Tide detergent: sticky, sweet, slightly dry, like powdered sugar. It smells purple but it’s actually blue. It comes in packets, in sticks, in tubes, as a liquid as viscous as motor oil and as a powder that looks like cocaine. My grandmother used to wash her stockings with a drop the size of a dime. I can remember my grandfather standing right behind her in the laundry room, soaking the seat of his blue jeans in water and starch. I learned later that he puts them in the dryer like that, half-wet and half-starched, hoping to shrink the bottom of his pants to accommodate flat glutes and tailbone. Twelve years later I would do the same, wishing my body into my grandmother’s starched smallness or my mother’s fluid hourglass as I scrubbed soccer stains from knees that might have been hand-me-downs and dried the sagging butt of my blue jeans until it burnt my fingers.
My grandpa can’t smell his Old Spice anymore. He sweats it off his skin and his body recalls younger days that smelled of baseball and grass. He walks in to tell you he’s ready to go, and you can smell the ready-to-go-ness, and it smells like Old Spice. You can almost feel his skin slightly wet and pink from his bath towel, and you wonder how much of the bottle it takes for him to feel like he smells good. He has no idea how long the room smells like him after he’s gone. I tracked it once. 4 hours.
My brother is like him in this respect. I’m not even sure I know what all his bottles are meant for, but I know they live in a tidy heap in the corner of the shower and another by the sink in the bathroom. All kinds of colors. Names like Apollo, Peace, Hawkridge, Nirvana, Silk, Night. Now I smell his choices before he brings them home. “that one’s nice…not too serious”-- “that one smells like going goth”-- “I’m getting a headache from this one.” The bathroom smells like the open door of the men’s locker room: so many smells that you feel the alcohol and aerosol between your breaths. On my birthday he washed with Safeguard and used my shampoo, just for me.
I use Cheer. The package is white. It’s the “free and gentle” kind, because it doesn’t eat the color out of my clothes in payment for stain-treating everything. It doesn’t smell like anything except the vague heaviness that every polar suspension seems to hold in common. I soften my laundry with vinegar, but I discovered long ago that it takes six drops of lavender oil shaken into a gallon to make sure I don’t smell like a pickle. Common sense, really. No one has ever told me whether I smell like vinegar, lavender, 30-weight, sweat, or something else entirely. I’m not certain I want to know. There is a quixotic vanity in my attempt not to smell like anything: “Don’t hug me,” I tell my boyfriend, “I’ve been playing midfield.” Confession: my shampoo smells like grapefruit, but not on purpose.
Detergent pulls things apart. It lives for the pure enjoyment of separation: stain from cloth, dye from cotton, the skin from my fingers as I slide and pull my black compression leggings back and forth along the bottom of the sink, divorce the sweat and grass and ground from the spandex, try to rinse the dirt and defense from my blueish shins and the sting of a perfect block from my palms. Each molecule of sweat or stain falls in love only once. Each molecule of detergent: twice. Diluted in water it takes on the habits of water molecules, losing its electrons to the water’s hydrogen group. Hydrophillic. Mashed into the gray smears of my life in the knees of leggings, it clings to lipids and waxes and smooths itself into the fiber. Its relentless polarity pulls it from the other end, favors the anarchy of dissolution, tears it from my clothes and along with it the dirt and grass and sweat and smell. I separate my actions from my clothes, fold my life up in a drawer, and breathe in the sense that I never played and the sense that
instead I did nothing but wash laundry. You get used to the smell of your own clothes, sort of like you’re used to the smell of your own sweat, or the smell of the job you work every day, or the smell of the neighborhood around your house. The brain deletes data that doesn’t change so you don’t have to watch it grow obsolete like a single sock.
Hugging my boyfriend used to be a mystery-- the smell of his sweat after racquetball or grass and 2-cycle gasoline after work or the bleached and softened smell of library books--always somewhere a sticky, powdered-sugar smell the color of lilacs. It smelled organized. Like the smell of trying too hard. He left a hoodie at my house once, and I wore it. I breathed and felt each molecule bounce off the back of my throat, studded with ester groups and hydroxide ions, tumbling against my skin and agitated by my motion as the zipper rubbed a soft spot in my jeans. When his washer broke down and he did his laundry at my house I poured his rowdy squad of torn jeans and racquetball shorts in the dryer for him. Opening the warm dryer felt like being hugged so hard I couldn’t breathe.
Richard Wilbur saw angels in the laundry, clinging to the clothespins and soaking like stubborn stains into the hems of the sheets. As I fold the hoodie and slip it between the oldest pair of jeans and a shirt he got last week from a seminary in Chicago I hope he doesn’t notice the difference. And I wonder if I would see myself reflected, blue and heavy and suffocating, my face looking back from a flowing blue spot the size of a dime, winking up from around the zipper pull, pondering the purity of dissolution.
About the Author:
Family legend claims that Elise Meredith Parsons wrote her first poem at age four. Since then she has daydreamed and written across the United States, appended to the Air Force like a luggage tag. She currently lives on tea and Dickens with her family in a tiny Ohio town.