Washing and Drying Over and Over Again

“Let’s do laundry tonight,” I say when I visit my boyfriend, Chris.

In the laundry room of his sprawling open-air apartment complex, we sort dirty laundry.  First, a gentle pile for the delicates.  Then, another pile for whites.  Finally, a pile for everything else. When the cycles complete, Chris places the basket to catch the falling laundry as he opens the dryer door. In unison, we lean over and pick up the basket, my hand on one side and his on the other. On frigid evenings, Chris takes warm clean towels and wraps them around me protectively, reminiscent of his enveloping hugs.  We trek across the parking lot to his apartment.

Then we return, harvesting over and over again. Inside his apartment, we together turn over the basket, spilling the clothes on the soft carpet. While we watch TV, we sort the laundry together into his and hers. Eventually, Chris nudges me gently aside. In twenty minutes, folded piles of clothes of underwear, pants, socks, and tops form like miniature buildings in the living room. Then in the morning, my clean laundry is ready to take back fifty miles north to my city apartment.

Sort, wash, repeat.

 

Returning to the Bay Area after graduate school, I moved to San Francisco finally to be an adult—doing my own laundry, cooking meals, and paying bills.  Most importantly, I was determined to end my cycle of misguided relationships.  At the age of twenty-four, I had a laundry list of requirements—empathetic, respectful, and responsible.  Chris, a year older than me, had known me in college, but I had dismissed him as a loud, obnoxious Asian blessed with curly hair.  My heart fluttered at a mutual friend’s weekend outing when Chris declared, “I always have horchata with my tacos.”

“I do too!” I said.

We bonded over dark cerebral TV dramas and dancing to concerts of bands nobody knew. I was enraptured by his love of shameless fun.  He accepted my dreamy way of living life.  I admired how he just knew life hacks—from parking anywhere in the city (always check the hours of yellow and white zones) to befriending friends’ children (hint: just talk to them). I was impressed with his nonjudgmental neatness, a direct contrast with the organizational inertia that stops short of my room.   Chris taught me how to fold t-shirts and how Velcro straps on hats must be secured before tossing into the washer. He showed me the benefits of using dryer sheets—jeans can become soft!  I grieved for the special UC Berkeley volleyball shirt ruined by a woman walking with a hot plate of Thai curry (no amount of Oxiclean or Shout could save it).

He had a habit of running up ahead, leaving me behind, as I navigated broken streets.  But once I asked him why.

“I am the herald,” he said.  “I am Jack Bauer.  I am just making sure it’s safe for you.”

When I accidentally left candy wrappers in my pockets leaving a sticky mess, Chris hugged me and said, “The best part of Jennifer is when you shake her, candy comes out.”

Throughout the week, I strategized my laundry plans for efficient transit and optimal time. My coworkers watched me bring bags of laundry to work and stuff them underneath my desk. When Fridays ended, I walked a mile to the train station, fully aware of my bag lady appearance.

Coworkers teased me, “Are you running away from home?”

“I am doing laundry,” I explained my situation with a smile. “Chris and I do it together.”

 

Living in San Francisco, I love the unpredictability of the days—one day can be a bike ride along the coast, another a citywide scavenger hunt, and yet another a Greek mythology costume party.  Nothing can be captured on a dial.  Agreeing with me, Chris drives up fifty miles to have spontaneous dinners, attend indie concerts, hunt for hidden stairs and art murals, and enjoy opera in the park.  Then when my energy needed the quiet of suburbia, I head south to his quiet apartment in suburban Mountain View.

 

Across America, housewives lament about the lonely job of laundry. Some pair the chore with trashy soap operas and Thursday teen dramas. Mothers admit, “The laundry keeps coming and coming. It never ends.” My friends regularly moan about laundry: the quarters that they hoard and the shameful secret of buying new underwear instead of washing. Wash and fold services (and especially Laundry Locker) save many of their lives.

 

This is part of the story where I say that our laundry routine bound Chris and me together. That in a few years, we married, had two kids, a house with a large backyard, and large dedicated laundry room. Then we lived happily ever after.

But that did not happen.

