"Just go out", they said. "You’ll feel better about it, don’t be such a stick in the mud." Innocent urging and nervous smiles, mixed with the cheery optimism of someone whose internal resilience could take what the world gave them, polishing it and putting a ribbon on top - "See, it isn’t so bad!", they’d say.
Which is exactly how I ended up here, deep in the city, with a few hundred strangers and well-wishers laughing and talking the hours away before midnight. Red and green lights reflected deep in my glass, making strange glyphs on the ice that was half-submerged in my drink. Moving the glass slightly, watching the trail of condensation form stepped rings and connecting droplet lines on the burnished copper bar.
Just like minature highways, I thought, taking another swig. Driving until you can’t even feel your fingertips, pushing the gas pedal so hard it seemed I could leap to lightspeed if I just had a few more millimeters of travel in the pedal. But I didn’t. I drove through the highways and truck stops, the back roads and the moss covered trees as fast as I could - and it didn’t make one shred of difference.
My right hand started to tremble, and I put it flat on the bar, fingers splayed out, letting the cool metal take the heat. The rising wave of regret and betrayal threatening to make my vision blurry and my voice stutter. Take it easy, I thought. You are here to have fun, right? That’s what tonight is about. Everyone having the best possible time of their lives.
I turned with my back to the bar, watching the crowd and the lights. Television panels hung everywhere, tuned to different celebrations all over the world, where the sweeping terminator of day and night had already graced a new year to those living on different continents. Like seeing the future, I thought. And what if you could? What if you could see the road that you were going to travel, the actions you’d make. All expanding ripples in time that intersect and clash against your own existence. Is it any surprise when a rogue wave gets mysteriously reinforced and you’re swept under by a 100 foot tall monster?
"Hey Macx!! Glad you came!" Ryan slapped me on the back, with more incredulity in his voice than he showed in his demeanor.
I nodded and smiled, trying to get my heart rate under control, scanning the crowd to seem like I was engaged with the party.
"Let’s get you introduced, we’re all over here." Ryan pointed to a small reserved booth that probably cost ten times what it would when it was January 1st. Letting him lead, I followed and clutched my drink like it was full of a life giving medicine. I couldn’t take much of this. But there’s no point in being a complete hermit, not on a night like tonight.
The booth was well worn and fully occupied, three spaces on each side of the anchored table, an opening made for me which put me opposite of Ryan and his girlfriend. Sliding down into the seat, I grabbed the edge and felt the fossilized remains of gum someone had stuck underneath the table. Supressing a shiver of disgust, I turned to greet my seat buddy.
"Hey, name’s Macx", I shook her slender hand inhaling a faint scent of perfume.
"Zoey, and this is Portland", she gestured at a sleeve-tattoed man dressed in a vest and old-fashioned bowtie, bearded and dark rimmed glasses framing his face. Zoey was a knockout, and always had been. Brunette and full of fierce intensity that always made me wonder how she’d be in bed. But that wasn’t happening with Mr. My-name-is-a-city sitting right next to her. Fucking hell, who does that - named after a city I mean. It was so pretentious I almost got up and walked away.
But Ryan was here, and his girlfriend was talking and smiling with her best friend to her right, which appeared to be the obvious blind date that he and her had planned all along. Christ, I wasn’t in the mood for this. Maybe another time, but this kind of forced matching never worked out for me. The tension and the awkward words being picked apart by eager friends, all mentally calculating how long it would take for us to go off together somewhere alone.
Like that night after her phone call, bags packed for a second trip to visit, printed routes stuffed in the top of the backpack, a duffle bag of clothes and toiletries. The first quavering syllables of her voice, “It’s been a hard day for me…” then the bomb dropped. World unstable, sitting down. Hand clutching my head, the other the bedspread. Like a man expecting to fall off the face of the earth. Yawning chasm of sadness with no bottom in sight.
Funny how they seem to cry more than you do, at first.
Come on, Macx, snap out of it.
Shifting my gaze to my drink again, I let the conversation swirl around me, trying hard not to make eye contact with the single girl, Saki. She was japanese but born in the states, studying for a business degree in something or other. I didn’t pick up the details, just stared at her fine black hair, sheen of reflected lights making a small halo around her head. Back to the drink then. Sipping and watching the ice fall further into the ethanol depths, swirling currents of H20 and alcohol making rivulets and tiny tempests.
We ate and talked, some furtive glances from Saki and subtle innuendo from Ryan’s girlfriend putting on the pressure for us to talk. I smiled and played along, but didn’t put myself into the moment. I felt like a robot, joints worn and mechanical heart barely thudding along. Just waiting for the proper time to excuse myself so I could have a good one-on-one with the bottle I had stashed in the freezer at home.
