Short story: The Carwash

Car WashMy mama always told me “never immortalize your tits.” She used to be a nude model back at the university when she was young, and now every time she goes to work in the art department archives, she has to pass down a corridor of drawings of her breasts in their prime. She says it irks her to no end that no one ever told her that the underwires in her bra would make the girls sag so much. I thought about it when I got the boudoir pictures done, but I figured I could just throw them away when my girls started their relationship with gravity.

When my boyfriend Anthony went on a business trip to Milan I thought I’d maybe take a risk and get some pictures done for him to take with. I slipped three of them into the outer pocket of his suitcase as he kissed me goodbye.  I think the pictures were really classy. I wasn’t ever showing it all. In one of them I was wearing a really nice teddy that Anthony had never seen—I was saving it as a surprise for when he got home so he would remember it from the pictures.  It would be like a fantasy come true. In another I was completely naked, but I had my legs crossed, and my hair down, covering me up where it mattered. And then in the last one I got to try out the pose that’s always on gentlemen’s calendars—lying on my back with my legs up against the wall. I even got knee socks for that one. I thought they were really cute.

I knew he would love them. He loved when I took risks. He said a self-confident, daring woman turned him on like nothing else. You know when you want to make the person you love really really know how much you love them, but it’s a big risk to take? I was that scared to get the pictures done.  I felt that scared the first time I said I love you to Anthony. He didn’t say it back to me for a couple months and I worried to no end, but he’s always been shy.

I went to the carwash that night, the night I said I love you to him and he said nothing back, or maybe made some awkward cover-up noises. I have always loved carwashes. After my dad left, my mom often drove through the carwash on our way home from school. We’d sit through the torrents of suds and the beating of the water and she’d cry silently in the front seat, her shoulders shaking when she breathed in as quietly as she could. She always thought I didn’t notice, but I did. For her, the carwash was sad, but for me, it was different. My skin would feel electrified in the close, cushioned bubble of the car, and as we drove out into the light, everything seemed brighter.


I lay in bed alone on the first night and wondered what Anthony was doing. I was hoping he would come back with a nice new tailored suit for himself and maybe a little tan. Maybe he’d find a dress for me, but he probably wouldn’t buy it, just photograph the hell out of it and laugh when I got mad at him for not buying the perfect size 6. He used to do that every time he went on a business trip, find something I’d like and photograph it but not buy it. He’d laugh like a hyena about it until the day I sat him down and told him that girls like to own pretty things, not just see pictures of pretty things. After that, he started to bring me presents from his trips, but he’d still bring me a photo of a pretty dress, or a lapis lazuli bracelet, laughing, “I almost got you this one too!” From his trip to Ghana, I was hoping for a beaded bangle. From China, I begged him for a silk scarf.

From Italy, I was hoping he would come back with a beautiful ring, maybe gold, burnished to a nice matte finish, with an antique diamond, princess-cut in the center, little brown threads of imperfections running through it willy-nilly. Maybe some nice old-fashioned cutwork on the band.

I knew exactly how it would be. He would reach into his pocket and pull out a black velvet box, and I would gasp, bringing a hand to my mouth as the corners of my eyes pricked with tears. I’d play shy and suck on one of my fingers in a childish nervous way that smacked of innocent sex appeal. I’d notice him notice and take it out of my mouth just in time for him to slide on my antique diamond. It would be both romantic and sensual. Not too mushy that the story would make people gag, but sexy enough that there would be an element of mystery around the proposal. Anthony would say how beautiful I looked, but then remember how I was sexy, too, and cut off his sentence without finishing, and everyone would raise their eyebrows at one another and wonder. I drifted off in these dreams every night.


While Anthony was gone, I passed the ten days by cleaning like my life depended on it, and planning my engagement night. I got all the things I needed to make a perfect meal, and it ended on a chocolate dessert, because chocolate’s an aphrodisiac, and if I was going to be licking my fingers and all, I had to be in the mood. I started going crazy. I vacuumed everything.  I even vacuumed the car.

