She drives home with her fake RayBans on and the radio blasting. Power 96! Amy Winehouse or someone like that. This is Saturday, Christmas Eve, in South Florida, and, still, you could just die from the heat. At the light on Federal by the high school, she changes the station to oldies. The Stones’ “Miss You.” She cranks the volume up to twenty-nine. She sees a woman outside the Dixiewood Motel, wearing snug red shorts, a Santa T-shirt that says HO! HO! HO!, polyester antlers, and a Rudolph nose that lights up whenever a car approaches. There’s a toothless dude with an eye patch sitting on a plastic milk crate in front of Room 4. He’s feeding a red hibiscus flower to the absinthe-green iguana on his shoulder. A car pulls into the lot. One of those cars that looks like a lunch box. Rudolph prances to the car, sticks her head in the passenger-side window. Our driver hears the blast of a horn. The light is green.
Her name’s Roberta. Born Roberta Maybay. She was Bobbi as a child, even Bobbie Jo for a time in preschool–her dad’s idea. She tried Ro, then Rob, then Bob. Bertie. Calls herself Robbie now. Robbie Bourassa. She’s a temp for Kelly Services. She spent the last week as a ticket agent for Air Tran at the Fort Lauderdale Airport, checking photo IDs, issuing boarding passes, wheeling old gentlemen through security and to the gate. You meet confident people at airports. They have the poise of destination. Next week, who knows, maybe back to Broward General recruiting blood donors over the phone. About the boringest thing she can think of.
She swings by the Seminole Reservation, picks up three cartons of filter-tip generics at Tribal Smokes. She writes “cereal” on her hand with her Air Tran ballpoint. She stops at Publix for milk, bread, cereal, and beer. (White, white, Jurassic Park Crunch, Lite.) She pulls into the driveway behind Marty’s pickup, puts the car in park, leaves it idling. She lights a cigarette, looks at her house, at the hard-water stain on the stucco wall, at the shabby pair of spiral Christmas trees by the walk and the cheerless icicle lights on the eaves, listens to Marvin Gaye. She puts her head back, shuts her eyes, and she’s nineteen again, nineteen and blissfully high on Midori sours and wacky weed, and she’s dancing like a dervish at that gay bar on Las Olas. She can’t remember what it was called. It was called The Male Box.
Eventually she will have to go in and face it all. Face the two whiney kids, the Kool-Aid stain on the carpet, face Marty, lying on his bony ass with a can of beer in front of the TV, and the cat shit on the kitchen floor, and the dust everywhere, and the sorry mica furniture that looked so classy on the showroom floor, and the dishes from last night piled in the sink. Face the knowledge that it will always be like this. At least for as long as it counts. Robbie punches the cigarette into the ashtray. The three of them in the house. None of them waiting for her. And Marvin Gaye is dead.
“Marty the Bug Man.” That’s what it says on the side of his truck. “Good for What’s Bugging You.” Robbie married the exterminator twelve years ago. Her first marriage, his second. It will be her last. When she was dating Marty, Robbie would meet him on Fridays at Ocean’s 11. Four-for-one Happy Hour. He’d complain about his wife, Jamie, the ER nurse. He’d nuzzle Robbie’s neck, play her favorite songs on the jukebox. They’d dance, and later they’d wind up at her place, this place. She hears the dog barking out back like a lunatic. Probably hasn’t been fed. The inflatable snowman is now a puddle of plastic on the brown lawn. Robbie wonders how her once favorite holiday could have become an annual disappointment.
Every day she suffers the family’s exquisite indifference. Marty, a gristled lump of indolence, lost in his funhouse of electronic amusements, engages Robbie only when he’s in need of sexual or culinary catering. And the kids simply refuse to clean up. Ever. No matter that she grounds them, slaps them, screams till she’s blue in the face. The bugs will come, she tells them. Like they care. Some mothers get brainiacs, or their kids are good at one thing or another, or they’re drop-dead gorgeous or vivacious, or they can charm the knickers off a nun or something. Anything. Robbie loves Tiffany and Nicole, of course, but she doesn’t, she has to admit, admire them. Her bumper sticker might read My Dull and Sullen Child Is an Unremarkable Student at Mary Bethune Elementary. This thought makes Robbie laugh. She puts on her Christmas-mix CD and listens to Elvis having a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas.