Zoey ribbed me, asking about how things were going and immediately taking my responses and applying them to how happy her and Portland were, and for sure - I’d find something like that too. At that moment, with them grinning and fondling each other, Ryan and his girl with heads together, I felt like the curious prey of a monster that feeds on solitude. Pushing away from the table, I muttered an excuse and went to the bathroom. I could feel Saki’s eyes boring into my back, and I couldn’t take it anymore.
Pushing through the wood-paneled door, hands resting on the marble sink. Short blast of water, rinsing my face off. Just to lend calm to my mind. The bathroom was empty, so I lingered a minute and stared at the mirror, deep into my own eyes. I could almost see her face, the reflection that had been there so many times before when I had visited her.
Missing her arms around me, the tight bands of pressure they made as she pulled me close. Her smell, her walk. The lilt of laughter when she thought I was funny. And now, fifteen minutes to midnight, I’m in a city like any other. Hundreds of miles away from where she called and excised me from her life, the last tendril of hope stretching like plastic until it snapped.
Going back to the bar, I ordered a fresh drink.
Ten minutes. People were getting more animated, talking louder and clinking glasses. A group of younger partygoers rushed by, one of them elbowing me in the back, brushing me aside with no apologies. Glancing back towards the booth, Ryan was telling another of his stories and laughing. Good, I didn’t want to bring the mood down. This was my own personal hell, and I wouldn’t feel right if it had ruined their night.
Bartender setting down a flute of champagne, intended for the final countdown to the New Year. Staring at it, the fine trail of bubbles rising to the top, spaced like transparent pearls on an invisible string. Watching each one as it hit the top and burst like liquid fireworks.
Thinking back, to the final week before the call.
"I’m just going to take a trip, and I need your car because my credit is shit."
It was always like that, but I didn’t mind. I trusted her to treat it well, even if I couldn’t afford any real accidental damage.
Giving the key, a quick kiss, and seeing her drive off.
She came back a few days later, then sequestered herself on the computer, the familiar ‘poing’ sound of her messaging client going off more frequently than before. Catching her smiling at the screen, stacatto typing sounds echoing from the hardwood floors. That was odd, she had turned her desk around, so the screen wasn’t visible to me. Oh well, maybe the sunlight had been bothering her, I had thought.
If only I had known.
An older gentlemen bumped into me then, pulling me back to the present.
Five minutes. The dense fabric of rising and falling speech was interspersed with female laughter and boisterous cheering. I drained my drink and asked for another. Feeling the soft pressure of a hand on my shoulder, I turned and saw Saki. Black dress, red lipstick and that subtle smokey eye makeup that one out of a hundred women know how to apply properly, and even fewer looking good wearing it, like her.
"I just wanted to say it was good to meet you, Macx.", she lifted her eyebrows, throwing out a emotional line that I could’ve grabbed. It seemed she was trying to leave the party early. I watched it sail by, and slowly retract. My hands were still. I couldn’t do this. Not now, not here.
"Great to meet you, Saki.", I turned back to the bar and watched her leave, sinuous movements of her legs and arms as she walked the short distance to the ornate glass door, and vanished into the street.
I couldn’t. It was one minute to midnight, but my time had already run out.
Gathering my coat from the front, shrugging it on.
"TEN, NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN", voices chanted in unison, streamers started to fall from their hiding places in the ceiling.
Mental flash of her packing, angrily throwing her books into the box.
"SIX, FIVE, FOUR, THREE", plucking a bit of confetti from my drink, finishing it in one long pull.
Seeing her load up the truck, pulling away.
"TWO, ONE - HAPPY NEW YEAR!!", the roar of the crowd, jubilant and free. Women kissing their dates, men shaking hands and clapping their friends backs.
The sinking feeling of finding out I had been replaced by someone I knew, her using my car to visit him. Mental flashback nearly causing me to stumble, as I pushed the door open and left the party.
Slush and ice, the subdued idling of a nearby cab. Opening the yellow door, and sliding into the seat.
"Happy New Year, where to?"
"Anywhere but here.", I slumped back into the seat, the world filtered through droplets on the window, making a colored blurry mosaic.
It began to snow, flakes twirling towards their fate, into brine-filled puddles of dark liquid death. Like hearts and hope, all falling down. Beautiful and pure, until the moment they meet an obstacle that can’t be pushed past, the rejection the pain. The swearing off of ever having anything to do with it ever again. Build the shell, heal the heart. Try to forget.
Happy New Year.