“Are you done yet?” Ange shouts from the living room. They’re referring to the incessant scrubbing that sounds like shrieking sheets of corrugated tin rubbing together, which is not far from the truth: I’m massaging a stainless steel baking sheet with a rose-gold scouring pad, working in relentless circles and applying pressure roughly equivalent to half my body weight. They are playing a Battle Royale-style video game in which they try not to die while killing as many other players as possible. In intermittent moments, this requires total silence.
“No,” I say, but pause anyway.
In the quiet, I look down into the sink—the sink that, before starting in on the cookie sheets, I polished to an aggressive silvery shine. My hands are in there, rubbed raw into a pinkish pulp. There are scuffs on my fingernails where bits of the nail plate have chipped off in whiteish shreds. One of my cuticles is bleeding. I can’t quite remember the metal of the pad cutting into my flesh, and even as I watch the blood mix with water and suds, the pain takes a moment to register. It’s as though I blacked out, swept up in an all-consuming cleaning frenzy driven by the discovery of a new substance: Bar Keepers Friend.
I’m neurotically tidy as a rule—a friend once referred to my room as “Pinterest clean.” But I’ve never dabbled in anything as potent as this. Initially skeptical that Bar Keepers Friend could revive our grimy sink, I sprayed it on, scrubbed, and watched with wonder as what must have been years of stains dissolved. This was no Swiffer™ product, no puny off-brand Clorox wipe—both staples in our under-sink collection of cleaning supplies. No, this was something else entirely: a time machine. A way to erase the mistakes of the past. A second chance in a bottle.
I double down, obsessed with my newfound ability to alter history, to reverse it. From the sink I move on to a series of pots, each varnished with a layer of fired-on grit. I’d had them since moving to New York in 2014, and had mutely accepted that they would sink into decrepitude, eventually forcing me to donate them or, worse, to throw them out altogether. Then I dig out our well-used baking sheets, caked dark brown with residue from various roasted vegetables, baked goods, and frozen pizzas. I bear down, at long last comprehending a favorite phrase of my grandfather’s: elbow grease.
I scrub, metal screeches, my cuticle bleeds. I think of everything I’d like to spray with Bar Keepers Friend, the fumes of which I was now inhaling in what I was sure were carcinogenic quantities: the shitty relationships, the wasted summers and heartbreak, the career missteps, the ill-conceived arguments, the pair of perfectly tailored grey wool Céline trousers that I sold at Beacon’s closet two years ago. I scrub harder, forgetting why I started, forgetting even that these particular baking sheets are from the Dollar General down the street. I scrub until they shine, brand-new again, cheating the inevitable.