“You are so inspiring.”
In my experience, it’s impossible to shut them down once they start, but I try. With each hand gripping a rim, I make a hard spin toward my last dryer. I open the glass door and angle the wheelchair close. It reassures me that, except for the rhinestone glasses, the woman appears to be my age and therefore can’t have any crippled-up grandchild to talk about. Just in case, I put my head deep into the drum.
I’ve known for all my Laundromat years to never smile at anyone or to catch an eye, but now I’m using a wheelchair instead of braces and crutches. Physically, the Laundromat should be easier since I can carry big loads in and out on my lap, but I’m braced for a new slew of comments. I’ve delayed doing a wash until my sheets are grey and a rash has spread under my breasts; maybe from the sheets but most likely because of the towels. No one comes into my bathroom or my bed but me, so no one knows, so I can live this way. But now my work clothes, after re-wearings and despite strategic spot washes, have become unacceptable.
“Really, so amazing.” The voice is directly behind me. I wedge farther into the dryer and pretend to retrieve a sock. It’s steamy, dark, and quiet—until the woman’s voice echoes around my head.
“My niece, poor thing, it’s a tragedy for her parents really, she’s afflicted like you. It’s a miracle the way you do for yourself like this, and I’m going to tell them I saw you. It’ll give them a little hope. Now my brother’s wife, she’s a saint.”
There’s a mute button in my head for these moments. I push it. I grab a towel and plop myself out of the dryer and onto the wheelchair seat. The towel is flecked with bits of tissue. I pick at them. The woman’s mouth is still moving. Her glasses sparkle as they move closer. Her eyes reflect in the bright, watery way I’ve come to associate with the overly religious. They, more than most in my experience, lack the ability to notice social cues that tell them to “shut up and go away, far away.” Her lips have an unctuous sheen. I’m in anticipation of having my head patted. I’ll listen forever, but they don’t get to touch me.
“But I always say, God doesn’t—.” The monologue stumbles as I snap the towel out between us. Twice. It cracks at the woman’s chest. “Oh look, my machine has stopped. Honey, I’ll be right over there if you need any help.”
Now that the confrontation is over, I reach for more laundry. Next out is a handful of underwear. I fold each one into thirds and am careful not to snag a nail on the lace or black silk twisted among the cotton. My mind wanders around the thought of not wearing underwear anymore. Now that I use a wheelchair they’re a hassle to pull up and down and sort out under my pants. But the silky ones caress my thighs the way water does when I swim. Just those, I decide, I’ll keep. And a cotton pair for doctor visits. The others can be thrown away. And again, as I figure out another, easier way to live with this new wheelchair, my lungs leap as if they can expand all the way into my shoulders. My spine lifts as well and the word liberation comes to mind.
My head is jerked forward as two arms snake around my neck, overlap on my chest, and squeeze. “Jesus loves you” is a whisper in my ear, and the moistness of the woman’s breath drips onto my neck. The world contracts, I contract, to just the space between her arms. It’s as if there’s no air. I gasp and pull at the arms on my chest. They tighten. I try to yell, but my breath is too ragged. I’m sure I’m suffocating. One of the arms is near my teeth.
I don’t bite through the flesh down to the bone. Instead, I imagine the far horizon of a prairie and the rush of air just before a thunderstorm, and I’m able to inhale past the pressure and I can see more than the puckering of skin around the erect hairs on an arm and this woman can no longer diminish me. So I don’t bite her. But she is assaulting me. I grab a deeper breath despite the way it stinks of her and sink my nails into both of the soft forearms hard enough to hurt. I’m careful not to break the skin. I’d go from “inspiring” to “she attacked me, officer” pretty quick. The woman tries to escape, but I hold on and turn my head to bring our faces close.
“Fuck you bitch, and fuck Jesus. Touch me again and I’ll call the cops.” I let go, and the arms whip back. Footsteps rush away. I pull my shirt away from my body. It’s damp where the woman touched me. Why are these people always sweaty? I wipe my neck dry with the clean underwear before I lob them into the trash bin. At least fuck is still the magic word for her type. Past combinations of damn Jesus, screw Jesus, or a fuck-off without the Jesus have been less effective repellants.
Deep in the dryer I find a still-hot towel. It burns as I use both hands to press it hard against my chest. The heat seeps in around my heart. I am comforted. I breathe the faint perfume of old dryer sheets.