[7 minute read – 2000 words]
Dean and Rosemary carried the tree up to their four-story walk-up. He easily could have done it alone; it was the smallest tree in the lot, but Rosie insisted on helping by holding the tip while he carried the trunk.
She stopped abruptly at the top of the first flight, stymied by the sharp turn of the old staircase. Dean let out a loud “Hungh!” and she turned in surprise, further pushing the tree into his gut and nearly knocking him down the stairs.
She failed to contain her giggles as he flailed his arm, trying to catch the bannister while still holding the tree in the other. He managed to grab hold of the railing, squinted and brandished the tree at her.
“OK Miss Rosie-Pants,” he said in what he thought was a menacing accent, “You haf brought me dishonor. Prepare to be impaled by my giant shaft.”
She squealed as he used the tree to poke her in the side and chased her up the stairs to the third floor, where he had to stop to catch his breath. She kept going and made it up to their door fumbling for her keys. He slowed his pace, stomping up one step at a time.
“You shall not escape me!” He puffed. “A pox upon you! …A Christmas curse!”
“You are forbidden to pass the threshold of this fortress!” she countered. “Unless you want rum punch. My mom sent me a bottle.”
“Ho ho! I accept your appeasement. Let’s set up this noble fir, shall we?”
They did not have a tree holder, but made do with a pot.
“No spaghetti until after Christmas, I guess,” Rosie said.
Dean shrugged. “We’ll make Ramen in the small pot.”
They balanced the tree in the corner and used a frayed green towel to cover the base of the tree, the pot and the pot handle.
“Turn the ratty end under so it looks pretty,” Rosie directed.
They made paper snowflakes out of some post-it notes Dean had taken from his temp job, and hung them around the branches along with tinsel from the dollar store. Years ago, her brother had given her a Mick Jagger prayer candle for her sixteenth birthday, and she lit that and put it in the window facing the brick wall of the building next door
“Is that for the ghost of Christmas Past, Present or Future?” he asked.
“Yes.” she said. Her smirk emphasized her lopsided smile. He kissed the little dimple that appeared, thinking how cute it would be if there were a matching one on the other side.
Rosie reached up to adjust her headband, revealing a hole in the elbow of her sweater. Just behind her, the water stain loomed on the ceiling. Rosie called it ‘Ralph’ and greeted it every morning, which Dean pretended to find amusing, but in fact the daily reminder of their living condition irritated him.
There was a knock at the door, and Rosie ducked around him to answer it.
“Tony! Merry Christmas!” She stepped behind the open door and out of view to greet him.
“Let him in!” Dean called out. “Hi Tony, come and see our mini Rockefeller Center.”
Tony ushered Rosie away with a hand on the small of her back, and closed the door behind them. He wore a black leather jacket that couldn’t have been warm enough in the snow but looked beautiful on him.
“Wow. You really went all out there,” Tony said drily, “Are those bonafide Post-it notes? How festive.”
“There’s beer in the fridge,” Dean said to Tony. “Help yourself.”
“And I made vodka jello shots!” Rosie said, stepping to the counter to get the plate of jiggling red and green squares.
They sat on the old pea colored couch, avoiding the spring in the middle cushion that did not yet protrude, but was uncomfortable. Dean laid his coat on the arm of the couch and fished two packages out of the inside pocket.
“Merry Christmas, you guys. I brought you host and hostess gifts.”
He handed the smaller package to Rosie. She tore it open with the abandon of a five-year-old.
“A watch? Wow, thanks!” she beamed at him.
“Not exactly,” Tony said. “I mean, it is a watch, but it’s also a mood sensor. Like the old mood rings? When it senses you are happy, sad, or mad it changes color. I think there are seven total emotions. Put it on.”
She buckled the strap and it immediately turned lavender.
“See,” Tony pointed out, “That’s happy. Steer clear if it turns red,” he said to Dean. “Here, open yours.”
“We’ve been working on it in the lab – I thought since you kind of inspired it that you should have the prototype. We’re releasing it next month.”
Dean was embarrassed they didn’t have a gift for Tony, but Rosie said eagerly, “Open it! Let’s see what it is!”
Dean carefully unwrapped the present, revealing a pair of translucent goggles.
“Rose-colored glasses? Really?” Dean asked.
“Ah, in tribute to Miss Rosie. Also… Well, put them on, you’ll see.”
Dean unfolded the goggles and put them on, adjusting the thick strap to fit snuggly behind his head. A mild electric shock buzzed his hair once it fit into place. He looked around, blinking in disbelief.
The room was twice as tall. The tree was suddenly enormous and lit by hundreds of tiny fairy lights. The bath towel was gone, replaced by a fur throw rug – was that ermine? Gold and silver ornaments and colorful glass-blown balls decorated the branches. He turned to the kitchen area where the peeling countertop had changed to an elegant marble island. The floor was burnished hardwood. Ralph was gone from the ceiling, replaced by a stand of gleaming copper pots suspended above the island. The couch was brand new, white with little bits of color threaded throughout. He turned to Rosie, and caught his breath. Her frizzy brown hair framed her face in shiny dark locks. She smiled, and he saw two matching dimples. Her crooked front tooth was magically straight, and her previously chapped lips were red and plump.
