Sarah Hoenicke, Mills College California, United States
“It’s the twenty-first century. People fall in love on Instagram now.”
Helen was looking at her phone, her neck at such a drastic angle that Matthew felt compelled to stand behind her and pull her shoulders back, her chin in, to line up her spine. He did just that, and she let him, setting her phone aside.
“We should get going,” she said, pulling away from his hands on her shoulders. She looked down at her phone again as she walked to the counter and, without looking up, grabbed her keys and purse.
Matthew opened the door and Helen walked next to him down the stairs from their apartment and into the parking lot. She scrubbed with spit and a fingernail at a spot on her white jeans as she walked. Her hair was slightly static from having been combed and sprayed into the smoothed-over beehive style she liked, and she had to wet the strands sticking to her neck with saliva, too, to get them to stay up.
“Look at this!” she said, and thrust her phone towards him as he dug in his pocket for the key to their Prius. “They literally met on Instagram and got married three months later.” She got into the car and buckled her seat belt, scrolling with her thumb through pictures of food and faces and cats and books.
He started the car after putting on his seatbelt.
“I wonder if they’re actually happy, or if they’re like Jeff and Franka, who everybody thought were happy ‘cause of what they posted—their life looked perfect!—and then now look at them, getting a divorce.”
He had just pulled onto the freeway.
“Want to take a break from your phone for a minute? It’s our only day off together and today was supposed to be special. Jeff and Franka’s story is sad but I don’t really want to talk about Instagram the whole way.”
She put her phone in the glove compartment and brushed her hands against each other like she was cleaning up after having eaten.
“I don’t like fake trees.” She was looking out the window and moving her shoulders to the music in an exaggerated way that told him she didn’t actually like the song.
He skipped it.
“These are supposed to be really great, though. That’s why there’s an expo and everything. Biodegradable, easily put together and taken apart and stored. The lights are already on them. It’ll be so nice not to have to clean up pine needles like last year. Plus, my boss got us invited and that seemed like a really big deal to her.”
Helen pulled the invitation from her purse—heavy, matte paper, the venue’s insignia printed across the top. Matthew had said almost word for word what was printed below their embossed names.
“Well, your dad will be impressed. He was so adamant about us not using tinsel to decorate this year since” – she made air quotes – “‘it will end up in landfills and clogging drains and choking marine animals’.”
Matthew chuckled. “Yeah, he’s even worse than you.”
Helen took her phone from the glove box and opened the camera app, checking her smile in the reflection of herself on the screen and then leaning toward Matthew and snapping a picture of them both, while he drove.
They pulled into the parking garage; Matthew parked and then walked around to open her door for her. She smirked at this show of chivalry and slapped his shoulder with the envelope from the invitation.
He mocked shock. “I see how being nice gets me treated. No more of that!”
She laughed and hoisted herself out of the car, balancing on her low heels, and deleting old photos on her phone since it had just warned her that she couldn’t capture anything more until she freed up space.
She looked up at Matthew walking toward the stairs, and shut the car door.
“Is it nice when you walk three feet ahead of your wife just because she’s in heels and can’t speed-walk?”
He stopped so she could catch up and then took her hand, making a show of taking tiny steps.
“Stop it.” She hit him again with the paper and moved ahead of him into the elevator.
They stepped out of the elevator and she turned to him as they walked through a marble hallway towards glass doors. She raised her eyebrows.
“They aren’t kidding,” she said, finger-combing her hair and straightening her shiny shirt.
Matthew laughed and pulled her into his side with one arm, opening the door with the other.
Though it was only the middle of October, a band was playing Christmas music in the far right corner of the ballroom-like space, each of the musicians sporting red ties. Garlands draped the railings bordering the stairs down into the main space and hung between the pillars supporting the painted ceiling.
They were welcomed by a woman in a long dress and directed toward the open bar on the opposite side of the room from the band.
Matthew retrieved two glasses of red wine and they began to walk from booth to booth.
“I had no idea that so many different companies made Christmas trees,” she said, and sipped her wine.
“The invitation said there would be more than fifty vendors, but not all of them sell trees.”
She rolled her eyes at him and pulled him from the booth they’d stopped at two spots over with a sign that read: No Mess, Traditional Pagan Trees. Before entering the white tent, she took a picture of the sign.
She spoke too loudly—the person running the booth had heard. He was thin and wore brown leather shoes and a striped shirt tucked neatly into his pants. Tattoos were visible from his elbows to his wrists; there was a crown of thorns depicted right below his hairline on the back of his neck.
