It was 10 p.m. on a Tuesday. Dan sat alone in the laundromat, looking at his cell phone and watching his shirts spin in the dryer. You had to watch them pretty carefully, taking them out while they were still a little damp, or else they'd wrinkle.
He came late so that he could be sure to get the best washers and dryers, but also because he just wasn't very comfortable around people. He wasn't weird about it; he was just an introvert, and comfortable being one.
A few minutes after 10 a young woman in jeans, sneakers and a gray sweatshirt came into the laundromat. She carried a hamper of clothes, dropped it down on a counter, and then went back out to her car for another. Then another. And another after that. Dan started to smile, thinking about a video he had once seen of 15 college men climbing out of a Volkswagen.
The night was warm and the laundromat's front door was open. Over the sound of his dryer Dan heard a woman's anguished voice outside. He stood and went to the door. This wasn't a great part of town.
He saw the woman leaning into the back seat of her station wagon, trying to pull out yet another laundry hamper, which seemed to be stuck. He almost went back to his bench, then walked out to the car.
"Can I help you with that?" he asked. The young woman reared back out of the car, face flushed and breathing hard.
"The basket's stuck against the door handle and I can't get it out," she said. Dan looked in and saw the problem. He walked around to the driver's side door, opened it, pressed down on the hamper on the back seat and pushed it free. The girl snorted.
"Well, that was silly, wasn't it?" she asked with a smile. "Thank you."
"Glad to," Dan said, coming back around. "You have a lot of laundry."
"I've been busy," she replied. "I realized tonight that the clothes I'm wearing are the last clean ones I have. So, everything else I own is in these baskets!"
He walked back into the laundromat with her, but before returning to his chair he said, "I'm Dan."
He wanted to say something more, but had no more words to offer. So he returned to his seat, opened the dryer door. Still too damp, so he sat back down and stole a glance at the girl as she loaded her laundry into several machines. She was pretty, but there was a weariness about her, a fatigue that seemed to come from more than lack of sleep. There was a lot of that in this neighborhood, Dan thought. It was a place of hard luck, sometimes despair. He saw her read from a cell phone with a shattered screen and brush back loose tendrils of brown hair that had escaped from her pony tail. She looked exhausted to her bones, somehow defeated and now with a long night of laundry ahead of her. He wanted to do something to help her, but had no idea what to do.
Then he looked at his phone and found in his music an old song, a jazz waltz called "Emily."
It was a sweet, sad song that seemed to describe in his mind the beauty and struggle he saw in her. Almost without thinking, tired himself, he walked over to the girl and started the song, turning up the volume. When she looked up at him he said, "Dance?"
She started to laugh, but it was a friendly, gentle laugh, and she said, "Sure." She stood and held out her arms and Dan led her in a slow waltz through the end of the song. Her hand was warm in his as he concentrated on keeping his frame as Mrs. Kellman had taught him long ago in dance class. He danced her back to her chair and when the song was over she smiled.
"Thank you," she said. She stood for a brief moment, as if waiting, and then returned to her seat. Dan smiled, wanting to say something but not knowing what. He returned to his bench. His shirts were finished. He hung them, tarrying, wanting to say something more to the girl. He realized he'd left a couple of hangers in his car; he went out to fetch them. Finally his shirts were hung, nothing more to do.
He stopped at her chair on his way out. "Can I help you with any of this?" he asked. "You have a lot."
"No, I can manage," she replied. "Thanks."
Dan left the laundromat, kicking himself that he hadn't been able to talk more with her and worse, he hadn't even asked for her phone number. Maybe he'd see her there again, he thought. Probably not, though.You're useless
, he berated himself as he climbed the stairs to his apartment and started putting his shirts into his closet. As he was hanging one, a piece of paper fluttered to the floor.Emily
, it said. And a phone number.