Normally I'm the one who skips the hot tub and helps with the dishes because hot tubs at parties kinda gross me out a little-- you know when you see little flakes of skin or hairs or whatever floating on the surface?--but I have a sprained shoulder and think it might help. The host is my co-worker, Kelly, who works beside me in the warehouse, and has become more or less my supervisor. She invites me to these things all the time, and I almost always say no, because big social gatherings stress me out.
The tub is aglow with blue light, making everyone's face look surreal. I find the darkest spot on the deck and give myself some private kudos for remembering to breathe long, slow breaths, which makes it slightly less uncomfortable for me to strip down in this moment. As I remove my tee shirt and jeans and hang them over her deck rail, trying to look casual--thinking, 'these are my clothes, this is where my clothes are'-- Kelly keeps repeating how glad she is that I could finally make it.
"Get on in here," she says. "The water is perfect."
It's one of those early fall nights with a clear sky, a new moon and a million stars. Kelly and her husband have a really nice house, for a second I wonder what he does for a living, because she only makes the same as me. There's a few of us in the tub, maybe five or six at any time. It's a large, electric tub, one of those fiberglass deals. We sip our beers and gaze at the view of the elderberry bushes along the back fence and anytime someone new steps in, he or she grins the same huge grin and makes the same, slow "ahhhhh" sound as they sink down into the 105-plus degrees water.
Soon it feels natural for me to be in a tub with five strangers. One reason it's easier than I expected it to be, is that these particular strangers, though slightly buzzed, are very conscious of social distancing, due to the pandemic. While keeping a full six feet apart may not be possible in a hot tub, they repeatedly jockey themselves away from one another, 'giving space,' as they say, which results in a decidedly nonsexual vibe.
I claim a jet and use it to find the exact spot in my shoulder where pain and pleasure merge, and I stay on that spot until my surroundings all but disappear. People climb in and out, one blue-lit, smiling face is replaced by another one. I always smile back. I don't say much, I prefer to listen quietly or zone out.
At some point some guy named Bob happens to ask Kelly how she sterilizes the tub, which sparks a discussion about which method works best--chlorine, bromine, or sodium bromide with shock. I notice Kelly never actually answers Bob's question, as the conversation sweeps to some other topic, as conversations do, before she has the chance.
The massage jet feels great on my shoulder, and I can't seem to leave the heat, so Kelly and I are the last ones still in the hot tub. Later, she tells me she was aware of Bob's presence, as he sat in a nearby hammock chair, but I have no idea he is there. My ears are probably half underwater and I'm definitely thoroughly relaxed. Time goes by.
Just making small talk, I ask again what she uses to keep the hot tub clean. I figure it's bromine, because it does not smell at all bleach-y. She raises her voice a titch and says, "We're not into using any nasty chemicals. We just ask everybody to shower first."
I've already been in the tub for over an hour, so there is no point being in a hurry to get out of it now, despite my fear of cooties. And when I say cooties, I mean other people's cooties, but there's also the other thing, which is that I didn't take a shower before I got in.
I don't tell Kelly that. I do tell her that I think along with asking people to shower, she probably should've let them know the tub was unsterilized before they got in. She agrees in a half-hearted, dismissive way, then gives me kind of a mini-lecture about self-responsibility and how we should all maintain our own strong immune systems.
While she talks, I hear a defensive tone in her voice that intensifies the longer I say nothing.
She's in the middle of listing a bunch of supplements she takes when suddenly Bob leaps out of the hammock chair and starts yelling at her about bacterial infections. I mean, he comes unglued. He calls her an ignorant idiot. She's no wallflower, she launches herself out of the water like a missile and they get into a full-on screaming match, both sides standing on the deck in their towels, naked and steaming in the freezing air.
Bob's shouting draws people out of the house, and now everyone is on the deck, tuned in to the drama. Some guests get upset when they hear the news, some even take turns re-showering, their faces indignant as nuns. Loud enough for everyone to hear, Kelly proclaims that also, she changes the hot tub water after every shared use. All the guests fall quiet for a moment. I can hear their brains processing. Nobody is sure how to respond, except Bob.
Bob doesn't believe her at first--the tub is so large--but she insists it's true, and that she changes the water any time anyone other than she or her husband uses the tub. "We don't have people over very often," she explains.
I wonder why she says that, since she throws dinner parties, like, ALL the time, and these are the very people she has over--but I keep quiet. Maybe she is losing her grip on reality. Too much pressure will cause anyone to crack.
There's a lot of back-and-forth among the guests as to whether or not filling the tub with new water after every use is, scientifically speaking, a hygienic enough way to keep us safe. The discussion veers into neighboring territories, moving from the potentially dangerous tub water to withdrawal as a birth control method, and then inevitably, my stomach tightening to witness it, into the minefield subject of masks and vaccines, until the friendly ease with which we had so recently bathed and drank together seems all but lost.
In the end, everyone agrees that, safe or not, the host should have made it known there were no chemicals in the water. Bob makes a joke that gets a big laugh and people start putting on their coats and promising each other they'll get together soon, but I notice the host is being ostracized. A shift has taken place in the energy toward the host.
I am the last to leave. I ask Kelly about her husband, why he hadn't been at the party. She pulls a cover part way over the tub and I help her gather wet towels from the deck, as she replies, "Oh, he hates parties. He thinks most of my friends are idiots."
I laugh at this, but she doesn't. For the first time all evening, she looks tired. In her eyes I see a look of defeat and pain, a new heaviness in her step as she makes her way around the tub.
It seems like the right thing to do, to give her a little hug, so I push past the awkwardness, and try my best, as a way to say goodbye. It’s all I’ve got--I mean, I’m tired, too. My quick hug feels like throwing a tiny meat scrap to a huge, sad dog.
I wish I had more, I wish her husband had more, I wish the guests had more. I pull my car keys out of my jeans, step into my Sorels.
"Thanks for coming, buddy,” she sighs. “I was glad you were here."
And with that, she pulls an unopened, six-pound jug of SpaGuard Enhanced Shock Oxidizer from under a table, and measures a hefty dose of sodium dichloro-s-triazinetrione into the settled water.