When I was born, Mom named me Michelle, but at some point my family started calling me Mike. The nickname helped later in life when an outbreak of adult acne spread across my face and people just assumed I was an adolescent boy. I was a grown woman, almost 25, and these big whiteheads began to appear with alarming increase, ugly clusters on my forehead and jaw. I cut my hair short and introduced myself as Mike. When people think you’re a teenage boy suffering through puberty, they don’t really look at you.
I suspected my skin had gotten so bad because Mom’s house was a mess. There was so much stuff—the stupid things she bought online and never used, the piles of trash—so even if she wanted to clean, she couldn’t. Then there was the literal filth around us: years of cobwebs and dust and also, I had began to suspect, black mold, blooming like inkblots, splotches of black on the walls and the ceilings.
I had a full-time job as a store manager at Panera and I could afford a studio apartment on my own, but I didn’t like thinking about my two little sisters stuck in that dirty house without me. The seven-year-old had had pneumonia three times in one year, and during the third bout, I sat with her in the hospital and we binge-watched episodes of this TV show about hoarders. At the end of every episode they flashed a phone number to call if you or someone you loved was a hoarder. “Why haven’t we put Mom on this show?” I asked the seven-year-old, who had a tube of oxygen in her nose, and I was mostly joking, but she said, “Mike, you should call them,” so I called them.
First, they set up a Skype call with me to make sure I was legit. In later emails, they looped in an old social worker from years ago when the neighbors had called DCS; the TV show people kept referring to me in the emails as Mom’s “teenage son Mike,” and the old social worker got so confused. I told my sisters and we had a good laugh. We hated that old social worker; she had showed up late to most appointments with her yellowed slip showing past her skirt.
After the TV show people talked to Mom and the girls, they planned to fly the TV crew to Indiana. My sisters were ecstatic. They jumped on their beds. “DR. ANDREA SORRENTINO IS GONNA BE RIGHT IN OUR HOUSE,” they shouted, still jumping, beginning to run out of breath. “MIKE, PLEASE GET HER AUTOGRAPH.”
Dr. Andrea Sorrentino was the famous board-certified therapist specializing in OCD and compulsive behaviors such as hoarding. She appeared on many episodes of the show, or, according to my sisters, the best episodes.
Hours before filming began, I opened the front door and there she was. She was very small. She introduced herself to me as “Dr. S,” which was funny, and she shook my hand. She had the nicest eyebrows I’d ever seen up close, these neat smooth lines with perfect arches. She came inside the house and took off her blazer. I had nowhere to hang it so I set it on the back of Mom’s recliner.
The girls freaked out when they saw her. “YOU’RE EVEN PRETTIER IN REAL LIFE,” they shrieked then ran away, hid in their room. Mom stayed half asleep in her recliner.
Dr. Andrea Sorrentino moved several boxes in her way and stepped deeper into the living room. She peered at my pizza face and she asked me how old I was. I said I was almost 25. “People call me Mike, but my name is Michelle,” I explained. She didn’t act too surprised, though she said she thought I looked young for my age. I said I felt old for my age. She asked me why. I said I didn’t know. She asked if I had lost out on my childhood because of Mom’s hoarding.
Dr. Andrea Sorrentino was kind of intense, and I laughed at her question. “No,” I said. “With Mom I will never lose anything.”
She wanted to know what I meant; I took her to the back porch and showed her the toys I had played with when I was little that Mom kept in grocery bags. I took some out. This unicorn was my favorite; I loved her delicate pointy horn, though I always worried I’d break it.
Dr. Andrea Sorrentino’s face softened. She was feeling sorry for me, I could tell, but maybe that was what I wanted. Passing as an invisible teenage boy was easier than being recognized as an ugly adult, but I was lonely.
“I guess it’s pretty dumb to get nostalgic about old toys,” I said.
“It’s not dumb,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said. “Maybe you want to honor them for how happy they made you.”
“Oh, yeah,” I said. “That’s a good way of describing it. I want to honor them.”
The TV show people arrived, clamoring around the front trying to fit their equipment inside the house. Mom awoke from her nap. It was time for the tour of the house, Dr. Andrea Sorrentino was saying. I put the toys back in their bags.
Sometimes at night, when I got home from Panera, if my sisters were asleep, I went to the back porch and turned on the lights and I touched those grocery bags full of my old toys. Touched them but more than that. Like how I fingered my first girlfriend. My hands hesitating, unnerved by my desperation. Then discovering I could feel something good just by pressing down, softly, in a certain way. On the nights by myself on the back porch, in that way, I remembered Mom with these toys, with me, how I made her laugh as I pretended they talked in a funny voice, and I loved her again.