And then she recalls their first Christmas as a family. Nicole was just three months old and mostly oblivious, but so adorable in her Dear Santa, I Can Explain onesie. Marty spent the better part of the day parked on the Barcalounger, watching sports, and drinking his way through a six-pack of Christmas ale. And then it was time to visit the families, Robbie and Nicole off to see her mom, and Marty, if he stayed awake, off to his ex mother-in-law’s to see his sons Kyle and Dale.
Mom’s boyfriend, Ariel Kim, a secular Korean Jew who taught Russian and Chinese at FIU and who could not pronounce Robbie’s name, did not observe the holiday. When Robbie smiled and called him a Scrooge, Dr. Kim said, “I cewebwate wife, Woeberta!” And she held up Nicole and said, “That’s what the baby’s about, Ariel!” When she offered Nicole to Dr. Kim to hold, he folded his arms. When she gave her mother her Christmas present—a gold pendent with Nicole’s opal birthstone, her mother thanked her with a kiss and set the unopened gift on the coffee table. “I’ll open it later.”
“You’re not at all curious?”
“I know it’ll be perfect.”
The three of them played Dr. Kim’s polyglot version of Scrabble while Robbie dandled the sleeping baby in her arms. Robbie couldn’t stop staring at Nicole and could not believe how exhilarated she felt, how blessed. They had food delivered from Five Chinese Brothers: General Tso’s chicken, Buddhist Delight, and Happy Family. Dr. Kim won the game when he turned the English word flat into the German word flatterhaft and earned a triple word score.
It’s dark in the house. Robbie has to stand at the door and let her eyes adjust. All the verticals are closed. It’s like a dungeon. Robbie opens the blinds in the living room. She plugs in the Christmas tree lights and the color wheel. In the kitchen she shoves the cat off the counter. The girls are in their room with the door shut and locked. Robbie knocks. “Are you girls doing your homework?”
“It’s vacation,” Tiffany yells.
Robbie tells her to do it anyway. She doesn’t know why.
She checks messages on the answering machine. Her mother’s bunion’s inflamed. She needs a ride to Walgreens in the morning. She knows its Christmas, but Walgreens never closes, and anyway she needs to pick up a last-minute gift for Marty. “I was thinking maybe one of those Big Mouth Billy Bass, you know, the singing fish.” The optometrist reminds Nicole of Monday’s appointment. Mr. Jeffrey Knapp from AMEX would like Marty to give him a call at his earliest possible convenience. Robbie wonders how an empty life can seem so full. She tells herself to knock off the self-pity. Is her life really empty? Is it? Well, if empty means without content, then maybe yes. If it means idle, then no. Her life’s not empty then.
Robbie figures she has time to bathe before they go out. She goes to the bedroom. Marty’s on the bed in his underwear. He’s watching TV, and he’s pointing a handgun at Robbie. He says, “Bang!”
“You asshole!” she says.
“I can’t hear you. You’re dead.”
“Marty, what have I told you about guns in the house?”
“It’s a pistol, stupid.”
“Get it out!”
“I need protection.”
Robbie slams the bathroom door and looks at herself in the mirror. Do other people live like this? She opens the door, tells Marty, “You’re picking up the sitter! It’s your goddamn Christmas party!” She closes the door. Marty’s work clothes are piled on the floor, smelling of cypermethrin. She checks the trouser pockets for cash, kicks the clothes to the corner.
In the bathtub she rests and looks ahead to tonight’s party at Turbo Weedon’s. Robbie and her girlfriends will sit around the living room, smoking doobies, talking about the movie stars they’d like to screw. And the husbands will sit on the deck and talk about the Dolphins or whoever the hell they are. The husbands are all mutilated in one way or another. They’ve all lost digits to meat cleavers, extruding machines, motorcycle spokes. And they all own dogs–pit bulls, Rottweilers, shepherds–and the dogs all have names like the husbands: Chipper, Duke, Buddy, Dave, Zonker, like that.
