Intensive Cycle by Annabel Owen

It was an itchy kind of night.  Archer lugged his washing into the Laundromat the same way he did every Thursday night; basket under one shoulder and his opposite hand reached over to support its weight.  He wore baggy jeans and a t-shirt with a very obvious hole in it from the time he caught it on Cindy’s wire fence, the last time he ever saw her.

The Laundromat was empty, as it was on most nights those days.  On the left wall were rows and rows of old washing machines, two driers towards the back and a door with seventeen bolts.  There were only a few plastic chairs, the lack of a coin changing machine and a pile of outdated magazines that remained quiet.

Archer loved listening to the machines tumble and turn in the surreal fluorescent light.  It was something he never got to do.  Churn.  Churn.  Squelch.  It was eerie and quiet and he got to be alone, scuffing his shoes on the floor.  He would sit on the squeaky plastic chair and stare into the machine where his soggy wet clothes got wringed and tossed clean.  Sometimes he would close his eyes and rest his head back against the wall as he waited.  Churn.  Churn.  Squelch.

She was wearing rainbow gypsy pants when he saw her.  He didn’t hear her come in, but yet there she was, staring at him when he opened his almond eyes.  He groaned.  Not again.
“What are you doing here, Cindy?” Her brown curls protruded around her face.
“I came to see you,” she said, smiling wickedly.  He sighed.
“But I don’t want to see you.”
“Sure you do, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.”  She grinned, leaping into the seat next to him, close enough for him to smell her citrus perfume.   He grimaced, squeezing his eyes shut, wishing she would disappear.  Churn.  Churn.  Squelch.

“You’ve gotten thinner,” she said, “A lot thinner.”
He scratched his head and dusty white flakes flustered into the air.
“Skin and bone, Cindy. Just like you.” She bit her lip.
“I learned to whistle you know.”

She’d always wanted to whistle.  She said she hated it when he whistled as they walked along Cottesloe beach; hand in hand, or when they went for picnics at Kings Park, or when they came to the Laundromat together on Thursdays; like a ritual.  He knew she secretly loved it, though.  She would push him playfully to make him stop, but never objected when he began again.  His tunes would fill the silence, but not her jealousy.  He remembered her green eyes crinkling in frustration, her mouth morphed into a perfectly round ‘o’, attempting to make the sound.  She was a perfectionist.  She would try breathing in, and blowing out, but all that came out were small puffs of air.  No twinkle, no high pitched tune.  Nothing.  He had felt sorry for her, cradling her in his arms.  He thought she was so beautiful.
“You’ll get it one day,” he had whispered.  “I’ll teach you, I promise.”  But he never had.

She rounded her mouth and blew, but only stale warm breath came out.
“See,” she smiled, “I’m whistling.”  Archer’s face twisted in pain.  She kept blowing, her head bobbing from side to side as if dancing along to the non-existent tune.  Archer felt his blood pulsing, the guilt rising up to his neck; drowning him.  He tapped his leg repetitively on the floor, his foot spasming out of control.  He chewed on his index finger, oblivious to its rawness.

She stopped trying to whistle and narrowed her eyes at him.  “I can’t whistle,” she said.  Her tone was stern.  “You never taught me.”  Archer was frozen, staring straight through her, to the bolted door on other side of the white-lit room.  He wondered if anyone could ever get through seventeen bolts without the key.  Could anyone really get through anything that was that difficult?  Probably not, he concluded.  “You never taught me, Archer,” she repeated.   He focussed back on her pearly face, his glassed eyes wild and livid.  He bounced from his chair, backing himself up against the wall.
“No, no no,” he yelled, shaking his head rapidly, panic stricken and clutching his hair with insomnia.  She looked shocked.  “Archer, what’s wrong?” she said softly, rising from her seat.  “No, Cindy,” he yelled.  “Go away.  Leave me alone!”
“But I love you, Archer.”
He screamed.
“You want me to go?”
“But I love you.”
“You can’t, Cindy. Not anymore.” She looked hurt.  He closed his eyes.
“Okay, I’ll go.”
Archer felt her breath come closer, but still he kept his eyes shut.  He felt her soft but cracking lips gingerly touch on his; and then they were gone.

When he opened his eyes, the Laundromat was empty.  Archer sighed with relief and sat back down in the scratchy plastic chair.  His muscles relaxed and he stared into the round window of his machine.  Churn.  Churn.  Squelch.  Round and round it went, backwards and then forwards, never staying in the same direction for too long.  Churn.  Churn.  Squelch.  When he looked to his right, Cindy was sitting a seat away from him, reading a magazine.  He jumped at the sight of her, and then looked to the heavens with another groan.  She slapped the magazine shut and scooted closer to him.

“So how’s Jerry? I miss that goofy golden retriever.”

Archer had loved that dog.  Cindy and him often took him to the park to play.  Archer remembered watching them from afar, silently sad.  Cindy’s lanky figure would stumble and sway as she ran after Jerry, picking up the tennis ball and tossing it in an awkward manner.  Her skin was a grimy grey and her shoulders looked lost under her spaghetti strapped top.  Archer studied her bony hips and the line on her top where her ribs stuck out like knives, almost piercing her skin.  Cindy looked over to him and flashed a hollow smile.  Jerry wouldn’t leave Cindy’s side those days.  He was Archer’s dog, but he loved the girl, licking her and wagging his tail at her; frolicking at the sound of her voice.  Archer just watched, feeling his heart sink at the thought of what it would be like when Cindy was gone.  It seemed like it was never going to happen.  Her linguine legs flailed about as she ran on the grass; she was so full of life for someone who didn’t have much left.

Archer was jolted back from the memory with a pang in his heart.  His eyes focused back in on Cindy’s face; her beautiful, old, healthy face; the one he preferred to see.  He smiled sadly, realising finally what he had to say.  “He died, Cindy.” The washing machine stopped churning, coming to an abrupt finish.  He took a deep breath, ready to let it all go.  “I buried him next to you,” Archer blinked.    There was silence, and when he opened his eyes again she had vanished, just as clouds do from the sky.