from Fifth Wednesday Journal
“Afrim loved music,” Bora tells me.
This is the first time she has spoken of her late husband. Since she came to work for me at the Best Launderette, she has spoken very little. She tells me I need to refill the automat. She tells me a tile is coming lose. Now she is telling me about Afrim.
In Kosovo, he had kept a collection of traditional Albanian folk music, she says. Bora’s favorites were the modern lyrical songs. She especially enjoyed the voice of Tefta Tashko-Koço, who was from the same village as her grandmother. She says that Afrim would put on a record just to watch her move “like an angel.”
I do not ask questions. I just listen.
At home, I ask my wife Lindita who her favorite singer is. She says she doesn’t have a favorite singer. She wants to know why I ask, and I tell her one of the dryers isn’t heating up.
She says she will talk to her brother.
I ask Lindita what she knows about her cousin Afrim.
She tells me all she knows is what I know, that he died in a firebombing with Bora’s two-year-old son. She asks me why I am interested, and I tell her I am curious.
I want to hear Bora talk more about music, so I bring in a CD of Albanian songs. One of the tracks is a recording of Tefta Tashko- Koço’s rendition of “Spring of Our Village.”
Bora is folding, but when she hears the music, she stops. Just notes into the song, Bora begins weeping, and before I can stop the music, she drives into me, forcing me to hug her. She nuzzles into my neck. “Dashuria ime,” she cries between sobs, her declaration of “my love” surely not intended for me, but for Afrim, killed almost three years earlier.
Still, I hold her tightly, repeating, you are safe with me, words once uttered to me by a woman who would become my wife. The shoulder of my shirt has been darkened with Bora’s tears.
Bora composes herself, removes the CD from the player, and hands it to me. “No music here. Please. Only work.” The last words she speaks that day.
Her tears are cool on my neck.
The next afternoon, after having spent most of the day in silence, Bora asks me if I can dance. I tell her I can, though I haven’t in many years. “Then we dance,” she says, a command more than a request.
Then we dance, I repeat with an even more commanding tone, though I am not sure exactly what I am agreeing to. I am certain, though, that I cannot tell Lindita. Though she is the most kind and understanding woman I have ever known, I do not know how I will explain to my wife that I am going to meet with Bora in her flat and dance. What would that sound like to her?
I buy a new suit from the men’s store down the block and meet Bora at her tiny flat to dance to Afrim’s records.
The first meeting is uncomfortable for me. In her living room, pictures adorn the walls, cover tables. Her family. She and Afrim at the beach, standing by a car, sitting on a front stoop. Afrim fishing with an infant, their son Egzon; Afrim holding Egzon by a campfire; Egzon as a toddler with his face in ice cream. A large family portrait, twenty or more relatives whose names she can recite. All images of a life that seem another’s life, before the “cleansing.” I try to ignore the photographs.
I quickly remember why I have not danced in so long. I am so clumsy that I am sure Bora will tell me that it is OK, I don’t have to come the next month. Instead, after four awkward dances, the last of which I step on Bora’s feet no less than five times, Bora says, “Thank you, Beznik.”
I do not know why she is thanking me.
“Thank you, Beznik,” she repeats, touching my cheek with the palm of her hand.
I tell her she is welcome, feeling myself begin to tremble like I have suddenly been exposed to cold air. I look down at my ring, reflecting the room in distorted miniature. I try to keep the face of my wife clear in my mind. Lindita, who pulled me to safety when I was caught on a Kosovo street during a firefight. Lindita, whose family arranged for my emigration to America. Lindita, who pushed me to open my own business. Lindita, who just wanted to please me. Lindita, whom I had tried to love. I make a fist to hide the ring from myself, excuse myself, and leave.
At home, Lindita asks me about my suit. Too expensive, she says. Use your head, she says.
I ask her if she wants to dance.
She calls me frivolous, kisses me on the forehead, and tells me there are leftovers in the refrigerator.
At the laudromat, neither Bora nor I speak of the previous evening until Bora is leaving for the day. She says, “That was a nice suit you wore, Beznik.”
