The windows in the rear of the Laundromat were open, but the June breeze that lifted the white wedding bunting tacked to the frames cooled no one, not even the ceiling flies. The place smelled like cheap cologne, the kind Walmart sells by the quart, and Maria figured at least a pint of it had been let free in the room. But it couldn't camouflage the odors that ruled here, fabric softener, detergent, bleach. About a dozen other customers, most clustered near the entrance in case some cool air found its way in, stood wiping brows and folding clothes into baskets. Coarse laughter drifted in from the street, where the groom's ushers, in their dark gray tuxedos with silky lapels, stood having a last-minute smoke.
Maria reached into the dryer, wanting to leave before this circus got underway, but her slacks—the only good pair that fit now—were still quite damp, and she had nothing else decent enough to wear to her meeting with the agency. She'd been given little notice, and with less than an hour to get there, she had no time to buy something new. The first time she'd met with the family-placement agent, everyone in the room was wearing a suit, and Maria felt like a vagabond. Even her huge belly didn't seem like reason enough for jeans.
A week ago, the happy mother in the next bed—one of those bright bubbly types who made her wish they'd ban strollers from parks—had assured her that nursing would flatten her tummy. No help there. She sat down on one of the orange plastic chairs near the dryers and tried not to think about what she'd wear every day when she returned to work or how she'd dodge questions about life as a new parent, because she'd made up her mind not to be one, not by herself.
Mrs. Ortez, the mother of the bride, a small woman in a dress with a plunging neckline and too many lavender sequins, stepped daintily over the spots of soapy water that dotted the concrete floor. Her long taffeta skirt stirred up stray balls of the multicolored lint that materialized out of nowhere. From the shelf that ran the length of the wall someone had hung a sign: "Congradulations Rosa and Ricky." Mrs. Ortez pointed to it proudly. Her two youngest had made it, she explained, as if someone had asked. One or two of the customers seated beneath the words nodded politely as they waited for socks and shirts to stop spinning.
According to Rosa, it had taken almost three months to get her mother to agree to have the wedding in the Laundromat, but this was where she had met Ricky and where he had proposed. Maria saw Rosa here often, admired her flawless skin and her long dark lashes, and wondered at her capacity to go on talking without a breath. They'd become, if not friends, at least laundry buddies. They were both born in the neighborhood, although Maria had gotten her own place two years ago. As the wedding date came closer, Rosa insisted that Mayor Bloomberg would conduct the ceremony. Maria still didn't believe he'd show up. He'd married very few couples, but his term was ending, and Ricky worked for the company the mayor owned, started in the mailroom right out of high school. The mayor had sworn Ricky to secrecy, but Maria doubted there was anyone left in the five boroughs who didn't know about it by now.
Rosa was no good at secrets. Waiting on a bench with Maria for towels to dry, she'd chatter away. Life for her was one long Christmas Eve, and she loved talking about the gifts she knew would arrive—her honeymoon in Puerto Rico, her four-poster bed, her wedded bliss, the brown-eyed children. Rosa could make rinse cycles last an eternity. But Maria would listen politely, without a trace of envy, because domestic prizes were never what she coveted. She and Raoul were moving toward something different, something better. Their orbit intersected with people able to have finer things, expect them even. They were breaking away from their parents' prescriptive world.
Maria spotted Mrs. Ortez heading her way, so she busied herself with her phone to avoid eye contact. She'd never had occasion to speak to the woman, but she felt as if she knew her, because Rosa loved to talk about her family—even her father's fragile finances, how much she and Ricky wanted to help out. Earlier, when Mrs. Ortez had seen Maria come into the Laundromat—her first visit since the baby was born—the woman gestured from across the room, putting her hand against her own girdled tummy, beaming, eager to convey congratulations and approval. Maria only nodded, as if the assumption was correct.
Mrs. Ortez kept up a nervous chatter, telling one of the bridesmaids to turn up the volume on her daughter's iPod to combat the noise of the rasping machines. Socks and panties jumped in the little round windows and heavy buttons on jeans and fatigues snapped intermittently against the glass, but nothing could be done about that. The place was, after all, open for business.
