[FICTION] Washing Machine Time
When I was little I’d sit in front of the washing machine with my dog and watch the clothes circle round and round in suds. We’d watch the bubbles pop, the colors mix, and the water drain from the machine into the basement sink like a waterfall.
Mom would hit the “start” button at the exact same time as she’d hit the stem on the apple-shaped kitchen timer. But somehow, when the washer still had ten minutes left on its screen, the apple timer would jump and shake, alerting us of the time that’d passed until I’d reach up and hit the stem with my palm. Mom would run down the stairs, to find Toby and I still watching the swirling process.
“Not ready yet,” I’d say, “ten more minutes,” as if begging to avoid bedtime.
I guess I’ve always thought washer time was different from people time.
My favorite navy-blue sweater has a dark stain on it. The blood that isn’t mine is visible on my jeans and my right sock that reminded you of watercolor paintings. I can still smell the beer that was dumped on my light green dress, and the sweat on my black t-shirt that hasn’t always been mine.
One load of laundry encompasses every moment we spent together: Nine days, twenty-one outfits – some worn longer than others. Some barely worn at all. Only one worn for over thirty hours – the one with blood seeped into the fibers.
I guess I could have pulled a few shirts and pairs of pants from the basket, and just put them back in my closet. But it didn’t feel right. Maybe my blue sweater wanted to reminisce with my green jeans about the time you took them from my body and threw them on the floor. I’m sure they have some opinions and feelings about that. Maybe there’ll be debates, and my pants will pull that Polaroid photo and receipts I forgot from their pockets as evidence that you were truly part of my life at all. Maybe they’ll shout until they’re dyed the blue of my new pair of jeans. Maybe they’ll be too shocked with your sudden departure for words.
Time moves differently now – it’s less a caress and more of a shove.
As I closed the door to the communal laundry room, I set a timer on my phone and started both the machine and the timer at the exact same time, before slumping back to my dorm room. Sixty minutes left.
My sheets still smell like your shampoo. When I close my eyes, I can still feel the first kiss stolen by your lips in the dark, between flashes of light – the sly fox outwitting the slow and timid turtle (it was Halloween night in the club I never went to – and to which I am not likely to return). Fifty-two minutes left.
I will replay the moment you pulled your face away from mine over and over in my head for years to come. Your pale skin glowed in the first flash of light so that I expected thunder to rumble just outside. In the second flash of light, your thick lips had turned up at the corners before slowly revealing your teeth, which you feared were too large for your mouth. In the third flash of light, you shook your head, and your red curly hair jumped with you. In the fourth flash of light, you were writing a number on my hand. And in the fifth, you disappeared into the crowd. I still haven’t touched any of your books left on my desk. Forty-four minutes left.
I put my headphones in my ears to stop hearing the voicemails that I played over and over until I’d memorized them and could imitate every rise and fall of your voice. Leave a message at the beep. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. You tell me about your brother’s trip to the ER – he put a coin up his nose, and your Dad couldn’t get it out with needle-nose pliers or anything else he tried. You ask if I have your favorite black t-shirt. When I see you again, I lie. You tell me you got peach Svedka, and you’ll text me when you’re on your way to my place. You tell me you want to put Christmas lights up in your dorm room, despite the fire-code violation, and ask me to go with you to the store. Of course, I go, even though in retrospect we shouldn’t have. You tell me you’ve never been so glad to meet someone like me. It was a first for both of us. Thirty-seven minutes left.
By now my navy sweater and my jeans have forgotten the blood. My right sock that reminded you of watercolor paintings has incorporated the stain into its masterpiece. My light green dress has forgotten the scent of beer. And my black t-shirt that hasn’t always been mine has forgotten the taste of sweat. But I haven’t. Their debates may be over, but I still have questions. Thirty-four minutes left.
I grab my shower caddy, and undress in the bathroom, leaving my clothes on the floor. My arms are bruised, and my knee has three stitches. You were of the mindset that there were few things that water couldn’t fix. I disagreed. What’s ice cream for then, I’d asked. Thirty minutes left.