We meet again and once more after that. We dance, Bora says thank you, and I leave. I return home to Lindita, finding it more and more difficult to look at her.
For that reason, I begin to come into the laundromat early, though I often find myself staring at my outdated ledger wondering how such a simple business could be losing money.
On dance day, I arrive at the Best Launderette, carrying my brown twill suit. I breathe deeply, taking in the scent of freshly laundered clothes, a habit I hadn’t realized I had picked up until Bora commented that she liked to smell the air, as well. I begin my day with a cursory inspection of my small laundromat, looking for errant dryer sheets, spilled powder, puddles (a sure sign of a leaking washer). I remove the torn or crumpled magazines from the corner table in the waiting area before setting up shop behind the counter. I hang my suit up and open my ledger. When I look down at the rows of numbers, expenditures and income, maintenance costs and potential profits, I cannot concentrate. I close the binder and look at my suit, humming a song the name of which I still cannot remember, even though it has become my favorite tune thanks to Bora.
I walk toward the suit and press my face into it, hoping it smells like her. Rose water. The bell over the door rings, and I jump. I turn to see Bora, who meets my gaze and sheepishly looks down. She immediately goes about the business of checking washers and dryers for lost socks and underwear. The hours of the day pass slowly.
As she sorts and folds clothes, she hums. I imagine the music in Bora’s head is as real as if Afrim’s small record player were sitting on a dryer in my laundromat playing one of his favorite records. When she closes her eyes, she can will herself from Philadelphia back to Kosovo, to their cozy apartment where she dances for Afrim while he plays song after song. I watch as she pulls a toddler-sized striped shirt out of the back of one of the top-row industrial dryers and holds it up to her face. “Egzon,” I hear her whisper — though the shirt does not belong to her son, who would have been five by now — and she drops it into a basket. Standing on her toes, she reaches back into the dryer with both arms and drags out the rest of the customer’s clothes.
She cries out.
I run out from behind the counter. She is touching her wrist to her lips. “A burn,” she says. “Nothing.”
I nod and stand looking at her. I tell her it is almost six. She looks over at the clock behind the counter. “Almost six,” she repeats in a louder voice, not to me but to an old woman waiting for her clothes to dry. The cramped space with its two double-decker rows of washers and dryers does not allow for any two people to be more than five feet from each other, but still the old woman does not seem to hear Bora.
Bora examines the red mark on her wrist, and I am about to ask if she needs ice when a disheveled, sweating man enters the Best Launderette noisily and thrusts a bag of clothes in her direction. He carries a hand-held radio turned up loudly. Bora knits her eyebrows like she does.
“No music,” she says.
He says it is a free country.
“This is not a free launderette,” she says.
The man asks Bora if she does not like music.
“It is a rule. No music in the launderette. You want music, launder at home, Bub.” He is a regular customer, though I cannot remember his name. I have never seen Bora so confident, so I do not move from behind the counter.
He turns off the radio and holds his hands palms up in front of him as if to show he is now unarmed. “We are closing soon, but you can pick up tomorrow.” Bora lightens her tone. She takes his bag.
He will pick them up tomorrow, he echoes and turns to leave.
“You pick up tomorrow, I charge two dollars,” she says.
He speaks louder and says he’ll be back in the morning, that she does not have to babysit his clothes.
“Two dollars for overnight, or you bring them back in the morning,” Bora says, pointing to her sign on the wall reading, Two-dollar surcharge for laundry left overnight.
He looks to me and says he has been coming here for he doesn’t know how long, and we keep upping the prices. He says he could buy his own washer and dryer.
I shrug. I like how he says “we.”
Bora is not finished with him. “Then do,” she says. “And make my day less stressful.” She says, “Lirë,” rubbing her thumb and forefinger together. He does not know she is calling him a cheapskate.
He says they better be the cleanest damned clothes he’s ever worn.