He stuck out his hand. “Michael Grand. Welcome. Our trees are made to look like the trees used by the first celebrators of Yuletide, the holiday stolen and proliferated as Christmas by the Christians.”
“Interesting.” Matthew said.
“What makes them like the first ones?” Helen asked.
Michael turned away from them and grabbed the top sheet from a stack of identical matte flyers.
“This has all of our research outlined, and our pricing sheet is on the back. Now, let me leave you to explore.” With that, he walked toward the back of the booth and greeted newcomers.
They left Mr. Grand behind and walked to the booth directly adjacent to his, after Matthew had retrieved more wine.
“This is my last one,” he said, when Helen looked at him with her brows raised and her lips parted, like there was a string of words in her mouth, ready to be spit out.
His justification seemed to placate her, because she walked ahead of him and exclaimed, “Oh, look! They let you put it together!”
The booth had four trees each in varying levels of completeness, and one that was fully assembled in the center.
Helen walked to the first tree, and a small woman in four-inch heels and a tight black skirt came over.
“This is our newest model,” – she turned and pointed to the complete tree at the center of the tent – “and that is what it looks like completed.”
She picked up a few of the branches and pushed them into the holes in the central pole. The inserted limbs immediately lit up.
“We have our customers assemble some of their tree in store so that you can witness the ease of assembly, and also so that you can see how real an imitation tree can look once it’s finished.”
Helen nodded as the woman talked and turned to Matthew.
“Well, it definitely looks real,” she said, fingering the branches.
She leaned forward, putting her face into the tree.
“It even smells real.”
The saleswoman was still there.
“Oh yes, all of our trees will retain their smell for up to ten years and then you can have the scent replenished for $100—though that price may be adjusted for inflation.”
“Thank you for your help,” Helen said, dismissing her with a smile and a nod.
As soon as the saleswoman was out of auditory range, Helen lifted the pamphlet attached to a branch of the completed tree and turned it over.
“Holy. This one’s $1500, before tax.”
Matthew whistled. “We only talked about spending $500. That’s what we’ve got left on the AmEx right now. Let’s keep looking.”
They picked a Simple Traditional Evergreen tree made of a kind of plastic touted for its short (by plastic’s standards) but durable life and scanned the AmEx and then another card, because the limit was too low on the first to pay for it.
“It’s an investment,” Helen said, rubbing Matthew’s forearm. “If we’d gone to a department store or the mall, we would have spent nearly as much for way less quality.”
He sighed. “Yeah, you’re right.” He put the credit cards back in his wallet and pulled out the stub from the parking garage.
Helen led the way to the elevator, but stopped right in front it. She looked back over her shoulder at all the people still milling around the room, at the lights and trees and garland and band.
She pulled Matt into her and extended her arm out in front of them, until she could see their faces on the screen in her hand.
The background looked perfect: a swirl of tipsy faces and bright, colorful lights – Christmas in October.
He smiled, and she took a few pictures. The elevator doors opened.
They rode down to the garage in silence, as Helen made a collage of the pictures from the day and posted it.
The doors opened and she looked up, and then at Matt.
“They said it’ll be delivered in time for the party, right? And that guy will put it together for us?”
He nodded in response as they walked to the car.
“We’ll be paying off this Christmas until next Christmas,” Helen said, and continued to wash the dust off their holiday plates and mugs.
Matthew dried them as he walked between the kitchen and dining room, where he set each place.
“With mom living alone in Alaska now, I really wanted her to have some good company and fun when she came down. Plus, with nine other people coming, it’ll be nice to have the house presentable.”
He had stopped where he was, next to the table, and was messing with the large red and white floral arrangement at its center.
The wet dishes were piling up.
“I didn’t mean anything by what I just said. I was just thinking about it,” she said.
She put another plate on the dripping stack. “Matt, the dishes.”
He looked at his watch as he returned to his task.
“Shit, it’s 10 already. We only have six hours before everybody gets here.”
“Ah, crap, I didn’t put the clothes in the dryer.” She ran out of the room and he noticed the sound of the dryer starting a few minutes later.
He heard her feet on the outside stairs next and was irritated at her slow pace.
She came into the kitchen holding red holiday socks and sat down at the table before putting the socks, balled up in her fists, to her eyes and half-moaning, half-grunting.
“What? What happened?” Matthew asked.