I went to the carwash three times that week. It was something I did when Anthony wasn’t around.  From the beginning it’s exciting: the automatic teller takes your five-dollar bill, and you drive into the small, dark box. Slowly, the mechanical arms of the machine rise up and coat your car in a whispery mist of water. It beads up and rolls slowly down the windshield. Then soap obscures your view of the world beyond the garage door, and the magic begins. Inside a warm, white space, the hum of machinery and precise engineering whir around you. The car vibrates as the undercarriage is sprayed.  More water mist. Then the giant rolls of orange and blue rags stir in their previously unnoticed corners. You can’t see them—the windows are still soapy, but you feel their stirrings. They advance, slowly, and then the first swipe against the car takes your breath away. Their power increases with every rotation and you find your heart rate rising as they circle you, lovingly undulating. It is a dark, sacred place, the tinted glass letting in barely any light. Then a hard rinse, a soft rinse, and a nearly silent misting of wax for that stunning sheen, and the red light turns green, instructing you to leave. It’s always hard.


​“How do you know for sure?” My mother looked at me over her cup of tea, skeptical. A small, framed photo of my father stood on the piano, peeking out from behind a yellow vase. She always hid her pictures of him when I went over because she didn’t want me to think she was pathetic for missing him.

​“I just do, he basically told me he’s coming back with a ring, Mama,”

​“What exactly did he say?”

​“He said I’d like what he’s bringing me from Italy more than I’d like any other gift he’s ever brought me.” My cheeks hurt from smiling. She sucked her breath in sharply, as she raised her eyebrows, impressed.

​“That, sweetheart, is definite.”


I  woke up three minutes before the alarm went off. 7:27 a.m. I sat straight up in bed and slammed my head against the little edge that sticks out of the headboard. Stars swirled before my eyes. I could almost feel Anthony in my arms. Within ten minutes I had a bagel on the dashboard and the radio blaring as I backed out of the driveway, nearly hitting the mailbox. Just before turning onto the freeway, though, I hesitated, then turned right.

The carwash stood before me, its faded pink and green lettering inviting. I slid a crisp bill into the machine and waited. The anticipation was agonizing. The hairs on my arms stood on end. In spite of the morning chill, clammy sweat covered my palms. It was getting hard to breathe. The mechanical arms stirred in their bearings, and my breath stopped as they approached. The first mist of water threw me into sensory overload. The car shook as the rags twirled into a feverish dance. The final mist of wax was as silent as a prayer. When the little sign told me to drive out, I didn’t move until the car behind me started honking. The sunlight outside of the darkly tinted box was blinding.


I  saw him at the baggage claim, tall and lean in an Italian jacket, talking on his cell phone. He hung up as he saw me approaching. He lifted me up and kissed me sweetly, and the butterflies in my stomach flew straight to the palms of my hands like they always do. I spotted his bag first and tried to pull it off the carousel, but my hands were still tingling and wouldn’t close around the handle. Once he had it on the ground, I peeked into the front pocket for the pictures I had put there. They were gone. Perfect. He had looked at them.

​We bickered about the car radio, the same way we always had, but I let him have his music because he had just come home. I was shy after not seeing him for ten days.

​“How was Italy?”

​“Good, really good. Yeah. Listen, sweetie, what are your plans for tonight? Do you want to go out?”

​“I already started making dinner for us to have at home,”

​“What are you making?”

​“Balsamic chicken. We should stay in, you’ll like it”

​“Perfect. We’re definitely staying in,” he grinned brightly. I glanced at him briefly, then back at the road. He didn’t seem too disappointed.

​“Tell me about the trip, did you do anything besides work?”


