On my first day as a chambermaid, two guests were in the hallway discussing the Commodore’s Ball, and I heard one say to the other, “Why don’t you ask that lady?” It took a moment for me to realize “that lady” was me, stooped over a trash can to replace the liner, but when I did, I felt proud and didn’t mind that they had no idea who I was or that I had in fact attended college, a rather elite university. They never did ask me a question, but I quickly forgot about that, as I was too busy thinking Lady with the Trash! I’m the Lady with the Trash! because that sounded like Lady with the Lamp, nickname of none other than Florence Nightingale, hero of medicine and hero of mine, who stayed up all night ferrying her lamp from soldier to soldier, providing lifesaving care to the sick and wounded. Someday I hope to be known for that level of devotion.
As I finished with the trash, Roula appeared and told me to take my first break. I meandered down from the hotel floor into the dining floor, with the kitchen, offices, and trophy room, then into the harbor floor, with the lounge, ballroom, and deck, staked up on poles over the ocean. From the deck I had a brilliant view of the members’ boats lolling about, all pristine and lovingly named, most with masts waiting to be draped in magnificent sails, as pure white as the sheets and towels I’d folded that morning. I settled with my arms dangling over the railing to watch as boys in polo shirts bustled about the T-shaped dock. One of them drove the launch boat that picked members up and towed them out to their own, bigger boats.Apparently he thought I was dumb enough to believe there was a direct correlation between wealth and loneliness and, on top of it, that correlation implies causation.
An elderly woman plodded down the dock, escorted by a man and a teenage boy. The man and boy had blond hair curling out of their heads and their calves, which were muscular and bronzed. She wore a whole rigging of jewelry so that I could hear it jingle from all the way up there and see it sing in the sunlight, flashing off her knuckles and wrists and the side of her head, where she must have pinned a fancy barrette. I was watching her slow, glittery progress when Doug, the general manager, sidled up beside me. “You don’t want to be rich,” he said, pressing the solid bulk of his belly against the railing.
The skin on his forearms burned with a deep rusty tan. “I knew this one guy. Had the most massive house I’ve ever seen—you’d want to call it a castle really. But he was so lonely up there, he went nuts. One night it got so bad, he spooned three thousand dollars’ worth of caviar into a bowl of water. In hopes it would hatch!”
He gave me a serious, purposeful look. Apparently he thought I was dumb enough to believe there was a direct correlation between wealth and loneliness and, on top of it, that correlation implies causation, as though I’d had no higher education. Plus, didn’t a place like this—an exclusive private yacht club created by wealthy people for the purpose of socializing with other wealthy people—offer evidence to the contrary? Still, I didn’t intend to make sweeping generalizations. Florence Nightingale herself had grown up with two beautiful homes! One in Derbyshire, one in Hampshire.
“I was only thinking about sea squirts,” I said. “They live under docks and boats.” To convince him, I kept going. “Have you seen them around here? They can look kind of like fingers or flowers, or little tubes of jelly.”
“Oh sure. We’ve got to scrape them off every few months,” he said. “They can damage the equipment.”
“Maybe. But did you know they also have compounds shown to be effective in treating certain kinds of cancer? I guess you never know about those things, what might be hiding just under the surface.”
“I hadn’t heard that.” He fingered the perspiration on his forehead. “You are a fount of knowledge.” He grabbed the face of his watch and grunted.
As he walked off, I noticed that the old woman and her two companions had made it into the launch boat. I watched the boat move away slowly, water opening and closing behind it like a curtain. Then Doug reappeared at my side, startling me. “One other thing, Amy,” he said. “I’d prefer if you didn’t take your breaks out here. The deck’s for members only.”
That evening, while the members enjoyed the Commodore’s Ball—a special centennial edition to celebrate the club’s one hundredth season, according to a flyer on the events board—I opened Florence Nightingale’s biography. I reread all my favorite passages, dizzy with inspiration. She emphasized the vital importance of cleanliness: it was poor sanitation, not battle wounds, that had caused the vast majority of fatalities in the Crimean War, and she used data analysis to prove it, then illustrated her findings in an elegant coxcomb chart that made it easy for Queen Victoria to understand. She also wrote advice for ordinary people. Dirty walls and carpets can be as unhealthy as a dung heap, and tidying can’t be done by simply flapping dust from one surface to another; dust should be removed completely with a damp cloth. All this reinvigorated me for my second day on the job, as did her many remarkable quotes. For instance: “I attribute my success to this—I never gave or took any excuse.” I copied that down, as they were words to live by.