We went swimming once – the building was closed, but we found an open window and unlocked a door. You were lucky like that. You braided your curls, taming the mane, as you said, before we jumped in clothed only in our underwear. The pool has a domed ceiling, and the campus is so far from the city that the galaxy opens up above our little patch of the earth.
We floated on our backs, holding hands like otters to avoid floating away from each other, and stared up at the night sky. I’d never thought about what true peace would feel like until it’d enveloped me that night as if your arms had wrapped tight around me. You told me you were on your hometown swim team – but your favorite part was when you jumped in the deep end at the end of practice, and just floated between the surface and the floor. Time stopped there, you claimed. You’d hang there in the balance until your lungs screamed for oxygen or someone yelled to make sure you were okay. I wish I could go back in time if only one day and float in that space now. By now the chlorine has been sucked from my bra and my underwear as if it’d never been there in the first place. Twenty-one minutes left.
As I wipe the condensation from the mirror with the edge of my towel, I spot the hickey on my collarbone that I’d been hiding with high-collared shirts all week. You gave me your pastel purple scarf with white stripes that you got in Paris before I went to an interview for a summer internship, to make sure it stayed hidden. You gave me tons of tips you learned in your psych classes to boost my confidence, and you made me laugh so I didn’t have time to get nervous before I went in. Sixteen minutes left.
Your backpack is still in the common room of my suite. It’s unzipped, still waiting for you to pack it tight like a can of sardines with a week’s worth of homework to be done in one day. My sketchbook is slipped between your backpack and the wall. I grab it and step back quickly – I think I’m scared you’re going to jump out from the corner and grab me, as you were so fond of doing.
I flip the yellow-cover over and see the sketches before you, and notice the subtle differences in those that followed you, and it’s not just because you became the subject of many of them. My lines aren’t as harsh as they used to be. I go easier on my pencils. I notice light shifting. You pointed out the golden hour to me each night when you pulled out your camera and took photos of me. I pointed it out to my roommates last night. I reach a sketch of Toby. You said he’s so cute! I said, he was. Ten minutes left.
I stand at my desk and look at the stack of books you left behind. There’s a J. Crew sweater beneath them – one of your favorites. I lift it to my face and smell your perfume still lingering like a single leaf on a branch. It’s soft, but not warm like the first time I felt it – probably because you were wearing it that first time. I was confused. And you didn’t run when I admitted it because you were too. You simply opened your arms. I remember how you closed your eyes whenever you hugged or were hugged by someone else.
But you were the first person I could get my arms around. Three minutes left.
I grab my laundry basket and trudge down the hall and down the stairs, and into the room, where I’m suddenly certain you stand. My phone emits a nuclear-warning-sound, and I shut the alarm off without looking, for my eyes are fixed on the washing machine. This hasn’t happened here before – but the washer isn’t ready. And neither am I.
I wonder if the machine has pulled so many memories from the fibers of people’s clothes that mine have just put it over the edge, and it paused a moment as if in reverence to catch its breath. I think of you swimming in the deep end – hanging in the balance between floor and surface – and I feel you hanging in the room like an odor. My nostrils fill with your perfume, my tongue savors the taste of your gum, my fingers feel the curls of your hair wrapped around them like rope, my ears catch your laughter carried in the wind.
This is where you’ll live now – in the discrepancy between washing machine time and people time. You cannot be washed away, even if the stains can. You have seeped into the very fibers that were sewed together to create the clothes that would rest upon my limbs. In my favorite navy-blue sweater, you warm the sleeves on wintry mornings, you’ll seep out with blue dye from my new pair of jeans, and that black t-shirt will always smell slightly of your sweat and perfume.
You have trickled down into the cracks of the washing machine, and with each cycle, you will stamp yourself into the fibers of everyone’s life. You cannot be wiped away like a spill of juice.
You were here. And I was there when you were. But now you’re not.
Hannah McSorley is currently studying English Literature at the State University of New York at Geneseo. She has not yet been published but is working diligently to continue cranking out stories and finishing her first book.