Author: Trom DeGrey
Do you know just when you realize a seemingly ordinary moment in your life is, in fact, truly extraordinary? Before you even ponder that question, let me just answer it - after the fact.
Well after the fact.
Let me begin by telling you I'm not like most people. You won't see me reading in the park or having a light lunch at a local cafe in the early afternoon sun. You won't cross paths with me at the grocery store with your cart full of screaming kids. I take Vitamin E like it's going out of style. I have a special ultraviolet light at my desk at both home and work. Heavy tapestry curtains line my windows, and my bedroom door has sound proofing padding on it.
In other words, I work third shift.
The company I work for maintains one of the largest information databases in the world. As such, the system must be constantly monitored. As luck, or even fate if you'd like, would have it, my turn in babysitting this informational leviathan falls in the second half of the day. Well, it's the second half locally anyway. I mean, it's the middle of the workday somewhere in the world, right?
If you've never worked nights before, this basically means I do absolutely nothing the way you do. I don't go out with my friends on Friday night. On Friday nights, we're all at work. Why don't I have friends that work during the day? When and where am I going to meet someone like that? While their life is going on, I'm asleep. While my life is going on, they're asleep. I mean, really, what kind of person do you think I'm going to meet in a bar at 2 in the morning? And have you ever been in the condiments aisle of your local 24-hour grocery at 3am? Sometimes even I fear to tread there.
I don't go out to lunch with my friends. Instead, we gather in the break room at work and participate in our one normal "day people" ritual. In fact, it's The Great American Pastime. No, not baseball! Bitching about work, of course.
Speaking of lunch, I don't eat when you do either. I'm absolutely ecstatic that more fast food places are keeping their drive-thrus open late or even all night. C'mon, let's face it, you can only watch so many drunks barf on their waffles before you decide you need to start cooking for yourself, and me in the kitchen is an unspeakably dangerous prospect.
I belong to a 24-hour health club and regularly workout with people whose skin tone obviously marks them as being just as alien to the sun as me. My video store is open all night too. If I pick the night right, I never have a problem getting new releases. I just have to remember to stay away from the room at the back of the store with the beaded curtain, especially between 1 and 3am.
The grocery store is always an adventure too. You may rush through as quickly as possible, hoping your kid doesn't knock over the huge display of processed sugar and marshmallow cereal, not even registering your cashier's gender much less their name. The third shift produce stocker at my grocery is named Diane. She has nine tattoos and fourteen piercings, and is the proud grandmother of five.
If I go early enough in the night, especially in the summer, I'm guaranteed to see a group of teenagers giggling their way through the store. They're usually each carrying a four-pack of toilet paper, as if no one will know vandalism is in the works and that suddenly all seven of them had a late night case of Montezuma's Revenge.
If I go late enough, I'm bound to see some over-achieving woman who's just come from her dawn workout on the Stair Master to grab coffee and a bran muffin before getting ready for work and shuffling the kids off to school. I hate her and her energy, and resent her intrusion into my nighttime world.
Laundry was always a challenge for me as I don't have a washer and dryer in my apartment, and there was no place open all night. I was almost giddy when I saw the advertisement in the paper for a new 24-hour laundromat. I giggled over the name: The Moonlight Spin & Rinse. It made me think of a 70's roller rink. I couldn't wait for it to open.
There was nothing I hated more than to have to venture out in the middle of my night to wash clothes. I could only wash my underwear in the tub and hang them up to dry so many times before the need for fabric softener became painfully evident though.
But in addition to soft undies and fresh smelling t-shirts, something else happened to me at The Moonlight Spin & Rinse: the extraordinary walked into my ordinary life.
She was my height, blond hair and blue eyes bright enough for me to see even across the double loader washers. She had a shy smile and a curvy body and absently chewed her left thumbnail when she read. Even dressed in baggy sweats, her hair pulled up in a haphazard ponytail, with a backdrop of sudsing washers and spinning dryers, she made my heart race. Every Saturday at 2am, I would arrive as she was loading her clothes in the washers.
I studiously avoided her.
