The Sham Marriage and the Chinese Laundry Man
The Chinese laundry man thought this guy and I were married. I liked that. It was an assumption that any reasonable Chinese laundry man would make. We took turns dropping off and picking up our intermingled clothes: his paint-stained work pants and T-Shirts, my grey and black skirts and blouses, his stretched out white briefs and my candy-colored bikini panties. It was a sweet pleasure for me, pulling up in the evening to the little divided building where the laundry man lived and worked, washing machines in the left half, his apartment, one assumed, on the right. He seemed to live alone there. When I pulled up and knocked on the door he would come out after a moment grinning and nodding, his club hand obscured from view by a gym sock, which gave the impression that he was always in the middle of doing someone’s laundry.
He would make jokes. For example, he once pointed to all the bags of laundry and said “Ok which one yours?” and then, following my confused look, “I just kidding, this one yours” as he handed me the bags into which he’d placed our shirts and pants and socks and underwear all clean and folded neatly together. I was impressed that he could keep it straight. Did he have a trick? Did he have a nickname for us, too?
The man whose laundry intermingled with mine in those days told me one evening that the Chinese laundry man had asked him, “Where you wife?” We exchanged smiles over that. From then on, whenever I went to pick up the laundry, I knew that he thought we were married, and it made that simple errand a five-minute fantasy.
I didn’t want to marry him. Not really. My worst fear about getting married was that when I got older and started to lose my looks that my husband would no longer be interested, that he would ignore me and make me feel unwanted and forgotten. I knew that all men did not do that. I knew that some men were appreciative and affectionate and loving towards their aging wives, and I knew that he was not one of those men.
What I enjoyed was who the Chinese laundry man saw us as, or rather, who I could imagine the Chinese laundry man saw us as, and who I could, therefore, imagine us as. For that moment, for as far as the world knew, I was one half of a young attractive happily married couple, a couple that was somehow “normal,” that was doing “normal” couple things. Maybe we were newly married and in the middle of fixing up our new house and hadn’t gotten it together enough to buy a washer and dryer, so we had to do this little laundry errand every week. It was a small hardship but it was good because it was all part of the beautiful work of building our life together. Soon the new kitchen would be finished, furnished with shiny new appliances and painted blue and yellow, and the laundry room would be ready, and we could go to Sears and buy the new washer and dryer and that would be a fine day. But for now we ate our meals at the café or cooked on the grill and took our laundry to the Chinese laundry man. In the evenings I came home from work and checked his progress on the sheetrock, helped put up a coat of primer. On the weekends he repaired the siding and I tended a small vegetable garden. After lunch we went to get paint samples for the exterior again. We liked the idea of different shades of orange, or maybe blue and orange. Two colors or three? We couldn’t decide.
That was our life, and it was not. It was the life we half lived and half pretended to live, and at times we each forgot where the line was after all. We knew what kind of couple we were and what kind of couple we were not, but we also knew what kind of couple we sometimes wanted people to think we were, and for that reason we deliberately misled people, people like the Chinese laundry man.
It wasn’t just the Chinese laundry man. We played this game with the guy at the corner store, when we went in with the paint samples, discussing what color to paint “our” house. We slid this deception past the clerks at the Home Depot, too, and the veterinarian when his dog – his dog, not our dog- got bit. We encouraged the assumptions made by the landscaper and the man at the nursery when we went to look at palm trees. It was a conceit that carried us along, sometimes high above the reality of who we really were, and that sometimes managed to creep a little into our private moments, enough sometimes that we might have believed, briefly, that we could be that.
But reality catches up with people. I take my laundry to my mother’s these days and neither of us has been around to the Chinese laundry man in many months. He has gone back to New York now, and I still live in the rented apartment that I lived in when we met, and his kitchen is far from finished, and I have no idea what color he will paint the exterior, because, of course, we broke up, rather casually. It “didn’t work out.” But the Chinese laundry man, I’d like to think, assumes that we finished that utility room and now have our washer and dryer and our stainless steel six burner and farm sink, and I have made matching gingham curtains and table drapes, and we are happy and looking forward to our future.