Finally, she’s relaxing, for the first time in a week. She lets the hot water run slowly, falls into a fitful sleep, or something close to sleep. She’s driving a Wonder Woman lunch box along an unfamiliar and uncrowded road. She doesn’t know where the road leads; she’s just driving toward the light. There’s a sign ahead, but she can’t read it, so she leans her head out the window. When her head hits the tile wall, she’s back in the bathtub. She smiles. What was that all about? She hears the phone ring. Marty turns up the volume on the TV and ignores the call. She hears Barney Miller tell Fish to take Wojo and investigate a robbery in New Delhi is what it sounds like. Agnew’s Deli, maybe? There was a time in her life when she had places to go. These days her life’s confined to the house, the inconsequential jobs, the husband, the kids, the few friends, all nice enough, these friends, but tiring and complacent. Robbie feels like she’s been driving in the breakdown lane.
There’s a bright moment in the car on the way to the party. They’re listening to Billy Joel on Classic Gold singing about how Catholic girls start much too late. Robbie, being a Catholic girl, says Billy’s got it all wrong. She says to Marty, “Do you know the mating call of a Catholic girl?” He doesn’t. She says, “I’m so drunk.” Marty laughs. Robbie says, “What’s the mating call of a not-so-beautiful Catholic girl?” Marty shrugs. “I said, ‘I’m so drunk!’” Marty is tickled and touches her knee. He raises a lascivious eyebrow, and Robbie thinks maybe tonight he’ll hold her. She tries to picture their embrace, but cannot. Sex with Marty has become infrequent, mechanical, coarse, and brief. It still feels good for the shuddering, but it doesn’t carry her out of her world as it once did.
Turbo’s wife Ronnie’s wearing jingle-bell earrings and an elf’s cap, and she tells everyone she told Santa she wants a tummy tuck for Christmas so she can feel craveable again. The Christmas tree is leaning six inches to the left, but no one mentions it. On the stereo, the Drifters are dreaming of a white Christmas. Annette Rafferty tells Robbie and the others that the Barnes & Noble on University has become like a singles bar. You browse a section, you send a message. If you’re looking for a doctor, you might be over in Diet and Health. Looking for a mystic, New Age. Whatever you do, stay out of Addiction and Self-Help! Robbie says maybe they should start a book club. And they laugh. Justine Triplett says she’d like to take a stroll down the Bodybuilding aisle.
Robbie heads to the kitchen for another beer. Orlando Gonzalez is in there, leaning against the counter, sipping vodka right out of the bottle. He’s wearing a sprig of mistletoe on his belt buckle. He tells her she’s looking fine.
“Do you tell your wife that?”
“If I told her I thought you looked fine, she’d strangle me.”
“You know what I mean, Lando.”
He holds up the bottle. “High-test?”
“No thanks. Why aren’t you out there with the boys?”
“You’re more interesting, chica.”
“That’s not saying a whole lot, is it?” Robbie knows that the only time men take you seriously is when you’re flirting with them. And she wonders if that’s what she’s doing. She takes the beer from the fridge, pops the top, smiles, and sips.
“You and me, Roberta, we should have lunch some afternoon.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“I don’t need the calories.”
“We could work them off.”
She smiles. She wants conversation, not talk.
“Suit yourself.” Orlando heads off to the deck. Robbie checks herself in the window’s reflection. She’s got her mother’s upholstered hips. You have to be thin to wear anything worthwhile.
Later, after Robbie’s driven the sitter home, after she’s checked on the girls, kissed their foreheads, after she showers and puts on her nightgown, and after she’s wrapped the gifts and set them under the tree, she makes herself a blue ruin—Sapphire and Schweppes—and curls up on the couch with the cat. She hears Marty come in from playing with the dog, and then she hears the drone of the television from the bedroom.
