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Online Feature: “Blue Christmas” by Matt Sadler

 

Nothing is more depressing than going in the hot tub alone. So I go when there’s people there! I make friends!

“Today at work I sold two fashion tumblers,” I say stepping into the bubbling water. Nobody here knows me so naturally they don’t respond. I used to be like that, afraid of something new. But not anymore.

There’s a man and a woman this time, sitting close. They lean into each other like doves. And another man across from them, smiling at them, smiling at me.

“And I sold a whole case of hot tamale plasters,” I say louder. I know they must feel awkward. They look at me like that. They smile politely. I see right away they’re not big talkers, so I zip it. I learned that from work, waiting tables at the Big Dip. Hot tamale plasters, fashion tumblers, that’s just stuff I made up to see if anyone ever paid attention. Usually no one does. But it’s how I met my best friend in the world, Jane. She’s great. You would love her.

That time, I walked right in to the hot tub room and there was only one spot left. I said, “You must be saving that spot for me,” to a scruffy, sullen looking young man who had his t-shirt on in the hot tub. Can you believe that? A t-shirt? He didn’t say anything back. Then I said, “Excuse me,” to Jane, who I didn’t know yet, because I bumped her knee with my knee getting in.

“No problem,” she said. Her face was big and happy, like a pumpkin.

“I sold two fashion tumblers at work today,” I told her.

“What’s a fashion tumbler?” She said.

“They’re the best,” I said, and quickly changed the subject. After a little while talking she closed her eyes and sank herself down until it was just her mouth above the water, like a baby island made of lip skin. Even I was a little surprised when the mouth island started talking.

“Don’t you just love the hot tub,” the mouth said.

“Yes,” I said to the mouth. “It’s like leaving one life by sliding into another, way better life.”

I know she heard me say it but I don’t know how. She told me later she heard me say it, saying it back to me when I didn’t believe her. She pushed her lips together and said it in a funny voice until we both almost fell down giggling. That’s how great Jane is.

*

You have to have a key card to get into the hot tub room. The key slides in the slot and the slot makes a loud clicking sound like punching in for work on the time card machine. But once you’re inside, it’s not anything like work at all.

I go for the second time today because most days I just have to, but I forget my key card and have to walk all the way back to my place to get it. It’s worth it. If not for the wrinkly fingers, which I must say I do not like, I’d stay all day. I think I could sleep there.

The leaning dove couple from before are gone but the other man is still there. He’s got a big, slicked back pompadour haircut and a pimply, unshaved face like he’s some dirty punk rock Elvis or something. This time (he must have left and come back) he has on a black Hawaiian shirt with white flowers on it, unbuttoned all the way so the edges billow up around him with the bubbles. His chest is covered with thick curly hair, wet and matted to the skin, his nipples just barely peeking through like the eyes of one of those little nervous dogs people here like to have. A tag pinned near the top of his shirt says “Don.”

“Hi, Don,” I say— I tend to grow bolder on a second meeting—, “I’m Andrea. Want a Fresca?” I have brought two Frescas because I wanted one, and I always bring two of everything so I can give one to any new friends I make.

He smiles when I hand him the Fresca. A fine mist hangs in the air above us and it somehow reminds me of the refreshing mist above the Fresca can on the television commercial. I breath it in deep and it feels good. Hot tub air.

“That rhymes,” Don says, taking a sip. “You’re a poet.”

“What does?” I say.

“Fresca and Andrea,” he says. “It rhymes.”

“Sort of,” I say, mostly to be polite. Because it doesn’t rhyme.

He smiles at me again. He has the shadow of a mustache, a not quite mustache, and when he smiles it curls up into its own, smaller smile above the regular smile. I squint my eyes and it looks like one giant, gaping smile. I must say it’s quite attractive. The conversation dies a little and suddenly I feel totally self-conscious.

“I sold two fashion tumblers at work today,” I blurt into the hot tub air, which somehow has grown heavier.

“What’s a fashion tumbler?” he says, putting out his arms and leaning toward me a little, inching toward me. He has that look that men get on their faces, that shit eating grin. Doesn’t he think he’s got an easy catch.