“How did you do that?”
“I didn’t,” said Tony. “You did. There are sensors in the back of the strap that tap into your deepest wishes.”
“How does it know which thoughts to use?” Rosie asked.
He turned to her. “Picture his mind as a spectrum of color, and his imagination is purple. The sensors read the purple waves, cross reference the ones that associate with euphoria, and apply the change to whatever Dean is looking at.”
“He’s looking at me! What do you see? Do I have gigantic ta-tas?”
“No,” Dean lied. “You look about the same.”
“I want to try them!” she said.
“This is really a gift for Dean,” Toby answered her. “You’re already pretty content with your world. Dean could use a bit more rosiness in his worldview.”
“Well, what does Tony look like? What do you see?”
“Tony is super buff, as always,” Dean again fibbed. Tony was the only thing in the room that hadn’t improved through the glasses. He was a good six inches shorter and suffering debilitating acne. “But the tree is gigantic! And the apartment is gorgeous. I don’t know how we’ll heat all this space,” he joked. “Speaking of which,” he pointed to the heater by the dresser, “that stupid gas heater that blows out all the time is a roaring fireplace.” He looked at the window. “Oh man, Rosie, you should see the view. The building across the alley is just… gone! It’s snowing, and I can see Central Park!”
“Oh come on, Dean, I have to try them now.” Rosie pouted.
“It’s not calibrated for a woman’s head,” Toby stopped Dean as he was reluctantly reaching to remove the goggles from his head. “I wouldn’t advise sharing them.”
Dean kept the goggles on for the rest of the evening. Even he had to admit he was better company than usual.
“I don’t think I’ve ever heard you so complimentary of anything,” Rosie said at the end of the night after they had said goodby to Tony. “And it was really nice, but I think you should take them off now.”
Dean was a little numb from the beer and vodka, and had enjoyed himself thoroughly, but he realized she was right. It was time to remove the goggles.
“OK,” he agreed, “Just let me brush my teeth.”
The tiny bathroom next to the kitchen area of the studio had the only other door in the apartment. He opened it and came upon his own reflection in the mirror above the sink. He was wearing the goggles, but they looked so cool, like George Harrison glasses, round and pink.
He opened his mouth to brush his teeth while looking in the mirror. His teeth were so white! And his jawline, it was like Superman. Astounding, and yet he became accustomed to it immediately. It was not really that different from the way he looked in nature, he thought.
Rosie appeared behind him. Thanks to the goggles she had changed clothes five times that evening, and was now wearing a black negligee with pearls.
“You look delicious,” he said.
“Thank you. Now, please, would you take off those silly goggles so we can go to bed?”
He looked at the newly capacious bathroom with the rainfall shower head and massager attachment and wondered if the goggles would change the awful water pressure. But he worried they might short out if he tried to bathe while wearing them. Sighing, he removed the goggles and set them on the suddenly filthy, cracked sink. He caught his reflection in the mirror. He had almost no chin! How had he made it through twenty six years of sentience without knowing this?
He turned to speak to Rosie, and forgot what he was going to say. Good lord, she had mousy hair. She was still wearing that tattered sweater too, and on Christmas! His expression must have given him away because her smile drooped.
“What?” she asked. “Did I do something to make you angry?”
“Why do you have to wear such raggedy clothes all the time? Don’t you have anything nice you could have put on?”
“Wha..? I – I didn’t think we were going out, I figured we could just hang out and —”
“And can’t you do something about your hair? Isn’t there gel or something you can use to smooth it out? You look like you just rolled out of a dirty bed.”
“Why are you being so mean?”
“I’m just telling you the truth. Tony’s polite to you because he feels sorry for us, but you could have made more of an effort.”
Her eyes welled up, and he felt ashamed for hurting her, but couldn’t quite stop the thrill of riding out his anger. She deserved it, and it was only the truth.
“I mean, it’s a holiday,” he began, but she had retreated into the living room. She reached behind the couch and grabbed her backpack. She opened their dresser and randomly grabbed a few pairs of underwear and socks, which she stuffed into the bag. She took a sweater and a pair of jeans, steadily avoiding his eyes as her own dripped tears onto the clothes in her drawer. She pushed past him to the little bathroom where she took her toothbrush and then hastily put on her jacket.
“I don’t need to take this,” she said, tears in her voice. “Tony said I can stay at his place if I ever need it. He warned me about you, you know, but I always defended you.”
“Rosie, don’t be like that. Look, I’m sorry—”
“I’m sick of your sorries. I’ll call you about picking up the rest of my stuff tomorrow.”
She left, and he didn’t try to stop her.
The goggles were still on the sink, just a few steps away.
She’ll come back, he thought. Let me just put these on a while longer.