The TV show people wanted me to talk about how we did our dishes in the bathtub and cooked our meals using the microwave in the garage—the kitchen was too full of stuff and no longer functional. Their cameras zoomed in on the mountains formed by Mom’s hamburger wrappers, empty Big Gulps, stacks of newspapers. They didn’t want to show how clean I kept the girls’ bedroom. While no one said so explicitly, I knew our house wasn’t as bad as many others—we had electricity and running water, there was no poop or pee or anything like that, we didn’t have pets—and I assumed I needed to play up the dramatics. They filmed a partially-staged fight between Mom and me as we stood outside the girls’ room and I lectured her about the clogged hallway. “It’s a fire hazard,” I said as if this was new information. I raised my voice. Mom was timid, ducking her head, silent in her humiliation.
But once the cleaning started, Mom came back to life. She complained she had a migraine, the cleaning crew people were condescending, we were forcing her to treat her special memories like they were garbage and how in the world could we expect her to be okay with that? Dr. Andrea Sorrentino spent most of her time comforting Mom. I was cleaning the fridge when I took out a head of lettuce that was so wilted and soggy it had turned black, and I marched over to Mom and Dr. Andrea Sorrentino.
Mom sat in her recliner, mumbling about memories of her bad childhood, and Dr. Andrea Sorrentino leaned over her.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Can I ask you something?”
“Not now, Mike,” Mom said.
“Not you, Dr. S,” I said.
“Of course, Michelle,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said, straightening up. “You can ask me anything.”
“What does our house smell like to you?”
Dr. Andrea Sorrentino hesitated.
“You don’t need to be polite,” I said. “I want to know. None of us notice a smell but I just know everything in this house must stink.” I showed her the black head of lettuce.
“Well, yes,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said slowly. “There is a distinct odor.”
“Everywhere? Even in the girls’ room?”
“Can you describe it?” I asked.
I could see that behind her watery blue eyes she was debating how much to tell me. The TV people behind their cameras gestured enthusiastically.
“Yes, the food,” she said. “It does smell like spoiled food.”
“What else?” I asked.
“There’s kind of…” She scrunched up her face, probably recalling the whiff she got when she first stepped inside the house. “Kind of like an oily, sour smell? Like when a lot of people are crammed into a small space and no one has showered.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Mom said. “We have good hygiene. I make sure of it. We take showers.”
“Not as much as we need,” I said. “We can’t. There are dirty dishes in the bathtub right now.”
I stared at the wadded-up towels from when the twelve-year-old had the flu and thrown up all over herself; I hadn’t gotten around to washing them because there were so many other things I needed to wash first. In front of the TV there were the empty cans of Diet Mountain Dew that I hadn’t recycled because I couldn’t find the bin; those cans were mine, no one else in our family drank Diet Mountain Dew. I started to cry.
“Hey, Michelle,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said. “It’s pretty common for people to go nose-blind in any house they live in. Some of my best friends, their house stinks a bit like their smelly dog, and they don’t notice either.”
“I hate you,” I said to Mom, and I wasn’t being dramatic for the show, I meant it. I thought about poor Dr. Andrea Sorrentino hiding her disgust as she stepped inside our house. “You’re gross and you’ve made us gross too.”
Mom tried to recover, saying I was always too sensitive. Dr. Andrea Sorrentino shushed her, saying, “You need to let Michelle talk.”
“Thanks, Dr. S, but I don’t have anything else to say to my mother.” My hand was wet from holding the lettuce. I returned to the kitchen, where the girls nervously tried to sweep, but they didn’t know how, so I showed them.
Mom wanted to stop filming, but with input from Dr. Andrea Sorrentino, the TV show people established a new cleaning rule that appeased her: anything thrown away needed Mom’s approval first. This was fine until we realized how drastically the cleaning process had slowed. An hour passed and Mom had sorted two boxes of crafting supplies. The entire cleaning crew was idle, congregating on the front lawn in their blue uniforms. I talked to the tv people in the hallway, and in hushed voices we agreed to throw away things without asking Mom. She would stay in the living room and go through boxes with someone from the cleaning crew to distract her. She’d probably figure it out at some point, but I said I was willing to risk it.
Meanwhile, Dr. Andrea Sorrentino decided she should have a “one-on-one conversation” with me. It wasn’t really one-on-one because the cameras were there, but I didn’t mind—I was thrilled by the attention of this beautiful person sitting right next to me on the steps of the back porch.
“Sometimes children of hoarders take on some of those tendencies themselves,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino began. “Even adult children.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I worry about that. I mean I worry for my sisters, but I guess now that you mention it, I worry for me, too. I don’t want to be anything like Mom. Ever.”
