By Alizabeth Worley
I am an accomplished pants presser. In a day, I press sixty pants. I press pleated pants so that the pleat turns into the seam without a break. I press corduroy pants, not with the steam lid, but with my hands. I hold my foot on a steam pedal that clouds my glasses and clears my sinuses, that burns my wrists if I do not move quickly. I press pants one leg at a time, from the cuff to the crotch. I press the pelvis of the pants with a cork-handled steam iron as they drape loose on a hanger. I hang pants on the hanger so that the creases of each pant leg line up and form a flat spread of cloth over the hanger rung.
The pants that are easy to press usually don’t need it. Their creases are sewn in ever so discreetly and have been carefully stiffened, just enough to keep the crease without messing up the way an empty sleeve falls. Then there are the pants that need it: bent out of shape, stretched in the wrong places, old and faded or torn. I have cried over these pants, stained or bleached, a single string running or pinching the fabric, the sleeve too broad for the press or too short to stay on, the pants torn and stapled with a bright green tag that reads “Defective Condition.” I don’t know where they come from and I think of someone struggling to stay on top, look professional. I want to take them to the store and buy new pants. Embarrassed and frustrated at how little I can do, I move on to the next pair, which might easily be the same. My boss comes to me with a pair of cotton slacks accidentally put in the washer. He trusts me to press them so the owner cannot tell that they were machine washed.
At six in the morning, an hour before my shift starts, I don’t care about what I’m wearing. Even if I did, I have only three pairs of pants that are whole and unholed, unfaded, unfrayed and unstained. As for shirts, I have as few blouses and my t-shirts tend to be loose, graying, and tight around the neck. My clothes could use a lint roller.
Other than that, I dress for the weather: the industrial gym of the laundry has its own forecast. When I arrive at seven in the morning, half the lights are powered, ghosting down from the ceiling twenty feet up. The other half of the laundry is shadowed. An invisible air-conditioning system runs at the flip of a switch, its breeze tangled and forceful. I come wearing a white leather coat and a beanie. Often I’m still freezing. On the other hand, when the AC is down and my heart rate is up, I fall ill with heat, even in the light t-shirt I wear.
Apparently, the climate doesn’t bother my co-workers as much. Between shifts, I pass by their stations and see them in trendy jeans, V-neck and fitted tees, earphones in their ears where I have earplugs. Sometimes, they’ve seen me first: waist length braid, no makeup, jeans that need a belt. Everyone is friendly, but I can’t help but notice when the two girls waiting for their shift track their eyes towards me, their faces pointed towards each other. I don’t think they are judging me, and when I pass we talk about our classes and commiserate about the clothes that fall off of the hangers. But, sometimes I don’t think I fit in. I feel different and vulnerable.
The afternoon I decided to exclusively date my now husband, Michael, I noticed a dry cleaning tag on his pants. In the bustle of classes and a new job, I had forgotten the laundry, but there was a tag I’d seen so often stapled to one of his belt loops, a brown tag with a three digit number.
Michael has Cerebral Palsy. Standing straight, he is as tall as I am but this stretches his knees, keeping him a few inches shorter than me while we walk. His voice stretches when he talks, his vocal chords constrained to broad adjustments for inflection. When he is tired, it is as though his tongue is clamped to the roof of his mouth and he labors to form distinct consonants and vowels. I have spent time enough with him that I understand what he is saying with little effort, though I notice how he sounds again when other people struggle to hear him.
Right now, Michael works as an attorney doing contract work. Before he graduated law school, his mom and others recommended that he never wear jeans to class, so most days when we were dating, he wore slacks and a button up dress shirt. The first time we went to the law school together, I was surprised to see other students in jeans and tees. I mentioned this, and he said, yes, he dresses differently: he is the minority. It occurred to me, his body is the minority.
Michael works from home right now, but when we meet up on campus for my classes, I’ve taken to buttoning or rolling up his sleeves. I invite him to untuck the half of his shirt that is still pinched into his pants. His pants are usually stained in a few places and faded with wear at his knees or along the seams. Very likely, I have pressed his pants, which he brings to the laundry I have spent hours working in. I wonder if I have judged his pants or questioned what they were doing at the dry cleaners. Easily, one of these pairs could have been stapled to a green tag that reads “defective condition,” and I could have cried out in frustration that I couldn’t do more with a pair of pants that I have judged insufficient. I could have cried that I couldn’t give back his money and say, “this isn’t what you need. This won’t help you.” I don’t want to say that anymore.
In contrast to the low-maintenance dress I used to take to the laundry, during my first few weeks dating Michael, I took meticulous care of my appearance. I pulled out the nicer jeans from my drawer, the ones still fitted and vivid from disuse. I rotated tops from light, collared blouses to cardigans to snug V-necks—which I say in the plural form, but I really only had one or two of each. I cut my hair from waist-length to a comfortable, status-quo shoulder length. I even let my mom take me shopping for new outfits, a present she didn’t really have the money for and a present I have never allowed.
