"Is this seat taken?"
Jo looked up at the person who had asked the question. It was a woman close to her own age, perhaps a bit older. Definitely not past her early thirties – either that or her olive skin was the best she had ever seen. Her dark, silky hair was tied expertly in a bun, with something resembling a worn down chopstick piercing it at a stylish, uneven angle. As Jo's eyes had looked up at her, they had taken in the three items of clothing she was wearing: flip-flops, a pair of sweatpants and a faded t-shirt, the only thing still readable on it a date from thirteen years ago. Jo wasn't judging, though; she herself had been known to delay doing the laundry until the only things left in her wardrobe were Halloween costumes, bathing suits and discarded rags very similar to the ones before her. The woman, who was perhaps an inch or two taller than Jo – it was hard to tell from her sitting position –, was pointing a thin, calm finger at the plastic seat next to hers.
"No, not at all, go ahead," smiled Jo.
The woman smiled back. "Thanks." Then, after a few seconds, "I'm Veronica, by the way."
"Josephine, but everyone calls me Jo."
As Veronica sat down, Jo's eyes were drawn to the empty duffel bags she had dropped next to her on the floor. "You, uh... you sit at laundromats with no laundry to do very often?"
"No," chuckled Veronica, "I'm not that kind of crazy. I had to use one of the larger machines in the other aisle," she explained, nodding behind them, "but all the seats over on that side are broken."
"All of them? Damn. There use to be a couple still in reasonable condition not three weeks ago, but I guess it was only a matter of time before The Rats got to them."
"Rats?" Veronica's eyes were trying to escape their sockets in horror and Jo thought she could hear the woman's heart thumping over the thrum of the washing machines. Her legs had contracted – whether voluntarily or not, Jo couldn't tell – and her feet were now hovering a good foot and a half above the floor, one of the flip-flops dangling precariously from her big toe.
"The kids, I mean." Veronica's body seemed to relax a little, the expression of horror on her face replaced by a furrowing of the brow and a cocked head. "You know, the local kids and their little gang? They're the one's who've been messing up the parks, pulling down traffic signs, graffiti on the walls, all that stuff. They call themselves The Rats, hadn't you heard?"
Veronica shook her head as she regained her composure. Her flip-flop had eventually taken the leap and she was now twisting it around with her bare foot to slip it back on. From the side, Jo noticed a couple of beads of sweat on Veronica's temple and felt sorry for her as she watched her swallow hard. “I just moved here today. My apartment got flooded because my good-for-nothing upstairs neighbour left a tap on before going on holiday, so I had to move out while the whole thing got sorted. My boyfriend lives not too far off, so I thought I'd try living closer to him. I would have asked if I could move in with him for a bit if I'd known there was any chance of him saying yes, but I know better than that. I haven't even told him I was moving to this area. I just don't have the energy to deal with his childishness with everything else going on.” She rolled her eyes in an exaggerated way. “Anyway, I couldn't use my washing machine back home because of the electrics being wet, so I had a build-up of laundry of my own, plus all the stuff he's been leaving behind for the last few weeks.” Another eye-roll. “Hence the large machine.”
“Well, welcome to the neighbourhood,” replied Jo, bobbing her head up and down slightly.
After a few seconds of silence, a grin made its way onto Jo's lips as she thought of what Veronica had just said. “You know, you're not alone.”
“Your boyfriend and the laundry, I mean. He's not the only one who does that. Every time my boyfriend comes to my place I get the feeling he's smuggling in a new batch of dirty clothes and mixing them up with mine. I swear I must go through his whole wardrobe every two months, it's ridiculous.”
Veronica laughed in acknowledgement. “I know what you mean. I've tried bringing it up more than once, but the question seems to just slide off him. And when I ask him how often he does his own laundry, he becomes dismissive about it, muttering something about not keeping track of such mundane things. Of course, when I suggest doing something fancier for a night out, say a theatre show or one of those nice restaurants on Harrison Street, he always ends up blowing me off to be with his friends-”
“Or to watch his team play,” interjected Jo.
“Mm-hmm. Or that damn video game,”
“Fortune Fortress!” they both spat out at the same time, bursting into a fit of giggles at the coincidence, a wave of satisfaction washing over them, the kind that surfaces among people who hate something in common.
Their conversation continued over the next hour and a half, a calming, steady hum in the background interspersed with the occasional clang of a zipper on a metal drum. By the time the washing cycles were over, Jo felt like she had made a new friend, one she was hoping would last. They had so many things in common, had attended so many similar courses and events, it was a miracle they hadn't met before. It was a pity that she would only be living close by temporarily, but she was determined to keep in touch even after Veronica moved back to her own apartment. It wasn't like she'd be moving to another country or anything, they would still live in the same city, only ten stops away.
Jo's washing machine beeped as its cycle ended and she began to switch the clothes in it over to one of the dryers. Somewhere in the other aisle, Veronica's machine began to beep too and she got up to attend to it. Before Jo was done with her own, though, her phone began to ring. It was Brandon.
“Hey you. How's it going?”
“All good thanks, and you?”
“Yeah, not bad, not bad. Listen, I'm just down on the street very close to yours, you about?”
“Yeah, I'm in the laundromat.”
“For real? I can see it from where I am.”
“Come over, then. I'd like you to meet a new friend I just made.”
“Sure, see you in a minute.”
Jo finished filling up the dryer, put in a couple of coins and started it. As the machine began to hum, Brandon walked up to where she was and kissed her right on the lips, holding her tight with his long, sinewy arms.
“So where is this new friend of yours?” he asked, their lips now parted but his arms still wrapped around her.
Before Jo could answer, Veronica's voice emerge from behind him. “Get your hands off my man!”
Jo looked over at Veronica's raging face, then up at Brandon, whose own expression was a waxy white. She pushed him away from her, his arms now hanging loose at his sides, a look of panic in his eyes. “Your man?”
The two women locked hate-filled eyes for several seconds. Slowly, it dawned upon them that neither of them was to blame and the hate they had been directing at each other slowly joined forces as it converged on the speechless man between them.
“Care to explain, honey?”