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  • H.K. Slade

A Fitness Center Christmas

Updated: Feb 2, 2021

Note: I set this story in the Umstead Hotel, a beautiful, real life place in Cary, NC. If you've never been, make the time to spend a night there, or at least visit the spa. Everything, and I do mean everything, is top notch there. When my wife and I were looking for a hotel room for the night of our wedding, we went to a bunch of places. We tried to keep it simple (we're not fancy people), but everyone at every hotel was so rude to us. Then, on a whim, we stopped by the Umstead. We were wearing jeans and our yard-work sweatshirts, but they treated us like we were most important people on the planet. I felt like Thomas Crown or Bruce Wayne.

This year, we returned for our tenth anniversary. Things were different because of the Covid, different, but still magical. I'm a night owl, so when my beautiful wife drifted off to sleep, I walked the empty hotel with my laptop and wrote this fun little story. It was the runner up in a Reedsy Writing Prompt contest, but the guy who won was so good, I couldn't even be disappointed. I hope it reminds you of the night or the place or the season you met your special someone.

Rex had worked so hard to get on the show. The weeks of practice, the grueling auditions, the utterly convincing look of interest he’d developed and maintained during the director’s lengthy anecdotes: all for naught.

Most of the cast left town on the bus that afternoon, but Rex had subleased his apartment when he got the job. He had nowhere to go and no one willing to take him in during this new age of social distancing. Rex would spend his holidays and the last of his savings staying in Cary’s gorgeous but nearly deserted Umstead Hotel.

There were worse places to be stranded to be sure, though Rex was hard pressed to name them off the top of his head.

“Excuse me, sir,” one of the hotel staff said in what might have been the most polite and deferential tone possible without kowtowing. “Your mask?”

Now that it was pointed out to him, Rex did notice the unaccustomed ease with which he was breathing. He pulled his mask on and murmured an apology to the man.

“Quite alright, sir,” he said. “Easy enough to forget sometimes.”

Embarrassed by what had become the modern-day equivalent of walking around with his fly open, Rex scampered down the hall toward the fitness center. The hotel’s gym was his one refuge from the dark depression that loomed in his empty room. Alone with only the TV for company, his hotel room left him open to unhealthy temptations. He’d decimated a pint of Americone Dream earlier that night- a veritable sin for a working dancer, doubly so for one looking for work. The treadmill was both penance and distraction.

As an added bonus, Rex could drop his mask when he was alone in the gym. It was a small comfort, not as good as getting to perform in front of a crowd or cashing a paycheck at a bank, but it was a time of adjusted expectations.

Unfortunately, someone else had the same idea.

A young woman was already in the gym, slamming a kettlebell into the floor only to snatch it up again, over and over. Sweat flew as she awkwardly jerked the weight overhead, and Rex couldn’t help hearing her blaring country music workout track even in the hallway.

He paused at the door, wondering if it was worth the trouble. There was still more ice cream to be eaten somewhere in this hotel.

Dropping the weight, the woman finally noticed Rex standing in the hallway, staring at her through the windows. She mistook his hesitation for judgment. Rolling her eyes, she retrieved her mask from her bag and hooked it over her ears, then waved for him to come in.

Rex couldn’t think of a way he could leave now without looking like he was scampering off to complain to the hotel staff. He keyed open the door, dropped his bag, and began his warmup routine. Expecting to be alone in the gym in an empty hotel at midnight, he hadn’t bothered to charge his headphones. Now, he was regretting it. Rex did his best to ignore the woman and leave her to her own workout. If only she had returned the consideration.

“What are you doing?” she asked as Rex began a series of pliés.

“I’m warming up.”

“Okay, sure. You look like you’re about to lay an egg. You know they have treadmills and stuff here right?”

Rex’s mistake was that he forgot that he wasn’t backstage anymore. Dancers on tour were notoriously blunt with each other about their shortcomings. Maybe it was his dark mood, or maybe it was the woman’s refusal to mind her own business, but Rex blurted out his reply like he was talking to a fellow cast member.

“Listen, the person in this room who needs to be on the treadmill isn’t the professional dancer with 3% body fat.”

