I woke up on Thursday morning feeling off. Not sick per se, but more like the energy in my room had shifted and turned into a negative, almost menacing pulsation in the air around me. I felt dizzy, like the entire world was spinning on its axis in one direction and I, in an act of confusion and a desperate need for some kind of control, was attempting to spin the other way. I thought I might tip over with each step, or just collapse with the weight of all the blood in my body rushing away from my head and pooling thick and stagnant around my ankles. It was like every bit of me had been drained into my toes and I moved through the house in a slow, lumbering kind of way that was positively terrifying.
One time when I was a child, I had head lice. Or my brother had it, or perhaps my sister. It didn’t matter. Once one person had lice, everyone had lice. It spread through our schools like chicken pox, like a common cold. Head lice was like a yawn during a particularly tedious test or quiet study period. It jumped from one student to the next, making its way around the room until everyone’s mouth was stretched wide with exhaustion and it made no difference who yawned first, everyone was tired. There is no Patient Zero with head lice. Once you find it on one child, you can be sure there’s already another 10, 15, 2o carrying the bug home, sharing it with their siblings who will then go to school and pass it on to their classes, spreading it from one grade to the next until the whole school is throwing down their pencils in frustration and angrily scratching their heads.
My mother had to strip all the beds. Sheets, blankets, towels, clothes. Quilts that had been locked away in cedar trunks. Bath mats and rugs and every hat in the house. Everything had to be cleaned and disinfected. Cycle after cycle of laundry needed washing. It was like head lice had been genetically engineered by detergent companies. You could go through box after box of Tide and still not be sure the pests were truly gone.
We had to sit in the bathtub and comb a special lice-killing shampoo through our hair with a special lice-killing-shampoo-spreading comb. We had to be extra clean for the days and weeks that followed. No piles of dirty clothes on the floor. No going to bed without showering. It was frustrating and tiresome, but it was also in a strange way kind of pleasant. That kind of dedicated, stripped down house cleansing was soul cleansing as well. It felt like a fresh start, a chance to begin again free from pests and irritations. It required a kind of mindfulness and devotion that is so rarely applied to the mundanities of everyday life.
I woke up Thursday morning infected by a sort of existential head lice, and the only way I could think to rid myself of this feeling of confusion and disconnected self was to vigorously clean my entire house. I swept and wiped down all of the hardwood floors. I vacuumed the bedroom carpet twice until I was sure that every deeply buried speck of dust and melancholy had been sucked away. I reorganized all my jewelry and toiletries. I folded every last piece of laundry, and washed random items, like the slip-on covers of our dining room chairs that had never occurred to me before as being in need of washing. I rearranged the furniture in the dining room to facilitate a better sense of flow from the living room to the kitchen, as if flow was something I had always cared about, but previously neglected. As if flow was something I even understood. I wiped down all the counters and table tops. I dusted the shelves and picture frames. I spent ten ridiculous minutes fluffing the pillows on the couch. I needed to cleanse my life of whatever bad energy had followed me from sleep to waking. I needed to stand in the middle of my house and smell the strong scent of disinfectant. I needed to stand beneath the spray of the shower head and feel the blood return to my limbs and cheeks. I cancelled my appointments and focused solely on the task of cleansing my world, my self. I was Patient Zero and I would not let this bug spread to anyone else.
I felt better. With the floors free of dog hair and the soap scum banished from the tub. With clean clothes neatly stacked in my dresser drawers and my brightly colored scarves hanging organized on the same rack that held my earrings. I felt the air in the house slowly stop trembling and pulsing. I felt my feet resting ever more steadily against the floor. I don’t know what it was that infected me on Thursday morning, but I knew that I had to wash it away. I had to purge it, scald it, bury it under a spray of household chemicals. I had to strip away everything that felt disorderly, chaotic and begin again fresh, free from the pests and irritations of my psyche.