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The Black Sheep of Bedrooms

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“Why did you give me this hoodie to wear to school?” Henry, my twelve-year-old, stood in front of me- eyes still puffy from sleep- pinching a navy blue hooded sweat shirt between his thumb and pointer finger- holding it as far away from his body as his arm would reach.

“I gave it to you because it is a perfectly good hoodie. And, it’s plain just the way you like your clothes.”

“I won’t wear it. It smells like Max’s room.” I snatched it from his hand and brought it to my nose. I had to fight back my gag reflex. It indeed carried the scent of his older brother’s room. And like the acrid whiff of cat markings, this aroma was resistant to multiple cycles in the washing machine, making my efforts to deceive my younger son with his brother’s hand-me-downs impossible.

The room in question has been a lesson in letting go- for me. It’s obvious that it has been easy for Max to let it go. It is not just the constant haphazard clutter, the scribble of shapes and wrappers on every surface, and the abuse of our heirloom furniture that gets to me. It is the distinct tang that permeates the air which sends my head reeling. There is the pungent, malodorous smell of ripe soccer cleats and cheddar Goldfish crackers festering with undertones of sweetness (presumably from the bubble gum that decorates the interior of his garbage can). And then there are the oily traces of teenage hair and sweat absorbed in his bedding. On a hot day, the stench is of third world waste water, of the vinegar of feet, of the entrapped human grease of hippie dreadlocks. It is the tiniest glimmer of an episode of Hoarders.

Still, last year, with the responsibilities of freshman year looming over him, I decided that the state of his room was not a battle worth fighting. We lived through the rancid wafts and the general disorder. That was until the smell became so overpowering- we thought we were having a sewage problem in our upstairs bathroom. “You’ve got to do something about Max’s room!” the middle children pleaded. I entered the hazard area to institute an emergency deterge of the chamber only to find him standing at the head of his bed, body pressed against the walls, eyes wide. He appeared to be quivering. “What are you doing?” I inquired.

“There is a fly behind my window blinds. I am waiting for it to die.”

“You’re afraid of a fly?”

“They are gross. And, somehow, they find me. No matter which bedroom I live in.” This was true. When we moved into this house three years ago, Max was given the third floor. And, shortly after he began to get cozy, the space was infested with houseflies. And in the year that he has dwelled on the second floor, there has been a resurgence.

“Maybe you need to take the hint. Have you ever seen how flies are attracted to cow pucky? Well, your room is a veritable dung heap. It’s time to clean it up.” I left him with a list of written directions, an arsenal of cleaning supplies and a fly swatter. I told him I’d come back to check on him in an hour.

When I entered the room to inspect, I could immediately see that the majority of his time had been spent rearranging pairs of shoes and emptying the waste basket. There was still a mosaic of items littering his desk and night stand. I mumbled disgruntled words under my breath and beseeched the gods to give me strength to carry on. “Here,” I said, lifting a permanent marker from the nightstand.”This has a place and it is in your desk drawers.” I pulled open the top drawer and a cry of consternation escaped my lips, “Sweet Beatrix Potter! What the f@#$ is this?!” If it had been drugs or Playboy magazines, I might have been okay. I had those speeches written when the kid was in utero. But, a drawer filled with moldy refuse: a chicken wing, chewed gum, fried cheese puffs, melted chocolate, used napkins and tissues- what does a mother say to that?

“What the hell is wrong with you?!” He shrugged his shoulders and began to clear out the drawer. “No, wait! Your father has to see this.” I called The Mr. upstairs. “Look at what your son has done to my grandfather’s desk!”

“My god! What is wrong with you boy?!” The Mr. shielded The Baby’s eyes from the vile image of rot in a mahogany drawer. “I can’t stay in here. It is too disappointing.”

After firing off a litany of rhetorical questions about his state of mind and his future, I left him to clean-to really scour and disinfect every inch of his room. And, when he was done, the muddle was gone and the only scent that filled the air was the heady fragrance of Murphy’s Oil Soap.

I tried to think back to when I was a teenager. I recalled my room- my sanctuary. I cared for it and tended to it responsibly. But, I took liberties, too-without the consultation of my parents. On the walls, I drew with pencil a life size replica of U2’s War album cover. Only I replaced the boy- with the likeness of my little brother. My parents never said a word to me about it. Perhaps they took comfort in knowing that it was a safe way for me to express myself- without altering my appearance or my behavior. I realized that I owed Max the same silent respect my parents had granted me because, for now (and hopefully forever), it was not drugs or a manifesto to destroy the Earth that was stored in a drawer. While I doubt that harboring old food is Max’s vehicle for self expression- I can appreciate that his lack of attention to housekeeping may have been his way of asserting independence. “This is my space- where I can live without the constraints that my parents place upon me in the rest of the house, in the rest of my life. This is my space where I can choose the details I will worry over- and let other items of business fall where they may. This is my space where I can dream of my future space where I will have invented a robot to dispose of my garbage and who will destroy flies with a zap of his laser beam eyes.”

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