He had almost finished putting his clothes in the wash when he saw them. They weren't hard to spot, lying there in the middle of the floor; he was amazed it had taken him so long to notice. A pair of red silk panties. No, not red, crimson, perhaps even scarlet. Like some exotic bird lying there dead, or a mouth opening in the middle of the floor. The diaphanous material leering up at him.
He realised he had been staring. Quickly, guiltily he looked away, looked around to see if anyone had been watching, ashamed of his thoughts. There was a young woman putting her clothes in the dryer on the other side of the laundry room. Could they be hers? Should he ask? But what if they weren't hers - wouldn't it seem obscene then- like some sleazy come on? Had she seen him staring at them? She looked across at him and smiled fleetingly. He smiled back, felt himself turning red, suddenly aware of the thick taste of his own tongue in his mouth. He looked down hastily, went back to arranging his clothes in the wash.
By the time he'd slid the last coin home and heard the slow rumble of the machine as it started, the young woman was gone. The panties were still there, though. So presumably they weren't hers. He went over to look at them again. He couldn't help it. In some obscure way, he felt as though the universe had challenged him, was trying to seduce him. This is crazy, he thought, I'm twenty seven years old, I'm way past the age when I can get this excited about women's underwear. Yet there was something deeply sensual about this pair, something achingly intimate about the way they just lay there, like a pair of lips barely parted. You couldn't help imagining the curve of the thigh that must have filled them, the softness of the flesh straining against them. He had a sudden urge to touch them. He considered picking them up. Then a mental picture of someone, perhaps the owner, walking in just as he was holding them in his hands came to him, and he turned away resolutely, headed back to his room.
As he sat in his room, waiting for the twenty minute wash cycle to complete, leafing through a magazine, he couldn't get the panties out of his head. Who could they belong to, he wondered? He tried to picture her, as though the panties were some sort of DNA from which he could construct a whole woman. He felt like one of those detectives you see in TV shows, the ones who build psychological profiles of criminals and are always being made fun of by old-time cops until it turns out they were right in the end. Let's see. What could he tell about her? She was sensual, of course, the panties made that clear, and passionate (that colour). And confident, yes, perhaps even a little aggressive, the kind of woman who's not afraid to indulge herself, to spend money on expensive lingerie. (Or perhaps they were a gift from a boyfriend? No, no boyfriends, she was too independent for that, she had to be). Probably impulsive, not the kind of person who's ashamed of her appetites, not the kind of person who looks back. But also (let's face it) a little scatterbrained, a trifle careless. Always in a hurry to move on to the next thing and the next. The kind of woman who'll break your heart and not even notice.
Or perhaps she left them there deliberately, perhaps they were a gift from a boyfriend she doesn't care for anymore and she just threw them on the ground and stomped on them. Headstrong. Even haughty. Or maybe it was just that she was studying really late and was so tired by the time she did the laundry that she didn't notice. A hard-working girl. But only in subjects she's interested in. Or maybe she left them there for a laugh, some kind of trick? It would be just like her to think of something like that.
He wonders if he should do something to see that she gets them back. But how? If it were anything else, he would just have picked it up and taken it with him and put up a notice asking whoever it belonged to to come collect it. But panties! He tries to imagine putting up a notice: "Found: A pair of panties in the basement laundry room. Red silk, size (whatever). Owner please contact Room Number: ". No, no. He'd sound like a sex fiend. But how to find her otherwise. He can't exactly go door to door waving a pair of red panties like a flag, asking if they belong to anyone.
But wait! Why is he assuming it's a her? What if it's a guy who secretly wears women's underwear? What if he'd hidden the panties away with all the other stuff and they dropped out and now he's too embarassed to go pick them up in case someone saw him and figured out his secret? He tries to imagine a man wearing those panties. It's not a picture he cares for.
It's time to go put the clothes in the dryer. The first thing he looks for when he enters the laundry room is whether the panties are still there. They are. He feels a great sense of relief, coupled with a strange, outlandish excitement. It almost feels as though he's achieved something. There are more people in the laundry room now. He must be careful. He must not be caught looking at it. He transfers his clothes from the wash to dryer in slow handfuls, somehow managing to step over the panties without looking at them. As if he hadn't noticed them at all, and his feet just happened to miss them every time he passed. In a minute or two he realises that the other men in the room have seen them too, that they too are avoiding looking at them. They are like wary planets, circling a sun too bright to be looked at directly.
After he's set the dryer spinning he lingers a while, reluctant to leave. What if she were to come back for them right now? He would finally get to see her, meet her. Not that he plans to stand around waiting, like some hunter watching over a kill, no, no, that would be sick. But what if he just happened to be here when she came. He imagines her bending down to pick them off the floor, then looking up suddenly, feeling his eyes on her. He imagines the quick blush on her face, coupled with something defiant, her level gaze challenging him to make something of it. He will say something lighthearted and witty to set them both at ease. She will smile, say something back. They will stand there for a moment or two, two people met by accident in a churning, roaring world. He will introduce himself, ask for her name. She will turn out to be in his class, in his department, supporting the same charity, reading the same book, attending the same concert, from the same home town - something, anything. They will agree to meet for coffee, they will date, they will get together. Months later, on that inevitable night when he takes her skirt off (yes, she will wear skirts, long flowing ones, with a slit down the side) to find these same panties staring back at him, he will not be able to resist making a joke about it, something winsome and tender. She will smile mischeviously down at him, ruffle his hair with her small hands. As he heads back to the elevator, back to his room, the picture of that moment stays with him.
When he goes down to get the clothes out of the dryer, the panties are gone. Their absence strikes him like a blow, like a betrayal. Did she come back and take them, he wonders, or did someone else, some sex-crazed degenerate pick them up and slip them into his pocket when no one else was looking? As he heads back to his room, the bag filled with his laundry seems unusually heavy, as though the weight of something more than clothes were weighing down on him. It dawns on him that he will never get to meet her now, that she is lost to him forever, this mysterious woman with the sensual underpants. The thought makes him want to cry.