Eager to exit the car, I hissed when I tried to unbuckle my seatbelt, burning my fingertips on the metal that had been cooking under the hot July sun. Even though my legs could not reach the car floor, Esther let me sit in the passenger seat, and I was giddy not only at our breaking of the rules, but because of the destination we arrived at: the laundromat.
When I was growing up, the laundromat was my domain. It was a land where the currency was quarters and the smell of detergent wafted around every corner. Its ruler — the owner, was a strict old lady who would frown as she gave me a handful of silver coins, no doubt picturing me climbing into the machines and reigning terror over her realm. We had reached somewhat of a peace agreement at the hands of Esther, our allied power, and I was free to navigate the endless rows of bulky steel boxes and wired carts as they chatted in a language I couldn’t understand. I’d listen to them roll their R’s on words that Esther would later teach me how to pronounce.
As a child, every aspect of the laundromat was a potential adventure. A laundry cart was my NASCAR car as I sped past people folding clothes, the floor’s blue tiles were molten hot lava I hopped over, and each washing machine was a locked treasure chest I pulled on to no success. But the best part of the place was the person I had come with: my neighbor Esther.
This was before high school when my summer days were nothing but hazy time to kill, and I spent them with her, a woman 60 years my senior. Esther’s company kept me from being a lonely child. It didn’t matter that my mom worked an hour away and my father was either sleeping or glued to a computer screen, because I had a best friend.
My world was a bridge between my house and hers that I ran back and forth across each day. Esther towered over me at five feet tall, and I would stand next to her, my face pressed against her torso, begging for some coffee that she would give me in a cup no bigger than my small palm. I read books with my skinny legs pressed to my chest while Esther watched her soap operas, or walked her dog as I listened to her complain that her kids didn’t call.
Then each week laundry time came. It was a consistent and inescapable fact of life that I could rely on. Clothes always have to be cleaned, and while today the thrill of laundry has worn off, I loved it as a child. Back then, it wasn’t a chore. I was happy to be in a laundromat with somebody that loved me.
Sitting on the table where people fold clothes, Esther would tell me stories as she made her way through a pile of socks and shirts. Though I had hardly left Queens, I traveled to her past life. She told me about her three husbands as she pointed to wedding rings she wore tucked behind crescent moon fingernails. She told me how she came on a boat when she was 11 years old from Puerto Rico. I tried to picture her a couple of years older than me, rather than decades older, traveling away from home to a world unknown. Wrapped in these stories was her guidance I soaked in. She instructed me to value my independence. She told me to never stay with a man if he hit me. She told me to save my money because there’s never enough of it. I learned how true that was when the bank seized her home after she couldn’t pay her loans. It felt selfish, but I hated that she left when I needed her the most. As she moved away, I entered a grade 7-12 school where people spent their summers preparing for standardized exams or in tutoring classes. I cried when I saw her empty house, spooked by the barren walls and rooms with too much space. I was powerless to stop her leaving. The pain of the change pierced through me as I walked through the rooms and was scared by how a place that was filled with decades of memories could feel so empty. She left and summers turned lonely. Gone were dog days spent listening to the rumble of clothes being cleaned. I had SAT words to study and no one to take me to the laundromat.
I haven’t seen Esther in years. Her phone was always breaking or her number was changing as she moved to her son’s house in the suburbs. I have spoken to her sometimes on the phone. The move was a harsh transition for somebody that loved their home in Queens, and each time I spoke to her she said she was miserable. She eventually moved out to the projects in Harlem, where she is still unhappy. My relationship with her showed me the harsh reality of how the seasons of one’s life changes. I spent every day with this person. She made me food and braided my hair everyday and picked me up from school, but now we spend each day apart and don’t talk.
Still, Esther is always on my mind. I change and people leave, but the laundromats stay the same. Always a place where people go to get dirty things clean. Always colored the same blue, gray, white or green. I sit alone in front of a machine each week, and as I watch bubbles cycle and shake through my clothes I remember how I felt when I was younger. It’s 10 years ago, and I’m at the laundromat, happy to wash clothes with somebody I love.