Over the last four weeks, I’ve come to enjoy many aspects of the job, particularly the experience of scouring. Friction is a spectacular force. I am an extension of my sponge, absorbing the dirt and dust and grime and feeling them dissolve into me so that we, the dirt and I, become one. Together we sail from room to room, always moving top to bottom and clockwise to prevent the corruption of previously cleaned areas. Naturally, I’m curious about the items that belong to such wealthy, tan, boat-loving people, particularly the cosmetics. Each woman has curated her own collection to highlight her assets and cover her problem areas, and while I don’t normally buy cosmetics myself, I appreciate this exposure to the cutting edge of high-end beauty. Just today, I stumbled upon a pot of 24-karat gold butter that, according to the label, should be applied with a vegetable sponge for luxurious exfoliation. I cupped the pot in my hand and squinted at the sparkly stuff inside, even twisted off the cap and took a whiff, but I would never go so far as to dip a finger.
The attention required to root out grime can be taxing, though, and I feel constant pressure to outdo the previous day’s job in order to enjoy a sense of accomplishment and to please Roula, who has worked here ever since immigrating from Greece and so has the benefit of experience, even if she lacks initiative and shrugs it off when I bring up important issues like the invisible breeding ground on light switches and doorknobs. My small frame can be both a help and a hindrance: I must be a gymnast when I reach behind the sink, a weightlifter when I wrestle up a mattress. My back throbs from all the crouching, and when I creak up from my mashed-in knees, I often murmur with pain, and these murmurs sound honorable to my ears, and so urge me on. Imagine, I sometimes say to myself, the pain Roula must feel, given that she must be 50 years old or close to it, while I am lucky to be so young—not yet 30 and not yet tied down.
For a college course, I once read about a study in which researchers found that when hotel maids started to view their work as a form of exercise, they lost weight and became more physically fit, even though they were performing the exact same activities as before. That got me marveling at the power of belief: you never know what’s possible when the mind and body agree to work together. Our guests probably spend a fortune on gym memberships and personal trainers, and here I am, the chambermaid, collecting their filth and dissolving it into myself and meanwhile burning enough calories to lose two pounds in four weeks simply by believing in my own movement. Whenever I scrub the grout between tiles, I feel the hump of my bicep growing more defined.
Each room has a wooden hutch that opens to reveal a widescreen television, and I often turn it on while I clean, since it doesn’t distract me but rather sinks me deeper into the rhythms of my work. My only rule is no changing the channel—that way I’m connected to the guest and don’t waste time searching for another program. It’s usually Oprah or 24-hour news or a soap opera or one of those shows in which everyday people sign up to get into an argument or receive relationship advice. Before long, the voices from the television seep into my brain, and not just my brain but my arms and legs, which begin to move with a different attitude and style, as though connected to someone new. Like this morning, while Eva pledged to make Jad pay for the death of her daughter, I plumped pillows and shook crumbs from a summer quilt with all the righteous anger of a vengeful mother. Sometimes I notice my voice following along, adding a snippet of commentary here and there, though if I hear any footsteps in the hall, I trail off and pretend to be humming a tune. Roula likes to remind me that I’m not allowed to turn on the television, it’s unprofessional, but I know that if she could see the way I am there but not there, cleaning but not cleaning, exercising but not exercising, she would not only understand but emulate my routine. She probably wonders how on earth I’ve ended up here, seeing as I did go to college, which has a lasting impact on everything I do, even if I didn’t graduate. I’ll admit that sometimes I wonder the same thing, but then it’s just for the summer, so there’s no use dwelling on it.
This afternoon, after initialing all the items on my checklist and clocking out for the day, I began the walk back to my apartment, an in-law tacked to the side of a two-story house, with a separate staircase up to its own entrance. The first half of my walk follows the coastline, and I contemplated how both liberating and frightening it is to live on the edge of such an infinite expanse. Along two miles of that coastline runs a paved walkway where people pace up and down as though on the brink of action, and on stormy days waves crash and creep over, reaching out for them. I don’t mind that it’s mostly families who live here, affluent ones, and not people like me—in fact I prefer it, as they shift with the seasons more than young single people do. During springtime, the sidewalks were covered in chalk art, and the adults came out early with strollers and jogging suits and organized all kinds of creative events, like Make Way for Ducklings Day, when they stopped traffic to parade a family of ducks through downtown. Even their houses change colors and moods. Now that it’s summer, they have green lawns and colorful blooms and bright plastic pails stacked together on their porches with little shovels sticking out, and some have signs hanging on their doors that say things like “Gone to the Beach” and “Life Is Better in Flip-Flops,” painted in a way that’s meant to look rustic and weathered. I read one that said “If You’re Lucky Enough to Live by the Beach, You’re Lucky Enough”—my favorite so far. My landlord, who lives in the house connected to my apartment, has a sign that features a bronzed parrot in sunglasses under a palm tree and the words “Broke but Tan.” My landlord is neither broke nor tan, and there are no palm trees in Massachusetts, but I get why he chose that one—something about the colors and the three-dimensional letters make you want to try to take a bite of it.
