. “What is Ann-Margret’s bathroom like?” Merv asked Lily. “Well, I’ve never actually seen it,” she said, “but don’t you imagine it’s the ultimate bathroom?” Merv readily agreed.
Eleanor moved on to the next dresser drawer. It was stuffed full of ancient summer tank tops and short-shorts, clothes meant for someone younger. She pulled out a bag of panty hose and counted out 33 pairs on to the bed. This was insanity, thought Eleanor. The stockings were in every colour, even red. What would possess someone to buy red panty hose, she wondered? One pair was white mesh with large roses machine-stitched into the pattern.
Her husband was Eleanor’s exact opposite. In James’ underwear drawer, she counted out exactly six pairs of briefs, all identical. Including the ones he had on today that made seven. So like James, she thought, to have just enough underpants to cover his ass a week at a time. His side of the clothes closet was impeccable, shirts lined up according to colour followed by his suits all zipped snugly into their own plastic bags. Even his sweat suits were hung up, their pants folded on imaginary creases. Eleanor’s side of the closet was a mishmash of garments teetering on bent wire hangers or heaped on the shelf above. Winter coats with outdated fur collars were wedged between diaphanous summer dresses. Pants she hadn’t worn for years lay on the floor gathering dust balls. She’d let this go too far, Eleanor realized. She got a garbage bag from the kitchen, opened it wide and started hurling clothes at it.
How did she find herself in this life? When she married James five years ago, they seemed as alike as brother and sister. When they danced at their wedding, he whispered to her that he didn’t know where he ended and she began. Their discussions once left her elated and exhausted. He laughed out loud at her cynical humour. When she made jokes these days, she wasn’t sure he even heard them. He had a habit now of dismissing her and when they did talk, it was only to sort out the logistics of their busy lives. I’ll pick up at the cleaners, you pay the phone bill. They used to curl up together under a comforter, eat chocolate and watch old movies on video, the cornier the better. His consulting business left little time these days for frivolity, or even time together. The videos James brought home lately were on home improvement techniques. His pick last week was called “Grouting Inside and Out.”
She flung open the door of the bathroom cabinet, took a quick inventory, and rolled up her sleeves. This was going to be fun, Eleanor thought, humming to herself. Outdated prescriptions sat beside the latest in hair mousses and skin cleansers. Dusty bottles of nasal spray and aspirins wedged themselves between fluorescent mouth washes and cologne samples in little cardboard folders. Why did she insist on hoarding things she never used? She counted out eight plastic cases of cheap pastel eye shadows that had barely been touched. Eleanor brought another garbage bag in and started dumping out the shelves. She left behind only the toothpaste, and James’ razor and shaving cream.
The linen closet was a huge job. She scanned it ruthlessly. Those green flowered sheets are finally going, she thought. She had never been the flowery type, after all. The navy monogrammed towels marked “E” and “J” went next. Eleanor had always felt they were an embarrassing affectation. She spied the set of delicate ivory linen napkins, a wedding present from someone she’d never even met. They’d always driven her crazy, even though she remembered her thank-you note had read, “They’ll be perfect for dinner parties in our new home. How thoughtful.” A bourgeois trap, she realized now. Use them once and they have to be washed, dried, pressed, and put away again. She tied the full garbage bag and started filling another.
Eleanor walked back into the bedroom, looked around and sighed deeply. She wound her long, auburn hair up in a ball and anchored it to the top of her head. She had always dreamed of a bedroom that looked like a room in a convalescent villa in the south of France, austere and perfectly white, the furniture all of bleached, stripped wood. Hers looked like a page out of a Sears catalogue. The bedroom suite, a wedding gift from James’ parents, was dark oak. The rambling nine-drawer dresser was topped with a gnarled Gothic mirror. Eleanor and James stared out from their wedding picture on the bedside table. They stood together laughing, arms linked, the sky behind them utterly cloudless. It was a perfect day, everyone said so. Now, the colours in the photo seemed artificial, almost garish. Out it goes, she decided. This was much easier that she’d imagined.
James’ square wooden tray marked “spare change” in brass sat on the opposite table. She pitched the tray into the trash bag, along with a ceramic horse’s head, a wedding present from his Aunt Nance. James’ wooden valet stood at attention in the corner. Religiously at night, he hung a suit from it in preparation for the next work day. She moved it out to the hallway. I’ll need to rent a truck, thought Eleanor.
She would start to work on the kitchen next. Then the basement. Eleanor couldn’t wait. She yearned for barren shelves and cupboards, light seeking out clean, empty corners. No wonder the ancient Spartans lived such long, productive lives, she thought to herself. Like her mother, they knew that less was always more. Eleanor felt James was regressing in some strange way. Lately he spent his precious spare time constructing model airplanes and covering the dining room table with hundreds of tiny plastic parts, diagrams and bottles of glue. Nothing could distract him once he set to work. He passed up meals and was often still immersed in his work when Eleanor went to bed. As he finished each intricate little bomber and bi-plane, he carried them quietly to the garage and placed them carefully on special shelves he had built. “I like to see things completed,” he’d explain, contentedly. One night Eleanor picked up a little pot of red paint from the table and began dabbing at one of the miniature planes. “You need a hobby of your own,” barked James, reaching past her to put the lid back on the paint.
By the time James got home from work, Eleanor was exhausted. Sweat stained the back of her shirt and she’d turned the stereo up full blast. Bulging garbage bags lined the halls and furniture crowded the doorways. Labelled tags hung from everything, signalling destinations.
“It’s all got to go,” she announced as he came in the door.
“Eleanor, what are you talking about?” James asked, astounded. “The stuff that’s consuming our lives,” she said, matter-of-factly. He walked down the hall to the bedroom. “Eleanor, what have you done with my valet stand?”
“It’s in the garage and I’ve arranged for the Sally Anne to pick it up on Thursday.”
“Have you completely lost it, Ellie? That cost a fortune.”
“While you weren’t looking, James, our lives took a bad turn,” she said. “We spend so much time taking care of things, we’re too tired to take care of each other.”
“Do what you like with your things,” James said, flatly. “Leave mine as they are. And stay out of the garage, Eleanor.”
He brushed past her out the door to his workshop. She realized it was the only time in months she had had his full attention.
By the time he got home from the office the next day, Eleanor’s work was almost complete. The surfaces were cleared, the rooms pristine. Eleanor felt energized. She would finally follow her mother’s advice. From now on, she would keep only what she could not live without. Eleanor heard James’ key in the lock and began moving his five-piece set of matched luggage to the front door.
This story was first published in the Toronto Star in 1998 as a winner of the newspaper’s Fiction Contest.