“I know that about you,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said. “And we’re going to get the family set up with counseling after we leave, but for right now, how about you and I go through a practice run together?”
“Do you have anything that maybe a part of you thinks you should throw away, but you’re still holding onto it and you don’t totally know why? Like those old toys you showed me the other day?”
I got up and went to my room in the basement, returning to the porch carrying a small Pacers T-shirt. It was a nice T-shirt, but it did not fit me. It was my ex-girlfriend’s from two years ago. For a while it had still smelled like her, and it didn’t anymore but sometimes I imagined it did.
“Talk me through what you’re feeling,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said.
I looked at the cameras. My heart skipped a beat. I had a lot of important things to tell Dr. Andrea Sorrentino, feelings I’d never given words to that I could now share with another person. “There’s a thing that belonged to someone else,” I said, “Then they’re gone, and it’s just a thing, of course. But there’s kind of like this trace of them still in there, in the thing, you know? Like a connection that you can still touch even though you can’t touch them anymore.” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino was nodding at me, her eyes widening with what I believed was understanding, and I was about to say more about what I remembered when I held my ex-girlfriend’s T-shirt, but there was this sudden loud noise, someone shouting, and Dr. Andrea Sorrentino was startled.
We followed the cameras to the front yard, where Mom stood next to the dump truck as she yelled at the cleaning crew. Dr. Andrea Sorrentino apologized to me, her voice strained, and I wanted to tell her that she didn’t need to feel bad, I knew she had the show to do, but she hurried away before I could say anything.
Mom fell to her knees, digging through a trash bag that had almost been tossed in the truck. She threw aside a bunch of dirty clothes. “I didn’t tell anyone this could be thrown away!” she said.
“These are just old clothes,” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino said. “You told me this morning you logically understand why you don’t need to keep old clothes.”
“It’s not just old clothes,” Mom said. “Not in this bag.” More clothes went flying until she found what she was looking for at the bottom of the bag, items she righteously showed the cameras: three small dolls in their boxes, unopened. “These are antique dolls from the 60s,” she said. “I know for a fact they are worth a fortune.”
“Okay, but you and I talked about this, too, right?” Dr. Andrea Sorrentino asked. “We can get our experts to appraise their value, like I said, but in my experience these kinds of things don’t go for as much as—”
Mom interrupted her. “In your experience? Your shitty show? You know what?” She stood up, towering over little Dr. Andrea Sorrentino. “I think…no one here is an expert in anything. You’re a bunch of jerks who want to exploit me for money. Wow. I can’t believe I let Mike talk me into this.” She removed her microphone and retreated inside the house, clutching the dolls to her chest. Dr. Andrea Sorrentino turned to the cameras, looking sad.
The episode about our house did not air. As it turned out, those dolls Mom found in the trash bag were worth thousands of dollars. Almost a hundred thousand dollars total, for all three of them, the whole set. Apparently they were limited Christmas edition dolls made right after JFK’s assassination. A piece of history. Mom threatened to sue the show for trying to destroy them; the head producer, a man so important we had never before spoken to him, personally called Mom to apologize. He said that because of their grievous error, how they had treated the dolls, they would remove the episode from this year’s lineup. Mom was satisfied. She felt she had her dignity back.
I figured the TV show people must have felt humiliated, in their own way, when they discovered Mom was right and they were wrong. Plus, if they aired the episode and told the truth about what happened, what message would that send to all the other hoarders out there—that their houses full of crap might be worth a hundred thousand dollars?
Mom did not want to part with the dolls. But we got the counseling that Dr. Andrea Sorrentino promised—twice a week at this fancy clinic in Indianapolis—and during one family session, while Mom cried that she worried she had ruined our lives, I sensed my opportunity and I brought up the dolls. If she felt so guilty, I said, maybe she should sell the dolls and give the girls and me some of the money so we could have a better life. My sisters agreed. “Please, Mommy,” the seven-year-old said perfectly. And while the counselor had previously said she would not take sides, she told Mom she thought my idea was worth considering.
I sold the dolls on eBay with Mom’s weepy consent. I took enough money so the girls and I could move into our own apartment, a three-bedroom with brand new carpeting that felt like a castle. Our hallways were clear. Our bathroom was empty. We cooked dinner in the kitchen.
I took many long showers. My skin cleared. I grew my hair out and changed my badge at Panera so it read MICHELLE, and every time I looked at it I remembered how I’d felt when Dr. Andrea Sorrentino had said my name, like there was a particular place for me in the world.