She remembers Christmases when the girls would set out cookies and milk for Santa, when they would swear they’d heard the reindeer clomping on the roof in the middle of the night. She remembers how easily they smiled when they were young, back before they’d taken to rolling their caustic eyes at everything she said. When she thinks about tomorrow, she feels a surfacing dread and the caution, which is its gift. This Christmas, she fears, will be much like the previous. The three of them will present her with another charmless and expedient gift, and she’ll thank them for their thoughtfulness. Just what I wanted, she’ll say, a FryDaddy. The girls will tear open their gifts, will not even bother to lift the clothes out of the boxes, and will mumble perfunctory thank-yous. Marty will say he likes the broken-in wallet he already has. You can exchange it, she’ll tell him. He’ll gush over the Ed Hardy T-shirt she and the girls bought him, but he’ll stuff it in his drawer later and never wear it. And then the three of them will wander off to their caves and leave her to clean up the mess and to cook dinner. At Walgreens, she’ll tell her mother she couldn’t handle listening to an animatronic fish singing “Take Me to the River” every time you set off its motion sensor. She’ll suggest buying Marty a razor and some aftershave.
Robbie sips her drink. Delish! She lights up a cigarette, strokes the purring cat, and remembers, as a child, getting all dressed up and going with her mom to Burdines to see Santa Claus and then sitting on his lap and reciting her wish list. When she was seven or eight, Santa brought her a pink and purple Princess Big Wheel, and her dad let her ride it around and around the dining room table. And every Christmas afternoon they’d drive to Aunt Missy’s condo in Pompano for a turkey dinner. Aunt Missy who collected porcelain dolls and commemorative spoons and who always gave Robbie a chapter book for a present: "The Happy Hollisters," "Those Miller Girls," "Miss Pickerell and the Geiger Counter."
These bittersweet memories, like industrious angels, work to revive Robbie’s flagging spirits, and the blue ruin lifts the fog of trepidation. She can see now that the current domestic situation is unacceptable. If things don’t change around here, she’ll just explode. She will not tolerate this listless disdain in the house any longer, the incivility and spite, the disrespect and estrangement. This is no way to live. She’ll sit them down, talk with them in the morning. She’ll tell Marty it’s time he started behaving like a loving husband and father, and if he can’t do both, then maybe it’s sayonara time. No, it’s not a threat, Marty; it’s a promise. But it will sound like a threat, won’t it? So she’ll need to phrase it more diplomatically. Sayonara time? Must be the gin talking.
This is what Robbie does whenever she decides, finally, to confront her troubles. She imagines the inevitable and obligatory scene of judicious confrontation and rehearses her lines over and over, revising them as she goes. And once she’s started down this road, there’s no turning back. She’s so driven, she can’t think of anything else, can’t sleep for the anticipation. Maybe she’ll tell him I want us to be what we used to be. I want the joy back in our lives. No, joy won’t work. Marty thinks joy is for children and holy rollers. Fun! I want the fun back in our lives.
She’ll tell the girls how much she loves them. She’ll sit at the edge of Tiffany’s bed, and she’ll talk to them about their chores in a way that they’ll understand. A family is a team, she’ll say. We work together and we all win. And we need to start doing things with each other, going to the beach. Like that. Could you please put down the phone when I’m talking to you. Thank you. She’ll hold their hands and ask them what she could do to make their lives more pleasant and meaningful.
So in order to get things off on the right foot in the morning, she’ll cook them all a hearty breakfast. Before they open their gifts, before they revert to their desultory habits, they’ll sit together, say a prayer of thanks, eat, and talk. If it goes right, if Marty praises his over-easy eggs, if the girls ask for seconds on the pancakes, then maybe the whole day will continue to be festive and cordial, and maybe that momentum will carry on into the next day, and so on, because the way we live our days is the way we live our lives. Isn’t that right?
She carries her drink to the kitchen. She sets the table with the good dishes and the cloth napkins. She puts out the Mrs. Butterworth’s and the Country Crock. She mixes up the frozen OJ and puts it in the fridge. She scoops the ground coffee into the filter basket and fills the reservoir with water. All she’ll have to do in the morning is push a button. She knows she can pull off this Christmas miracle. What was born in Bethlehem was hope. She finishes the last of her drink, puts the glass in the sink. She scratches the cat on his silky head, cuts the kitchen light, and shuffles off to the bedroom.
Marty, who hasn’t said a word since they left Turbo’s, grabs her by the neck and shoves her against the wall, so hard the crucifix falls to the floor. She can’t breathe. And he screams. “You wanted Lando’s cock in your mouth, didn’t you? You fucking whore!”
And then he pushes the gun into her face. “Here’s Lando’s cock. Why don’t you suck on this?” He shoves the barrel into her mouth and cracks her tooth. She’s bleeding, but she turns her head. “You like that Cuban cock, Robbie? What do you think, I’m fucking blind?”
