At seventeen, no men had shown interest in me before, except for Mr. Carol at the semi-formal dance, but he doesn’t count because he was married and felt bad for me. Because I was sitting by myself, he said, and I was such a smart girl, and high school boys are so shallow.
Tom Dumas first approached me when I was folding clothes. It was late, and I was there alone, doing laundry for my mother. He picked up one of my shirts from the table and told me blue was a good color on me. He then told me he liked that it was inside out, because that meant I grabbed it from the bottom and pulled it over my head to take it off, which doesn’t stretch the neck, “Like this,” he said, pulling his uniform polo up past his belly button, where there wasn’t flesh but a white wife-beater tucked into baggy work pants held up by a woven belt that was too long for him, and when I went out to my mother’s van with the first load he followed me out. Because he was about to go out for a smoke anyway, he said. And I should join him. Because we were the only two people there. And what’s the point of being alone if you don’t need to be.
When he handed me a cigarette, I crumpled it in my nervous fingers like confetti. “Everyone smokes,” he said, lighting me another one, sticking the damp end in my mouth. Pulp built on my forehead as we stood there, shirtsleeves touching beneath the light tacked with moths, his hair greased back, revealing a forehead of pock-marked skin and brown eyes like the ‘50s delinquent on Nick at Nite shows or the kids who dropped out of high school and hung out in the 7-11 parking lot. My mouth dried around the cigarette, throat almost closing as I coughed to the point of tears, and “Like this,” he said, forming three smoke rings that folded over me as his thin body moved into mine, suddenly feeling heavy. His shoulder pressed against me, and I became dizzy from the nicotine and the stench of his cologne as the August heat fogged my glasses and everything continued moving in slow motion.
I left the towels in the dryer. My mother called me a moron when I came home without them. She thought I forgot them; she still brings it up to this day every time she does laundry or even passes the detergent aisle at the supermarket: “Oh don’t trust Laura with the laundry, she’ll leave half of it there!” I play into the joke and watch her bring it up every year at Thanksgiving, and I watch people laugh, and I laugh too, thinking back on how straight laced I was as at seventeen, doing laundry for my mother, never even having tried a cigarette or flirted with a boy let alone touched one, and how dorky Tom Dumas was with his greasy pomade hair and his cheap Mustang cigarettes, zit-faced and desperate to one day get laid.
And six years later I’m out of college and back at my mom’s house for the summer. I’m driving around that old hometown where nothing changes, smoking out the window of that same shitty van. I’m driving to the laundromat that I avoided all these years because I’m ready now. I want him to be there, to watch his face drop when he sees me calm and cool with contact lenses and makeup and my own cigarettes now that I know how to smoke and look good doing it, thanks to my old roommate Linda who told me to ease my cheeks when I inhale because I looked like I was giving a blowjob. I want to walk up to him and knock the cigarette out of his mouth and tell him smoke rings are for poseurs, and that he’s just a townie bum like the rest of the kids who are now in their 30s and still loitering the same parking lots.
I light my third cigarette as I park outside and stare into the window. A teenage boy that I don’t recognize is folding towels rhythmically in that same uniform that never changed, and a small man with peppered gray hair is sitting at the front desk watching a tiny television, and as I watch him rock back and forth in the chair, the cigarette fouls in my mouth. I’m dizzy, and my cheeks are flushed as the memory of Tom Dumas creeps back into my mouth, I taste it now, I feel it: his chapped lips, his greasy hair, the dim darkness of his wrinkling eyes: He was so old.
Mary Benson currently lives in Somerville, MA. Her work has appeared in Fried Chicken and Coffee as well as Contemporary American Voices. Her work often stems from memories of a rural working-class upbringing and various service industry jobs. She earned her MFA in poetry from Lesley University.