“WHAT are we doing here again?”
The “For Sale” sign had faded over the long months of exposure, the laminated rectangle as forlorn and neglected as the small strip of unkempt landscaping underneath. Tall clumps of overgrown grass and even taller weeds hid the realtor’s telephone number and pushed the thin metal supports anchoring the sign out of the ground. Rob Gentner fumbled at one side of the bracing in an absentminded attempt to straighten the twisted frame.
“I wanted to visit the old place,” Rob said over the rush of traffic on the busy street behind him, but he didn’t glance away from the abandoned building, once such a huge part of his life. “One last time.”
Rob listened as his partner, David Morris, crossed the broken asphalt of the empty parking lot, gravel and square chunks of pavement kicked out of his way. David’s forearm snaked around his waist, pulling him flush against David’s chest and offering the same, unflinching support Rob had depended on so thoroughly this difficult weekend.
“Don’t expect to receive any proceeds from the sale….”
Rob choked back laughter, surprised at David’s uncanny mimicry of his sister’s shrill voice, but not the way he zeroed in on what had Rob so unsettled. For the first time since leaving their home in Saugatuck two days before, he relaxed, his weight resting on David’s cushioning belly. Rob tried to associate the image of his sister he carried in his mind, the childhood smiles and shared memories, with the stiff figure in the lawyer’s office. But the woman with the tight, pursed lips and angry, disdainful glare as David held his hand through the reading of his father’s will remained a stranger.
“It’s funny, you know,” Rob murmured. “She hated this place when we were kids. Thought her friends at school looked down on us because our parents owned a Laundromat. No matter what my dad said, she always refused to help out.” Rob traced his fingers along the smooth bone of David’s wrist. “Guess she still has no problem spending the money.”
The two men surveyed the squat brick building. The reddish-brown paint picked out by Rob’s mother, now faded and peeling off in huge patches, reminded Rob of days spent helping his dad apply the color to the exterior blocks. The hottest weekend of the year, his dad had repeated to anyone who would listen.
Plywood replaced the three broken-out windows on the side facing the road. Some of the stickers had peeled away, but the speckled glass of the front door still proclaimed the hours of operation. Despite the changes, reflections of the time passed since his last visit, Rob relished the comfortable pull of his memories.
“How about you?” David asked. He rested his cheek on Rob’s back, his breath warm and reassuring through the soft cotton of Rob’s dress shirt. Sometimes David’s fondness for PDAs irritated Rob; he preferred the initial “P” stood for private. He wondered what it said about him that this weekend he welcomed every one of them.
Rob shrugged. “I never cared. The folks needed me to work, so I did.” He curled his arms over David’s, hugging them tighter to his chest as he reminisced. “It beat working fast food. My friends would hang out, and I got a lot of homework done.”
David laughed, the husky sound muffled against Rob’s shoulder. “Always the geek.”
“You should have seen me.” Rob grimaced at the thought of his teenage self, an artist’s favorite study in angles, from the protruding beak of his nose and the sharp jut of his Adam’s apple to his awkward and pointed collection of knees and elbows. Back then, nothing seemed to fit, and he felt a stranger, both in his own body and the world around him.
“I bet all the old ladies loved you.” David nuzzled Rob’s neck. The soft brush of his well-groomed mustache raised goose bumps along Rob’s skin, a familiar invitation to other pursuits.
Refusing to acknowledge the distraction, Rob pointed to the housing complex butted directly behind the deserted laundry. Shadows trailed from the rusted fence separating the two properties and fell over the building, streaks cast by the afternoon sun as it dropped below the tall, two-story units. “We served more of the apartment trade. Mostly singles and the newly divorced.”
“You have no idea.” A smile tugged at the corner of Rob’s lips, memories long forgotten dancing back into mind. He ducked his head, a futile attempt to hide his expression.
“I know that look.” David said. “What are you thinking?”
“What look? You can’t even see my face,” Rob protested in weak response to his challenge. David, the rat, dug his fingers into Rob’s side while Rob squirmed with laughter, his voice rising higher in pitch. “Nothing, I swear.”
“It’s got to be something.” David tightened his grasp, and Rob yelped. David’s portly build and, as Rob fondly called them, his gorilla arms, evened out any advantage offered Rob by his height. “You going to share with the rest of the class?”
Unable to catch his breath, Rob struggled to slide out of David’s grip. “There’s something so wrong about the way you say that,” he panted, turning to face his tormentor.
“That’s not what my students tell me,” David said. He released Rob and fumbled in his front pants pocket with a mock leer. “Besides, I know how to get you to talk.”
Rob tugged at his shirt and wiped his palm over his disheveled hair, smoothing the reddish-blond strands into place. “Here?” he questioned with a quick glance. The neighborhood showed signs of wear, but activity still surrounded them.
“Here,” David answered. He smirked, and Rob knew David noted his brief mental descent into the gutter. Instead of commenting further, an omission guaranteed to raise Rob’s suspicions, David raised his hand, slowly waving it back and forth in his effort to grab Rob’s attention.