“The neighbors, Marty. The windows are open. Jesus Christ, you’ll wake the girls.”
He puts the gun to her crotch. “I ought to pull this trigger.”
Robbie weeps, chokes on her tears. He shoves her on the bed and says he’ll give her something to cry about.
When it’s over, Robbie lies with her back to Marty, who has his earphones on and is giggling at the TV. She wishes he would leave her. But who would have him? He’s made himself so unappealing. And if it’s always going to be like this, how will she ever survive? Well, she could stop noticing every little thing and get on with it. If you don’t see the grime in the bathroom sink, don’t see the busted futon in the den, don’t consider the long, dull tomorrow, you can get by, and it won’t even seem so bad. Just stop looking so closely, Robbie, she tells herself. Jesus, she thinks, it’s not like you’re a movie star or a rocket scientist or anything. Not like you’re going to change the world. She worries the chipped tooth with her tongue. This will cost her a day’s work and a month’s wages to fix.
When she hears Marty snoring, she slips out of bed and sees Carson Sleeper next door, sitting at his kitchen window, twenty feet away, watching her. She turns off the lamp and vanishes from his sight. Carson doesn’t know Robbie, Mrs. Bourassa, very well, but he does know that her disagreeable husband has abused her physically and emotionally over the years and seems to have done so again on this holiest of nights. When Carson got back from midnight Mass, he heard the husband’s cursing and later heard the sobbing wife.
One night several months ago, Carson found Robbie crying on her front steps, and he went to her. The exterminator had locked her out of their house while he sat inside watching TV and drinking beer. Carson’s knocking on the window and door was ignored. He took Robbie inside his house, lent her his terry cloth robe, brewed some coffee, fortified it with brandy, and set a box of tissues on the kitchen table. He offered to call the police. Robbie begged him not to. Ever. Never ever call the police. Promise.
Carson apologized for the day-old banana bread. It’s all he had. She asked him about his limp. “Shrapnel,” he said and waved a dismissive hand. No one really wants to hear your war stories.
Robbie looked around the kitchen. “So tidy,” she said.
“It’s just me and the fish,” he said, “and they pick up after themselves.”
She laughed. The aquarium sat on an iron stand beneath a framed print of Monet’s field of poppies. “What kind of fish are they?”
She spooned sugar into her coffee and admired Carson’s flamingo salt and pepper shakers. She thanked him for his kindness.
He said, “Tell me it’s none of my business if you want to, but why don’t you leave your husband?”
She said she was leaving the SOB, she was always leaving, she just hadn’t escaped yet. “There’s a lot of gravity in that house.”
He said, “It can’t be easy leaving your life behind.”
“I need somewhere to go. Somewhere, not just anywhere.”
Carson hears the Bourassas’ chained-up mongrel start barking. He shuts his window, draws the curtain, and goes back to his cognac and his book, B. H. Fairchild’s "The Art of the Lathe," a Christmas gift from his friend at work, Inez. He reads about “the death of the heart . . . a kind of terrible beauty.”
Next door, Robbie leans against her daughters’ closed and locked bedroom door. She knocks with one knuckle. She doesn’t want to wake them. She wants one of them to already be awake, to sense her mother’s distress, and to rush to the door and rescue her. In the kitchen, she rinses her mouth with tepid water. She sits at the table and holds a can of frozen lemonade to her bruised and swollen lip. The place settings mock her vanity. This was all her fault, they say. She allowed herself to act like a child at Christmas, foolishly praying for a miracle. She cries, but the tears only anger her. Tomorrow she’ll tell them all she’s sick as a dog, and she’ll stay in bed all day. She watches a leathery cockroach skitter across the table and climb the tub of margarine. The cockroach waves his long antennae like he’s conducting a choir. If you have no place to go, you must be where you’re supposed to be. Right? She’ll be okay. She’ll get through this. Not hope, but resilience is called for. She knows there’s nothing so shabby you can’t get used to it.
Excerpted from "BLUE CHRISTMAS: Holiday Stories for the Rest of Us: An Anthology" (B&B Press), edited by John Dufresne