From habit, Maria kept an eye on the entrance, though she knew it wasn't likely Raoul would be around. She'd seen him only once since she left the hospital, coming up from the subway. He asked if everything had gone well, as if she'd been away visiting an ailing relative whose fate was certain. She had no intention of telling him that she still had almost a month to change her mind.
When Raoul stopped calling every day, stopped sending daisies to her office on Fridays, she convinced herself he'd come around, didn't see the shift for what it was. A special project at work was going to require lots of hours. She believed him. He stopped coming over on Tuesday nights—their night for binging on old movies. The third time it happened, she called him. It was late, and she'd made the mistake of watching a romantic comedy. The happy ending came, of course, despite the odds. Swept up in it, like an evangelist, she called and told him how much she loved him. "I know," he whispered, his tongue thick with sleep. "I know." She didn't realize then what he meant, that love was a loose end he'd have to find a way to tie up.
Baskets of white carnations and chrysanthemums sat atop each of the washers in the center of the Laundromat, set back-to-back in two rows. The petals trembled as the machines chugged like steam engines, dribbling suds onto the speckled tiles. Only two were empty and quiet. Mrs. Ortez closed their lids and tossed away the makeshift signs that read "Broke."
The guests would be arriving soon, and, of course, the mayor.
Maria glanced at the small bulletin board, the spot where Rosa and Ricky had met. The board was normally a patchwork of yellowing business cards and torn slips of paper: scrawled requests for rides, rewards offered for lost dogs. Today it bore a nine-by-twelve photo of the happy couple, taken at Coney Island, just after their engagement.
Maria had met Raoul here as well. Summer. An excuse, for him at least, to wear very little. The way he folded sheets was like a caress. He did not flirt, not in any way she had encountered before. He talked about classes he was taking.
"I thought about film school," he said. "NYU. But not for long."
"Directing?" She imagined him standing bare-chested, barking orders through a megaphone, sexier than the leading man.
He nodded. "That's where the real action is." He laughed, but she heard no conceit in it, only the practical way he had of knowing what would work and what wouldn't. "I wised up once I saw how tough it is to make any inroads." She suspected there was more to it, and he saw that, adding, "The markets suit me fine. They have their own beauty." He tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear, and the tingling went straight to her groin. Later, it would make her nervous when he told her she was beautiful. She'd never seen herself that way, but before long she believed he meant it, because his looks made women stare, and she doubted he'd have bothered with her if she wasn't a match.
She saw from the start that his ambitions were as big as her own, and she liked it that way. He was trading for Citigroup, the youngest guy on the floor. She'd been with Goldman Sachs for four years, moving to the trading floor only the year before. Their jobs were about risk, about the unknown, and she relished the mystery as much as he.
The machines hummed and wheezed, gurgled and gushed. As Mrs. Ortez passed each one, she centered the flowers once again. The vibrations had moved some perilously close to the edge. Maria thought of her mother, of the comfort it would have been over the past several weeks to have a caring hand to steady her. Once the woman understood that her daughter planned to give up the baby, their connection shriveled. Her mother's attempts to dissuade her didn't last; she lost her bearings, had no frame of reference for such a choice.
Guests were entering now, wearing well-pressed suits and light gauzy dresses, Mrs. Ortez hurrying over to greet them, and Maria felt suddenly foolish, as if her reason for being here was the one that made no sense. She opened the dryer door again, saw Mrs. Ortez peeking at its contents. Something wasn't right. It held nothing pink or blue. Maria felt the urge to defend herself, as she had with Raoul, when she'd waited so long to tell him.
Her secrecy at first was part denial. Her breasts were tender, her period hadn't come, but no, it couldn't be. They'd been so careful. Then denial gave way to defiance. So what if she was pregnant? It would be wonderful. They were so close by then, her books kicked under his bed, his clothes left hanging in her closet. They let themselves get lost in museums and the narrow streets downtown. She wanted a little more time, to be sure that the way he held her, the way he sought her out when things went well meant that he would understand that nothing they had would be spoiled. Their lives would change, yes, but that didn't have to be a bad thing.