A pretty girl started coming into the store every Friday morning, buying bagels for her office; when she looked at me, really looked at me, I asked her if she wanted to exchange phone numbers, and she did. On our first date, dinner at a nice Italian restaurant, I told her I had almost been a celebrity. It was a sordid tale full of twists and turns, I began, and she touched my hand, listening with rapt attention.
My girlfriend surprised me for Christmas. Dr. Andrea Sorrentino had published a new book about OCD and compulsive behaviors including hoarding, and she was touring around the country to promote it. In February she would sign copies at a bookstore in Chicago. We could drive there together, my girlfriend said. We could do a whole road trip thing, get a hotel.
She knew how much I liked Dr. Andrea Sorrentino, and it was an overwhelmingly lovely gesture, but as we drove to Chicago, we bickered and grew annoyed with each other: I suddenly felt trapped in her car; it bothered me that she smoked in it. She was stressed driving through the rain and snapped at me when I called the girls and put them on speaker phone. I told her she was being rude and she told me I was too sensitive. I pretended to sleep for the rest of the ride.
At the hotel we didn’t have sex and we went to bed with our backs to each other. In the darkness I figured out how to remove myself as quickly and as painlessly as possible. I began to make a list in my head, the logistical things I needed to take care of. Go with her to the bookstore tomorrow. Drive back with her to Indiana. Pay her back for gas and the hotel room, then break up with her.
We stood in line outside the bookstore. The rain had stopped and my excitement brought a warm glow to everything I saw, even the smudged handprints on the display window, even my girlfriend playing Candy Crush on her phone.
We got inside the bookstore and suddenly it was my turn: There was Dr. Andrea Sorrentino in front of me. She sat behind a table and she held a pen in her hand. She looked up at me.
I was still surprised by her smallness. When she smiled at me, I was still able to read something behind her eyes, and almost immediately, with a pang in my chest, I realized what was happening.
“Who should I make it out to?” she asked, opening my copy of the book.
“Michelle,” I said.
She wrote a sentence in loopy cursive. Best wishes. She added three exclamation marks. She signed her name. She closed the book, handed it to me, saying, “Thank you for reading!”
I hesitated for a moment. Maybe there was something I could say, maybe I could stay a little longer. No, I couldn’t. There was a long line of people waiting behind me.
As we drove back to Indiana, my girlfriend wanted a play-by-play from me, how it had felt to see Dr. Andrea Sorrentino again. She rolled down the windows as she lit her cigarette. The cold air on my face felt good.
“She didn’t recognize me,” I said. I started laughing.
“Last year my face was covered in zits and my hair was short. I must look different now.”
We passed an elementary school, a church, a prison.
“Wait, what? You didn’t remind her who you were? I’m sure she would have remembered if you’d explained yourself.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t.”
“So you just…left?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What? Seriously? You talk about this woman like she’s the second coming of Christ. That’s why I drove us to Chicago. It doesn’t matter now?”
“I mean, yes, it did matter,” I said. “Now it doesn’t matter.” I thought about the stuff from the house I’d thrown away before we moved into the new apartment: baby pictures, report cards, love letters. Getting rid of these things had felt necessary, and not difficult. I had learned, after all, how to hold something only for the appropriate amount of time. I had learned how to sense when to let it go. How to notice before anyone else when it had started to smell, oily and sour.
After an easy break-up, I returned to the apartment, and my sisters grabbed the Dr. Andrea Sorrentino book from my purse. They studied her note, her signature, pronouncing her handwriting “glamorous.” They said I should put the book in a Ziploc bag. “You have to keep it fresh and special,” the eight-year-old explained. “How Mom kept the dolls in their boxes.”
“Are you kidding me?” I asked. I was in the kitchen washing the dishes from their dinner. I was tired. “Do you know how random those dolls were? We talked about it in counseling. That was a freak accident. Nothing like that will happen again.”
“Mike, we get it,” the thirteen-year-old said. “We know Mom has issues.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I know you know.”
“Did you tell Dr. S how great we’re doing?” the eight-year-old asked. “Did you tell her I am taking ballet lessons?” She wanted me to pick her up; she was too big for that, but I pretended she wasn’t. Yes, I did, I lied, saying Dr. Andrea Sorrentino had wanted to know all about how we were doing now. “Oh good,” the eight-year-old sighed, burying her head in my neck.
Since we had moved out of Mom’s house, something in me had changed. So often I wanted to say no to them. I felt differently when I held them. I was aware of their bodies, their sweaty armpits, the pizza sauce in the corners of their mouths. It was like I was reaching for them, still, but didn’t quite want to find them.
Later they climbed into bed with me. I swallowed my resistance like a lump in my throat. They had brushed their teeth. I scooted over to make room for them. I told them they were good girls and I loved them. They asked what to do about the book. I said, “You can do whatever you want.”