“And the driest dammed clothes. I babysit them for you,” she says. “Now go before I charge you for . . .” she thought of the word. “Loitering.” I have never heard her swear.
He says yes, ma’am. He leaves, and she locks the door behind him.
Three months ago, she never would have spoken in such a way to a customer. Perhaps her boldness has something to do with her appointment with me this evening. She tosses the man’s clothes into a nearby washer.
She then approaches me. I am pretending to tinker with my ledger.
“You should get a computer,” says Bora.
I tell her that balance is balance, simple arithmetic. Lindita’s words to me when I told her I knew nothing of business. An expensive computer would not help balance what is unbalanced.
Bora brushes my hand, somehow knowing it will calm me, and as she walks away from me, she sways slightly, swinging her hips.
Dust from the dryers floats around her and makes her look like she is underwater.
She assists the woman and walks her to the door. “Number 10 washer needs to move to the number 10 dryer when it is finished,” she says, adding, “Do not make yourself unbalanced, Beznik. This is not your only business today.” She looks at me and cocks her head to the side.
I am blushing, so I quickly look away. I close my notebook, call home to say I will be late, and go back to the storage closet to change.
I walk at a brisk pace, my arms working to move me forward, the heels of my shoes barely touching the pavement. An advertisement for Greece makes me think of Bora’s mother-in-law Edona, whom I only met once. After the tragedy, Bora and Edona were shepherded out of Kosovo. They landed first in Greece, then on to Italy, France, and eventually Philadelphia where Lindita’s family took them in. Bora came to work for me. By the time Edona died, Bora had saved enough to move out on her own into a one-bedroom walkup ten blocks from the laundromat.
I make the ten blocks to her apartment building quickly, spring up two flights like a boy, and stand before her door. She must hear me because she opens it immediately.
I say hello, holding a small bouquet of wilting flowers in my hand.
Bora thanks me, takes the flowers, and lays them in the kitchen sink. She steps back over to the record player, setting the arm down. The song sounds humble and sad. She turns to me, places a hand on my shoulder, takes my hand in hers — her fingers hiding my ring — and leads me. I place my other hand gently on the small of her back.
As we dance, I lean in and smell her hair. I see myself in the mirror and close my eyes. We move as one, the tender arms of the music guiding us around the room.
Like an angel, I say with Afrim’s words.
“I am no angel,” she tells me with a wink. “Play Tashko-Koço,” she pleads, already dancing before the needle catches the first groove in the vinyl.
I am exhilarated as I watch the sweat bead on her forehead. Years fall away, and I am a young man in Kosovo dancing with a beautiful woman who has no husband, no child.
The song ends, and the needle swings back and forth, yet we do not stop immediately. Instead, we slow and cling closer to one another as if holding one another up.
I move to stop the record player, but she seizes my hand and pulls me back to her. I cannot stop my mind from going to Lindita, alone in our home.
I tell her we must not.
“A kiss,” Bora says. “A kiss, Afrim.”
I had wanted to kiss Bora the first time we played “Spring of Our Village” at the laundromat. She would not be kissing me but my lips, lips that would pass for Afrim’s lips. She had hugged me tightly, Afrim’s strong arms keeping her safe. I had told her she was safe, and I knew that when she looked at me, she saw her husband smiling down at her. But I was not Afrim. “No music,” she had said.
Now she is asking me for “A kiss, Afrim.”
A dance, I say and separate from her. I remove my jacket and fold it over the back of a chair.
I turn the record over, and the song that plays seems even more melancholy than the first, as if it mimics my mood. This time, however, I take the lead. My arms command her movements at first then soften and guide her.
She slows me down and once again says, “A kiss.”
I tell her I cannot, but this time I do not move away.
She stands on her toes and leans into me. I freeze, feeling my chest rising and falling as she kisses my cheek, my chin, my neck. I cannot, I repeat, but I rest my hand on her bottom. She continues kissing me, and I press into her body with mine until, distracted by a sound in the hall, I step back.
I cannot. I push past her and leave.