The second half of my walk zags away from the ocean, and as I left the salt air and crinkling waves and twirly kites behind, I was aware of the weight of the world’s dust inside me, a tornado of it spinning within my abdomen, though it wasn’t a burden but a privilege. From dust to dust, I thought; everything else is us kidding ourselves. I paused to pluck one ripe berry from the bountiful row of raspberry bushes outside 8 Magnolia Drive, as has become my habit. As the fruit burst in my mouth, my feet and back ached, and what a nice sensation that was, to be sore from hard work. I thanked not God exactly but some greater spirit for my body, all its organs and tissues and cells—over thirty trillion cells, most likely, significantly more than the number of galaxies in the universe—and how they’ve been assembled in the right way so that I might do hard work and every day strive to do better.
Also while I walked, I worked on my plans. August 25 is my last chance to pass the cognitive exam, and once I do, I will officially be a certified EMT, and I’ll take all I’ve learned and will learn as a chambermaid—precision and observation and controlling my gag reflex—and channel it into saving lives. Then I’ll go to work every day knowing that anyone who is afraid, anyone who needs help, will call me, trusting that I will come as fast as I can, ready and willing to do everything in my power. Like the rest of my team, I’ll wear dark blue pants and a buttondown shirt with the blue-and-yellow EMT patch stitched on the sleeve so that everyone I meet will recognize who I am and the impact I have on a daily basis. Some might stop me to say thank you or to exchange harrowing stories, and we’ll get teary in our longing to preserve human life, squeezing our hands together as though we could squeeze out the very possibility of suffering inside us and everyone we love.
But for now I am alone in my apartment, though my landlord is just on the other side of the wall, maybe at his desk composing a letter to his Ukrainian girlfriend, and my exam book lies open on my lap so I can quiz myself on the first signs of anaphylaxis and the number of vertebrae in the thoracic spine. I sit by the window as the street outside grows dark and my face becomes reflected in the glass. Then I hear an explosion, a loud pop and a crackling, and another one. I rush outside to see great buds of red and gold in the sky.
Today is the Fourth of July, and I’ve forgotten it. I can’t help banging a fist against my leg, I’m so angry with myself. For weeks I’ve watched streamers and flags go up on front porches and on the boats in the harbor, and somehow I still missed it. I breathe and try to forgive myself—I’ve had a lot on my mind, and I can still enjoy a partial view of the fireworks if I don’t waste it with tears. I stand on the sticky pavement and watch through the trees, clapping for what I think is the grand finale, then for the true grand finale, which booms and sparks for two full minutes. Then it is dark and quiet again, and there is nothing to do but go back up to my chair by the window.
I am alone here, but not completely, because of the heavy book on my lap and the knowledge glowing within it and because of the fervent promises I made earlier today, which still hover in the air: promises to stay focused and to carry my book to the clubhouse to study at lunch-time and to never, ever give or take any excuse. Once in a while I get discouraged and slack off, but it’s okay, because a part of me understands that it won’t last forever and anticipates the time when I will study hard again and knows that when I do, like I am today, I’ll feel renewed and recommitted, once again set on the correct path. Florence Nightingale said nursing is an art that requires as much devotion and preparation as painting or sculpting, even more so, because what is an old canvas or hunk of marble compared with the living body? Well, art also requires inspiration, and sometimes we must be patient and allow inspiration to arrive. Perhaps it’s good that I failed my first two attempts to pass the exam; perhaps something deep in my subconscious even instructed me to fail, because now there will be more joy when I pass, euphoria even. And perhaps it’s good I spend so much time alone, because whether I’m slacking off or working hard, I can still trust myself so long as no other eyes are burning at me, plus I’m inhabited by all the dust and grime and television characters I’ve absorbed during the day, so there’s hardly room for more company. And if I need to, I remind myself how I am quite lucky and still so young.
Excerpted from Nobody, Somebody, Anybody by Kelly McClorey. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Ecco Press. Copyright © 2021 by Kelly McClorey.