“Because sunshine warmed the backyard during some holiday cookout,” I said. The lawn was an impossible green. Someone sweetened the potato salad with the faintest bit of mustard (the same way Wendy used to make it). The smell and hiss of hot dogs on a grill filled the air. People talked and laughed and clapped each other on the shoulder. They hugged as they arrived and sometimes just nodded without speaking the way close friends could. Because the beer was all imported, iced down and glistening in a tin drum in the corner of the yard. The music was faint, coming from a boombox wedged in an open window. It was the kind of classic rock that could melt into your skin, that always existed, a sound that could stretch out into any space. Because she was there, not Wendy but this new possibility, talking to some of those people, the light in her blonde hair like a corona. Her smile said that no hurt, not even the worst, most impossible kind, could wedge its way between us. That nothing could make her leave. Because somehow she held a child in her arms, had it tucked to her body with her arm around it, her hand scooped under its legs so it could face the world. Because it had a face that I couldn’t quite make out but was all sweetness. Nothing in it was sudden or deathly. It was the look of a life I wanted back, the smell of a home I wanted to live in. A new home. Because I couldn’t put names to any of the people on that impossibly green lawn.
“You know her?” Bucky asked. Bucky was sitting next to me. I was talking at him, the way I do when I’m in my cups.
“I could know her,” I said.
“Like you recognize her,” he said. “From some party. After Wendy left.”
I winced at that last part. “No, no,” I said. “I could know her.” He asked what I meant. He asked how.
Because this is the laundromat and the laundromat has a bar in the back, where they know my name and what I drink. It’s the kind of bar only a laundromat could have, one that cultivates its sadness. Because it serves Bud Ice on special with a shot of cinnamon whiskey. They call it Fire and Ice. Because Walt, the bartender, served in some war and it gave him this distance in his eyes because of course it did. As if war is the only way to feel like the world doesn’t make any sense, as if living is just a slow way to die. And who the fuck keeps playing Leonard Cohen on the jukebox every goddamn day? This is what I mean, Bucky. Because this place has Leonard Cohen on the jukebox. And because I can’t take it anymore. So maybe I walked over to her as she rifled through her purse and I handed her a few quarters, a few dryer sheets. Because she saw a warmth in my eyes and I saw one in hers. Because those baby clothes she was folding weren’t there, or they were and they were just like ones I remember opening years ago in a room full of cream-colored furniture, years ago sitting with Wendy or a long-gone version of Wendy, opening the packages those clothes were in while people smiled around us and ate finger sandwiches. Clothes that were in a box now, in an attic I’ll never go into. Because before now this new woman didn’t think this laundromat was a nice place, the kind of place where people could be kind. Because, with her there, I didn’t feel like this was the only place on the whole goddamn tilted earth.
Because then we said meaningful things to each other. Her hand went to my arm, my hand to her waist and when we kissed she didn’t smell the earthy must of beer on my breath. Because she didn’t smell or taste like anything. She just seemed. Seemed like what I needed. Like what I would look for if I ever tried looking. Because then she leaned me up against the folding table, right there, and took me in her mouth. Because we would make love someday soon. Because we would have a place outside of here to make love in. To inform with our love. To rebuild all the rubble within.
“That’s not right, man,” Bucky said.
“You don’t get it,” I said.
“That woman just wants to do her laundry,” he said, “and here you are getting all kinds of thoughts in your head as if she’s here for you.”
“This is about the mouth part,” I said.
“The cocksucking,” he said. “Yes, that.”
“I thought that’d be the part you’d want to hear. The one thing I could say.”
Bucky shook his head. “It’s not just that, it’s the whole thing. She’s folding her clothes trying to get on with her day. And now she has to deal with the unconscious weight of you doing all sorts of things to her in your mind. Leave her be, man.”
“She’s not the one who has to carry it around,” I said. “Not really.”
Bucky went quiet. Because she had finished her folding and stacked her clothes back into her plastic laundry basket. The sound of the bell that rang over the door as she opened it to leave was the chiming of a person who had other places to go. Of a person who didn’t see the rest of us here.
“None of that stuff happened,” Bucky said. “None of it.”
“But it could have,” I said.
Bucky shook his head. I ordered another Fire and Ice and he and I sat next to each other, pretending to watch a baseball game on the TV in the corner of the bar. Because we couldn’t watch it where I sleep since where I sleep doesn’t feel like a home, or a place where life happens or ever did. Because I don’t need quarters to come in here. I have no clothes in these washers, these dryers. The dirt I’ve held doesn’t wash off. Because I wanted that woman to be real, the same way I want so many people to be real, the same way I want reality to be. Smiling, warm, wrapped in light like a corona.
I told Bucky I’m sorry after a minute, the way I always do. That I was just talking crazy. He forgave me like he always does and I was grateful. Because Bucky is the reason I come here. Because I’m the reason Bucky comes here.
“Today’s the anniversary, isn’t it?” he finally said. “What’s it been, nine, ten years?”
“Yes,” I said, and we raised our bottles to things words can’t harness. Like how small a coffin can be, its crushing lightness, how pain has a long half-life, a wide fallout where the other person can’t live in the same house with that crib, those few memories. How whoever is left behind has nowhere to go, no muscle in his arms to take the crib apart, no muscle in his heart to throw away those tiny clothes. A harsh gulp of beer beat it all back down. Bucky pointed to the TV like something happened in the game. Because we were pretending to move on. And this, finally, is why I was there. Because Bucky knows there are some things you don’t talk about.