How to Wash Your Clothes

by Karen Aubourg


     Step one. Don’t fall off the roof, or you’ll get hurt. Sun screen is unnecessary; don’t wear it because your sister will keep calling you an American. It’s okay if the water isn’t warm, just make sure it’s clean. If you see dead flies, remove them. If you don’t see them, it means you’re not looking hard enough. There are always bugs in the water. Don’t act like you know how to wash the clothes already – let your sister teach you. She’s older, and you don’t want to risk seeming arrogant. Offer to get the soap inside. When you return, you’ll see that she has two tubs of water. Pour the soap into one of the tubs. Watch as your sister puts the dirty clothes in. Then watch as she picks up a shirt. Do the same. Watch as she starts to rub the cloth together. Do the same. Watch as she kneads it, like dough. Knead it like dough and don’t say a thing.

     Step two. Watch as she criticizes you. She’ll ask if you’ve ever hand-washed clothing before. You’ll want to say no. You’ll want to tell her about washing machines and how you just need to put a few quarters in and wait. But you don’t say a thing. Then she’ll ask you about life at home. You may start talking, but be aware of the unmerited nauseating guilt that may result as you describe how you get to go to school. As you talk, remember to keep working. She’ll start thinking that you’re too comfortable at home. You’ll find yourself defending your lifestyle. You’ll look down at all of your graphic t-shirts. You’ll remember getting them at the Salvation Army. Rinse off the shirt in the other tub.

     Step three. Wring the shirt. Fold the shirt into fourths, then hold each end. Twist. Watch as your sister does it – she’s much better at it than you are. Try to mimic her. Don’t stop when your hands start to burn. Don’t stop when your palms turn red. When your palms turn red, you’ll think of beets. You’ll remember dicing beets back at home with your mother. You mother was always talking on the phone with your older sister. It was New Year’s Eve, and the two of you were preparing beet salad. The carrots were already boiled and diced, the can of peas were already opened. It’s tradition. You’ll remember that your mother’s first step for you was to turn on the stove. You’ll wonder if your sister thinks you’re Ma’s favorite, since you were the baby of the family, born among skyscrapers. You’ll remember that you sister was born among plantain and mango trees.

     Step four. When your sister asks what you’re thinking about, just tell her that you’re not thinking about anything. Let her correct your conjugation of “to think.” You’ll find that the two of you are more than half-way done with the washing. Let her hand you a wrung-out shirt. Untwist it, open, and don’t worry when the wind thinks it’s a flag. You’ll notice that it’s your shirt. Lay it out in the sun, where there’s a large square of tin. Don’t touch the tin for long or it’ll burn you. Help your sister lay out the rest of the clothing. Now sit down next to her on the roof, near the edge. Let the sun burn you. Listen to the candle merchant shouting down below. Now listen to the children on the street play. Don’t be bothered by the dust of the concrete roof. Offer to sweep the roof, even though you know that she’ll say no. She’ll ask more questions about life back at home. You’ll pretend to fall asleep in the sun.

     Step five. When she finally visits you, take her to the Laundromat. Tell her where to put the quarters in, how to load the washing machine, which buttons to press, and where to pour the detergent. Enjoy the humming and turning of the machine. For the forty-five minutes the two of you are waiting on the plastic seats, let her tell you about how much she misses her home. Listen to her complaints about the aches and pains. Enjoy watching the machine’s window as the bright clothing tumbles. You may chuckle at your sister’s hypnosis. Now enjoy her silence.


Karen Aubourg is a student at Haverford College. She enjoys French, James Baldwin, and ethnographies.