About the Feature
Photo by Emily Chung
What was it like,” my partner asks, “growing up as you did?”—and I can only think to tell her about the laundry. So much for a family of three, it seemed. There was a chute in the closet beside my room, which made me think of the game we played after dinner sometimes. I pictured a chute more like a playground slide, a good place for gliding, but ours was a square cut out of the floor, through which stale air from the basement rose in plumes we couldn’t see. My parents warned me when they found me on my belly, peering through: Don’t get too close! Children have gotten stuck in chutes before.
Down went our dirty socks, our dirty underwear, play clothes and gardening clothes, pajamas gone ripe after a week of sleep, bedsheets wound into huge floral balls, damp bath towels and hand towels, washcloths (scratchy offspring of terry cloth parents), dinner napkins stained with ketchup and splatter from casseroles.
I liked pushing things with my bare feet into the hole. I liked learning that holes didn’t have to be round. Even then, the shapes of the world amazed me. In the basement behind the louvered doors—slim white panels with bright red knobs—our clothes tumbled onto the floor. A heap soon became a mountain—little whiff of sweet, little waft of sour whenever we opened those doors. My mother and I carried the wash, armful upon armful, down a checkered hall to the washer and dryer. Loads, we called them, for they were always plural.
The room where the chute emptied out was referred to as the workroom. There was a long bench against the back wall, where my father’s tools hung on little hooks jutting out from a porous board. I never once saw him working in there. A dirty window near the ceiling leaked a tiny grid of light. A bulb on a string added meager illumination. Cobwebs in every corner, a furnace throbbing somewhere unseen.
I feared that room always—its many nooks and curves; its sagging boxes piled high and tipping over, contents unknown to me but sinister somehow; the shadows cast by stacks of chairs, chaise lounges, outdoor furniture stored indoors for most of the year. In Seattle, our summers were short, our winters long and perpetually wet. My mother strung twine from one end of the workroom to the other, and I brought the clean clothes back there to hang-dry during the rainy months, which is to say most of the time. A deep canvas bag filled with wooden pegs dangled from a hook on the twine. How heavy those clothes became after she washed them. I dragged a plastic basket into the semi-dark, then hung each fabric swath as fast as I could before retreating into the world again—the natural, unburdened light. When the clothes were dry, my mother sent me back to the workroom to gather them, to load the basket and haul it up the stairs.
What’s the opposite of a chute? I asked her once, thinking there should be some kind of pulley system, a way to hoist the clothes through another square, let them spill into an upstairs room fresh with sun and fragrant air.
A daughter! she laughed, pleased with herself.
On my mother’s mammoth bed, we folded the loads, after which she sent me scampering—opposite of a treasure hunt—to return our possessions, now crisp and clean, to the drawers and shelves where they belonged.
“Most girls are expected to help with the laundry, I suppose,” Angie offers. Along with cooking and cleaning, washing is still considered quintessential women’s work. Except—I wasn’t permitted to touch my mother’s washing machine, let alone fiddle with the levers and switches. Nor the fancy appliances that gleamed along her kitchen’s counters: Paws off! she tsked whenever I reached for anything besides the faucet or refrigerator door. I won’t have you ruining all my nice things!
Not her blender. Not her food processor with its plastic tubes, its colorful calculator buttons. Not her toaster, her rice cooker my father won in a raffle, her waffle iron with its Frisbee-shaped griddle. Not her coffee percolator like a steel drum, her blue kettle that screeched from the stove top a dozen times a day, and never her stove top, let alone her oven. Not even her microwave without supervision because you know what happened last time! There was only one time, and I hadn’t learned about convection settings yet. Especially not her KitchenAid Classic Plus stand mixer with cream and chrome exterior. And not—it went without saying, though she kept saying it—her washing machine.
“Were you allowed to use the dryer?” Angie asks.
“No one was.”
My mother believed dryers were purely decorative, and more to the point, a scam devised by the folks at Whirlpool to keep housewives buying things they didn’t need. Like much else in our lives, the dryer served to maintain appearances. At some point, my mother began storing her valuables in there—an unlikely safe. But for the intended purpose, I doubt it was ever hooked up.
