Why Women Wash
I can’t say that I wasn’t warned. My best friend said, don’t touch her with a barge pole, she’s a yankie doodle dandy and they use everything in the world to excess. Your power and phone bill will take months to recover. She’ll want to know where the dishwasher is, she’ll want to talk to her cat back in America every night by long distance, and she’ll look genuinely puzzled and then incredulous when you tell her that the only way to dry her laundry is to hang it outside on the rusty Hills Hoist line or drape it over the wooden clothes-horse in front of the two-bar heater.
But I could not say no to this almost-stranger who I had invited to stay in that slightly desperate New Zealand way when I first met her during a long wait at LA Airport. Stuck in a murderous plastic chair, half crazy with jet lag, I needed to hear another human voice and she was it. I was instantly charmed by her confident manner and her accent. There is glamour in the American voice for the person who lives at the bottom of the world. This voice, courtesy of CNN and Hollywood, has become irrevocably associated with exotic political intrigue and famous scenes from old movies. And we had something in common. Child free after years of struggle, free to travel the world alone, free to be a fool without risking censure from our own kind. There is a certain comfort to be had in attaining the grand old age of fifty.
It has been said that New Zealanders are the nicest people in the world. We have to be. There’s little else to lure the innocent stranger to our shores. So I gave her my address, said anytime you’re passing through, come and stay. She demurred but I told her that this is the New Zealand way.
She arrived in a flurry of luggage and grateful thanks. She had had no intention of taking up my kind offer until she had lost all her credit cards and her passport in Auckland. It will take me weeks to get replacements she said and I am in desperate straits. You have saved my life. As soon as I get my lost papers together I will pay you for everything.
Weeks? Oh god, what had I done. But I need not have worried. She was great company. And my best friend took such a shine to her that I was almost jealous. The American woman had a good sense of humour and liked to make jokes against herself. She asked us to call her New Jersey Girl for that was her home state in America. People make rude comments about us she said, we are supposed to be unsophisticated hicks but I’ve got news for them. We are tough cookies, we see through the hype.
The Jersey Girl has to have her way and usually gets it. Does what she wants when she wants. But she works hard, no frills, what you see is what you get. She likes the idea of plastic surgery but hesitates to go under the knife. She is not overtly glamorous but likes make-up especially those acrylic nails that cover up the damage caused by too many peeled potatoes and other more private activities.
The Jersey Girl is a prototype, an ur-feminist, not for what she says but for what she does. I ask her how this came to be. That’s easy, she says. The Jersey Girl has to be tough because she comes from New Jersey. Period.
Her papers came through and she was issued with a brand new platinum visa card. She insisted on paying me for her keep over the past two weeks. I almost refused her offer until I remembered her habit of taking fifteen-minute showers each day and I knew that my next electricity bill would be horrific.
Her shower had become a daily performance, an act of pure theatre. She would look at her watch over breakfast and ask me to allocate her a time when it would be convenient for her to take the hot water. I said please yourself, anytime is a good time. This was not strictly true of course. I did not want to break my cultural rule of caring for a guest but she drove me mad with her talk about the shower; if she went for a run it had to happen as soon as she returned, if she went for a walk, it had to happen later. She seemed to structure her whole day around the when and where of it. I was dying of curiosity. I wanted to ask her why it took her fifteen minutes for a simple daily act that took me two at the most but I held my tongue in case she thought I was becoming too familiar with her.
The town where I live in the middle of the North Island is not known for its dramatic weather. Crows do not fall stone dead from burning summer skies, there are no snowfalls, no blizzards, no need for winter tyres or anti-freeze. But even so, winter always brings with it a palpable air of melancholy brought about by the thick fogs that hover near the river and the grey rain that day after day rattles down the drainpipes. I could sense that the pervasive dampness both inside and out of the house was getting the Jersey Girl down and I was right. The day after her visa and passport arrived, she announced that she was leaving the next morning to bask in the hot mineral waters at a spa in Rotorua.
We ate our last dinner together. I opened a bottle of Marlborough chardonnay and we drank it dry so I opened another. Alcohol gives me the courage to speak up so I did. I asked her what the Jersey Girl did in the shower. I hastened to add that I was not complaining about the cost of the water, she had been more than generous.
She laughed and said that she had noticed my brief showers and had been wondering how I managed to keep myself clean with so little work. Because that’s what she does, she works like a demon in the shower. She never just stands there enjoying the feel of hot water running down her body; if she did that, no kidding, she’d be in there for thirty minutes instead of a modest fifteen.
The Jersey Girl climbs into the shower. She takes a mere twenty seconds to get the water right then she wets her hair and washes it with two applications of shampoo (three minutes). On bad hair days, she uses more shampoo and this adds another minute to her schedule (four minutes). Then she applies hair conditioner and leaves it on as long as possible so that later she can rake a comb through her curls without scalping herself. Then, using her right hand, she applies soap to both armpits and then her twat and butt and rinses them under the shower head. Now the wash cloth comes into play. She pours liquid soap onto the damp cloth and rubs her chest and back, arms, belly, legs and the cheeks of her bottom. The butt crack received its clean the first time around via her right hand and she is careful to avoid plunging the wash cloth into the void.