Now, don't misunderstand! I obsessed over her no matter the hour, wondered what she was doing right then, guessed at what she did to make her one of "us". I imagined having dinner with her. Not like real people, of course. No, a fast food dinner of overly processed beans and cheese in tortillas (I would wipe the dribble of sour cream off her chin.) out under the stars, parked in the empty high school parking lot was what I envisioned.
There was never anyone in the laundromat at the same time as she and I and, for a while, I had nightmares that the place would go out of business. I would sometimes sit straight up in my bed babbling something about promising to come in more often than once a week if they would just stay open.
Have you ever played the laundry game? It didn't matter how many times I saw the same clothes, I always tried to discern what I could of her life from her laundry.
White cotton underwear: a sensible girl. Towels- dark blue; light blue; maroon; green; white with blue, maroon and green stripes; hand towels; kitchen towels with duckies: someone that believes in cleanliness.
Well, OK, or someone that spills a lot.
A pair of well-worn jeans: a laid back personality. A long denim skirt: feminine. White cotton socks with a pink stripe across the toe, white cotton socks with a red stripe across the toe, white cotton socks with no stripe across the toe, white cotton socks with a grey heel, white cotton socks with a pink heel... I'm seeing a pattern. She either likes comfy socks or has sweaty feet.
I can live with that.
There's a periwinkle night shirt bearing Eeyore on the front with his sad eyes and droopy "Thanks for Noticing Me": a sweet shy side, no doubt. Once, she brought in a comforter and stuffed it into the triple loader. It was midnight blue and covered in smiling suns and snoozing moons. I had dreams of her curled up in peaceful slumber underneath it for days afterward.
The best part of the laundry game was realizing there was no man involved in her life. There were no jeans obviously too big for her, no uniform shirts proclaiming they belonged to "Roger", and no men's underwear bearing a permanent and rather unfortunate stain.
The coup de gras came when I first saw the t-shirt asking the most important question possible.
What Would Xena Do?
In my mind, the answer was immediate: Be convinced you're a lesbian and ask you out. But what if some of those clothes belonged to another woman?
That was another anxiety attack in and of itself. I spent my spare time at work making lists, flow charts, graphs, figuring statistical probabilities and basically agonizing over the possibility of a girlfriend. There was my Spazz Mind screaming: She's breathtaking! Of course she has a girlfriend, you nimrod! Then there was my Logical Mind pointing out all the obvious evidence: 1) She has enough socks and towels for a small country, but she also does her laundry as often as you do – so, limited amount of clothing. 2) She always comes in alone. If your girlfriend was that hot wouldn't you spend every moment possible with her? 3) She does her laundry on Saturday night. What other single woman do you know that does her laundry all by herself on a Saturday night, hmm?
So, despite the convulsions of my Spazz Mind, the mounting evidence forced me to admit that she was either unattached or had the single most inattentive, blind, foolish girlfriend on the face of the planet
She was single and gorgeous, and she scared the shit out of me. I barely talked to my co-workers, how was I going to talk to her?
So, I didn't.
I would make eye contact long enough to smile and get a shy smile in return, maybe even a whispered "Hi", and then for the next two hours I would sneak glances and daydream. This torrid affair taking place solely in my mind went on for weeks.
And then, one night, something strange happened; strange in that it was out of the ordinary, though not particularly extraordinary.
I had just come into the laundromat and was at a table sorting through my clothes. The lights were their usual glaring shade of too bright, and despite the low hum of the air conditioner there was a warm humidity that always made me think of the first true night of summer. She was sitting on the bench perpendicular to my table. Her back was to me, her right leg tucked underneath her, and she was, as always, absently chewing her left thumbnail. The paperback she was reading was badly dog-eared and just a little too far from her face. She snorted delicately and shook her head. Something amused her.
I shifted my weight back and forth on the tiled floor. My pink tennis shoes creaked softly and I had all but forgotten my whites and colors. I was lost in thoughts of the creamy skin of her neck and imagining what she tasted like on that spot just below her ear. The table felt cool under my sweating palms and I wondered if the flesh of her bare arms would feel that way too or if they would hold onto the damp warmth of the room.
