Trading for Dishes

I truly hate doing the dishes, Tati thought as she regarded a teetering pile of plates and pots and coffee mugs. It was one of those insufferable, Sisyphean tasks of life that never really gets checked of the to-do list no matter how many times it’s done. But lack of clean spoons meant that it couldn’t be avoided any longer.
She scowled as her hands submerged in the lukewarm soapy water, full of bits of her own filth. She thought of her ex, who always used to harp on her about this aversion to dishes, and her mother who was perpetually disgusted by Tati’s mess. The more she scrubbed and scraped, the more the voices in her head worked themselves into a tizzy, until finally the chorus of disappointment included everyone she had ever known, shrieking that she was useless and incapable and on and on...
Broken pieces of porcelain ricocheted across the tiles, dragging shiny trails of soapy water. Tati squeezed her eyes shut and gripped the edges of the counter with white knuckles. Into the held-breath silence of the kitchen, Tati whispered, “I would give anything not to do dishes ever again.”
Slowly, she sank to the floor on her knees in front of the still-full sink. Alone in the quiet kitchen, with only the drip of the faucet, Tati started to cry.
A furry head nudged her elbow. She looked up to see her cat, Mimi, looking at her. With a watery smile, she reached out to pet the cat, then shifted into a cross-legged position and pulled her into her lap.
“Sorry, Meems. Here I am having a meltdown over some moldy old dishes again, huh? I just...” Tati sighed. “I hate them. Dirty dishes constantly ruin my life.” The cat, unmoved my Tati’s plight, began purring and vigorously headbutting her as if to say, “Since you’re down here you might as well pet me.”
After petting Mimi a while on the kitchen floor, she got up and placed the cat on her bed in the small studio before cleaning up the broken plate. She hated the thought of Mimi’s dainty pink toe-beans getting cut on an errant piece of porcelain all because Tati was a useless basket case. Then she finished the dishes.
Later, Tati lay in bed watching passing headlights illuminate the cracks on her ceiling. Mimi lay curled at her hip, but Tati couldn’t sleep. Aloud, into the darkness, she said, “It’s just... the dishes.”
And a voice answered.
“Only the dishes?”
Tati froze, straining to listen in the dark. She sat up with her heart pounding and placed a reassuring hand on Mimi’s warm back, although the cat didn’t seem to notice anything amiss.
When nothing happened, and nothing moved, she said softly, “Hello?”
“Hello, Tatiana.” The voice sounded rich and smokey, but not altogether bad. Aside from the fact that it was inside her apartment with her, alone in the dark.
“Whose there?”
“I heard your frustration this evening. I wanted to see if I could offer you any assistance.”
“That doesn’t really answer my question. Who are you? Where are you? How did you get in here?”
From the darkness at the foot of her bed, the shape of a person coalesced. It was difficult to tell anything about them in the dark, as if the shadows conspired to obscure any detail where she tried to focus. Even the voice gave nothing away in its timbre – a smoothly androgynous lilt.
“That’s a lot of questions. My occupation is helping people. And tonight, I’m here to help you. If you want it.”
“Are you, like, a fairy?”
The person in the dark chuckled, the sound both grating and melodious.
“No. But you needn’t define me. Simply decide if you would like my help.”
Tati narrowed her eyes. “I’ve read enough fairy tales to know not to make deals with strangers. You could be the devil!”
“I am not the devil, here to buy your soul. Besides, don’t you think your soul is worth more than the dishes?”
The question made her uncomfortable. She was such a disaster. Living in this tiny apartment, with an unfulfilling job, disappointing everyone. In these dark spaces of the night she suspected that they’d all probably be relieved to get rid of her... so how much was a useless soul really worth?
Instead, she asked, “So, what exactly are you offering? I don’t have any money or skills. Or anything anyone would want, probably...” She looked around at the shadows of all her possessions in the dark apartment. Hand-me-downs and dogeared books and thrifted clothes. Nothing special, except maybe her grandmother’s antique sewing kit, wedged carefully into a corner of her lopsided bookshelf.
“I’m offering a simple trade. Something of value for something else you value. What would you really give not to have to do the dishes ever again?”
“Anything,” she blurted, before quickly clarifying, “Anything I already have. Here in this apartment. Physically.” It pained her to consider it, and the guilt was already making her question the statement, but the family heirloom was worth it for a lifetime of freedom from the oppression of dirty dishes.
The shadow regarded her a moment, then turned and swept its dark gaze across the small space.
“Done,” it said, vanishing.
Tati woke to the ringing of her phone. She didn’t remember falling asleep. She saw her mother’s name on the screen and answered.
“Hi, Tatiana. I’m in town and I need a bathroom before my next meeting. I’m going to stop by your place in about 20 minutes.”
“Oh, ok.” The line was already dead.
Tati blurrily roused herself and went to inhale a bowl of cereal before her mother arrived. As she placed the dirty bowl in the sink to start the next inevitable cycle of accumulation, it vanished. Tati paused. She looked in the cupboard, and there it was. Back in place in the stack of chipped, mismatched bowls. Clean and dry. She yanked out the cutlery drawer and there was the spoon with its pink plastic handle. It hadn’t been a dream.
Tati pulled out her phone and shot off a rapid-fire text to Avery: Hey it’s been a while. I’ve gotten past the thing with the dishes. Want to get coffee this week?
Her mom knocked. She answered the door and her mother breezed in, calling out, “Hi, darling,” over her shoulder as she sped directly to the bathroom.
Tati shut the door and went to the kitchen, filling a glass of water and waiting for her mother to come back out. When she did, Tati offered the water and said “Do you have time to get lunch while you’re in town today? After your meeting?”
“Sorry, honey. It’s a working lunch.” She looked past Tati, eyes scanning the kitchen and the bed before landing on her crumpled pajamas. She sighed. “Tatiana, you’re an adult. Why is it so hard to keep your house in order?”
As her mother flew back out the way she came, leaving Tati clutching the still full glass of water, the phone buzzed with a text from Avery. Honestly Tatiana, it was never really about the dishes. Take care.
Tati felt her eyes well up. It was never really about the dishes. She looked at the bookshelf where the sewing kit used to sit, surprised to see it still there. She began to inspect her belongings. The cash was still in her wallet. Obviously she still had her phone. And then she registered that Mimi wasn’t begging for breakfast. She checked under the bed and in the bathtub, though the apartment didn’t have many places to hide, even for a small cat.
Her own voice echoed in her ears. Anything I already have. Here in this apartment. The glass of water slipped from her hand and even as it hit the carpeted floor, it disappeared back to its spot in cupboard. But Mimi did not come to fill her own empty spot in Tati’s arms. It was never really about the dishes...