I’m doing the laundry again because no one has coughed through our musty apartment in four days. Four days of having to hold my breath and bite my tongue and count every cent that leaves my fingers.
It wasn’t always like this, and it won’t always be like this. The in-between, not the never or forever, is the worst part though.
You see, when it’s just me and my little sister, Jo, it’s quiet. When Mom comes swinging through the apartment in a cloud of perfume and smelling of sex, it’s busy with people I don’t know. When Dad dips through the apartment, timidly, with one hand on the door at all times, it’s silent.
I prefer it that way: silent. Unfortunately, the laundromat is anything but that, bustling with a variety of people looking like they tossed a handful of colorful crayons in each laundry load, looking like they wore the closest thing to a living animal, looking like they haven’t seen more than 53 cents in a year or two. I suppose a normal person might call these people diverse. I prefer dysfunctional.
“You have sheet?” The woman next to me crows, leaning over the folding table to peer into my basket. I shake my head, trying to push her and her three children away.
“No, no sheet.”
“You have sheet?” The woman repeats, holding up a paper bag stuffed with gray and brown rags. Upon closer inspection, I can see that the cloths are not rags, but pants, clumsily stitched together with white thread.
“A dryer sheet?” I try, reaching into my mesh laundry basket. Her children crowd around my feet, the oldest barely reaching my hip. They tug at my khakis and large pockets and declare me harmless before running back to their weary mother.
“Si, si,” the woman nods, even though I am confident she doesn’t understand what I am saying. I hand her a few dryer sheets from the packet I keep in my basket. She smiles, revealing three missing teeth and a golden tooth rooted in the back of her mouth. Her youngest child crawls in between her legs, picking at the lint and dust bunnies on the linoleum floor. He grabs a penny and holds it up to the light. My apprehension fades.
“Do you need a babysitter? You know, someone to watch the kids!” I blurt, beaming as I grasp her forearm. She looks skeptical, and I realize that even a native English speaker would barely be able to understand me. “My sister watches kids.”
“Ah,” she nods tenderly, setting her youngest gently on the folding table. He squirms away from her, and the other two paw at the table eagerly. “Cuanto?”
“Dos.” She looks more or less mortified.
“I cannot- senorita-” she pauses, gasping for words. The washing machine whirs and moans next to my hip as I shift from foot to foot. “My family… have muy poco dinero.”
“Mi hermana es buena.” I divide my attention between Google translate and her blotched face. Lord knows we could use the money, and I am prepared to dish out a few cents for cellular data if it means my sister’s only (and first) client.
“No lo se.” The woman shrugs, shouldering her paper bag as she opens the dryer. It is still spinning angrily as she shovels the damp clothes into her bag. I can see the unease flash across her face. I try not to be terribly disappointed when her three young children trod off after her, smiling faithfully up at their worried mother. I sag against the washing machine, feeling the vibrations rock me from my spine to my toes.
I work as a grocer at a Walmart, as a cashier at a small hardware store, as a waitress at a family restaurant off the highway. I’m not perfect, unlike those cinematic poor women who spend every last cent on food and heat. Jo and I have lived without lunch for two years, but hey, we have six pairs of shoes. Jo and I live in a one bedroom flat in a crumbling suburb, but Jo has a moped. God knows where she got the money. I think I have an inkling of an idea though.
Where all young, beautiful girls get their money.
With my mother’s beauty and my father’s flighty distrust, she has no trouble finding trouble. I notice it, despite her thoughtful excuses. I should have known better: she’s Mom’s girl.
My mother was a tall girl with quiet, orthodox parents. She ran off when she was sixteen with the love of her life (the drummer of an indie band called the Yellow Grasshoppers). She ran because she forgot where home wasn’t and didn’t come home until she was missing a good pumpkin pie. Whereupon, my grandparents told her to come home with a husband or not at all.
Like all women with heart shaped lips and dark hair, she attracted the right sort of men. The man in question was offered a paperclip and a quarter for a dowry. Dad was small enough she could fit under the bed at night, someone large enough to beat around when she was bored.
When my parents weren’t fooled, she became pregnant and ran off on a grand journey for 2.5 days, and that small chunk of time was enough to convince her husband that she wasn’t worth it. Mom didn’t care, she had already dropped out of college under the pretense of being ill, and Dad (also her economics professor) had too many gray hairs to ignore in the mirror. Her scandal with her professor, her child, her hi-and-bye ways, it made me.
Dad is the (ex)husband and economics professor in this tragic story, a sad side role to the great musical of VICTORIA (tickets on sale for $2)! To understand my father, one only has to look at his car: a gray 2004 Volvo, missing the side mirror but otherwise spotless. Inside, the seats (ordinary as they are) are covered in clear plastic and the cup holders contain a plastic water bottle and a penny on a good day. On a day, one would be lucky to catch a spot of dust. If Mom is a bottle of flea market perfume, Dad is Walmart cleaning supplies. Almost too ordinary, almost too safe.
I gather up the rest of the dryer’s loud. The laundromat buzzes around me with life, but all I can hear is the blood rushing through my ear. More money, down the drain. I try not to touch Jo’s red thongs, but it’s inevitable. I treat it like her diapers when I was six, when Mom wasn’t home and Dad couldn’t stand her diapers.
It won’t always be this way, like I said. A week from now, Mom will drop by for a week, as she’s run out of money again. Maybe her and Dad’s time will overlap but probably not. In a year or two or tomorrow, Jo will move out and find an indie band to follow. In five years or seven or twenty, someone will find that our flat has been empty for months.
It’s not the never.
It’s not forever.
The in-between is what kills me.