Photo by Quinn Dombrowski
It was one of those days where the sky was an azure sheet pulled taut against Heaven and the water was as flat and reflective as a mirror. This was the view of the Hudson from my then-boyfriend’s Battery Park apartment. We had both just graduated from college. I, with my bachelor’s, he with his phD. We were one of those Asian-Caucasian couples, as ubiquitous in the City as pigeons. It was a temperate day, best spent in its presence. Instead, I was inside, helping my ex with his laundry.
He was Croatian. He’d rented the apartment, partially because the view reminded him of home and partially for the ten-minute walk to his job. The fact that property south of Chinatown was a steal after the fall of the World Trade Tower, only sweetened the deal. Because the PhD program he’d been accepted into paid him to obtain his doctorate, he’d graduated debt-free. He was receiving a starting salary of 80K from Goldman Sachs. Despite his prosperity, he spent his free time doing chores. This is how he was raised. After the Germans dropped a bomb on his grandmother’s family home, she persevered to train her children to engage in their own housework. Both his parents had master’s degrees (in his father’s case, he was the only one of his nine siblings to be granted a scholarship to do so) and they did their own laundry. Why pay someone else to do what he was perfectly capable of doing himself? Once the dryer had completed its cycle, we would return to his apartment to restore his dress shirts to their newly purchased state.
Being a dutiful girlfriend I offered to help. I was a coddled only child. Both my parents had given me tutorials, but never made me do things on my own. My sole task had been to study and I still failed to do that well, but how hard could laundering be? I applied the iron to his wrinkled dress-shirts, skating it against the cloth with a swish that filled the air with the hot scent of freshly laundered clothes. I let it linger where the fabric seemed particularly obstinate. My reverie was broken by his accusation, “you’ve burned it!” The shirt was snatched from me. I was too shocked to reply. “The shirt is ruined. You left the iron on for too long.” My ex preferred not to use electricity in the daytime and from the dim light of his apartment windows, I saw no variation in the shirt’s vanilla coloration. The iron I used barely resembled the iron from my aunt’s garment factory. This one didn’t hiss like a steam train or clank like a robot. It wasn’t attached to the wall via a vacuum hose. This iron was as light as a toy. It probably couldn’t even burn a toddler. But, I didn’t argue with him. I’d never ironed dress-shirts. Everything else that he’d accused me of, of being stupid and lazy, were attributes I believed of myself. He must be right about the shirt as well. He reluctantly permitted me another and I was once again accused of doing the same.
I was removed from ironing duty. As I watched my boyfriend press the wrinkles from his clothes, my face tight with suppressed emotion, my grandfather came to mind. My paternal grandfather ran a Harlem laundry shop in the 60’s and 70’s. Despite his literacy in Chinese, the only job he could attain in America was in a restaurant or the laundry business. At the time, an education was usually a sign of affluence as only the wealthy could afford to pay for schooling. When the Chinese spoke of riches to be obtained on “Golden Mountain” (America) they never mentioned the crevasse hindering progression towards true eminence.
When my father assisted grandpa in his laundry shop, he was proud of the speed to which my father took to ironing, but he never wanted my dad to take over the family business. Grandpa, like many people of his generation, resigned himself to his profession. In America his earnings were meager, but he could support his family. He wanted my father, who spoke fluent and unaccented American English, to become a lawyer. He never wanted his progeny to be intimate with strangers’ soiled clothes. Grandpa died before I was born, but I know he would have shook his head at my love choice.
At the start my ex pursued me with the determination of a toddler. For the first few weeks of our courtship my absence caused him anxiety. Shortly after consenting to a romance, the criticisms began. We were bound by his need. In between his declarations of love and his reverence for my angelic nature, he would criticize me. No matter how much of my time I spent aiding him, he would find something to fault me with: I brought too much food to an outing, my grammatical corrections couldn’t be trusted because I wasn’t a straight-A-student, the food I cooked us on a budget was ruinous and anemic, I used too much dishwashing liquid to do the dishes, and on, and on.
It wasn’t until I left him that I realized his criticisms were actually reflections of his own insecurities. He exhibited the paranoia of a schizophrenic, endlessly performing before a reproachful audience. Only he was aware of their presence. With the approach of his thesis defense he had to obtain employment; he would only take job offers from renowned Universities. When those failed to materialize he started applying in the finance sector. Once he attained a reputable job there, he barred me from his boss’ party because of a Democratic shirt I wore. Any slight error I made was fodder for others’ condemnation of him. In the end nothing could be saved. Our relationship was charred.
That day, as I was turned into a useless spectator, immobilized by feelings of ineptitude, I felt my grandfather’s commiseration. And I knew in my heart that grandpa would have been proud that I wasn’t adept at ironing.
Jessica O. is an administrator at a university in New York City. She is organizer of Writers’ Collaborative of Queens and blogs at Something to Blog about.