While she sorted the clothes and completed her rituals at the washer, my mother talked to me. It was clear I had no role to play, yet I was not allowed to leave until she finished. So you think you’re tired? my mother said—tired from your little trundle down the hall? This seemed like a trick question, so I didn’t answer, thought instead about the long sleeves of frozen juice stacked inside the freezer behind her. If I was good, she might give me one. If I was especially good, she might even let me choose my flavor.
You don’t know the half of it, my mother declared, reaching for the tall box of borax. On the cover was a porthole view of green grass, blue sky, plump, white clouds. I couldn’t decide if the landscape was pleasing or boring. Perhaps it was both. When you were born, I washed load after load of diapers every day. If you were napping, I was washing. She glanced over at me, still slumped on the stool, now fingering the long cord of the phone hitched to the wall above.
You were such a messy baby—and regular as a clock! People always wondered how I got those diapers so snowy clean, and I told them: there’s nothing you can’t achieve with enough determination and a big enough bottle of bleach. Always remember that. I always did.
In fact, I kept some of those diapers she was talking about—white and ridged, thick as sweaters. I clasped them with safety pins against the hard plastic bottoms of my dolls. These dolls were dressed in the same clothes I used to wear as an infant—sailor dresses, mauve and lavender bonnets, frilled booties in which my baby self had been photographed to excess. My mother returned to me everything that once was mine, stuffed inside a brown wicker hamper. The hamper was so full the hard pom-pom lid could not lie flush. When I asked her if we shouldn’t use it for dirty laundry instead, she threw up her hands. What do you think we have the chute for?
And then my mother was done with the laundry, for the time being. Laundry could never be done completely, which was my first lesson in entropy but not my last. Clothes still covered the floor—small mounds like the molehills my father fought in the yard. Another losing battle. I could hear water swishing in the washer’s belly. My mother turned a dial—not an easy spin but with an effort akin to cranking—the muscles in her forearm flexing. I listened for the grind of tiny teeth, watched as an orange sensor began to glow behind a row of marks I couldn’t quite discern. Then she yanked the dial toward her and let the lid drop closed. The sound it made was somewhere between a flap and a slam. Later there would be a buzzer, loud like a game show and audible everywhere in the house. She would raise the lid and fling the clothes toward me. My task was to catch them in a basket. I could pull, or I could push, but however I managed it, all that was wet had to get back to the workroom, had to get pinned to those long, low lines.
“I’m just curious—was there a dishwasher in your house?” Angie is trying to work the math of us now, trying to draft a theorem from my story.
“Two—one upstairs, one down. But my mother washed everything by hand.”
“Did I wash dishes? You mean, chip her plates and crack her goblets?” I shake my head and force a laugh. “No, I couldn’t be trusted with even a juice glass, a cereal bowl.”
I did stand beside my mother while she washed the dishes, though. I draped a towel over my shoulder in solemn imitation of my father. Whatever she gave me, I dried.
Sweet were the days when the sky was blue as the picture on the borax box, the clouds plump and white in the sky. No threat of rain. My mother fit the metal pole of her clothesline into a matching hole in the ground, then raised it overhead like a screeching bird. This was hard work. She did it alone, the way my father raised the flag on certain holidays, also alone. Afterward, it was quiet in the yard again. The bars, thin silver wings, turned softly in the light summer wind.
When I was big enough, the weather fine enough, she propped the screen door to the patio open and waited as I tugged the basket through. Don’t dally now! she always said—but dallying was my favorite part of outdoor chores. We lived above the ferry docks in Fauntleroy—our yard enclosed by a high fence, the lattice shrouded with climbing vines—I could smell salt rising from Puget Sound. I could hear gulls disputing a fisherman’s catch, pleading for a picnicker’s bread. By midday, the fog always burned off, and the sun gushed over us like a distant friend, saying, Oh, how I’ve missed you! How in the world have you been? Roses on the trellises cocked their heads. Tomatoes in their cages fattened and darkened like apples.
I donned the apron with wooden pegs in the pockets. I hung the dresses, the linens, the area rugs. Strange amalgams too: pot holder gloves, cozies for teapots and toilet seats, my father’s white monogrammed handkerchiefs—WSW stitched in blue or gold. I hid below the grid, beneath a canopy of overlapping cottons. I hummed. I twirled. I told stories to no one in particular. When I was once too small to reach, I ran between these sheets as they were drying. Everything laced with salt, warmed with sun. Butterflies mistook our towels for flowers.