Anthony was asleep on the couch while dinner was warming. I had just finished unpacking his suitcase. The photos weren’t anywhere. I was tingling with excitement. I knew that I would find them in his briefcase once he unlocked it for me to file his papers. I woke him up and waited at the table. I had in the earrings he gave me for our first anniversary, the dark blue dress he said he couldn’t resist me in, and even a bit of mascara. The Gershwins were playing softly in the candlelit room. I was ready to do some finger-licking. I was ready to be engaged. I was nervous. I was terrified. But I was ready.

Anthony loved his chicken. He said I had done it perfectly. I blushed and beamed. We laughed over wine. Right before dessert, I brought out the teddy from the photoshoot. He didn’t seem to recognize it.

​“Anthony, do you remember this one?” I asked, holding it against my body. He shook his head. “From the pictures! The pictures of me that I sent with you!” Finally I saw some recognition in his face, but he still shook his head.

​“Honey,” he began seriously, and my heart faltered. “I really didn’t want to have to talk about this.” He sighed heavily, setting down his napkin and pinching the bridge of his nose.  “You shouldn’t have taken those photos. Who got to see you naked? The photographer! What if he goes home and—” he glanced around the room as if looking for eavesdroppers. “What if he masturbates to those pictures?”

​My heart fell to the soles of my feet. “It was a lady photographer. I thought you’d like them.”

​“I really gave you credit for more…class,” he said, adjusting his tie seriously. This was like a blow across the face, unwarranted. “What if someone saw them in my suitcase?”

​“But I thought you would keep them to yourself and enjoy them while we were apart.”

​“I tore them up and threw them away in Milan. In the trashcan in the lobby, so the pieces wouldn’t be in my room.” Tears flooded my eyes as my face grew burning hot. My stomach flipped.

​“I didn’t want you to be lonesome,” I managed to whisper. I closed my eyes to keep the tears from spilling.  I wanted to sink into the earth, I wanted to dissolve into the sea.

​I thought of the pictures, the ones I had to spend months working up the courage to get. The ones I carefully picked, the ones I wrapped in smooth, shiny blue paper before slipping them in his suitcase.

​I shifted to make my hair fall over my face. Oblivious to my mortification, or maybe ignoring it because he never knew what to do with my tears, he reached into his pocket. He set a black velvet box on the table. At that moment, I realized my body was shaking. Only slightly, but with great persistence. I was vibrating from head to toe like a lightly plucked cord.

​“I still have a surprise for you,” he said, a finger laid on the box’s lid. I could only nod. He looked at me.

​“Oh,” I said quietly. My voice kind of stuck in my throat, so I cleared it. “Oh,” I said again, louder. I made no move to get up. The perfectly fluffy chocolate mousse began to deflate, forgotten, in the kitchen.  My engagement night could still be redeemed. I briefly considered saying no to his proposal. Maybe telling him I would get back to him later would sting even more.

He got out of his chair and came to squat by mine. He was squatting. I didn’t see why he couldn’t just kneel. It would probably be easier on the crotch of his pants, and more romantic. Why did he need to squat? He had already put a damper on the whole occasion. I wished he would just kneel.

​He handed me the box.

​“Open it,” he urged. Although I had imagined him opening the box for me, and displaying my diamond to my wondering, tearful eyes, I understood that to have me open the box was to demonstrate how he thought of me as an equal.

​I opened the box. Inside, on a seemingly endlessly dark bed of thick black velvet lay an antique diamond, run through with brown lines, brilliant-cut, set in a disc of filigreed gold. Anthony lifted it from its resting place and shifted my hair to the side as he stood and walked behind me to fasten it around my neck.

​The tablecloth blurred in my vision. The flames of the candles grew brighter as I stared. The brightness gave way to a peaceful dark when I closed my eyes. In my mind, I was in the car wash, suds sliding down the sloped windshield, dissolving the knot in my throat. I wanted to stay there forever. It was calming, being washed by the tears of someone greater than me, that’s what it felt like. My troubles were nothing compared to these torrents of tears.    

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