She inspects her feet next, says hello to each pink pearl toenail (eight minutes). She pushes down the cuticle of each nail with an orange stick and wonders for the hundredth time what this sharp beige implement has to do with oranges. If she’s been out on a long run along the riverbank, she uses a pumice stone on her big toe where a cheeky callus has had the temerity to grow. It seems to swell inside her Nikes taking sustenance from the leather and plastic and sweated labour that brought them into being (eleven minutes).
The Jersey Girl is racing now, she’s moving it along, she’s on the last lap before the home run. She washes behind her ears, shoving the wash cloth into every folded crevice (thirteen minutes). Then her face gets the exfoliation treatment with hands and soap and cloth, she’s working furiously like a snake in urgent need of shedding its skin. The penultimate act is to rinse her hair one last time. Her head is so smooth and clean you could eat your dinner off it and some of the conditioner is transferred to her hands making them soft and perfumed. Never let it be said that the Jersey Girl is merely into a superficial notion of cleanliness. She parts her labia and cleans the inner lips, then the outer; oh how softly her pubic hair lies, bathed in tangle-free Pantene.
She scrubs her hands and turns off the taps. Time elapsed, fifteen minutes. This is the pattern for six days a week but on Fridays she shaves her legs and her armpits and this adds another five minutes onto her already tight schedule. She plans to leave out the hair wash on shaving day but the truth is that she often breaks this rule because her hair has a tendency to sulk if it does not receive its daily massage.
I’m gasping in admiration. This woman is a genius. But then, I was once just as clever. Tit for tat I say, now I’ll tell you my story, and she laughs and drinks some more wine.
I was once living in a small town in northern New South Wales in that great dry continent of Australia. A long drought was in progress, not a single drop of rain had fallen for over two years. I swear that there was not a blade of green grass or a green leaf to be seen for hundreds of kilometres north, south, east or west. Even the eucalypts were dying, they wore their dead heads and dried seed pods like shrouds of mourning. It was high summer, a time of burning north-westerly winds that carried drifts of red dust lifted up from the dead heart of the interior.
The cattle had been sent away on agistment months before. The sheep were so emaciated that if they stood sideways to the sun they cast no shadows. The farmers fed out donated hay and tried to keep the stock watered, a battle lost before they had begun. The dams dried up and the water pumped from beneath the earth became the colour of clay. Each week, tankers came to the town to sell clean water for domestic usage. The price of a tank of water doubled, then trebled, so I had to make mine last as long as possible. I got it down to two gallons a day and I thought I was doing well until I met Merle. She laughed at me. Two gallons? Luxury, she said. I have it down to one. What about drinking water, I asked. Nah, she said. I drink beer, much cheaper, and much more fun. I can have a good wash in two cups of water, the rest I use for cooking and me dogs.
Under the expert tutelage of Merle, I learn to become a true-blue ozzie shelia. I divide the washing water into two equal portions. I am careful to save every single quivering drop and to conduct my ablutions early in the morning before the air becomes hot enough to steal away a single molecule of liquid. I take a small square of clean butter muslin and put one corner into one cup of water. Wipe the damp cotton around the eyes and the mouth and the skin of the face (twenty seconds). Open the square of muslin and re-moisten. Clean the back and sides of the neck, leave the ears, they are self cleansing. Wipe the arms, the breasts, the stomach. Re-moisten (forty seconds). The underarms are next. By this time there should be no water left from the first portion. Stage one is complete.
Get a clean piece of butter muslin and wet it from the second portion but not before you remove a teaspoon of water and place it into a china egg cup. Wipe each leg from the thigh to the ankle, then the vulva. Re-moisten (one minute, twenty seconds). Wipe the feet, paying special attention to the area between the toes. You will not get rid of the brown stains on your heels, they are there permanently until the rains come.
Then clean your backside but take care never to drag the cloth forward to the vulva unless you want to enter cystitis hell (two minutes, thirty seconds). Now throw the pieces of butter muslin away. You’ll be glad to be rid of them, they’ll be the colour of dried blood from the red dust and only fit to be fed to a passing dingo. Stage two is complete.
Place the egg cup on the table. Dip a dry toothbrush into the water once and then sprinkle a little salt upon the bristles. Clean the teeth carefully, there will be no possibility of rinsing if you cause your gums to bleed (three minutes).
The last few drops are reserved for the most sacred part of a woman’s body; the tongue. This is the place where she shapes her words, speaks her mind, tells the world to bugger off if she has a mind to. So take one clean finger and put the last few drops of water upon your tongue, make gentle love to it, there are many unsaid words still locked within.
Beryl Fletcher has published four novels and a volume of memoir The House at Karamu (2003). Her first novel The Word Burners won a regional (Pacific, South East Asia) Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Book in 1992. She has been the recipient of grants from Creative New Zealand and has been awarded two writers in residence in the USA (1994 and 2005) and two in New Zealand (1999 and 2006). Her work has been translated into German and Korean. She is currently working on a collection of short stories.