“Just as I suspected,” says Jim the appliance repairman. “It’s the pump. I have to order the part, but we can probably get this all done by Wednesday.” That’s almost a week. At least there is a weekend in between to go to the Laundromat.
On Saturday I’ve carved out the whole morning to eat the frog. If it's your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning, said Mark Twain. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first. Laundry for five people is a pretty big frog. I take my time sorting out the loads; it seems like every piece of clothing the girls own is in their hamper, and my husband’s contribution is mainly socks, underwear and the pricey no-iron permanent press dress shirts I always give him for Christmas. Ironing dress shirts is not a frog I am willing to eat.
Knocking on his door first, as always, I peek into my son’s room and ask him for his dirty laundry. He is sitting at his computer, as always, and he pulls the earbud from one ear to hear me repeat my request. He jerks his head towards the hamper. I notice that he is online filling out housing information for college. He just got accepted a week ago, but it was his number one choice and he is eager to get started. The usually cool and nonchalant teen sees the light at the end of the tunnel. I pick up his hamper. “See you in a couple hours.” He nods without changing his gaze.
At the last minute I decide to bring a couple of the sleeping bags that need washing too. Loading up the car, I mentally check off everything: detergent, reading material, a sandwich for lunch, a water bottle, and cash for the change machine.
Dan grabs his keys as I get ready to take the last hamper out to the car. “I’m off to have lunch with Dave,” he says. Dave is his oldest, my stepson. “I’m off to the Laundromat,” I say, “which means you have to be really nice to me for the rest of the day.” He smiles and kisses me and carries the hamper to the car.
Wishy-Washy is a pretty nice joint for a Laundromat. Lots of vending machines filled with laundry supplies, soda, snacks – there’s even a coffee machine. I wonder what a Laundromat cappuccino would taste like but decide not to find out. As I haul the hampers inside, four other cars pull into the parking lot. Saturday is laundry day for a lot of people, I think, heading to the change machine where my twenty dollar bill is turned into eighty quarters, which promptly make the front pocket of my jeans look like the nut-filled cheek of a greedy squirrel.
There is a rhythm to Laundromat laundry. I like to use liquid detergent so after eight washers are stuffed with clothes I move down the line, sliding in the quarters. Water fills the machines and then I move down the line again, pouring the liquid detergent into the water. There is time to eat lunch and flip through an old copy of Entertainment Weekly before the wash is done. Then back down the line again, one two three four, putting the wet clothes into the wheeled basket and tossing them into the huge industrial dryer, five six seven eight. Permanent press here, heavier stuff over there, sleeping bags down there. It’s a little crowded but Wishy Washy has a lot of machines.
There’s something really zen about a Laundromat. You just do laundry there, that’s all you do. I suppose the truly mad could find a way to multitask, like the twenty-something woman behind me who has not stopped talking on her phone the entire time she has been at the dryers, dumping her clothes into Ikea bags. You know, last month we just went ahead and got a storage unit, she is telling some poor soul. I just couldn’t stand all the clutter anymore, she is saying. An Asian lady and her daughter speak in rapid Korean as they pull their wet clothes out and scan the room for open dryers. The man beside them leans against the washing machine and stares into space. Or maybe he’s watching the TV above the dryers, tuned to ESPN and showing some football story about a famous player who overcame adversity of some sort. I can't tell.
The dryers work really fast and suddenly I’m doing the dryer waltz. One turns off, check the clothes, if they’re dry throw them in the rolling basket, bum bum. If they’re not, put in another quarter, ba-bum, or move the clothes to the other dryer that’s still going, ba-da-bum.
Everything is washed and dried in an hour. Amazing. I look at the stack of clothes all laid out, waiting to be folded, and sigh: this will take an hour too. But somewhere in my head I appreciate how wonderful this is, how fresh, to have nothing else to do for the next hour but fold clothes. Nothing else. There will be no distractions – no kids, no dirty dishes, no damn dogs barking – for a whole blessed hour. I haven’t even looked at my phone except for the one time I checked Facebook while waiting for the dryers. That’s when I noticed that Wishy Washy is in a dead spot for my cel provider, so no phone calls either.
Maybe the staring man, or the Asian lady, watches as I set about to fold the t-shirts. I have a very particular obsession with folding t-shirts. First I pick it up at the bottom, fingers pulling it apart evenly at the side seams and fwap snapping it flat in the air. Then I fold it in half perfectly from the bottom and match it up at the armpits. Laying it flat on the table, I caress the fabric into submission, smoothing the wrinkles, pressing the hems at the bottom and on the sleeves flat with my fingers. The sleeves are then folded down and smoothed out, one pinch of the shoulder seams, and then it is folded in half. The collar is always on the left when I lay the folded shirt aside.
The staring man and the Asian lady would peg me for an OCD housewife with a spotless house judging by the way I fold the t-shirts. Snap, fold, smooth, fold, pat. They stack up, looking fit for display in a store. But my house is far from spotless, my desk is home to stacks of mail and school paperwork which I will get to just as soon as I can, it’s making me crazy too, honey. But maybe it’s not. Maybe it stays that way because if I finish it, then I will no longer be needed. I reach for the next t-shirt. It belongs to the high-school senior who was filling out his college housing application. It’s a plain white t-shirt. He wears it underneath his band uniform.
I linger over this particular shirt, matching the shoulder seams painstakingly, smoothing the white cotton and picturing him in his band uniform, playing pep songs in the stands during the football games. Last fall I sat with the other band moms nearby, watching, clapping along to the school fight song, laughing with an odd new happiness: pride, mostly, in this strapping young man who stood swaying with a tuba across his shoulders, as he lived his young life at full volume. Pride, and excitement for the future he was sailing into.
I smooth the v-neck into perfect halves. He will be leaving. He will not live with us anymore. I will not be knocking on his door just to see how’s he’s doing, watching him pull the earbud out so he can hear me. His sister can’t wait to take that room over, once he goes to college. The folded white cotton t-shirt goes onto a stack, and suddenly I am thinking about the little white cotton onesies with snaps at the crotch, like the one he wore in his one-year portrait with too-big jeans and bare feet, blond hair and cheeks chubby with giggles. Holding a small brown bear, perching on a wooden stool, look over here sweetie! Smile! A plain white t-shirt. He should do his own laundry, says my husband, and so he does. But the machine is broken and I have washed his things, cargo shorts and Star Trek tees and all the same kind of socks. He only wears one kind of sock, a white crew sock that says Hanes on the bottom, so I always know which ones are his.
The stack of t-shirts feels endless. There are two more plain white ones and as they are stacked perfectly atop one another I think, I won’t be doing this for him anymore. There’s a twinge until I remember coming home from college myself, a million years ago, dragging a bag full of dirty laundry behind me. Which my mom somehow didn’t mind washing. And now I understand why.
And then I am folding the girls’ shirts, with Hello Kitties and Little Ponies, and for a while I’m able to stop thinking about how much I will miss the boy.
Finally the hampers are loaded with folded clothes, and they go into the car first so the dress shirts on hangers can lie on top. The sleeping bags are rolled up and ready to go back in the garage until the next Y Camp overnight. When I get home, he is there, the strapping boy, and he helps me bring in the laundry without a word. But he smiles when I set his hamper on the bed.
“Thanks, mom,” he says.
My eyes linger one extra moment on his face, taking a picture.
“You’re welcome, son.” Really, that’s all there is to say.