Nadia found the ocean behind the Swedish assholes’ couch during her weekly cleaning. She had followed a small trail of sand grains to the eastern wall with the vacuum, and when she’d moved the couch to clean underneath it, there was an ocean, snuggled right up to the wall. A fresh wind blew off it, stirring the curtains: the smell of salt and mud.
The Swedish assholes’ stupid cat jumped up on the couch that Nadia had moved and stared down at the ocean like he could see beneath the surface: the fish, the plankton, the sharks and all. His tail twitched.
Nadia had dubbed these particular clients “the Swedish assholes” for many reasons, most prominently because they insisted she use their vacuum. Their vacuum was an awful, rattling thing, with a hose that connected directly to air vents installed in the walls of their high-rise. It was nearly impossible to reach every corner of the apartment. But they’d had it mail-ordered from a Swedish design company and insisted it was better than hers, which had been purchased from a cousin’s appliance store and was kept in perfect working order.
The ocean behind the couch, she thought, had probably not been ordered from Ikea or Electrolux.
Nadia cleaned houses because the money was decent, and she could do it alone. She was forty-eight, Ukrainian, had never been very beautiful, and had outlived most of her family. She was proud of all those things. She was not a woman given to romance or fancy.
“Shoo,” Nadia said to the cat. He bent his ears back and glared, and didn’t move until she waved the vacuum’s upholstery attachment at him. Nadia moved the couch back into place and continued vacuuming. There was much left to clean in the Swedish assholes’ apartment. She hadn’t even started on the kitchen, where the many chrome gadgets were always splattered with sauces. God save her from rich people who wanted to cook like Ina Garten.
Nadia mostly forgot about the incident until the next week, when she again had to move the couch to vacuum. This process repeated itself for several months. Nadia would see the sand first, then catch the smell, and remember: of course, the Swedish assholes had the ocean under their couch.
The day that changed, as things must always change, was not very different than the preceding ones. Not unseasonably cold, nor warm. She was still divorced, childless, and an immigrant that lived in an enclave of other immigrants, who understood the true value of things.
Was her back bothering Nadia that day? Yes, but not as much as her knees, her knees were her real problem. All that time spent scrubbing floors, all kinds of floors, tile and linoleum and bamboo and one man who had furnished his children’s playroom with a floor made of pennies. It was ghastly, a nightmare to clean, and she had Abraham Lincoln’s face permanently embedded in her knees now, from that floor.
If we are seeking to place blame for what happened that day, perhaps it should lie on the penny floor. Maybe we can blame the verdigris that crept over Lincoln’s features, and the bright, bloody smell of that room.
On the day, Nadia arrived at the Swedish assholes’ apartment at her normal time. Nadia dropped her purse, then her bucket of cleaning supplies, and then her coat. The stupid cat watched her from the kitchen counter where he was surely forbidden to sit, and she watched him back. Then she strode into the living room, hauled the couch away from the eastern wall, and stared down at the small ocean that hid beneath it.
It looked like the Black Sea, she decided. Not the sea of her memories with its dirty colored sand, and overly tanned men leering at young bikini-clad girls; but the sea of her dreams, with dark water that contained shipwrecks and other unknowable things.
Nadia shed her clothes, placing them on the back of the couch: the old, stained jeans, the cheap and scratchy T-shirt that was emblazoned with the name of the cleaning company; her threadbare bra; her soft panties with the torn lace at the hem. Then she stood at the lip of the sea, of her sea, and dipped into it a toe. She knew that the best way to get into cold water was not to hesitate, not to shriek and to fumble, but to steadily allow oneself to be submerged.
Rather than sinking in, however, the sea rose to meet Nadia, spilling out over the stingy inches of sand that formed its beach, lazily spreading across the floor of the Swedish assholes’ 14th floor apartment. It quickly submerged the mohair rugs and the lower bookshelves, the white lacquer coffee table with its collection of fashion and design magazines. It rose higher than the air vents of the awful vacuum, and salty water quickly began leaking down the pipes. Wavelets lapped against the cream-colored walls.
As for Nadia, she placidly watched the water rise to her ankles, and then her knees. When it was just about thigh-height, she took three deep breaths, and then dove in.
The cat had leapt up onto the couch, perching on Nadia’s clothes. He watched the water with the same fascination he had shown months earlier, but no real concern. Instead, he raised a paw as if to swat at something just under the surface. Then he brought it to his mouth and licked it instead, as if that was what he had meant to do in the first place.
Originally published in The Deadline, 2015.