She didn’t respond right away, so he continued setting the table.
She was crying, he could see that by the way her shoulders shook over the table.
He walked over to her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“What? What happened? Tell me.”
She looked up, red-faced.
“My socks were in the washer with my dress for today.” She threw the socks across the room.
“The white dress?” What this meant sunk in for him, then. “So the dress is pink?”
She moaned into her forearms where she’d laid her head.
“But you still put everything in the dryer?”
She looked up at him, her face crumpled in annoyance.
“Yeah, it all still needs to be dried, doesn’t it?”
He heard a loud clunking noise coming from downstairs, like a lone shoe in a bag of towels, being swung against the wall.
“Were there shoes in the washer?”
She laughed. “What? No.”
“Then what’s that noise?”
She looked at him and lifted her hips off the chair so she could get all the way into her pockets, but she pulled her hands out, empty.
She ran out of the room. Matthew put the towel he was holding on the table and followed her.
She reached the laundry room first and he heard her open the dryer door while he was still on the stairs.
“Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me!” Helen wailed.
He walked in just as she was pulling her phone out of the dryer, and picking little pieces of the screen out of a towel.
“Ruined! Just like the dress!”
He knelt down beside her.
“Don’t worry about it, we got insurance, didn’t we?”
“No, we didn’t get insurance! You were so sure the case would protect it.” She scowled, but wasn’t looking at him.
He took a deep, audible breath and then began to take things from the dryer one at a time, examining them for glass.
They were both still on their hands and knees picking glass shards out of their socks and towels when Matthew heard his phone ringing upstairs.
“I’m going to go get that,” he said, and took the stairs two at a time.
It wasn’t a number he recognized, but since they were having quite a few out-of-towners over, he answered anyway.
“Hello?” It was 10:55—they had five more hours.
“Mom? Hey! Why aren’t you calling from your phone?”
“I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for hours but the storm has knocked everything out. No flights. I won’t be there for dinner like we’d planned. I’m so sorry, sweetie.”
“You’re not coming? Are you okay? Where are you?”
Her laugh came over the line. “I’m fine, honey, just stranded at the airport. It’s funny how things work out. I was so looking forward to seeing you, but I also had some bad feelings about coming. I have made some changes since moving away from your dad and California and I was going to tell you I’ve decided to stop celebrating Christmas. I wasn’t sure if I should tell you, since I know you love the holiday, but I guess now I’m being forced to tell you and stop celebrating, since the people here said we’re not likely to get flights out for a week, at least.” She laughed again.
Matthew sat down on the couch. “Well, I’m glad you’re safe.”
He said it without feeling and she took his attitude to be a direct result of the news that he wouldn’t be seeing her.
“I’m so sorry, honey. I did really want to be with you two, it’s just not going to happen today, or any time soon probably. They’re saying flights might be delayed for up to two weeks or more because of all the snow.”
He was picturing the bill they’d gotten in the mail the week before that had listed the debts incurred by their preparations. Grocery shopping, the tree, the once white dress, his new shoes, and the new couch they’d purchased because the old one didn’t match the rest of the living room.
Helen walked in from the laundry room carrying their clothes and towels in a plastic Hefty bag. She passed him, seated on the new sofa.
“Do you smell something burning?” She was looking at the shattered screen of her phone, which seemed to be working despite its run-in with the dryer.
“Kara and Devin said they’re going to be late.” She looked at the message showing through her fractured screen and sucked her thumb where the glass had cut her.
He jumped up from the couch, saying, “Shit!” and handing his phone to Helen.
Helen ran after him to the kitchen, his phone to her ear and hers in her other hand, which was also still trailing the plastic bag.
Matthew was pulling the organic vegan stuffing and the Brussels sprouts, both now blackened, from the oven.
Helen hung up on Matthew’s mother. She had put her own phone to her ear, with care to not actually press the battered device against her skin.
“The bakery just left a message saying that all of their pie deliveries for the day have been delayed by up to four hours.” Matthew’s posture crumpled at this news. It really was all going to hell.
Helen leaned against the doorjamb. She looked at her phone and scrolled through the pictures from the day they’d gotten their tree at the expo. She came across the one she’d taken while Matt was driving and posted it on Instagram with the tagline: “#throwbackthursday to the magical day we got our #tree!”
Matthew’s phone, which Helen had handed back to him, pinged with the notification generated by her post.
“Really? Right now? Your posting right now, while everything’s falling apart?”