It’s been months since I last did laundry. I have a one-gallon sized Ziploc bag of receipts to show for it. In the past week alone, I bought a dozen pairs of socks for my son and half a dozen pairs of underwear for me, all because I could not bring myself to take a trip to the Laundromat down the block nor hand-wash anything at home. Tomorrow, I may have to go again to K-Mart to buy my husband a bag of undershirts.
I used to wash clothes every week. That’s when I lived in a condo in the suburbs where the laundry room was just a floor above mine. There I met a lady who wore orange hibiscus house dresses in winter. Without saying a word, she used to watch me dig into my shoulder bag that was slung from my left shoulder, across my breasts and onto my right hip. I gathered she took pleasure in my embarrassment at the sight of fuzz balls between my fingers after I had pulled out the last of my quarters.
American shoulder bags have always been too long for me. There was a time, when I had not yet smartened up to buy those with adjustable straps, when I had to bend to my right side so deeply to dig into my purse. That’s when myself would remind me of this polio-stricken boy I knew back home, in elementary school. He wore a brace on his right leg which was half the width of his left one and three inches shorter. He walked to school religiously everyday, even when he could have taken the bus, instead. Every morning, I would walk paces behind him, studying the rhythm of his gait, wondering if his hips ever got tired of their inequity, of their grating—against ordinariness.
His family could have afforded the bus, or even a used Beetle. They happened to live in one of those apartments that had inside plumbing—notches above my family’s two-room, ply board-and-corrugated-iron-held-down-by-rubber-tires affair, the outhouse of which was shared with the rest of the row that ended on the river bank. I heard his mother was a teacher, his father, in the merchant marines. It never occurred to me that perhaps walking might have been good for him. He was years younger than me—scrawnier—but somehow, he looked steadier. That’s how I happened to walk paces behind him every morning. I did it so I could watch him hobble. Making sure to never outpace him, I grew a strange affinity for his distant incongruence. There in front of me was the sublime—a beautifully growing discord—something I could not say about myself.
The last time I was at the Laundromat, I used ten maxi load machines, $3.50 per load. My household now consists of only three people, with one of us being an eight-year old. Which means that his clothes should not be taking up so much space. I have stopped counting the weeks. It has become alarming. I have taken to using giant blue recycle bags for the laundry. This was to make sure I don’t throw the laundry out with the garbage, which was, in turn, because I had long run out of laundry mesh bags.
It had happened before—when I lived in the condo, before I moved to the city. I left a drum liner bag of dirty dry-clean clothes by the front door once. My boyfriend promptly took it to the dumpster. When I went to look for it, the bag was gone. I found, instead, a bag of worn-out floral clothes. My dry-clean wardrobe versus somebody’s hand-me-downs. It was not a fair trade but I figured since I’d never seen those summer clothes on anyone in the building before, no one would care if I wore their discarded yesterday.
I didn’t know many people in the building. The only names I remember were that of the lesbian who lived above me, those of the Filipina and Caucasian couple from across the hall and that of a four-year-old boy on the third floor who lived with his “Oma.” Half of the other residents I knew by face, the other half, I probably wouldn’t recognize if I sat beside them in church. I seldom went to church when I lived in the condo. Now living on the third floor of a three-story rental, I never go to church.
Right beside the elementary school back in the homeland was the church. There, in elementary, I heard mass almost every day. Its dome had Latin words written around its base: Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth. They were gilded letters on ivory painted walls. When I sat at the choir loft I would always stare at them, mouthing the lyrics of “Our Father” as though in a trance. As a grown-up now, I can imagine myself then looking like a prayer-book girl doing that: chanting out loud, eyes raised at an angle to the heavens. Except in the prayer books, the girls always had hair the color of corn husk fiber—the color of mais.
The last time at the Laundromat, a man in his late forties, early fifties loaded a maxi-load machine with three pieces of clothing. I noticed this because he asked if I was using the unit on the row opposite mine. I would have asked why waste the extra quarters, but I thought the question too personal. Before I left the place, however, I knew the answer and I knew about the man. He needed to talk to someone, anyone. He might have thought I shared his loneliness.
The lesbian on the second floor shared with me her secret: how to grow miniature roses in flower beds. One spring morning, during my first year in the condo building, I woke up to the stench of rotting fish wafting through the windows. After a whole week’s dance of hi’s andhow’re ya’s, she told me—like it was the best-kept secret that part of town—that it was ‘fish meal for the flowers’ trickling from her balcony to mine. I could have complained but I liked its familiarity: the smell of the fish market right beside the church, right beside my elementary school back home. A lot of miniature roses thrived during a lot of summers in the balcony of that condo where I lived for seven years.
In Manila, girls as young as four peddle garlands of Sampaguita, a variety of Jasmine, on the streets. You can see them weaving between cars on a red light. Or you may not see them. They could be shorter than the cars, if they’re very young. So you assume they’re there if you’re a driver. That is assuming that you care. I was lucky to have had an American aunt who had no children. I went on to high school in Manila because of her. I could easily see myself becoming a Sampaguita girl.
The man at the Laundromat spoke of his bicycle being stolen. He said that’s the reason he was doing his laundry then, while it was warm outside. Nothing made sense to me: not the bike having anything to do with the laundry having anything to do with the weather. But he said it like he was talking about the morning news, or the price of gasoline or how, perhaps, the soda pop machine never gave the right change. Then, as casually as he pictured his disjointed world, he said, “I’m homeless.” Just like that. He picked up a sky-blue Hawaiian shirt that had lain unclaimed on top of one of the machines. He asked me if it was mine. I shook my head. He pressed it against his torso and said “I think it fits me!” and stuffed it in his plastic bag. I didn’t protest—nothing in me protested against anything about him.
One day, in the laundry room above the condo in the suburbs, the lady in the orange-Hibiscus house dress broke her silence. She finally showed me how it’s supposed to be done. “Before you put the pants in the dryer, pull out the pockets, take out the lint.” It turned out she had a fascination with lint, an obsession, even. And all this time I thought she was smirking at my shortness, the way I had to bend way sideways while digging for quarters in my way-too-low shoulder bag. Later, after not seeing her in the laundry room for some weeks, her husband told me that their children had to bring her to the nursing home. Alzheimer’s disease, he said. There went another of my flowers.
I never knew the polio-stricken boy’s name. I never asked. One time, not feeling well, I went home from school early and met him hobbling back from his lunch hour. I had no choice but to meet his eyes: there was no shame or unexpected hallelujah. In there it said: “I am a cripple boy, but I am not your cripple boy. I know you try to make me yours by always walking far behind! Well, you—you’re just a stick-figure, impudent child who owns nothing but your untethered imagination!” Years later when I went back home, I asked about “the cripple boy.” They said he grew up to be an architect.
I—I grew up to be a prayer-book girl with no golden mais-colored hair, chanting about laundry in no-progress, stringing flowers of no-names, weaving among souls pushed—my own included—to the margins of days. I am half-a-globe away from home by the river where laundry was done beside the artesian well beside the common outhouse beside the “Bandera de Espanol” bushes lining the bank where the children chasing the blue-winged dragonflies wave at the boatman paddling among the water lily pads. I have only the laundry calendar to mark how far I have really gone.