“They’re great,” I say. “You’d love them.”

“What are they?” he says, low and romantic like we’re already in bed together. He shifts a little closer. I know he wants to kiss me so I’m looking at his lips.

“Oh,” I say, tucking a stray hair behind my ear, “They’re a lot like regular tumblers.”

“What’s a regular tumbler?” he says, like I’m touching his pants or something, all breathy. Like I’m that easy.

“You know,” I say. It comes out somewhere between a question and a statement. I can feel his breath on me he’s getting so close. I’m slightly relieved when I detect the scent of Fresca coming from his mouth.

“What does a regular tumbler do?” he says. He’s stopped getting any closer because he’s only inches away, centimeters really, millimeters. His big shit eating grin. I decide I want him to shut up about the tumblers, like I’m caught in a lie and there’s no other way. When he opens his mouth to speak again I just slide right in.

*

“Nobody really loves me but myself,” Jane is telling me from the kitchen side of the counter. She’s been through this before. It’s just something she does. We’re leaning in over hot coffee and the steam warms the room. Her kitchen is all shiny aluminum. The fridge, the toaster, the blender, the coffeepot, the mugs, they all match. I wonder where she finds them.

“What store did you find this at?” I say, pointing to my mug, hoping to change the subject.

“The mug store,” she says. She’s acting weird again. “You can have them when I go,” she says so softly I almost don’t hear it. But I do. Jane says she’s going to dissappear into the bubble jets to a better place. She says there’s a way, but she’s been saying it for years. I don’t answer this time and she gets it.

“So you really like this Dan guy, huh.” she says.

Yes! I really do!

“Yes!” I say, letting out all my breath, “I really do! He took me out to dinner after. He took me to the Big Dip. He didn’t know I worked there. It was so cute.”

“He sounds lovely,” she says. I can tell by looking at her she is genuinely happy for me.

“At dinner he totally called me out on the fashion tumbler thing. He was like, ‘you just say that to have something to say, and those things aren’t even real I know it.’ I almost died right there. I didn’t fess up, though, but I really need to get a new thing to say. That tumbler thing is shot through.”

“It worked on me,” Jane says, lowering her eyebrows and saying it in a sultry voice. She almost falls off her stool giggling after.

Jane once told me that no man had ever given her an orgasm. She’d also said the hot tub gives her one every time. Hers are long and very mild, she’d said, like after two glasses of wine. She’s not trying or anything, just the movement of the water gets her. It’s just right.

“Nobody really loves me but myself,” she says again. This time she smiles. Sad and sweet. “So I have to love myself extra hard.”

“I love you,” I say.

“That’s not what I mean,” she says.

“I know what you mean,” I say back. Not because it’s sad, because it’s true, for everyone, sort of, in a way.

*

The next time I see Don he has a parrot on his shoulder. Not a real parrot. A stuffed animal parrot. I look and it’s sewn on to his shirt.

“Your hair is smaller,” I tell him. I don’t like how I say it. I’m in a bad mood and I say it too fast. It sounds mean.

“I don’t think I like it,” I say, when what I really mean is I like his hair the usual way a lot, and this a little less.

Don has something behind his back and I’m scared of what it is. I know it’s for me. I look at the parrot and somehow I know it will be that stupid and I’ll have to pretend to like it.

He has a hurt look on his face.

“I’m sorry,” I say, “I didn’t mean that how it sounded.” I kiss his mouth. Even though I do like his hair bigger.

He smiles and thrusts his shoulder forward, motions to the parrot. He’s playing along now. I kiss the parrot and apologize to it. Its eyes are little blue beads.

“I’m just worried about my friend. She thinks no one loves her. Worse, she thinks no one can love me either. Or you. Or anyone. I’m worried. And a little pissed off.”

Just then, Don brings from behind him the biggest, brightest pile of flowers I have ever seen. The light from them blinds me, their smell washes my whole face, stops me from thinking negative, stops me from thinking. And he’s smiling big because he knows it. He just knows it all, doesn’t he. Such a big pile of flowers. I hug him and try to look down at his back, which doesn’t seem very big. I’m wondering how he fit it all there behind him.