And then from the deck above, my mother would call: Are you done yet? Are you done yet? I promised her, Almost! before ducking around the side of the house. Hot brick at my back, cool grass under my feet. I took off my shoes, which was not allowed. Sometimes I dug my toes into the rockery’s rough beads—stones my parents bought by the bag. Or I crouched among the ferns where our cat, camouflaged to the points of his ears, also waited for something, slow-blinking and yawning as I patted his head.
I wanted to stretch out on the lawn swing with the yellow fringe, but I knew she would see me there—sprawled and decadent, scribbling in a notebook she might later ask to review. Soon enough, I would hear the timer beeping on the microwave, signal to my mother that I had been gone too long. It doesn’t take all day to hang the laundry!—and she’d knock hard on the window until I came.
The summer after junior high, Aunt Linda gave me a Walkman, and our neighbor Linda, on whose computer I typed most of my scribblings, burned me a tape of an album she often played while I was typing. Once, I looked up from the keyboard to ask, What kind of music is this? and she said, Alternative. When I asked, Alternative to what? Linda just laughed, tossing her blond head back. To whatever else you’ve been listening to all your life. Which was mostly Frank Sinatra and Andrew Lloyd Webber, along with some instrumentals from the big band era, and church hymns, of course—that mighty given.
My mother, who was also named Linda, controlled our stereo—though she called it a hi-fi still—slipped records first from their cardboard, then from their paper sleeves. I liked those records, but I didn’t believe them. The sounds were too big, the voices too self-assured, as if designed to drown out some harsher truth they didn’t want their listeners to hear.
From then on, when I was hanging up the wash or taking it down, I slipped the Walkman into my pocket, the earphones over my ears. I hid the black, spongy rounds under thick poufs of hair, knowing my mother didn’t approve of private listening—any more than she approved of closed doors or cordless phones. Just more ways of keeping secrets, she frowned.
I can remember standing in summer’s early light, swaying to the lyrics of a song: Blue morning, blue morning, / Wrapped in strands of fist and bone, / Curiosity, kitten / Doesn’t have to mean you’re on your own. Rewind: Blue morning, blue morning. The fog, before it burned off, bore a tint of blue, so these lyrics, at precisely this moment, matched the world in which I lived—unpinning undershirts and camisoles, long slips and short slips commingling in a basket. All these garments glowed with the same bluish hue as the fog.
I knew by then that I craved something poetry was offering to me, but in eighth grade, we only studied the sonnets of John Donne—so austere and meticulous they reminded me of my mother. Of course they were melancholy too, my first criterion for a poem, but I preferred the kind of gaps Adam Duritz left between his lines—spaces I could slip into like the sleeves of an oversized shirt, hunker down, and breathe the meanings in. For instance, what did it mean to be wrapped in strands of fist and bone? I knew the answer tacitly, with my senses, not like solving a problem in pre-algebra or recalling a date in social studies. My brain hardly came to bear at all.
Then the cadence of the music picked up, and Duritz was almost chanting by the time he sang: All your life is such a shame shame shame, / All your love is just a dream dream dream. They didn’t rhyme—shame and dream—but the words echoed each other in a way I found even more powerful. Three drumbeats in a row, two related sounds twisting together into one: shame, dream, shame, dream. I felt both words inside me, stacked like vertebrae. Whenever my mother knocked on the window, I startled—then, to cover my tracks, I grinned and waved.
My mother was not one to sweat and never one to smell. After hours spreading mulch in the garden, she would wipe her feet on the mat, splash water on her face, and change her clothes. No odor. At most, a glistening thread of moisture would form along her temples, a damp curl dangle behind her ear. My mother was proof that real women—natural women—merely perspired. She climbed ladders, cleaned gutters, wallpapered whole rooms, so it was never a matter of exertion but rather of biology, I reasoned.
My mother also never bled. When I was two years old, she had a hysterectomy, of which she spoke only matter-of-factly. “Menopause at thirty-six, over and done with.” Brushing her hands together. “No more periods to contend with. It was as if God knew you were going to be enough mess for both of us.”
When I was twelve, bleeding the thick, dark blood for the first time, a friend counseled over the phone: “Don’t worry. Your mother will have a stash of pads somewhere, probably tampons too. I usually steal from my sister because she buys the smaller sizes and the better brands, but whatever your mother has should work for now.”