I am walking as fast as I can toward home, towards Lindita, surely asleep by now. My walk becomes a jog, which turns into a run. I continue to say aloud that I cannot, hoping to command myself to keep going. I speed up, my arms pumping like a sprinter. I know if I can just get home, I will see Lindita sleeping, see her innocence and know what to do.
I had been running the night that Lindita saved me, racing through the streets back to my flat. I had been sure I would not make it, sure I would feel the sharp pinch of a bullet and die in the street like braver men than I. I owe my life to her, a stranger who became my wife.
I owe my business to her, to her family. My business that is barely surviving. I know if I tell her, if I confess, she will find a way to save me again. Her brother, who gave me the first loan and convinced me to marry Lindita, will bail me out, will prove me not a man at all. Not a man like brave Afrim.
I step from the pavement into soft grass and nearly trip. I look around for a street sign and see Chestnut; I have run two blocks past my street. When I take a step, I realize that I am missing a shoe. One of my loafers must have flown off during my escape. How would I not notice this? I look around, but the darkness and the sweat now dripping into my eyes make it difficult to see. I bend down and remove
my other shoe. Staring at my sock feet, I remember that I have left my jacket at Bora’s apartment. Who am I that I act like this? I say to the darkness, wiping sweat from my face with my sleeve. Exhausted, I walk back to the Best Launderette. I may have a spare pair of shoes in the storage closet.
As I approach the laundromat, I mistake her for a homeless man, slight of build and wearing a jacket much too large. Bora says, “Beznik,” then, “What happened to your shoe?”
I tell her it came off. I ask her why she is here.
“You left your jacket. I thought maybe . . .”
I look at her in her white cotton dress and my brown jacket, the tips of her fingers barely sticking out of the sleeves. I drop my shoe and walk to her.
“Inside,” she says, so I unlock the door and open it all the way like a doorman welcoming a guest. I lock the door behind us, and when I turn, my jacket is hanging from an open dryer door.
I ask her what she wants from me.
“I want what you want, Afrim. To be close again,” Bora responds. “Dashuria ime.”
I want to tell her I am not Afrim, recalling the first time she called me her love. She had said it not to me but to the ghost of her husband. I have told Lindita a thousand times that I love her, said it like an echo, like I was learning the language and repeating what my instructor said. I thought once that I did love her, and if love is appreciation then I continue to love her. To whom else do I owe my life? I have never called Lindita my love. The only time I ever trembled in her arms was out of fear, cowering in her arms in the alley behind her family’s home, the sound of gunfire so near.
I tremble now, so much that my teeth chatter. I need warmth, and Bora is warmth. She says she wants what I want, to be close. To be close to Afrim. And there she is, so close. Right there. So close.
Bora reaches out her hands, and I accept them. She backs into the row of dryers, and I walk right into her. I focus my eyes on hers, looking for her eyes to recognize me, Beznik, not Afrim. I touch her neck with the tips of my fingers, and she draws in her breath. I cradle her neck, and she releases a sigh that wipes my mind clean. I am Afrim, husband to Bora, father to Egzon.
As Bora had done to me just an hour earlier, I kiss her chin, her cheek, her neck. I kiss her closed eyes, her earlobes. I kiss her shoulders, her collar bone. I kiss the burn on her wrist; kiss her palms.
Bora stops me and holds out a finger. Perhaps she sees me as I am, knows that this is wrong. She opens a dryer and pulls out all of the clothes, dumping them onto the floor. She reaches around to her back, tugs at the ties, and shrugs her dress from her body. I do not know where to look, so I lower my head and peer at her like an embarrased child. She is so fragile, her slight shoulders, her collarbone protruding, her small breasts and thin hips. My eyes follow down to her legs, the legs of one who dances, tight and muscled. Her strength is in her legs. I try to look up at her face, but I cannot.
Bora moves to me, loosens my tie and unbuttons my shirt. I remove my pants, and she pulls me to the floor to lie with her on the still-warm clothes.
I ask her what we are doing.
“Healing,” says Bora, though I know she does not speak for me.