When she finally told him, Raoul made a convincing case that it was. He was unfazed, believing she'd want their old routines to go unchanged—pricey red wine that made them sleep late on Saturdays, rainy Sundays with the Times, late-night talks about their work, their hopes of moving up. He assumed she'd want to be rid of it as well. Once he sensed the change in her, the desire, he began his retreat, like a man relieved he hadn't paid his deposit.
"It's a girl," she told him, well into her sixth month. She hadn't seen him in more than two weeks and didn't expect to find him in the Laundromat. She'd had the sonogram that day, and he hadn't answered her calls when she got home. She'd gone for the test by herself, the waiting room stocked with parenting magazines and women sure of what awaited them at home.
He leaned into the barrel of the washing machine and came up with one last sock, then straightened up to face her. "You're really going to do this?" he said. He sounded baffled, as if she'd made up her mind to try some daredevil stunt that had been done already, too many times before, something no one would pay to see.
"It's growing so fast," she said, convinced he didn't mean it to sound so hurtful. "It's been kicking harder lately." She smiled, put her hand on her belly. She longed for him to do the same.
He didn't. He folded his towels—dark, outsized masculine things that managed to express what he left unspoken. He already had everything he needed.
She caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror behind him. The only frosted highlights left in her hair were at the tips, uneven and thin. She wished she had at least put on some mascara. Her face seemed swollen, unpleasantly ripe, like the rest of her. "I get four months of maternity leave. Paid," she said, desperate to make him see that the baby wouldn't be so disruptive. He nodded but she could see that getting his luxurious towels into his laundry bag was the bigger concern. She told herself he would come around in the end. She had to, because it was too late to believe anything else.
The ordeal of it, the discomfort of the last months—the swollen legs, the pressure on her bladder—accelerated finally into pain that exploded from her lower back and gripped her torso. The spasms would recede, as if toying with her, and there were intervals when she dozed. The pain required all of her strength, but no resolve, because the goal would be accomplished with or without her consent. It was a climb up Mount Everest with no view, because by then she saw that the best thing, the prudent thing, was adoption. Without Raoul, she didn't want the baby.
When the child was born, Maria's first, absurd reaction was anger. She felt used by this new life. They cleaned the baby and brought her close, wearing a little pink cap. Maria touched the soft wool, but not the skin. The agency had gently discouraged Maria beforehand from nursing or naming the baby, and she didn't contest these things. Still, she had feared, expected really, that once it was in her arms she would be drawn to the child, immediately attached. She felt nothing of the kind. It was a squirming, independent thing, fragile but sturdy, so present. It seemed unaware of her, ready to eat and cry and grow with or without her. It was helpless, but it didn't need her, not her especially, and though she wanted to feel essential, she understood that she wasn't. She felt no tenderness toward the child, no wish to keep it. She could move on without this creature. Nothing stirred in her. Her arms were so weak she feared the child would slip from her grasp. The persistent pain and burning in her groin demanded her attention, and the relentless loneliness had not abated. No magic moment would take it away. It sat there, heavy on her chest, outweighing the lively bundle in her arms. This huge moment, like the others meant to mark a woman's life, had turned out to be a distraction, a milestone on a path that led nowhere. It was a lie.
She rang for the nurse, told her she could take the child away. Maria attempted a smile, but she saw it didn't fool the woman. As she handed her off, squirming and wiggling, she told the nurse she wanted them to change the baby's cap. She wanted a white cap for the girl. No uniform, no script.
Maria shifted in her orange chair, the plastic sticking to the backs of her thighs. The ushers had come in and were helping to find a chair or two for the older guests. People waiting for towels to dry happily gave up their seats. Maria relinquished hers to a middle-aged woman with a bottom so wide it spread regally beyond the chair's edges and made her silky dress ride up her thighs. Everyone seemed swept up now, attentive. Mayor Bloomberg was outside. The bride's limo was at the curb. Maria wasn't sure how she'd ever get out of the place. The entrance was blocked with serious men in dark suits and dark glasses, the mayor's people. She considered taking her pants, damp or not, and squeezing her way through, but Mrs. Ortez came running past, calling out, "The runner. We forgot the runner." Maria couldn't get by.
