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Love Declutters All

How a later-in-life lover inspired a lifelong pack rat to clean up his act.

Love Declutters All

Photograph by Hugh Kretschmer

Not so long ago there was a spare room in my house that elicited one of two responses: either fear or pity. Financial statements, suitcases, old Christmas gifts, newspapers, a fire extinguisher, and a wooden toilet seat competed for floor space with softball trophies, exercise equipment, two small sofas, pots and pans, and four studded snow tires. The floor was littered with the carcasses of audiotapes crushed underfoot. Carpet tacks spilled years ago had since migrated outward, like matter after the Big Bang, to every corner of the room.
There were times when 50 felt a bit old for this degree of disorganization. And for a psychotherapist who had dedicated his life to helping others sort through the miasma of the human mind, my house was a poor advertisement. But my life seemed to suit me. Until I met Libby.
I was introduced by a mutual friend and was instantly smitten. She looked so clean. Her blond hair above bright blue eyes was neatly combed, and when I asked her out for coffee, she extracted an appointment book sporting more nifty pockets, zippers, and special compartments than a photographer's vest.

Somehow, Libby and I connected. Small and exuberant, she possessed a mighty admiration for birds of all hues and categories. Her filing system was second to none.

About two months into our courtship we found ourselves at Serafina, the dark restaurant illuminated by candles on each table, the air fragrant with rosemary, olive oil, and roasted lamb. We were halfway through a salad when Libby launched into an elaborate treatise on the importance female beavers placed upon finding male beavers with strong sharp teeth and powerful tails. I listened attentively, nodding intermittently.

"Beavers," I said enthusiastically, "amazing animals. Those teeth are something."
Libby took a sip of her wine, put her glass down carefully, reached across the clean white tablecloth and took my hand. "Boy beavers with good teeth are reasonably organized. Their dens don't look like your desk." She grimaced, then smiled bravely. I thought I could see real pain in her eyes.

"Yes, your desk is a mess, papers everywhere," she said in her strong, clear voice. And your closet is so cluttered. But…" she exhaled liked someone preparing to pronounce "brain cancer," "your spare room, that's the worst. I mean it's overflowing with stuff. You are just so generally unorganized. It's so immature, it scares me," she said.
I glanced down at our half-eaten salad, ruing the day I had shown her the spare room. Hurt and defensive, I said nothing.

Her face there in the candlelight was lovely. Her blue eyes were wide with interest and, I hoped, compassion. She squeezed my hand gently. Then I felt something stir in me, deep down: I wanted to be a better beaver.
But how did one make the move from untidy pack rat to shining beaver? I wrestled with this for weeks and managed to clear off my desk, but every time I thought about the spare room, I could feel myself droop. Then I heard a still, small voice: "Forget the spare room. The closet," it said, "you can do the closet."

It was a Saturday morning. Libby was out with a friend seeking an esoteric owl that only shows up for a couple of weeks each autumn. I yanked open the double door of the closet and waded in. A

broken wine glass, rejected pieces I'd written about my cat, a hammer missing its handle. Then there were the photographs: myself as a child, my father a few years before his death, my ex-wife. I plunged on, shoving stuff into plastic bags and cardboard boxes, struggling to remember which were to keep, which to jettison—occasionally tearful, alternating between hope and dread.

When Libby returned that evening from teaching a class, I led her upstairs and threw open the door to my freshly organized closet.

She stood there, not moving a muscle, as one stands before an astonishing painting or a fabulous sunset. Her breathing grew shallow at the sight of half a dozen pairs of shoes and beat-up sneakers arranged in a row. Libby reached out a tremulous hand, stroking the sleeve of the one suit I own. She turned towards me, lifted her face with eyes slightly unfocused. Hesitantly, I bent to kiss her, aware of her breath, sweet with what I imagined to be wood chips.

Ben McLaughlin lives in Washington State.