Hemingway had a clean well-lighted café on the Place St.-Michel; Virginia Woolf had a room of her own. I have a laundromat. It is not private, but it is privacy that I am escaping. It is well-lighted and warm, if a little noisy. And, it is the temple of clean. Here the harried and down-trodden bring their plastic baskets and garbage bags full of laundry and turn it into clean stacks of towels, sheets, underwear. Here we are all shriven of our sweat and dirt and filth until the next week. It is where our transgressions are rinsed away, spun into filaments, and tumbled out into the upper air. The air is sweet with artificial aromas of fabric softeners and dryer sheets, incense burned by the heat of the permanent press setting. We have our choir too: the dryers keep a contrapuntal beat against the varying hum of the wash cycle and the high pitch of the spin cycles. Put some sneakers in the dryer and you get the percussive accompaniment.
As wonderful as the laundromat is, most of us do not come voluntarily. Cleanliness is part of our moral code, the only part of our moral code that no one seems to question. It should happen, however, within one’s own doors. Laundry should be done in one’s own machines. It should not even be hung in the backyard, never mind schlepped across town and tumbled out in front of a lot of people one does not know. Most of us, however, have no choice. I come because I am new at staying at home. My husband used to stay at home and do the laundry, and he has a code of his own. He decided that washing was bad for the septic system, and proceeded to build cabinets for a pantry in the laundry room. By the time we traded places, the washer-dryer connections resided behind birch shelving. So, I began to go to the laundromat on Tuesdays. And, I like it. It gives me both destination and purpose. I can watch people and make guesses about them. I have the clues of their laundry.
It was hard to pick a good laundromat. I did not know what I was looking for at first. I did know that it had to be large enough so I could blend into the background and watch the people. I did not want to get to know anyone. I did want to see and – especially – hear people, so it could not have blaring televisions sets. It had to be somewhat isolated so that people stayed there, and did not run back and forth to do errands. I tried several before I settled on one. It was relatively small, had a sporadic attendant who also worked at the dry cleaner next door, and reasonably comfortable seats. No television sets, no video games. The water was soft enough to use bleach without staining, and the front windows faced the morning sun. It is February now, and in the winter the sun is important to me.
There were several women in the laundromat yesterday morning. No men. This was not unusual, although there were sometimes local truck drivers who stopped by and did their laundry between route stops, and occasionally older men with deceased or bedridden wives. Most noticeable this morning was a young mother, with two boys with pale faces, shocks of black hair, and drizzling noses. Their mother was tall but slight; the long roots on her neglected hair were the same color as the boys, but the rest of it was red. She was even paler than the boys, and her dark lashes and brows capped light eyes which were underscored with violet shadows. She had a huge pile of laundry of all kinds, and had spread it out on two tables and the floor. She was sorting it out at the same time she was trying to control her offspring. There was obvious empathy for her from everyone there. The attendant tried to distract the children with a few puzzles and books that were kept with the magazines in the corner, and the rest of us just looked sympathetic. I guessed we had all been that girl at some point in our lives.
There was a fairly obese middle-aged woman noisily loading bedspreads and comforters. She was obviously not a regular, and probably only there because her washer at home would not accommodate that kind of bulk. She had a better (or at least more recent) dye job than the young woman, but blonde. Being in a laundromat was obviously a blow to her carefully cultivated sense of self esteem. She sputtered and huffed and puffed as she tried to figure out how to work the machines. She had forgotten detergent, and had no change. She apparently thought she was in a high crime area, as she would not let go of her purse while she loaded, so the heavy bag kept hitting her on the legs and arms as she crammed things into the washers. Here, our reaction was the opposite of that for the young mother. No one looked sympathetic, no one offered to help, no one shared laundry detergent. Some of us also had probably been where she was, but we weren’t proud of it and we weren’t going to divulge that secret through our sympathy.
Lastly, there was an older woman there. She was very thin, but very straight. She had apparently never been fat, as there was little sag to her skin, but it was clear that she was at least sixty, and probably older. Her exact age was hard to determine, but the lines around her mouth contrasted with the state of her teeth let me know she wore dentures. Her hair was thin and white, but she had resisted all counsel to cut it short and wore it long and pulled back by a tarnished silver barrette. She had silver hoop earrings and a narrow silver wedding band that waved in an irregular way. She wore fat person clothes – stretchy pants and a tunic sweater – but apparently for comfort rather than coverage. She had a very small amount of laundry, too little even for one person who went to the laundromat once a week. She either came to the Laundromat more often – in which case she was fastidious – or, she changed her clothes, linen and underwear very seldom. I voted for the former. This was not a sloppy person. But, this was a person who definitely lived alone.
The poor young mother was having a rough time. The attendant had gone back next door, and the boys were back pulling at the laundry, slamming dryer doors, pinching each other, and generally making life miserable. Their individual complaints were converging into an atonal whine that promised no finale. I do not like to get involved, but my laundry was already in and I was stuck for the duration.
Standard opening for someone with children: “How old are the boys?”
“Jess is three and Jamie is almost seven. Sorry.” About the noise, I assumed she meant.
“It’s OK. Do you mind if I try to help? Do you let them have sweets?”
“I let them have anything if they just leave me alone.”
I hiked the three blocks to the market and came back with cookies and two lollipops. I explained in grandmotherly fashion that the lollipops were for now and the cookies were for later, but only if they sat in the other end of the laundromat and looked at the books provided. Jamie volunteered that he knew how to read. Jess just started salivating, which made the drool from his mouth form a river with the mucus from his nose. They took the lollipops and retreated for the time being. Their mother looked grateful.