My mother had nothing. Cotton balls in one drawer, cotton swabs in another. A few Band-Aids and a slender roll of gauze. She was prepared for accidents but not for inevitable things—not for the very thing, in fact, that was meant to affirm my potential as a woman. My mother had been known to say, I didn’t become a woman until I became a mother. Until she pushed the potential rock of me over her interior edge.
I layered my underwear with toilet paper. I clenched my teeth and squeezed my legs together. By the second day, the blood had brightened to a color I recognized. It flowed in a familiar way, as if from an open wound. How long could this last? I wondered.
For several months, I hid the soiled panties in a paper bag deep inside my closet. I couldn’t slip them down the chute, couldn’t face my mother before the altar of the laundry. Your things are disappearing, she remarked one day. Why are you running low on underwear when I just bought you six new pairs?
Don’t shrug. It’s rude.
I really couldn’t say, I said instead.
That’s when she grabbed my arm and drew me closer, sniffed the air. You smell bad. Did you forget to put on your deodorant today?
I shook my head.
Don’t shake your head. It’s rude. Give me a proper answer.
No, Mom. I’m wearing my deodorant.
Take off that shirt, then. She held out her hand. I was standing shin-deep in dirty laundry. As I tried to back away, my ankles tangled, and I fell. Stop playing games, she said, looming over me. I mean it. I want your shirt.
The shirt was white eyelet with tiny sheer buttons. I unfastened them slowly, and then she snatched the sticky garment from my hand, pressed her nose to the armpits, and gagged. Fill up the bin in the big sink with hot water and a cup of salt. This is putrid. We’ll have to soak the body odor out.
I climbed to my feet, kicking a pathway through the clothes. I couldn’t look at her. Shame shame shame.
You’ll have to put your bra in to soak too, since it probably smells to high heaven. From now on, you’re going to have to smell-test your clothes every day, and if they stink, you’ll bring them down here and do exactly what I’m doing now.
But it’s a common area! Dad putters around in here! I don’t want all my—private things—on display! I was weeping softly like a child as I bent over the sink, but my body heaved and shuddered like a beast.
I don’t know what to tell you, Julie. Personal hygiene is a priority. If you can’t manage not to spill, and you can’t manage not to smell—
And that’s when she saw them, the black hairs poking out from under my arm. The new growth had started about a year before with just a few wisps, but then there were more of them, and more—spiky at first until they softened, turning downy and dark, almost like a fleece, and still they grew. I tried to hold my arms close to my body, stiff as a soldier. In class, if I wasn’t wearing long sleeves, I never raised my hand.
Let me see, my mother said. I retreated, and she advanced until my back pressed against the wall. This was a stickup. She had me cornered. She made me stretch my fingers to the sky, and I saw her face contort in horror. This was before my father’s razor. Before my father’s shaving cream. Before my mother told me the hair was trapping the scent, keeping me wild. Before she taught me how to shave it off, how to tame myself into a lady. That universal symbol for surrender: my hands in the air, no way to wipe the tears.
What else? she demanded. What else aren’t you telling me? My bloody loot in the closet—opposite of a treasure hunt. I told her. I couldn’t not tell her then. Shame, shame, shame.
“So, let me get this straight: Your mother didn’t want closed doors or people taking time for themselves, and you had to put your unmentionables—sounds like a word she would use—out in the open, right there where everyone could see?”
I nod. “No secrets for me.”
When I got my period, my parents always knew because I had to soak my underwear in the big sink. If I got sweaty—which I always did—I had to soak my shirts too. Lots of soap and salt and embarrassing stains.
“But why there? Why not—”
“Convenience. She wanted the soiled clothes to be close to the washer, which was where they were headed next.”
“Why not in the workroom, then? Jesus!”
I shrug and let the silence wash over me.
Everything was supposed to change when I got to college. I had a choice between living at home and commuting to a public urban campus or living in the dorms an hour from home at the Christian school where my father earned his degree in business. I chose the latter because I knew I could skip church, could go out to movies and coffee shops unchaperoned. Every day I’d wake with a chance to meet myself on my own terms.