My knees nearly buckled when the bell above the outside door rang. Her head shot up, thumbnail forgotten, the shock registering on her face as it rumbled through my belly. I turned to see who had come in. As I'd said, no one had ever intruded on our time together before.
It was a police officer. He brushed at the rain on his shoulders as the door thunked close behind him. The shower had started as I was coming in a few minutes earlier and now appeared to be coming down in full force. He pulled his right sleeve down and used it to wipe at the droplets standing on his badge. He then started to smooth his hair, though what he was actually smoothing I couldn't tell you. His sandy blonde hair was buzzed in a crew cut. He continued to fuss with his appearance, brushing water from his uniform and muttering to himself occasionally.
I had a brief thought of Bianchi and Buono dressing as cops. I looked down at her and she cocked a worried eyebrow at me. I shrugged subtly and trained my eyes back on our potential serial killer.
If he went for his gun we definitely had a problem, but otherwise, I thought I could take him. He barely looked driving age. I could see his acne from across the laundromat. And while I might not exactly be Muscle Girl, this kid definitely needed a few more cheeseburgers on his bones. I edged closer to my jug of liquid detergent. It was brand new and more then heavy enough to cause some damage.
He finally stopped fussing and took a deep breath. He looked up at the two of us, his brown eyes honest and eager. He smiled brightly and began to walk toward us confidently.
He made it about four steps before the wet soles of his spit-shined black leather shoes betrayed him. His left foot flew out from under him in a kick worthy of the Rockettes, while his right leg twisted awkwardly underneath him. She was suddenly standing next to me, but neither one of us could have gotten to him. We were still at least fifteen feet away. He managed to save himself by flailing his arms out to his right and grabbing a table.
His eyes wide, he pulled himself upright and adjusted his duty belt. He took another deep breath and looked up at us again. He smiled tentatively. "It's uh..." his voice cracked badly. He cleared his throat and tried again. "It's wet out there," he said lamely and let loose a tinny laugh that made the hair on my arms stand on end.
I picked up my bottle of detergent this time and went to stand right next to her. I held the bottle in front of me with both hands, my right hand twisting around the plastic handle. If I could get in one good swing, she could make it to the door.
Oblivious to my homemade weapon, he picked his way gingerly over to us and stopped a few feet away. I turned toward her slightly, instinctively wanting to shield her. "Uh, hi," he said brightly, waving at us uncomfortably. "I'm Officer Baxton," he said as he stuck out his right hand. I immediately reached forward. If he grabbed me first, I could drop the detergent at her feet and she could hit him.
He squeezed my hand and smiled even bigger, as if he was thrilled I had actually shaken his hand and not run off screaming. She smiled sweetly at him when they shook hands and he actually began to rock up on his tiptoes and back again.
I briefly wondered if I looked like that when I was excited.
"Sorry to startle you there," he said, thumbing back toward the door.
"Are you alright, Officer Baxton?" she asked.
"Oh, yes ma'am," he said, raising his right hand. "Just fine. Police officer has to be in good shape you know."
He was trying to play the confident cop now. I saw no reason to burst that bubble. I loosened the grip on my detergent. I knew a fellow geek when I saw one up close. It was what kept me from laughing quite frankly.
"This is my new beat," he announced. "So, I'm just going around introducing myself to all you night owls," he said, still rocking back and forth. We laughed politely and he chuckled along with us, oblivious. "Actually," he said, "this is the best reception I've gotten so far tonight. Most of the fast food places thought I was some loony or a serial killer or something."
I'm sure I blushed to the roots of my hair.
"Can you believe that?" he asked with his tinny laugh. "Me?"
She and I exchanged a glance and looked back at him wide-eyed. His smile faltered and he cleared his throat uncomfortably. I felt her fidget next to me. "Officer Baxton, I think it's terribly..." she started and I could see her grappling for words. "...community-minded of you," she finally finished and gave him that endearingly sweet smile. My heart melted at her generosity.
His smile returned full force. "Well, thank you, ma'am!" he said exuberantly. "I just wanted to let you ladies know that I'm around if you should ever need anything," he said, puffing out his chest. "Isn't it awfully late for two pretty ladies like yourselves to be doing laundry on a Saturday night?" he asked suddenly, as if it had just occurred to him that it was 2:30 in the morning.