“Do you have children?” she asked. I hate questions about myself, but she had just answered mine. Fair’s fair.
“All grown. But, I remember. It is hard at that age. Hard to get anything done.”
“Hard is right. Just damn hard. Don’t know how people do it with more than two. Don’t know how I do it with two.”
Truer words were never…. But I gave her the platitude. “They’ll be grown soon enough. Just keep in mind that they won’t be young forever. Mine are all miles and miles away – lucky if I see them at Christmas.” She was looking like she wished hers would go away and not come back until Christmas. She was still sorting and stuffing frontloaders and seemed about to start sobbing at any moment. Now that she didn’t have the boys to yell at there was no release for a ton of pent-up emotion.
Against my better judgement, I continued.
“When my kids were your age, I was trying to work full-time…”
“I work nights.” She had interrupted me lest I think for a minute that I had had it worse than she did. I was already quite sure that she had it worse than I ever had, even with my young kids, night school, and a first husband who was now blessedly “ex.”
“You poor thing. In any case, there was a woman in my office in the same situation as I was in that I used to have lunch with every day. We wasted an hour every day conjuring up this fantasy about getting on an airplane and going far away and then feigning amnesia – just to get away from it all and start over again. We would talk about where we would go, whether we would ever “recover” our memories and come back, and what would happen to our families while we were gone. The thought of our husbands having to do the laundry was one of the better parts of the fantasy. We made up names for ourselves, decided what we would bring with us, and how we would go about supporting ourselves. We decided that even if we were bag ladies in some distant city it would be better than the treadmill we were on. That’s how hard our lives seemed to us, I guess. It feels like a long time ago though, and life must have gotten better since I haven’t had that fantasy for a long time. My friend, however, was not so lucky. Her daughter had a baby and moved back in with her – she’s going through the whole thing all over again. All over again.”
“Thank god you told me that. I have the same fantasy – except I get in my car. And, every time I think about it, I beat myself up for being a bad mother.” She stopped for a minute. “I don’t think you could do it on an airplane anymore. They make you show ID. They would track you down. Even amnesia probably wouldn’t work. I guess it’s OK to daydream about it if you know it can’t be done.”
“Oh, it can be done.” The older lady was pulling her scant laundry out of the dryer. “It can be done.” She looked directly at us, first briefly at the young mother and then uncomfortably long into my face.
“How would you do it?” the girl asked. “Not that I would.”
“It’s not how I would do it. I did it. Just about your age. Had enough. Got on a bus. In those days, nobody cared who you were on a bus. Probably still don’t.”
I stepped back to watch this conversation. I am always more comfortable watching.
“Did you have children?” There was that question again. “Were you married?”
“Married at nineteen. Three children. Jerk husband. Couldn’t take it anymore, and didn’t think I had any options. Got on the bus and never looked back. Forty years ago. Seems like I was a different person. I guess I am a different person now, and it’s a good thing.” The fat woman with the comforters looked up and the conversation stopped until she shifted loads to the dryers and went out front to have a cigarette. She stood on the cold sidewalk outside smoking and watching us through the window. I could not imagine how she could walk out on this conversation.
“What about the children? Did you ever go back?”
“Never. And, they never found me. Not sure they ever looked. Knowing Jake, he probably got married again. I got married again.”
“Couldn’t you have just divorced him?”
“Could have. Wasn’t so easy. I didn’t have a job. Would have had to get him to try to support us. Would have had to deal with him over the children. Never would have been rid of him. It might have even been worse. Worse for all of us. Doesn’t matter, because I just couldn’t do it anymore. It was the right thing. When you have no choice, it’s the right thing.”
The young mother had forgotten all her own problems. “But the kids…”
“They probably got over it before I did. And, they would have had other things to get over if I hadn’t left. His yelling, my crying. I had no choice. That’s what it seemed like.”
“Don’t you miss the kids?” She looked at her kids.
“I had two more kids later. They never visit me now. Seldom even call. So, if I had kept in touch I would have had five kids to ignore me now instead of two. It hurt, but what you are doing hurts. Having babies hurts. You forget.”
“I can’t believe it. I fantasize, but I couldn’t do it.”
“You couldn’t do it, but you want out. Even criminals get a second chance. Why should a decision I made when I was nineteen sentence me to a life I didn’t want? And, you forget. It hurts. It hurts when you leave, it hurts when other people leave. But, it fades. It’s not there every day like dirty laundry and garbage. People don’t like to admit it, but forgetting happens. Your life goes on, their life goes on. I lost my second husband a year ago, and I really loved him. But, I like my quiet life now. I got a cat – could never have a cat before. Read books and watch what I like on television. Life goes on. To pretend otherwise is as make-believe as her amnesia fantasies.” She nodded toward me.
The old woman had finished folding her laundry and stacking it neatly into a small wicker basket. She stopped, put both hands in the basket, and leaned over the laundry toward the girl. She smiled. “In any case, things won’t always be the same. Even if you just wait.”
She picked up the basket and seemed to walk to the timing of the thump, thump of the dryers. The comforter lady was on the way back in, and held the door for her. The young woman turned to me.
“Do you believe her? Was it the truth?” she asked. She looked at the boys and her face was painfully sad.
“I’m sure that everything she said was true,” I answered.
My laundry was done now, too, but the young woman had not even gotten hers out of the washers. She looked so desolate that I felt I needed to add something.
“Truth and what we need to believe are not necessarily the same.” I left the cookies for the boys on the counter and gave her a smile. I picked up my basket of clean clothes. She would feel better when her laundry was done. Even if I never saw her again, I would choose to believe it was not because she got on a bus.