 

Five years passed since we first started dating. We still lived in different places—he loved the peacefulness of suburbia, and I loved the energy of the city. In our circle of friends, we were the only couple not married, not living together, and just so not ready for “us”.

“Isn’t it great that we have a place in the city and a place in the suburbs?” he once said while I frowned.

I started a new job, got a new roommate, and met a lot of new faces who questioned our relationship. I resisted at first, insisting that our relationship was unique—our private space reflected the modern couple independence. But privately, I gave into the pressure—wanting the “engaged to” Facebook status and shared cell phone plans rather than the weekly “apartment exchange”. The relationship had become predictable—agitating my grandiose plans of growth and change. The cycle of everyday topics and domesticated chores felt suffocating. I began to strike at him for not being present at events and not saying the right thing to colleagues. In my twenty-something way, I wanted him to be taller, more artistic, more committed, and just more everything. Despite his protests, I declared that we separate.

In the following months, I dreaded doing my laundry. The Laundromats near me were dirty and inconvenient (open until 9 pm!). My stingy side, after years of cheap laundry, was hesitant to spend more than $5 for a complete load. A friend offered his washer and dryer—free for use in his building. I took the offer, but it was not the same. Alone in the dimly lit garage, I sorted the clothes into separate loads and struggled to pull the clean laundry into bags.

Tops, skirts, and jeans started to tumble out of my dresser and closet. My omnipresent despair preferred lying on my bed staring at the ceiling than dealing with the piles of dirty socks and shirts. The large heavy blankets perfect for San Francisco weather lay unwashed for months because I dreaded bringing the blankets by myself to the washer.

While I picked up the last bag of clean laundry I left at Chris’ place, I joked about my laundry situation. About how my laundry basket, for the first time in over five years, threatened to spill its mountainous contents.

“Even if we’re not together, you can still come to do laundry,” Chris said.

I resisted at first.  In attempts for recovery, every night I went out with someone new—the unpredictable lifestyle that I thought that I wanted.  I went on long bike rides hoping the climbs would take away my sorrow.  I went to happy hours although I don’t drink.  I wrung the emptiness as much as I could through activities, but it never felt right.  My body screamed for familiarity—at least for clean jeans and socks.

So I returned.  Slowly.  The initial reasons were selfish—his apartment was close to my office, and the pause helped me avoid rush hour.  It was hard to admit, but I missed our friendship.  To bypass our initial awkwardness, Chris and I watched the latest TV dramas.  Instead of talking about us, we talked about the villains and the puzzles. In truth, my visits were excuses to find stable routine.  “That was the best episode ever,” I said.

Chris nodded in agreement.  In front of me, he placed a plate of strawberries and a dish of condensed milk—his favorite childhood snack that he introduced to me.  I lightly dipped a single strawberry and let its simple sweetness fold into a satisfying complexity on my tongue.  I relaxed.

“Want to watch the next episode?” he asked.

“Okay!” I said.

“You are my best buddy,” he said. “I am happy that you are here.”

Eventually, I returned to my weekly visits for laundry.

 

Nearly a year later, we are mending our relationship.  Despite my painful comments, Chris never wavered in believing in us. He let me wring out my disappointment in life and then when I was done, I found him.  Entering my early thirties, routine was, as I discovered, okay. Especially desired in a city where ideas and relationships bubble and pop the same day.  Chris moved to an apartment a mile away from me. A two-floor apartment with ample sunlight, space for his home theater system, and most importantly, in-unit laundry hookups.

In San Francisco where finding a significant other is easier than renting an apartment, pride swelled inside me as he read the initial email from the property manager, “I accept your application and have attached a lease if you’re interested.”

Then I asked, “Can I come over and do laundry?”

If she was asked what she enjoyed doing at the age of 8, Jennifer Ng would have answered “observing.” A design strategist by day, a writer by night, and an ice cream lover anytime, Jennifer published a book about her global journey about ice cream, Ice Cream Travel Guide, where she interviewed over 60 ice cream makers to understand why they do the work that they do. She is currently working on a novel based on her grandparents’ lives from China to Peru to the United States.