After my parents moved me into Harstad Hall at Pacific Lutheran University, I stood in the doorway of my new room, waiting for them to leave. I was intimidated, of course—I knew I had been sheltered—but I desperately needed them to go. That’s when my mother produced from her purse a huge maroon bag. It was made of nylon and folded into a tiny square. At first, I thought it was a poncho, something to deflect the rain, but when she finished unfolding it, she handed it to me and said, Put your laundry in here. When we come to get you on the weekends, you’ll bring your dirty things home, and I’ll wash them for you.
Oh, you don’t have to do that, I stammered. You’ve done so much for me. You’ve been washing my clothes for eighteen years, and now you deserve a break. How could I make her see that washing my own clothes was the rite of passage I had been waiting for all my life?
Well, this is what mothers do for their daughters, she replied. If I wash a load on Friday night, the clothes should dry by Sunday afternoon.
Really, it’s too much. I can’t ask you—
You’re not asking. I’m telling. And besides, she said, more firmly this time, you don’t know how to wash your clothes. You’d ruin everything.
My father kissed me on the cheek. We know you’re a grateful daughter.
Sometimes, my mother murmured and looked away.
Just let her do this for you, Julie. She likes to do it, and with all your schoolwork, it’s one less thing for you to worry about.
When they left, I turned up the volume on my small cassette player, pounded my fists against the paneled walls. Dream dream dream!
There were two sets of drawers in the dorm room I shared with Becky, and I watched as she filled one of the drawers on her side of the room with jeans. How do you have so many pairs? I asked, incredulous. They were all different washes too—at the time I didn’t even know this use of the word—and some were intentionally tattered. What struck me most was that each pair bore a name-brand patch in beige and red. Levi Strauss & Co., the label announced, right there for everybody to see. And on the back right pocket, sticking out from the golden seam, was a tiny red flag (or was it more like the tip of a tongue?) with LEVI’S printed vertically in thin white letters.
I like jeans, Becky said, nonchalantly.
No kidding, I replied.
She filled another of her drawers with T-shirts—most of them black but a few in colors like ecru, pale blue, pale green, and purple. These weren’t cut like T-shirts they gave you to tie-dye at church camp. They had a scooped-out neck and short, fitted sleeves, and they were so soft—not bulky and scratchy with too much fabric at the top and too little at the bottom. Until that moment, I didn’t know there was such a thing as a women’s tee.
It’s true I always looked away while Becky was changing, but I always looked back after she was dressed. I loved her style—jeans, a T-shirt, sometimes a sweater or a jacket depending on the season, maybe a scarf or her favorite pair of moonstone earrings, and then the sturdy, lace-up shoes she called her Docs. I later learned these were Doc Martens, signature footwear of the Pacific Northwest that I had somehow never encountered before.
The best part was that after a few weeks of living together, Becky seemed to catch on that I wasn’t entirely at home in my body and that at least part of my awkwardness stemmed from my wardrobe. My mother dressed me, had always dressed me, and still, at eighteen, I wasn’t allowed to choose my own clothes.
One day I summoned the courage to ask, Do you think I could borrow one of your T-shirts?
Sure, she nodded. Help yourself.
I tried to act tentative, but I knew exactly what I wanted: one of the black tees, jersey knit, 100 percent cotton, machine washable. I read the tag before I slipped the shirt over my head. And there was something else too, something fateful—printed boldly right there at the top of the tag—the word GAP. This shirt, the feeling I had striding across campus while wearing it, began to fill a gap in me. Not just a shirt, it was more than a shirt—it became a tangible marker of the something-missing, the something I hadn’t been able to name.
Sometimes I went down to the laundry room with Becky. It was so different from the atmosphere at home—bright and airy, wide and spacious, nothing shadowy about it at all.
I didn’t know, at first, this was a place girls took their boyfriends late at night when they wanted to make out after curfew, when they wanted (perhaps) someone to glimpse them kissing on a stray piece of furniture or leaning against the vending machine, backlit like the candy glowing inside. The laundry room was a good place to enact the paradox of being incognito and drawing attention to yourself at the same time. For me, though, that first semester, it was a place of personal sociology—to study my peers in their natural habitat, washing clothes on Thursday nights, changing loads between commercial breaks on Friends.