*

We meet up later at the Big Dip and his hair is bigger again.

“You sure know a lot of people that work here,” he says after Debra, the third different waitress to come over and say hello comes over and says hello. They all eye Don so casually it’s totally obvious what they’re doing, checking him out for me. I’m not sure what they’ll say, but I think Debra will like him. She loves Elvis.

I just shrug and don’t say anything about anything.

“Guess I do,” I say.

One of the florescent bulbs flicks and buzzes above our table. I can tell something is bothering Don. His head is almost buried in his coffee cup.

“Is something bothering you?” I ask him.

“No,” he says. I don’t believe him. “Did you like the flowers?” he says.

“Of course,” I say, “I loved the flowers. They fixed my whole day.”

The light above goes to full strength with a loud click sound and stops buzzing.

“I don’t believe you,” I say.

“What,” he says.

“About nothing being wrong. So what’s wrong.”

He keeps his eyes on his coffee. Like it’s going to get up and leave or something.

“It’s just, I had this picture in my head of what would happen. And you didn’t kiss me or fall into my arms of anything.”

This annoys me.

“That’s annoying,” I say. “You know I loved them. I told you I did.”

“It’s not that,” he says. He looks at me. Finally.

“What then?” I say.

“Well,” he says, “I have a lot of love to give. But I want it right back when you’re done.”

I want to tell him that I won’t fit some stupid picture in his head, that I’m not an idea I’m a real person, but I don’t. I like him enough to think he already knows this. And he looks at me like a guilty dog, which is more than just a little cute. So instead, I gather myself in, smile, and say,

“Maybe I just needed to keep it for awhile, to inspect it, you know, for defects.”

He’s taking a sip of his coffee as I say it and I can tell it works because he chokes on it a little, and spits some out on to the table from laughing.

After that, I feel pretty good about Don. Good enough at least. So I go out and buy myself a new purse. One that matches my gold bikini.

*

It turns out Jane is serious about leaving. When I go over for coffee she’s got an orange vinyl suitcase packed and ready by the door. Jane is older than me, and other than that we are exactly the same. So this worries me.

She’s in the kitchen in her summer Sunday dress, the blue one with little white dots that makes her look motherly, but in this really hip, retro way.

“I’m really going this time, Ann,” she says. “So let’s just save our breath, talk about something else.”

She’s trying to be strong and I want to break that.

“When,” I say. I slap my new purse down hard on the counter. We both hear the snap of plastic breaking from inside and look at the purse. My lipstick tube, probably.

“Nice purse,” Jane says. She puts hot coffee in front of me. “Is it new?”

“What about your cat,” I insist, “just going to leave him?”

“You know Charlie ran away three months ago.”

“What if he comes back?” I fight back tears as I say it. I know if I cry she’ll comfort me, she’ll gain resolve.

She starts to smile. I almost say ‘don’t’ out loud to her, but she starts giggling. And that turns into full on body heaving laughter. Her little polka dots are wiggling. I can’t even believe it.

“I can’t even believe this,” I say. “What?”

“I know what you’re doing,” she says, pointing at the counter, at the purse.

The fridge kicks on with a shudder and then a loud buzz. Jane is trying to gather herself, reign herself in. I wait as long as I can bear.

“What?!” I say.

“You’ll deny it,” she says, “I know you.”

“Try me.”

“That’s a new purse.”

“It’s a new purse. Yes. So?” I say, but I know what’s coming. She does know me and she knows why I bought the purse. I feel my face flush over with it. “It’s nothing,” I say, caught. Jane smiles bigger, if that’s possible.

“You’re going to make me say it,” she says.

“Say what?” I manage.

“That purse matches you’re favorite bathing suit. You bought to look good for that Don.”

I swirl my coffee with a silver coffee swirler.

“That’s a nice dress,” I say without looking up, “Is it new?”

“Oh my god,” Jane says, “Are you gonna do it with him?” She comes around the counter and sidles up next to me on the other stool. “I should stay just for that.”