Lifting her swishing skirt, the woman hurried to the back wall where a bright white roll of plastic waited. She managed to tilt it onto the floor, but it was too heavy for her to unroll by herself. One of the ushers ran to help. Together they pulled the plastic between the line of washers and dryers as guests and customers parted and stood aside, like true believers, as if the runner offered a direction, not a dead end.
A breathless commotion by the doorway made people stand on their toes for a better view, and Maria found herself getting caught up in the promise. It filled the room like a herald's off-key trumpet. Maria had attended many weddings, and each one in its own way had been a study in self-absorption. People like Rosa saw nothing ahead but joyful possibilities, togetherness without guile.
The mayor, a short man wearing a precisely tailored suit from a pedigreed designer, stood at the entrance with his associates. One of them bent slightly to whisper something, pointing toward Mrs. Ortez. "Mayor Bloomberg," she cried. "This is so kind of you."
The mayor extended his hand. "Mrs. Ortez," he said. "Delighted."
"We're all ready for you," she said, never doubting he would come or that her daughter was anything but deserving of this break in his schedule.
Bloomberg took in the room, deadpan. "I like what you've done with the place."
The laughter spread like a welcome breeze, then dutifully subsided as all heads turned to the bride standing with her father in the doorway, filmy silhouettes in the city sunlight. He was a stout, balding, tired-looking man, much like Maria's own father, with too many children and not enough resources. On his arm was a woman Maria knew to be quite ordinary, about to marry an ordinary man. Yet everyone watching seemed transfixed, as if this event was remarkable enough to set aside their chores, to bear witness. Maria couldn't fight it off. She stretched to get a better look, saw the groom take Rosa's hand, the cuffs of his ill-fitting trousers already marked from the Laundromat floor. In their lilting Spanish accents, they repeated the words the mayor spoke in his nasal inflection. Customers dabbed tears away, and Maria's eyes burned as she thought of Raoul, of his strong grasp when he held her hand.
She turned her back to the drama, desperate to get out of there, and made her way to the dryer to check the pants, dry at last. By the time she folded them over her arm and found her jacket, the mayor was finishing up, moving toward the door with his people, stopping quickly for the hands extended, returning smiles. Rosa and Ricky followed a few steps behind, repeating their thank yous.
Maria was almost outside when she heard Mrs. Ortez calling to her. "Señora," she trilled, holding something out, as if it belonged to Maria, something she'd forgotten. She took it before she saw what it was—a newborn's tiny undershirt—then considered handing it back, explaining it wasn't hers, but the look of kinship on the woman's face would not permit it.
Outside, the mayor's attendants hustled him into a big black car and the people gathering to watch blocked Maria's way to the trash container on the corner. So she tucked the shirt into the pocket of her jacket and hurried up the street. It was impossibly soft, still warm, and she kept returning to it, secretly. It took no more than a stroke or two to imagine her nameless daughter bathed in harsh light, perhaps disturbed by the random little complaints of the other infants, waiting together, alone, the pale antiseptic place absorbing their novice sounds as if they were no more important than the hums and ticks of the room's intricate machinery.
The infant, unclaimed, would be too easy to disregard, and Maria feared for the child, felt a terrifying connection, a fierce need to protect her. Panicky, she reached up and unfastened the tight clip from her hair, jerking her head from side to side, determined to shake off a feeling even more foolish than the baseless joy she'd witnessed in the Laundromat. She took longer, harder strides, enjoying how light she felt since the delivery, free again. But an absence registered now, a loss. She'd have to resist staking any foolish claims, fight the urge to be the one who decides for the girl.
No, not the girl. Elsa. She would think of her as Elsa, after her grandmother. What harm?