It is 8:32 p.m. on an unremarkable Tuesday night. Sophomore Ariel Washington is in her two-bedroom home in Residential College A5C, a mountain of clothes sitting in front of her. She picks up and folds. Picks up and folds. The rhythm is comforting. Someone opens the door behind her. Ariel picks up and folds again.
That’s when she notices that something is amiss. She peers at a blood red sock lying at the top of the pile. She picks it up. Except this time, she doesn’t fold.
“Had a successful laundry day, Ariel?” her roommate asks, closing the door.
Ariel shakes her head. She opens her mouth. And then she screams.
“You hear about these things,” she tells me, teary-eyed, over coffee a week after the incident. “But you never think that it might happen to you.”
Ariel had approached me with her case the day after the crime. I was reluctant to take it at first — I am too deeply affected by the rollercoaster of emotions that surround laundry crimes. After the undergarment debacle of 2015, I had promised myself: no more laundry cases; they weren’t worth the tears.
But I broke my promise. I had to. Unbeknownst to Ariel, I too knew what it was like to have a sock taken away from you before its time.
“We could install video cameras in the laundry room,” I say, wearing my poker face. “It won’t bring lost laundry back, but at least it would be a detergent.” The color drains from Ariel’s face, and I quickly correct myself. “Deterrent. I mean deterrent.” Much like the washing machines, Ariel breaks down.
I resist the impulse to kick her.
I am at the scene of the crime. It’s just another regular day at the laundry room — machines whizzing, dryers whirring, iron missing. Global leaders must be able to press on in the face of adversity, and the prospect of their laundry disappearing into the abyss forever hasn’t deterred NYU Abu Dhabi’s brave students from their valiant quest for clean trousers. Life goes on.
Thanks to budget cuts, I have no detective equipment, so I make do with what God gave me. I sniff the dryers, the bedsheets in the baskets, the forgotten undergarments, everything.
I find nothing.
I decide to recreate the events leading up to the crime. I stuff my own laundry in, turn the knob to the cotton cycle, close my eyes briefly and, as always, utter a short prayer for the eternal protection of my laundry. When I open my eyes, my laundry is gone.
As I collapse, I notice something on the floor. Three words, spelt out in washing powder — WASH YOUR BACK.
The world fades into darkness.
The thing about laundry is that it’s ephemeral, a transient state of being. It’s laundry until you wash it, and then it’s just clean clothes, until you wear it outside and it becomes laundry again. An infinite 17-minute cycle of birth and death, tops and bottoms, clean and soiled — a cycle cut short by the Laundry Thief.
Who does the laundry in heaven?
News of the laundry crimes has taken the campus by storm. They’re calling it the Laundry Apocalypse.
“I keep a stash of my jeans under my bed,” said one doomsdayer, who asked to remain anonymous. “I can’t sleep knowing that someone on campus is out to get my pants.”
“This sort of thing never happened in Sama,” seniors tell me, shaking their head wistfully and thinking about the utopia that they used to call home.
Some conspiracy theorists suggested that the laundry theft is orchestrated by the administration, in a bid to sensitize NYUAD’s prospective leaders to the nature of the troubles that plague the world.
“It’s a metaphor,” one theorist wrote to me. “Clothes represent liberty. Our loss of our clothes represents the people’s loss of freedom, and the rebellion that follows… you know, if you rearrange the letters in the word Clothes, you get Lost and Che.”
Friends and family of the stolen clothing have been increasing pressure on NYUAD to change its crime statistics to reflect laundry theft. “Laundry theft is real,” said KJ, who lost his second favorite plaid shirt Malcolm to an unanticipated broad daylight burglary last year.
“How many Malcolms do we need to lose before we decide to do something about it?”
The next day, my phone rings. I let it ring thrice so as to seem popular, and then I pick it up.
“The Laundry Thief will strike tonight.” A husky, muffled voice.
“The Laundry Thief will what?”
“Kidding, lol. Where?”
“Residential College A6C.”
“Oh my gosh, thank you so much, anonymous tipper. You’re the best!”
A long pause, and then: “No one’s ever said that to me before.”
It is Thursday night, and I am sitting in a laundry basket enveloped by a quilt cover. I am undercover, both literally and figuratively, and it is exhilarating. As I lie in wait, I think about the generations of laundry that went missing at NYUAD. Laundry huddled in a cold, dark dorm, waiting for their owners to come and get them — losing hope with each day that passes. I picture the thief running an icy finger down my sock. A tear rolls down my cheek, and I sniffle.
That’s when I hear something behind me. I hold my breath.
“Wash your back!” someone yells and grabs me from behind. “Stop! You’re under arrest!” I yell, struggling to turn around. But then I remember that I am literally sitting in a small basket, wrapped up in a quilt cover like a chicken shawarma. I give up.
“Just tell me why,” I ask, my voice trembling. “Why do you do it? Are you a kleptomaniac? A hoarder? Does your life of crime make you happy?”
No reply. The thief stuffs something in my mouth and pushes the basket. As I topple over, I see a flash of red.
“I do it for my people.”
One month later, I catch up with Ariel again.
“How’s the sock?” I ask.
“Better now,” she says. “I sanitized it.”
“Wish you’d sanitized it before he stuffed it in my mouth.”
She laughs. “I’m sorry you lost your laundry.”
“Hazards of the job,” I reply. “I’m fine, really.” That was true. The burglar’s words from that fateful night never left me. Who knew if the burglar was really all bad? Maybe my sock is with someone who really needs it, someone who needs it more than I do.
We talk about Ariel’s grief support group for owners of lost laundry. They’re currently devising a guide to vigilance in the laundry room. “We’re optimistic,” she says. “With a few cautionary measures, our residential colleges might be crime-free someday.” I’m glad to see that Ariel’s life seems to have returned to normal. She’s happy, healthy, smiling.
And what about me? Well, after a whirlwind romance precipitated by caller ID tracing and extensive online stalking, I married my anonymous tipper.
In loving memory of Theodore Woolworth Jr., known as Stripey to his friends and family. My left foot will never be the same without you.
Supriya Kamath is Copy Chief. Email her at email@example.com.