By Emma Shibley, Staff Writer

I never believed coffee could grow mold.

Last year, I chalked it up to the cream and sugar I religiously stirred into my chrome travel mug. Even when I no longer got a comforting thrill from the power I exercise turning a deep, dark abyss matte and tawny with half & half, I would still leave almost as much room to top off as the coffee itself occupied. A Starbucks shareholder’s dream. A purist’s nightmare. Of the two of us in Tappan 204, I and my moldy coffee mugs were the bad roommate. (Sorry, Annamarie.)

My stepdad, who loves to remind me how much he hates laziness, would be ashamed at my desk full of dirty dishes. I spent all summer at home cleaning up the kitchen by myself after he cooked dinner. Our small talk over coffee in the mornings got easier. When I moved back to school last month, we hugged goodbye and he kissed my cheek.

Now it is my second year, and I drink coffee black. There’s no cream, no sugar, no one but me to take the blame for the mess.

I woke up last Friday alarmed, not because I was running late (though I was), but because my white quilt, tangled by a zoo of dreams in the night, dangled over the edge of the mattress like a cloud over a dirty-dish metropolis — bowls with a crunchy film of yogurt and oatmeal, half a dozen mugs with varying depths of coffee sludge, knives and spoons still wearing peanut butter masks long after the party ends and the jar of Jif is put away.

My entire soul panicked. I pictured immeasurable ruin, irremovable brown coffee sludge stains on my cool white blanket. I apparently flailed just enough to avoid this disaster. But the universe had made its point. It was time.

As my dad would say when we were at the end of our fraying wits, when you don’t know what to do, do what you know. At college, now, amid readings to be read, discussion posts to be posted, vocabulary to be learned and favorite jeans to be laundered, we know for damn sure that the dishes need done. Sponge, AJAX and humming garbage disposal are like a community concerns meeting, a convocation of elderly neighbors with stories to tell. Hello, Emma. Glad to have you back. How’s school?

It became a Friday night tradition when my older brother, Lee, and I were in middle school. Time was measured then in the eternally long days of 40-minute classes, cross country practices, team pizza dinners, carpools home for the weekend’s math homework, a recorded episode of “The Office.”

And finally, tidying up. Putting things to rights, my mom would say, so tomorrow morning we could start the weekend off right.

Vacuuming took me back to fourth grade, when we were trying to sell our house in Wichita, and a showing for a potential buyer could and would spring out of seemingly any afternoon we’d been planning to spend lazing around on the couch. Emptying the litter box felt like the introduction scene to a horror movie — the sinister rhythms of the poop scoop on sand, the laundry room door closed behind me, my nose pinched theatrically, impractically shut.

So to the kitchen sink I leapt.

But here, under the grime of old food, lies a solid ground, a right answer for an existential question. A used plate, cup, or fork is a holy relic. Your dish now carries just a wisp of a  snack ghost — a snack ghost waiting in snack limbo, clinging to the promise of the grocery afterlife. Your job in cleaning it is to set it free.

It’s Saturday. This morning, I finally washed every mug, bowl and spoon, making three pilgrimages from my room on the second floor to the kitchen on the first to carry it all and then one more, when I finally remembered I needed soap. My roommate cooked yams on the stove. We talked for a moment about the practicality of aprons at any age. The kitchen was pleasantly stuffy. It was raining.

Now I am tidying up after making tomato soup in a Pyrex measuring cup, a dorm room eight o’clock dinner for one. I carry it empty to the bathroom two doors down, fill it with water, use my soup spoon to scrape the sides. Someone left an inexplicable comb on the floor — it’s a pick, rounded and bubbly, like something a life-size Barbie would use. A black hair tie is wound between the wide white teeth.

I leave it be, where it stays until the morning. It’s half past 10. I maintain a respectful distance while I brush my teeth — picking up the comb can be someone else’s tidying communion. Outside, the dew is heavy and clean, and you can smell the mushrooms growing.

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