“Where did you get that?” Rob immediately focused on the dull silver gleam of the key. David continued to surprise him.
David arched one dark eyebrow, his usual response when Rob doubted his superior abilities. Both of them teachers at a small, independent college, the now-familiar gesture first caught Rob’s attention during the staff meeting where they met. While David now carried more padding and less hair, Rob still melted every time he did the eyebrow thing. “Let’s just say the lawyer’s secretary cared for your sister’s attitude as much as I did.”
Rob frowned. The lack of a relationship with her no longer troubled him, but her rudeness toward David today upset him. “I’m so sorry about the way she acted.”
“Not your fault.” David settled his arm over Rob’s shoulder, sliding it down to his waist and pulling him close for another quick hug. “Besides, you warned me.”
Rob let the warmth of David’s fingers, spread wide across the small of his back, steer him toward the door. Once in front of the glass, he hesitated.
“We don’t have to go in,” David said softly. “It’s just, other than this place, you don’t ever talk about growing up here, and I thought—”
Rob reached for David’s hand, the one holding the key, and together, they opened the lock. “It’s fine.”
WHEN Rob turned twelve, his school received a donation to build a flagpole and an outdoor seating area in honor of some aged alumnus. To distract the students from the dust and noise outside their classrooms, one of the teachers suggested they add a time capsule to the project. Busy work disguised as a useful learning experience.
Each homeroom class had an opportunity to vote on what they wanted to share with future classmates. They placed their objects of choice into a small metal container before burying the lot under the concrete paving stones. Rob never went back for the ceremonial uncapping. But here, now, as Rob entered the Laundromat, he opened his own tiny window to the past.
Quiet filled the empty space with a tangible presence. Rob’s footsteps echoed as he crossed over the linoleum floor, cracked and marred by countless trips of the wheeled carts now parked silent against the wall instead of rattling from washer to dryer and back again. Small particles of dust floated in the streams of light sneaking past the dirty windows, and as he took a deep breath, he could almost smell the memories trapped alongside the faint scents of bleach and detergent clinging to the brown paneled walls. David stood in the doorway, waiting for permission to share this moment with him.
“Come on in,” Rob said. He ran his hand over one of the clothes folding tables at the end of the double row of washers, the plastic surface cool to the touch, still unstained after years of wear.
“Somehow I thought the machines would be gone.” David examined the bank of dryers set into the wall and opened one of the doors. His voice sounded hollow, resonating against the metal interior before he closed the door with a loud snap. “Turn on the lights, and this place would be back in business.”
“You interested?” Rob asked. “Someone could make a living here if they wanted.”
David lifted one of the flyers still pinned to the corkboard mounted beside the public payphone. “Fish fry at the Catholic Church on Friday, want to go?”
“Should be numbers for babysitting, tires for sale, and start your own business with buy-at-home cosmetics.” Rob peered over David’s shoulder. “How did I do?”
“Right on the money.” David stuck his fingers in the coin return of the phone, and Rob watched him wiggle them around in search of forgotten change. “Kind of creepy, actually. You’re telling me nothing has changed?”
“I have.” Rob wandered behind the counter where he used to sit. The black swivel chair still waited there, the fabric covered with the same faded blotches from spilled bleach. His dad always wanted him out on the floor, mopping or wiping down the equipment after each customer, not sitting and reading. He used to hide paperbacks in the drawer beneath the register. “But this place hasn’t.”
“What did you use these big machines back here for?” David asked as he leaned over for a better view.
“Industrial loads,” Rob explained. He watched David fiddle at the controls with a fond shake of his head. Typical David, compelled by his curiosity to touch everything. That, along with his easy, open affection gave Rob a safe, secure sense of place amidst his current uncertainty. “We offered contract laundry services, and they hold three times the amount per cycle.”
“Tell me again why I’m responsible for the wash at home?”
Rob smirked at David’s sly sideways glance as he gazed around the interior. Everything matched his memories so closely. It left him uneasy. Life, encased in amber, trapped forever and unable to evolve. Such an odd counterpoint to the changes he had gone through. “You offered?” He forced himself to respond to David’s joke.
David draped his arm over Rob’s shoulders, giving him a gentle squeeze. “Little did I know. So what’s the draw with this place?”
Rob settled into David’s embrace and smiled, touched once again by his partner’s careful awareness of his moods. Despite their relationship’s lack of perfection, Rob considered himself a lucky man to have found such consideration. He leaned over, brushing David’s lips with a light, grateful kiss. “You know how you tell me you always knew you were gay?”
“Well, I didn’t.” Rob held up his hand when David opened his mouth. The two of them had touched on the subject before, but rarely in depth. Not on Rob’s end. “Everyone called me a late bloomer, blamed that for my differences and lack of interest in girls. My mom got sick, and between the business, my dad, and school, I didn’t have time to sleep, much less think. Then I came back here and worked over the summer.”
“And what?” David prompted.
“And then—” Rob searched for the right word before he gave up, helplessly shrugging his shoulders. “Everything.”