My dorm-mates wore sweatpants and flip-flops around the time we had just stopped calling them thongs. Some girls also wore thongs, and you could see the whale’s tail—fuchsia or cobalt or lime—always a bodacious color—peeking out above their elastic waistbands. Many wore scrunchies in their freshly washed hair. Everyone smelled of Pantene and a popular lavender spritz sold by Victoria’s Secret. They each had proper laundry baskets too, with good-grip handles, holes in the sides, and an inset curve made to balance the weight of the clothes against their hips. They brought rolls of quarters with them, bottles of detergent, Bounce dryer sheets, stain sticks, and a pink-capped product called Woolite. I took notes on everything like a full-grown Harriet the Spy.
“Did you confide in Becky?” Angie wants to know.
“Not for a long time—no. But I think there was a lot Becky understood intuitively. She let me borrow so many of her clothes. She brought a radio and turned it to a station in Seattle called the Mountain. 103.7 on your FM dial. I heard Jewel for the first time and Natalie Imbruglia—I loved ‘Torn’—”
“Of course you did,” she smiles and resists the urge to roll her eyes.
Becky played me CDs she had of Shawn Colvin and Paula Cole and Harry Connick Jr., on whom she had a wicked crush. This made me dislike him, on implicit principle. But the women singing their own—I assumed their own—stories: I was in awe of them.
Then one day, Becky and I were studying in our room, and “Round Here” came on the radio. I was ecstatic, bouncing around on my bed, proclaiming, This is my favorite band!
Becky seemed surprised that I knew any contemporary music at all, maybe even a little impressed. Duritz was singing but also kind of wailing his refrain—I’m under the gun, ’round here—and she said she could see how I might really connect with those lyrics.
I felt emboldened, so I pulled out my little cassette and my little cassette player, and I asked her if she wanted to hear my favorite song by Counting Crows—the song that actually referenced the band’s name. Well, what could she say? Becky agreed, but she told me her CD player had a tape deck, and I should put my tape in there so we could hear the song through her speakers. I did, and we listened together.
I wanted to change, but I knew my parents believed that change was dangerous. I wanted to open my eyes and gaze all around me, but my parents would have preferred that I close them and pray. One day I made what was, for me, a radical decision. I told my boss at the campus bookstore that I needed to leave early for a study group meeting. Sure, no problem, she said.
Then, for one blissful hour of my life, I was unaccounted for. Becky thought I was at work, work thought I was studying, but really I was power walking down two blocks of broken sidewalk to the nearest Goodwill, where I resolved to buy an article of clothing for myself. I didn’t know what yet; I only knew I’d know it when I saw it.
I didn’t have much money, and my mother kept track of my pay stubs, but I was allowed to have a little fun too—rent a video from the student center, reserve a Ping-Pong table, get a Coke or a pack of M&M’s every once in a while. The shirt I fell for was a strong shade of blue—the color of my eyes, I thought, or very nearly. It was cut for a man, soft from years of washing already, but the fit was good. When I slipped it over my own shirt, I found there was still plenty of room.
Best were the big white letters printed across the chest—fading a little but clear enough to read: DUKE. Not a duchess, a duke! The price was $2.00, which I could afford, especially for the first shirt I’d ever bought for myself, the first shirt I knew I was meant to keep. There was that one time, sure, when I got heady with my babysitting cash—Capri leggings in purple and black, a side panel of lace woven all the way through—but my mother made me take everything back. Now, though, now I was a duke, subversive in my royal shirt. Next month I’d return, I promised myself, and buy a pair of Levi’s 501 jeans.
“That’s the shirt? The one you’re wearing now?” Angie raises her mug and toasts the air.
“Two dollars for twenty years. Quite a bargain, wouldn’t you say?” More of the white lettering has peeled away, but the blue is as vibrant as ever, the fit just as good.
“And what, dare I ask, did your mother say?”
This is, of course, the $64,000 question.
At first, I indulged the fantasy that my mother would never discover my contraband. I planned to wash the DUKE shirt by hand on weeknights or slip it in with Becky’s laundry once in a while, saying I didn’t have a whole load of my own and would she mind? Becky wasn’t the type to mind.
But then I realized that I wasn’t dreaming big enough. At home each weekend, my mother examined my clothes, inspected them like clues in a mystery she was determined to solve. She didn’t have to empty my pockets because they were empty already, but she trusted the stains would tell her what I’d eaten, the grit would tell her where I’d wandered, and the scents might even reveal with whom. Was that a boy’s cologne she smelled? Was that my own makeup smudged on my collar or—God forbid—some other girl’s?