If he’d had the ability to pluck his own words right out of the air at the cost of a few burned fingers, Rex would have done it at that moment. Even with her mask on, he saw the woman fold in on herself. She turned around sharply, picked up her kettlebell again, and returned to her workout with such ferocity that Rex felt it like the hyper-aggressive snap-track of her country music.

The woman was larger. Not unhealthily so, but enough that the insult had come easily to his mind. People were sensitive to such things. Rex had trained with men and women who’d struggled with eating disorders. He should have been a better person.

As he stood there, watching the woman and trying to think of a way to apologize that wouldn’t just make things worse, Rex noticed something wrong with her movement. A person without his training might not have noticed it, but she loaded her weight incorrectly every time she lifted the kettlebell. She wore loose fitting sweatpants, but that didn’t entirely hide the difference between the two legs. And then he caught the glint of metal on at left ankle and realized that he’d just told a woman with a prosthetic leg that she needed to walk more.

I am such an asshole, Rex thought. He turned off the woman’s speaker. The sudden silence was deafening. She spun on him, weight still in hand, and for a moment Rex was afraid she was going to clobber him with it.

“Wait, wait!” he said, and held up his hands defensively. She lowered the weight to the ground, frowning.

“I’m sorry. I was being a jerk. I didn’t mean anything. I’m just having a bad day.”

She continued to scowl as she looked him up and down. “Yeah, well, there’s a lot of that going around these days.”

Rex couldn’t argue, so he didn’t even try. “You’re right about that. Doesn’t excuse what I said.”

“It’s Christmas,” she said with a shrug. “I think we can all cut each other a little slack. My name’s Cameron.

“Rex,” he replied and gave her a little CDC-approved wave.

Cameron took a seat on a bench and started cleaning her equipment with one of the hotel’s antibacterial wipes. “So, you’re a dancer? Like ballet?”

“A little. I make my living doing modern stuff. Off Broadway.”

She perked up. “Anything I’d recognize?”

“Depends. Ever heard of Akayla’s Sunny Day?”

“Yes!” she said. “I love that book. I didn’t know they’d made a musical out of it. Do you play Lawrence? Or, oh my god, are you Victor? You’re kind of how I picture Victor.”

“No,” Rex admitted. Out of force of habit, he tried to hang onto his brittle smile so she wouldn’t see how much that question hurt. At least the masks are good for something. “I’m one of the people in the background. I am, in order of appearance, a waiter, a cop, and one of the chickens in the big farm scene. Or I was. They shut down the tour this week.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Cameron said with genuine sympathy. “No wonder you’re in a bad mood.”

“What about you? There’s less than two dozen guests in this hotel, and that’s counting the family in room 214 who won’t step out into the hallway if there is another person on the floor. How did you end up in the Umstead Fitness Center at 12:15 in the morning three days before Christmas?”

Cameron slung the kettle bell back onto the rack. “That’s more of a story than I want to get into at the gym,” she said in a voice so low Rex barely heard it.

“Then let me buy you some coffee. I’m sure there is someone in the hotel who can pour a cup.”

She pointed to his gym bag. “You didn’t even work out yet.”

“The gym isn’t going anywhere. Besides, I’m just down here hiding from my troubles. I was an ass. Let me make amends.”

“Okay,” she said, and toweled off her face and arms. “It will be a little Christmas adventure.” She slipped on a sweatshirt and retrieved an aluminum cane that Rex had mistaken for a piece of gym equipment.

They wandered the halls of the hotel together, silently at first. There was enough to look at that it wasn’t an uncomfortable quiet. Even with its diminished occupancy, the hotel had spared no expense in decorating for the season. Live pine trees adorned the alcoves and corners, their branches hung with handcrafted glass ornaments and the largest, most pristine pinecones Rex had ever seen. One tree, twelve feet tall at least, wore bouquets of fresh orchids tucked among the white twinkle lights. Instrumental Christmas music played from hidden speakers, and it felt to Rex a bit like they were wandering through Santa’s palace on Christmas Eve looking for a coffee maker.

T hey kept an easy pace, one Cameron had no trouble keeping up with. Rex didn’t mind the slow walk, or the lack of conversation. He was just glad for the company.

