Back From College, With Laundry

THE sight of my daughter standing among the household cleaners, holding her own box of laundry detergent, makes me cry.

``Are you all right, Mom? Would you rather I get a different kind?'' Jessica asks.

Earlier that day, I had watched Jessica put new sheets over a bed outside of my jurisdiction. I watched her tack her familiar posters onto alien dorm walls and settle her old stuffed bear, a favorite since age 3, onto a strange modular desk.

But the detergent is the final act of separation.

For years, our clothes have mingled: underwear, T-shirts, nightgowns moving back and forth between us. Even when we didn't spend much time together, even when we weren't exactly getting along, our laundry was cozy. Nestled in the basket, our dirty clothes whispered and wooed and worked things out. And now, the clothes that mottled Jessica's bedroom floor hang on serious straight hangers in a strange city.

As I drive home from Jessica's college, I think of the long ride with my parents when I went away to school. Impatiently, I endured my parents' critical examination of my dorm room and their interrogation of my roommate. I listened to their endless safety tips and warnings. As I politely waved them goodbye, I felt relief, as though I were unzipping a tight uniform.

With my new roommate, I attended a dance in the smoky basement of a fraternity house. I walked around late at night, not worrying about curfews and rules, feeling the edges of freedom all around me.

But when I returned to the dorm, the white walls, stiff sheets, and dark noises nibbled into my sleep. In that small unfamiliar room, I was no longer Fran's wild-haired, brilliant, wistful daughter: I was a social-security number with a potentially high grade-point average. I clutched my pillow and wished for my mother.

`NOW that my kids are gone, I can have a life,'' my friend Mary had told me. ``Before I felt so tied down, so responsible. Now I can go where and when I want.''

I had envied Mary as she set out for Monday-night country-western dance lessons, Tuesday- evening tai chi, Wednesday art, Thursday creative writing, and Friday folk dancing.

``I can do anything I want to,'' I remind myself.

I sit on my bed and stare at an ink smear on my bedspread. The thought of being with adults every evening seems appalling. I long for the turbulence of the adolescent girl, the deep mystery, the jabbing unpredictability. I long for the unruly cluster of clothes near the washing machine, blurring the distinction between mine and hers.

Now it takes a week to gather enough laundry to do a load. With Jessica gone, there are no damp towels decorating the tub, the floor, the sink. Her room sits quietly, no music, no passion, no distraction.

I put my clothes in the washer and wonder whether she has done her laundry yet. I pour in the detergent and I imagine Jessica, standing in the dorm basement doing the same.

JESSICA arrives home for the weekend toting two bulging trash sacks.

``I brought home my laundry,'' she says.

I feel a rush of relief.

``Just like in the movies,'' I say.

She nods and settles at the kitchen table, her legs stretched onto a chair. Already I notice changes: Her earrings are gone, and her lipstick is now black.

I gather up one of the trash sacks and pour its contents into the washer.

``Don't get my stuff mixed up in yours,'' she instructs.

While the laundry swishes, she tells me about her first weeks of school: the skinheads, the hippies, the preppies. She's going to drop her chemistry class because it's too early in the morning, and she's thinking about getting a tattoo.

I listen, biting my lip. I see how she has grown in only these few weeks, the decisiveness of her movements, the confidence of her posture, the new excitement in her voice. I feel proud and yet hollow: My daughter no longer needs me.

``So how are you?'' Jessica asks, following me to the washing machine.

``I miss you,'' I tell her.

I scoop her clothes out of the dryer, and she tumbles a fresh load into the washer.

``I don't like using the laundromat,'' she says. ``It feels too desperate and too grown-up.''

Despite her sophisticated black lipstick, her smile seems wobbly, vulnerable. I notice we are both wearing purple shirts. Then I notice how familiar Jessica's shirt looks.

``Is that the blouse I thought I lost?'' I ask her.

She nods, smiling. ``I wanted something of yours,'' she says. ``So I wouldn't get too lonely.''

I put my arm around her. For a moment, it looks as if we belong together.

``I'm going out. Don't wait up,'' she says briskly, pulling away from me.

And then, once again, she is gone.

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