Most of us had flown into the small-town airport east of the Cascades earlier that day.
But she and Jack were living in Portland at the time. So they drove down from the city, making the trek up and over the mountains with chains strapped to the tires of her car, and then down the long incline into the valley that hugged the resort village tightly in its wintery grasp.
They were the last to show up.
None of us had met Jack before. Not even me. And we had been roommates in college, just a couple of girls against the world.
This, in itself, was not unheard of. Other boyfriends and girlfriends had made their entry into our tight-knit circle of friends during our yearly ski trip to the mountains.
But few survived the ordeal.
Our group had been coming here ever since college. Little had changed since then. Although now, with most of us working real jobs, we could afford to stay in the larger suites, the ones with a stone fireplace in the living room and a hot tub on the patio overlooking the densely wooded ravine out back.
Traditions meant everything on these trips.
As you might expect from a group that had weathered the awkward pairings, uncouplings, and one-night hook-ups of college, the stressful graduate and post-graduate years, and the eventual dispersion of everyone across the country for our fully-formed adult lives.
Some traditions, like the slightly inebriated human pyramid and the a cappella sing-a-long had been planned from our very first trip. But other traditions rose out of nowhere and returned every year, no matter how hard some of us tried to keep them at bay with fancy appetizers, party games, and cocktail drinks.
Most of the accidental traditions involved hazing the unfortunate strangers who stumbled — or were dragged unwillingly — into our group. But I don’t think any of us deliberately set out to torment them. They were probably terrified enough just to be dumped into our oppressive social gathering. But old friendships and too many bottles of wine have a way of bringing out your bad habits.
Inevitably the torment started with Michael.
It also usually involved the hot tub, where over our many years together our familiarity with each other had made clothing optional, if not frowned upon.
I knew Lisa would want to avoid the hot tub at all costs.
Or at least keep Jack out of it for as long as possible. Maybe she wanted us to get to know him in a more neutral location, like the ski trail or at the shopping mall. Any place where our attention wouldn’t be focused solely on him.
I heard the front door open and then saw Lisa sneaking down the hallway toward the bedroom she had reserved for herself, the only one with its own private bathroom.
Michael called out to them from the doorway to the patio, his naked body dripping onto the pile of towels we had laid down on the pine floor to protect its finish, and our security deposit.
From the hot tub, I couldn’t make out their conversation, but I could tell Lisa was trying to talk her way out of joining us, no doubt telling Michael how tired she and Jack were after the long drive.
Michael could be very convincing, though. The naked hugs he gave to them probably helped convince them to give in, if only to avoid any more awkward, slightly drunk moments.
Soon, they had shed their clothes and joined us in the hot tub
Jack was surrounded by eight of Lisa’s closest friends from college, hemmed in from all sides.
Lisa sat close to Jack, her hand under the water resting on his thigh.
Like most outsiders before him, he sat as quietly and still as possible, trying to avoid drawing any extra attention to himself.
Lisa answered most of our questions for him, saving him from stumbling over his own words.
After about an hour, I thought Jack just might make it. He had almost made it through the hardest part of the weekend, and on the very first night.
But then Michael broke out the bottle of tequila — another tradition, one that was started years ago on a dare by someone who was no longer part of our group, but continued wholeheartedly by Michael ever since.
As the bottle passed around the hot tub in a circle, our conversation died. The combination of heat and alcohol deadened most of our minds. Before long we would all stumble to our rooms or to the couches in the living room if that was as far as we could make it.
The bottle went around the circle once. Twice. Three times.
And then Michael leaned across the hot tub toward Jack, holding onto the side for stability.
“We dated once. But that was before she met you, a long time ago …” Michael let his voice trail off.
Jack didn’t react. He sat up very straight in the hot tub, a bottle of beer in his hand.
“We all knew when it happened,” I said, suddenly feeling bad for falling into Michael’s little game, but unable to stop myself.
“She was glowing, you know,” I said. “She came back to our apartment and I could tell.” The bottle had reached me, so I took a swig of tequila and passed it on. “You can always tell,” and I smiled.
Jack sat very stiffly in the hot tub. He took a sip of beer, maybe to cover up the awkwardness.
Michael took a large gulp of tequila. He passed the bottle onto the next one in the group.
Then Michael floated across the hot tub and squeezed in beside Lisa, with Jack on the other side of her.
He brushed a wet strand of hair off her face.
Then he ran a finger down her neck and along the top of her breast, just above the water line. She didn’t react.
“I was her first lover,” he said, “back in the day.”
Jack pushed Michael’s hand away from Lisa roughly. He glared at everyone in the tub.
“What’s wrong with you people …”
He climbed out of the hot tub and walked quickly to the patio door, stopping only to look for his towel. Someone had dumped it on the floor next to the door, along with the other wet towels, so he grabbed a tiny hand towel from the kitchen and held it in front of him as he ran off toward the bedroom.
So much for traditions. Most of the new ones survived past the first night.
And too bad, too. Jack had a sexy voice and, I thought, a nice body.
Short story: “A Mid-Winter Night’s Traditions” © 2014 by Shawn Radcliffe / Branáin