They turned a corner past the closed hotel restaurant and found another long, empty, tastefully decorated hall. Rex slowed to see if his companion wanted to keep going. She sat down on a bench, and he took a chair opposite her.

As if making a casual observation, Cameron said, “This was supposed to be my honeymoon. We were going to get married in the banquet hall just down here.”

“Oh?” Rex prompted her. She had his interest.

“There was a car accident last year about this time.”

“I’m sorry. Did… what… was your fiancé... hurt?” “What?” The question seemed to surprise her. “No. I wish. I was driving. Too fast, as it turns out. I rolled the car.” She pulled up the leg of her sweatpants to reveal an articulated metal ankle that would have not looked out of place on the Terminator. “They say I got lucky. They saved the knee.”

“You postponed the wedding so you can rehab?” Rex guessed.

“Uh, no. Not at all. See, you might not know this, but if you lay in bed recovering from surgery and eat nothing but Chick-fil-A for a couple months, you will get fat. At least I did.”

He held up his hand to pause the conversation. “Wait, your fiancé called off the wedding because you gained some weight? After a car crash in which you lost your foot? And here I thought I was the biggest ass you’ve met in a while.”

Cameron chuckled and shook her head. “It wasn’t the weight. At least he said it wasn’t, for whatever that is worth. We used to do things together, things I can’t do with a mechanical foot.” She tapped the joint with her cane, and it made a clinking sound.

“Like what?” Rex asked, hoping she wasn’t talking about weird sex stuff. “We used to run races every weekend. And bike. And dance. We loved to go out line dancing.” Cameron’s focus went soft as she brought up a memory. “At the beginning of summer, right before they shut everything down, we tried to go dancing. We were celebrating me completing my physical therapy. I fell. He was nice about it. Helped me back to my seat. Sat with me. Watched everyone else dance. The next week, he called off the wedding.”

Cameron sniffed, hard. She tilted her head back in the way people do to keep tears from falling. They sat in the empty hall for a long minute, thinking their own thoughts. The symphonic version of Little Drummer Boy playing over the hotel’s music system ended, and Silent Night began.

On the table next to Rex, the hotel had provided hand sanitizer in a classy white dispenser bearing the Umstead logo. He stood up, took a squirt, rubbed his hands together, and held them out to Cameron.

She stared at them blankly at first, not sure what he was expecting her to do, but Rex opened his fingers wider and motioned for her to stand. She took his hands and he helped her to her feet.

The thing about Silent Night that most people don’t realize is that you can dance to it. It’s a slow waltz, to be sure, but waltzes weren’t meant to be fast. Still holding her hands, Rex placed Cameron’s left on his shoulder and counted, “One, two, three. One, two three.”

Then they were off.

Rex had put in plenty of hours teaching dance classes back home, and he could tell immediately that Cameron got it. She was still an amateur, but she moved with the music instead of fighting it. They floated down the hallway, becoming more and more comfortable with each other after every turn. They maneuvered into the open floor of a small lobby, and that’s when Rex tried his first closed change.

Cameron stumbled as her mechanical foot dragged on the carpet. It wasn’t much; Rex had felt worse dancing with a nervous partner in a competition. He firmed up his posture and steadied his arm to take the load— and then they were through the turn. An untrained observer might never have noticed. It was mostly her. Rex hadn’t done anything more then give her a support to hold onto.

Cameron only stumbled once more before they worked out how to make the change smoothly. Just a little pressure to let her know it was coming, and she could brace and glide through it.

When the song ended, Rex led her through an underarm turn and then bowed to her.

Even with the mask in, he could see the huge smile on her face.

“Thank you,” she said, her eyes shiny.

Rex blurted out what he was thinking before he lost his nerve. “I don’t think the problem was your weight, Cameron. Or your foot. I think the problem was that your dance partner wasn’t strong enough. That’s really his problem, not yours.”

She blinked, her eyes wide. “Are you applying for the position?” she asked.

“Would you like to go dancing with me tomorrow night? There’s this beautiful hallway no one is using.”

“I would like that. A lot.”

And just like that, Rex stopped minding so much that he was unemployed, or that he had to wear a mask, or that he was stuck in a hotel for Christmas.


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