“Colored. Light colored. Red –separate pile.
“No, you stay over here with the light colored stuff.
“Dark. Dark. Light. White.
“Oops, no. White. That’s better.
“Now white, white, colored and – “
Lily always separated her wash carefully, like her mother had raised her to do.
Jimmie used to accuse her of making the laundry racist.
“I only separate them in the wash. In public, they’re together. Like you and me.”
Then Lily picked up the red-and-white striped hoodie. The mustard stain spread across the front pocket and up one sleeve. She sighed. Jimmie was in her head, “Can’t separate that, can ya – ya racist.” If it was a joke, Lily didn’t get it.
Lily moved out the day after graduation, determined to get out from under her mother’s thumb. She knew she could make it if she found a cheap place with a roommate or got a job. When she’d knocked on the door and found Jimmie – all six-feet-three-inches of brown sugar Momma always warned her about – she thought it was going to be a very good summer.
Jimmie was everything Momma would have loved – except white. So Lily didn’t tell her mother. Lily wouldn’t air dirty laundry. But Jimmie wasn’t dirty. He was handsome and smart. He had a nice place, and didn’t want her money – she could live there rent-free in exchange for doing his laundry and other chores. And that was before they started going out. Lily loved his laundry room – mostly because it meant not having to use the dreadful Laundromat across town.
“Sugar, you using that?” The Laundromat attendant interrupted Lily’s reverie.
“What? Sorry. No, go ahead.”
“Thanks, hon.” A piece of the attendant’s burning cigarette fell into Lily’s hamper as she reached for the empty basket.
Lily watched in horror as the ashes burnt small holes into the precious hoodie.
She jerked it from the pile. Jimmie wouldn’t stop laughing.
“Ex-cuse me?” The attendant’s voice snapped Lily back to the present. She looked at the attendant — an older, heavy-set black woman who could have been an extra in The Help. Was she racist to think like that?
“You’re only here because you think someone will call you racist if you leave.” Jimmie’s voice echoed inside her head. “You can’t have it two ways, so whatchu want?”
“I want to live here, with you, and wash my ‘racist laundry’ Jimmie.” Lily still couldn’t believe she’d actually said the words. “But I can’t. I can’t be your girlfriend and not tell my mother and I can’t tell my mother and I — I have to go.”
“Where’re you gonna go, sugar?”
Do I have to answer? Lily remained silent.
“Damn, girl. Snap out of it.”
Lily looked up.
” This ain’t no motel. Someone spends a night or two here – once in a while– I overlook it. But damn, girl. You shouldn’t be here no mo’. What gives? Were ya dumped?”
“No, I left him.”
“No!” Lily nearly yelped at the thought. “I thought we loved each other. But…
“He thought I was racist – I’m not.”
“OK. I believe you.”
“He bought me this shirt because he said I was doing racist laundry.”
The attendant snorted. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to laugh.”
“I guess it is kinda funny.”
“So what’re you gonna do?”
“I have no idea.”
“I have one.”
“Yeah: burn the ex’s shirt, then do your damn laundry.”
“But I just told you –“
“Look — if you need to wash every piece you have in a different washer to make peace with it all, go ahead. I’ll even give you the quarters. But I’d just wash it all together – not much gonna bleed anyways.”
“Even this?” Lily held out the hoodie.
“Get rid of that. That stain’s never coming out.”
“But Jimmie gave it to me!”
“Anyone –anyone – who would make you feel this bad over a damn hoodie ain’t worth your time. You got that?”
Lily stared in disbelief.
“Look sugar – you got folks around?”
“Yes, but –I don’t want Momma to know what a mess I’ve made.”
“It’ll be alright. Look, I’ve got a shower in the back. You get cleaned up. Give me your Momma’s number. She’ll come, and then you can decide what you want to do. I’ll call her and then get your laundry started. “
“You’d do that for me?”
“You can tip me if it makes you feel better, but yeah, sugar.”
When Lily finally got the courage to exit the bathroom, there were two women folding her clothes. Both looked up when the bathroom door squeaked open. Lily’s mother dropped the clean shirt and held her arms out to her daughter. The attendant nodded to Lily, who ran into her mother’s outstretched arms.