I wasn’t dressing for Michael. That is, I wasn’t dressing so that he would be interested in me. Rather, I wanted to communicate something to those around us, to the nameless and numberless onlookers who didn’t know what to make of us because of Michael’s cerebral palsy. I was shouting that I am as capable and attractive as anybody, that Michael and I are a thing for real, and not because either of us is less awesome but because both of us are totally worth it.
The work is private at the laundry, which seems appropriate, the way a dresser or a closet is private. For me, four hours from seven to eleven at the laundry is a much needed exercise in solitude. It’s a time-out from the complicated expectations and negotiations with other people. It is time to breathe.
I feel rewarded in my most invested moments, when pressing pants feels like a connection with people in the best, solitary way. I lean my body into the feeling that I am being trusted with someone’s palpable, personal coverings—a kind of sterile, safe connection, but a connection nonetheless. I’m not sure if this makes me an invader or a confidante.
All the same, this solitude has a cost; it is an exercise. I try not to look at the clock for the first two hours. Instead, I count pairs of pants until I have finished three or four stacks of hangers from the box. I distract myself from the time by pressing the pants with my eyes closed, which I’m told could be dangerous. From the start, my body is a constant, stubborn yawn and by ten in the morning, there is an abiding hunger that bites my belly.
It feels remarkable that I nearly prefer it to my job as a writing tutor—a job I love. Almost every other job I’ve done has left me drained, exhausted, anxious, and depressed. In part, a crazy combination of privacy, space, and touch between myself and the wardrobe of others turns into a labor of love. I enjoy the success of physical labor and the way my mind and body work together, the way I notice my veins and tendons, the shape of my skeleton, the swing of my movement. I enjoy the aesthetic pleasure of seeing wrinkled pants gloss over into firm, even sleeves. I feel a sense of pride in being able to turn “sloppy” into “professional.” It’s a job that I relax in and requires little skill or learning, though I will eventually realize, a great deal of dexterity and balance that I have taken for granted.
When we dated, I found myself wanting to tell Michael about this shared space and the meditative, consecrated hours of patience. But, I was worried to admit that, along with probably having pressed his pants, I had likely wondered about where they came from and perhaps even pitied the owner. We had talked about far more vulnerable things, and generally he knew my secrets—but admitting thoughts about the quality of his pants felt like a dark, betraying confession, and I didn’t want to imply that he needed to change.
As one part in the food-clothing-shelter trio, our clothes are intimate casts of our flawed, human bodies. I want that to be what laundry is about. Not just being clothed but feeling at home in your personal fabric-shelter and the first impression of who you are. So, I lean into a suit with damp heat and the wrinkles exhale themselves. I move my hands from the steamer to the presser with a pair of pants, press the button, pick up the hand-iron and let it form the pants. I step back and forth in a tight area of cement while the pants move along.
Michael has a black belt in Karate. I believe he told me this on one of our earlier dates, but I somehow cataloged this information as, “Oh, I must have imagined that.” Only recently, when he sent me a file of videos that show him walking through his younger ages, including three of him decked out in karate uniform, did I recall that memory and ask him about it. Yes, he confirmed, a black belt. I tried to conceal my total surprise and asked him if he wanted to do karate with me, which he was giddy about. Sometimes, Michael gives me impromptu lessons. He shows me how to move my body for protection, and only when he is teaching me do I realize how precise his own movements are. His own hours of patience and meditation come to bear on a directed fall of his arm, a turn of his foot.
In many other ways, Michael is highly skilled. He writes Supreme Court amicus briefs, he tutored math while double majoring in math and economics, and he has a spread of literature memorized from Dr. Seuss to Ecclesiastes. Yet, he couldn’t work at the laundry. That is, he could, but to do so would be a sentence of perpetual pain. Michael certainly works with his body through play or chores, but I imagine Michael working at the laundry for a summer—operating a press and steamer where a wrong move, easily avoided under normal circumstances, could leave a hand burnt and crushed. He would yearn to return to academically and emotionally challenging work and would fight to stave off the feeling of less-than-adequacy. Psychologically speaking, there is a pain about failing in the mundane that no amount of extraordinary success can relieve. We judge ourselves. We sentence our hearts to a whispered pain.
When I do tell Michael about investing in a pair of pants and being worried about the owners, he is fine. He says, “It’s kind of a vindication,” which I don’t understand until he explains: “you’re so emotionally invested in, you know, a pair of pants. You want to know the story. Now you know one of them, and it isn’t a sad story.”