I decided to wash my own clothes, which filled me with competing sensations of joy and dread. At my job in the bookstore, I rang up a vast assortment of things—not just textbooks but snacks and sodas, dish soap and sponges, maxi pads and tampons (which I was planning to try soon enough), and laundry detergent too. We sold several kinds, boxed and bottled, powder and liquid. It was hard to make small talk with fellow students about their detergent choices, though. I wanted to ask, Hey, how did you know which kind to buy? or Are those dryer sheets really important? What do they do? Instead, I simply nodded, scanned barcodes, dropped items into their bags. Sometimes a classmate would hand me a ten and ask for a roll of quarters. I knew these were for the laundry, so I smiled, then worried I was smiling too big, not acting casual enough. So I practiced my Who cares? face, flattening my cheeks and tucking my dimples back in.
On the appointed night, when I finished my shift at six o’clock, I roamed the aisles. If I rushed right over to what I wanted most—in the section called Health & Home—I was afraid the kinetic rock in me would bowl a strike right through the merchandise, toppling all the goods in a loud, spectacular crash. I’d exchanged two fives from my pocket for a roll of quarters from the till. Bounce cost more than I could spare, so I settled for just the detergent. Boxed was cheaper, and I chose the box called Cheer because I couldn’t imagine anything happier than washing my own clothes. To think they called this a chore!
It was Tuesday—I remember that much—an easy night to snag a washing machine. Becky wore her pajamas with numbered sheep leaping over tiny fences. She had a big exam the next day and didn’t seem to notice me lugging my laundry bag out the dorm room door.
You’re really smart, I coached myself as I lumbered down the stairs. You made the dean’s list and everything. Still, my hands were trembling as I opened the washer and peered inside—just a hollow metal basin with a central protrusion shaped like a corncob and just as yellow. I took a deep breath and dumped in my clothes. The box of Cheer came with a green plastic scoop, which I filled to the brim, then sprinkled the white granules over the mixed colors and fabrics like snow. Other machines were rumbling nearby, but nobody seemed to be watching. Each machine cost a dollar per use, which meant two dollars if you wanted a wash and a dry. I had never wanted anything more. Timer set: thirty-five minutes. I headed back to the room, skipping a little, taking the stairs two at a time.
My homework awaited, but I couldn’t concentrate, so I paced, then stretched out on my bed with my Walkman. Duritz whispered in my ear, You don’t want to waste your life, baby / You don’t want to waste your life now, darlin’. And I didn’t, and I wouldn’t, but suddenly Becky was rising to answer the door, and our neighbor Serena—in her wool cap and spandex shorts—stood flushed at the threshold, saying something about the laundry. I tore off my earphones and leapt from the bed.
What’s going on?
Oh, hey. Any chance you’re washing some clothes right now?
I nodded. I could tell she’d been out running, but she didn’t smell. Of course not. Her sweat glistened, but it didn’t drip. My palms always flooded in her presence.
You might want to check on your load. Jeannie said there was a problem—water and bubbles everywhere.
Sure. OK. I was quaking then, already drenched but trying to stay calm. Becky, kind and unbidden, followed me down the hall.
“Oh no!” Angie covers her mouth. She has a stake in this story now.
I’d overloaded the washer, and a work order had to be filed to get it fixed. I put in way too much detergent and didn’t sort the load. I didn’t know to let the powder dissolve in the water first, so my clothes were covered with laundry spots—some of which I could never get out. It was like everything I owned had come down with a case of chicken pox.
Becky called the RA because I was too ashamed. Everybody was kind and helpful—Becky even said, You know you could have asked me for help, right?—and I did know that, but I didn’t want to ask her. I didn’t want to have to ask anyone.
Angie nods. “I get it. It was your big moment. You wanted to do it all yourself.”
I was starting to think rite of passage was always code for blunderbuss, but I hated most that everything happened exactly the way my mother said it would. When I tried to make light of the situation to the small crowd that had gathered—all those pretty girls gazing at me and my not-so-pretty clothes—I remember I said, Well, this is pretty Freaky Friday, huh?
I meant the Jodie Foster film from 1976, one of the few movies I had come of age watching and knew by heart. I thought everyone knew that movie, the famous scene where the green washing machine explodes, and the basset hound slides around in the bubbles on the floor, and the housekeeper Mrs. Schmauss chides the mother, who is really the daughter, for being so lousy at everything. But glancing around the room, I saw not a single glimmer of recognition on any girl’s face. My allusion had failed. And then when Rachel said, But isn’t today Tuesday? she almost broke my heart.
