The same impulse birthed both the washing machine and the atomic bomb. Invention is humankind’s way of rattling against time, of renewing and expunging, of saving and destroying. So man created the washing machine in his image, in the image of man he created it.
In a 1976 article titled “The ‘Industrial Revolution’ in the Home: Household Technology and Social Change in the 20th Century,” Ruth Schwartz Cowan writes that while housewives used to do laundry only once a week, by the end of the 1920s, “with an electric iron, a washing machine, and a hot water heater, there was no reason to limit the washing to just one day of the week.” The washing machine saves you time so that you can spend more of your life staring into it. It is a bringer of ever-quickening cycles; a prophet concerned less with doomsday than with pure velocity.
There is, ostensibly, a precise moment at which clothing in a washing machine becomes more clean than dirty—let’s say 50.1 percent clean, 49.9 percent dirty. Pinpointing that shift, however, gets increasingly difficult as loads of laundry take less and less time to complete. Perhaps in the future, when washing machines dot the Milky Way, a cycle will take mere seconds. A few breaths will separate the beginning and the end, filthy and fresh. For a millisecond, my clothing will be both.
Toward the end of its cycle, the washing machine spins at something resembling warp-speed. At that point, the items inside it blur into a single, colorless mass, hovering, quaking so violently as to float perfectly still. Time stops while the timer ticks down.
Staring at my laundry as it approximates timelessness, I’m sure that washing machines developed alongside spaceships, as externalities of the Space Race. But they did not; the electric washing machine dates back to earlier in the 20th century. The bug in my memory is a picture of Nixon and Khrushchev, surrounded by a gaggle of followers, watching a washing machine demonstration at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow on July 24, 1959. Ten years later, Neil Armstrong touched the moon.
The laundry spins. I think of human feet stepping on the cosmos, and Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar clicks into place. Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway descend onto a planet where time flows sluggishly. After a few hours, they return to their ship, and find that the crewmember who had stayed behind has aged in normal-time. He spent more than two decades among the stars, wrinkling and graying. “I’ve waited years,” he says.
Inherent in washing machines is the hope that human beings can return things to how they once were. That humankind is capable of reversing not only time, but also hurt; that nothing is permanent, neither grief nor spilled wine. It makes sense that a belief in life after death marks so many faiths. Resurrection and reincarnation put us in the wash. They remake us, the same but like new. Salvation, supposedly, will be radically euphoric, all white robes and antigravity. But when Jörmungandr finally lets go of its tail, it will do so with a profound and devastating yawn.
Cleaning happens through destruction. Soap takes bacteria and dirt and sweat and obliterates them. To cut a nucleus into pieces is to pour detergent on the Earth, to rub stains out of mountains and concrete. It’s economies of scale.
Remember: what’s left behind has simply yet to be washed away.
Matthew McConaughey watches video recordings that his children have sent him. Time runs slowly in his corner of space, so he is pristine. But his children have lived their lives on Earth. He learns that his son has had and lost a child; that the grandfather of his children has died; that his embittered daughter is now as old as he was when he left. He listens to his son’s last entry: “You’re not listening to this. I know that. All these messages are just out there, drifting in the darkness.”
Despite perceived fluctuation—like the bereaved mourning how quickly the years go by after love and loneliness and the accumulation of dust—despite that, time on Earth is static. It passes in clockwork silence, subsuming everything. Leaves turn red and orange and brown, and fall. The tree will, one day, appear rejuvenated, and its new leaves will look like the old ones. But they’ll be entirely different, made up of different fibers and wet from different drops of rain.
There are millions of universes on Earth. They wax and churn and wane; they stop and start and breathe life and hold their breath; they dirty themselves so that their denizens can be clean. They eat quarters.
The timer approaches zero, slowly, stretching each second into the next. A string theory of molasses. I can’t help but watch the numbers. Their destination is absence; they exist to erase themselves.
In the laundromat, I am almost God.