"I work third shift," we said in unison. I looked over at her and she gave me a shy half smile that made my mouth go dry. I smiled back and she ducked her head. I was suddenly conscious of just how close we were standing. I could feel the heat of her body on my bare forearm.
"Ah," Officer Baxton said sagely and I was drawn out of her cocoon. He continued to rock on his feet, his expression becoming more thoughtful as he regarded the two of us standing there together.
He suddenly stood stock still, his eyes growing wider and wider. I looked behind us, wondering if some sort of master criminal had managed to teleport through the wall and was now sneaking up behind us.
But no, the bathroom and a triple loader washer.
I snapped my head back around when he yelled, "OH!"
He looked like he'd been hit by a bolt of inspiration. "You!" he exclaimed, pointing first at her and then me. "Oh!" he yelled again.
"Oh?" I asked. She looked just as bewildered as me.
"Right! I get it!" he said, putting his hands up as if to say "no wait, don't tell me". "Hey, that's great!" he said, his huge boyish smile plastered across his face again. "I protect and serve all citizens," he reassured us.
I thought it sounded slightly kinky and judging by the blush spreading across her cheeks, she must've too. Or else I was missing something.
We stood there for a few moments in a bizarre silence; me processing, her blushing, and him grinning and rocking like an autistic child with a gun.
Only third shift. I swear.
He suddenly laughed again and a shiver skittered down my spine. "Well, I'll just be on my way now," he said. I was thankful. The night had been just a bit too weird for me. He raised his hand in a wave and started backing away.
I waved back as she said, "Have a safe night, Officer Baxton."
"Thank you," he said and turned on his heel and practically skipped toward the door. He almost made it out, but must have hit a newer tile at about the same place he had slipped coming in. His feet went flying out from under him and he had to thrash to catch himself on that same table. He pulled himself up and launched himself the last few steps to the door, turning his beet red face toward us and waving as he stumbled out the door. It thunked close behind him, leaving us with only the slooshing sounds of her washers.
She blew at her bangs and sat down heavily on the bench. I sank down next to her gratefully. I stared at the empty dryers staring back like dilated pupils. "Please tell me I wasn't the only one thinking serial killer when he walked in here," I said.
She chuckled and I looked over to find myself being regarded by those liquid blue eyes. "I was so thinking Hillside Strangler," she said softly. "Of course, I ended up thinking he was pretty brave."
I smiled at her. Her soft alto voice was like a lullaby. Everything about her was so soothing. "Yeah," I agreed. "I certainly couldn't wander around introducing myself to random citizens at two in the morning." She laughed her soft deep laugh again and I couldn't help but study the simple symmetrical beauty of her face.
She ducked her head away from my scrutiny. I desperately wanted to see her eyes again and cast about in my mind for anything to get her to look up at me. The book registered. "So, what are you reading?" I asked.
She looked up at me and seemed to study me in return for a moment. She looked down at the book and then flipped it over for me to see the cover. I saw her look up at me again just before I looked down.
My heart lodged in my throat. It was a romance novel. Had I been wrong? Had Xena led me down the prim rose path only to cut my heart out with her flying, spinning disc-thingy?
"I don't know why," she said, her voice cutting through my panic like a bell, "but my mother devours these." She shrugged. "I read them for the comic relief," she admitted. "I mean, do guys really act like this?" she asked with a laugh, but looked at me pointedly as she said it.
Realization dawned. She was testing me. I didn't have a Xena t-shirt.
The simplest answer came to me unbidden. "I wouldn't know," I said softly and was delighted to see the bright smile spread across her face even as she ducked her head again.
Now, do you remember how this all started? How I told you that some utterly ordinary moments end up being truly extraordinary, but you don't realize it until after the fact? Well, pay attention, you just might miss it, because that's what happened next.
She looked up at me again, and a crooked smile crept up the left side of her face, making my heart skip a beat. She stuck out her right hand and said, "Hi, my name's Tara."
Did you see it?