The real Freaky Friday was when my parents arrived for weekend pickup, and my mother stopped me at the door: Not so fast, missy. Where’s your laundry?
Becky had gone out to a study session where they served pizza and where a boy she liked (Myron) and a boy I pretended to like (Cody) would also be eating and studying. This left me to throw down the laundry gauntlet alone.
I don’t have any, I replied.
Aren’t you still exercising in the mornings?
And changing your socks and underwear at least once, if not twice, a day?
Yes. How frightening, the sudden calm that descended upon me.
So, what did you do with your dirties? my mother demanded.
I washed them.
Their faces clouded in unison. My father spoke first while my mother rushed to the closet, flung open the doors. Just what do you mean, Julie?
I mean, I washed them. I bought some detergent, got a roll of quarters, and did my own laundry—like every other girl in this dorm.
My mother was rifling and rummaging then, pulling shirts off their hangers, sniffing the armpits. So, you’re telling me you’re wasting your money being frivolous and disobedient, not to mention time better spent on your assignments for class?
No. I’m telling you that I’m eighteen, and I’m taking responsibility for myself.
Oh, yes, you’re so responsible, so capable, she hissed. And what’s this?—pointing to a white, silver dollar–sized splotch on the back of a navy blue blouse.
That’s a laundry spot, I sighed. I didn’t get everything right the first time—but that’s OK. Nobody does. By then, I was just repeating what Becky had said, what our neighbor Linda had said, what actors on PSAs were paid to say.
Do you hear the way she’s speaking to me, Bill?
This is very disrespectful, Julie. Your mother explicitly told you to bring your dirty things home. He shifted from one loafered foot to the other, and it crossed my mind at just that moment that my father and I should make a joint pilgrimage to the Goodwill sometime.
And what in Heaven’s name is this? From the back of the closet, my mother raised my DUKE shirt like a conqueror’s flag. As she held it up, I saw the color matched her eyes just as well as my own. It was possible the color matched hers even better.
So, you’re a spendthrift and a liar, she sighed, out cross-dressing in some boy’s college jersey.
I meant to say, It’s my laundry! Or maybe even, It’s my money! But instead I stamped my foot and shouted, It’s my body! I expected the floor to open and swallow me. I wished for a chute to fall through, even a chute in which to be wedged. I was already, wasn’t I? It made sense, poetically at least—my body caught between two stories of a building, two stories of what a life could be. Shame, dream, change.
My mother made a whipping motion, and my shirt sliced the air. The sound was sharp and high, a note no human voice could reach. We didn’t move for a few moments, sizing each other up, or maybe faking each other out, and then my father spoke for them both: Julie Marie, you used to be such an agreeable girl. We couldn’t believe our luck, raising such an easy, pleasant child. Now—these days—with the mouthing off and the taking matters into your own hands—my mother glowering beside him—well, we just don’t know what’s going to become of you.
I was a mannequin coming to life. My pulse buzzing loud in my temples, hard in my wrists and the soles of my feet. I wasn’t being smart when I told them: Neither do I.
“I bet you’re sorry you asked about my childhood now.” I’m blushing as we fold our clothes side by side at the laundromat, as the shame shame shame spreads around my throat like a collar. We are still new, and I have not yet shrunk anything of hers in the dryer, run a dry-clean-only shirt she loves through the washer with a tangled clutch of towels. But I will.
“No,” Angie murmurs, taking my hand. “I’m not sorry. I asked because I wanted to know.”
My parents used to tell the story of how, when I was just a baby, really—maybe eighteen, twenty months old—they would set me down in a big pile of clean laundry on the living room rug and let me pretend to fold. There are pictures in the family album of Little Me propped up on a mountain of whites, grinning like the heiress to a great laundry fortune. One caption read, Mommy’s Little Helper, another Future Lady of the House. I couldn’t do any real good for the clothes, but I couldn’t do any real harm either. Later, my parents would tell me how much they longed for those days.
About the Author
Julie Marie Wade is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, she has published thirteen collections of poetry and prose, most recently Telephone: Essays in Two Voices (Cleveland State University Press, 2021), coauthored with Brenda Miller.