Dirty Laundry

Copyright W.E. Vilmer. Courtesy of Library of Congress. (Public Domain)In the fall of 1994, I’d graduated from college and had found a basement apartment in a Northwest Washington, DC row house. The place was cheap (the landlady was a family friend) and, with its exposed brick wall, suggested the kind of bohemian life imagined by artistic types of any age. I moved in, spent a couple of days painting a tall bookshelf a shamrock shade of green and settled in with the cave crickets. I had utter privacy for the first and only time in my life, a place (to bastardize the song) only I could go. I could ponder my intimidating boss, my failing cross-global relationship, my divorced parents, and conveniently do laundry for free just outside my bedroom door.

I worked hard, developed a strong network of friends (some who remain fifteen years later) and a more active social life than I had ever had or would ever have again. Rare were the times when I stayed home to catch up on domestic tasks and I quickly learned how easy it is to end up with nothing to wear if you wait too long to do the laundry. Still, no matter how much I dreaded those appointments with the washing machine, there was always a sense of anticipation when unloading my clothes from the dryer and finding a sheet of lint waiting to be removed—sometimes white, but mostly every shade of grey. There was nothing quite like peeling it away, feeling its warmth against my fingers, the comforting smell of disinfection …and tossing it into the wastebasket. Even then I realized the odd sense of enjoyment in such a small task, the level of happiness it gave me disproportionately large for something so ordinary.

One day, I confessed my little quirk to a friend. He suggested that maybe it was my way of taking control of even the tiniest piece of my life. How could I not have seen this? Lint. It was an obvious metaphor; the accumulation and shedding of worries the only thing I could control. The looming break up, the strained father-daughter relationship, the mother in need, the inability to make the world understand. Here, once a week, I could shed my layers, run them all through the rinse cycle and permanent press. There it would all come to rest, tumbled and wrinkle-free, the only residue a pile of fuzzies that was tempting enough to keep, but that one routinely threw out lest it pile up.

Then life shifted. I switched jobs, began a workplace romance, moved out of the basement and across the river to Virginia into my boyfriend’s garden apartment that had no laundry. We married, four planes crashed, my father’s heart failed, we rescued a dog. We moved cross-country, had a child, bought a house. Larger jeans, little socks, dog beds that coated the dryer in fur. Two years later we would bring our daughter home after a month in the hospital. I’d sit in the laundry room we’d converted into a nursery and cry, weary and unremittingly thankful we hadn’t lost her. The anxieties grew. The lint became harder to peel away. I’d wake in the night to make sure my daughter was breathing, the dog alive.

Another move, then another. I was no longer shedding and cleansing layers. I was encasing myself in an iron shield I hid from my husband. Somewhere along the way I stopped sifting. I struggled to be with people. There was the awkwardness of a disconnect that I knew was apparent to those around me. I needed to exist through writing so I started an advanced degree and tried to lose myself in my words. I hoped to make progress on a novel I’d started shortly before my little girl had fallen ill. For almost three years I clumsily participated in a community of peers. I grappled with finding a voice in seminar and endured workshop, my professors’ praise always accompanied by the words, “still distant” and “holding back.” Somehow, I managed to tumble into a group of fast friends. Late night conversations of still-raw wounds bandaged in Wellbutrin and Zoloft were not uncommon. Though I listened more than I talked, I felt comforted and actively engaged in a life that at last wasn’t unique to me. I did in fact belong somewhere.

But writing is an inherently solitary pursuit and the shield kept closing in. The further along I got in my studies, the more I struggled with making human connections. I saw myself through others’ eyes: maladjusted, a misfit, despaired. I struggled with my novel, owing the completion of my thesis to a saintly advisor. Then graduation came and with it unexpected companions: my mother’s health, my sisters’ worlds collapsing, our dog’s surgeries and long recovery. Real life now pushed its way in. I became increasingly shackled by a belief that I was somehow responsible for fixing it all. Yet, the dishwasher remained fully loaded with clean dishes. Dog hair formed into enormous dust bunnies. In the washing machine wet clothes lay forgotten and musty. I felt broken.

Without my thesis to obsess over, I obsessed over the dog. Torn cruciate ligaments in both hind knees had immobilized her. Surgeries were performed. I made myself almost solely responsible, sacrificing my herniated back to lift her hind legs with a sling, sleeping next to her on the floor, sitting with her for hours so she wouldn’t have to wear the E-collar. My husband only half-jokingly suggested I loved our dog more than any other being. I was silent. I’d chosen to bring her into our family and in so doing I’d vowed to care for her. It was an easy choice. I needed her to feel loved. Finally, I again saw the obvious. Here was something I could have a hand in fixing. If I could help mend her, maybe I could mend myself. If I could love her so resolutely and she could love me so simply, then maybe I could do the same for myself.

These days, I live in New York City. More laundry. More lint. An in-unit washer/dryer was our first priority but the dryer filter no longer holds the same sway. I spend a lot of time trying for peace. My obsessive tendencies have gotten worse. I’ve made our apartment into my fixation. My goal? To create a sanctuary. I need to get it just right, of course. I do see it this time. I understand that walls brushed in “Silver Satin” or the perfect harmony of neutrals and colorful patterns can’t give me the peace I require. My eyes are open. I obsess because it’s easier, a convenient distraction. I’m frustrated by a world that doesn’t understand me—that’s been my point of view. Really, I’m frustrated by my inability to make myself understood because of my unwillingness to show myself.

Most days I’m caged by the fear of no longer being on this earth, or of truly engaging with the world. Either way, there’s routine but not a lot of living. I struggle with myself to write and protect our little foursome without hiding myself away, feeling unimportant. Some nights, like this one, I’m fearless. I’m chipping away at the shield. Maybe one day the opening will be large enough to free my spirit. I hope it’s soon. I don’t know if I’ll ever get me right. I’m trying to figure out what “right” is. At 39, it doesn’t mean what it used to. I know that I’m doing all that I can—the best that I can—and that I’m surrounded by people who want me to succeed. I’m working on it, starting at home by following my creative impulses. I’m allowing story telling to take up space in between and amidst grade school, dance class, theater rehearsals, and the occasional weekday evening out in the official role of “Wife.” And laundry. Always laundry.  —

© Natalie Aristy and Sixteen Stories 2011. All rights reserved.

(Image: © W.E. Vilmer. Courtesy of Library of Congress.)

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