I look at her and suddenly understand this means she’s actually leaving. Her face tells me this. It tells me nothing is ever as bad as you think it will be. And it doesn’t mean her life, it means mine, without her there.

“That’s a nice dress,” I say again. But what I really mean is that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. It should be that bad. When someone you love goes away it should be as bad as you think it will be. And she knows that’s what I mean.

“Thanks,” she says. She tops off the mostly full coffee cups with hot coffee. She sits down on her side of the counter. She swirls her coffee. The fridge goes off and the silence in even more silent. She looks up and fills it by saying something meaningful, like, “You’re totally going to do it with him, aren’t you?”

*

Jane lets me walk her to the hot tub room. When we get there, she lets me turn on the air jets by pushing all the buttons on the wall mount. There’s a special dial like a dimmer switch that controls the intensity of the air streaming into the water. She tells me to turn it slowly until she says when. She tells me it has to be just right.

The bubbles seem foreign to me as they surface, more furious somehow. Hungry even. I’m still not sure what is going to happen here exactly. Jane’s face tells me it’s time.

“I’ll be in a better place,” she says, putting one hand on my shoulder and the other on the opposite cheek.

“Tell me how to get there,” I say, “in case I want to visit or something.”

“You’ll know when you need to,” she says. She hugs me hard, picks up her orange suitcase, and steps into the hot tub. Her polka dot dress swirls up around her in the water. She gets lower and lower, down to her thighs, down to her waist. I wonder briefly if she’s having an orgasm right now, then I bite my bottom lip and feel stupid about thinking it. I think about what she said, that I’d know where it was if I needed to. I realize I don’t know at all what that means.

“What does that mean?” I say.

It’s only her head above the water now and she turns it toward me. She doesn’t say anything. She just smiles, pumpkin-like, jovial and mute before disappearing under the white scrim.

*

“It’s like she was adding herself to a soup,” I tell Don when he meets me at the hot tub room at 8 o’clock on the dot. He laughs and I don’t mind.

“I wonder if lobsters go to the same place,” Don says, testing it with a tenuous chuckle. And though the image in my head of Jane surrounded by giant lobster ghosts frightens and annoys me I laugh, I give him permission, because he’s being so sweet, trying so hard. And he laughs louder and longer.

And though Don is not an Elvis impersonator, it turns out he likes to sing. He offers to sing me a song, to sing me a song for Jane. He starts in with a deep, sexy baritone, a sound that doesn’t seem like it should be coming out of his face, which is far too pointy for such a voice.

He sings, “I’ll have a blue… Christmas… without yoooouuuu…”

He sings with long, dramatic pauses, with real passion, his arms shifting back and forth in the air. I can’t see under the water, but I’d bet his submerged legs were attempting their best Elvis wiggle. I kiss him right then, not because I want him to shut up this time, but because I want him to keep singing and I want to feel it on my tongue. It’s like all my need has been redirected to this. I put my hands on his face. He moves one of his hands up my leg. But I can already tell he’s going to do it wrong. His hands are too rough, his fingertips too wrinkly.

And I can feel Jane above us, smiling down, entirely composed of hot tub air. I go under, hold my breath, watch the bubbles come out of the nozzle. I’m thinking I might join her where she went. But it turns out I can’t. My breath runs out and I have to come up for air.

As I emerge I take a big, deep breath of Jane from the air, filling the top half of my body. And just as suddenly, I am filled with Don on the bottom half, and it’s not as bad as I thought it would be. But, just like Jane didn’t say but meant to say, nothing ever is as bad as you think it will be. That’s exactly what scares me about today and tomorrow.

This story appeared in Indiana Review 32.1, Summer 2010.

*

Head shot Matt SadlerMatt Sadler is the author of The Much Love Sad Dawg Trio (March Street, 2011) and Tiny Tsunami (Flying Guillotine, 2010). His poetry, fiction, and non-fiction has been published in Diagram, Indiana Review, Eleven Eleven, Tarpaulin Sky, Poetry East, and many other magazines. He serves as Poetry Editor for Versal and lives in Detroit with his wife and children.

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