I Had Never Had a Halfway Decent New Year’s Eve in My Life by Lee Upton
At least none that I could remember. Which is unfortunate given that the day is supposed to be about transformation, profound change. And for a long time that’s all I told myself I wanted. It was always out there, but elusive: the profound change. Even when my life had been going reasonably well—enough money for groceries and rent, a few friends, I wanted change. Profound change.
On that particular New Year’s Eve I’d resolved to stay home. Watch something on Netflix, avoid all the ball dropping hysteria, the sad New Year’s Eve in Times Square with all that terrorist-inflected misery. Intentionally go to bed early.
Any other year that would have worked. But I had befriended a colleague, Brit. I suppose I was her perfect target. It wasn’t that I was a particularly good listener, but I was adept at making my own silent observations about what she was wearing, or the strange dimple in her chin, while she endlessly navigated around the subject of past love relationships between herself and various women and men.
Thankless promiscuity. Acute recklessness. The bitter dregs of nostalgia.
I suppose we both pitied each other. When you’re miserable it’s advisable to have someone you imagine is more desperate in your immediate circle, someone who can’t be an abstraction. That is, you may need a living breathing person you can compare yourself almost favorably with. Although I’m not proud of that.
When Brit texted I had no illusion that she was thinking of my own good primarily. She was lonely and wanted to drop in to a bar that was only four short blocks from my apartment.
Well-planned spontaneity. Bullying neediness. Demands that activate guilt. Smart forecasting about my availability.
I’d wriggled my way out of a devastating divorce and then fell in love with a man who found me convenient. When that ended as badly as it had to, I was finding it hard to function. Except at work. There was a certain mindlessness that was pleasurable at work.
Brit insisted on driving to the bar rather than walking. First, we had to wheel past the house of some man she was pursuing to see if his lights were on. They weren’t. Then we had to admire the last-remaining holiday lights in his neighborhood—including the lawns with deflated Santas, like tossed off party favor condoms. Within ten minutes I couldn’t help myself. I was fantasizing our deaths—from Brit’s bad driving or the bad driving of someone at the wheel of the jeep headed toward us.
New Year’s Eve—night of the terrible drunkards. How would we survive it? Did we deserve to survive it? And what did anyone deserve? A terrible question. The question for advertisers who want to sell you what you don’t need—that’s the only time you hear you “deserve” something. Maybe they’re right, though, and we all deserve something.
A night at home. Dreamless sleep. A small soft kitten that doesn’t hiss or hide from you.
The bar was dark. “A good sign,” Brit whispered into my ear. Immediately my eye glasses fogged up. All I could see was the darkness scrubbed around. I took off my glasses, unzipped my jacket, pulled my blouse tail out, wiped my glasses with my blouse. I had to do that much or I’d never find my way to a table without tipping over something or someone. By the time I finished Brit had already abandoned me. She’d seen friends. A full table. She’d slid herself among them, wasn’t looking my way.
It was my fault for agreeing to go anywhere with her. Nevertheless, my eyes stung. I couldn’t help myself. I’d been sick for months—physically sick, and lonely and overworked (my own choice in both loneliness and overwork). I hadn’t cried in months despite everything and now my throat was closing, and old memories were ruining my face.
Sad clown in bad painting. Enraged clown. A video camera is capturing my face. To be laughed at later. Butt of jokes. Sad big-butted scrunch-eyed woman.
That’s when they appeared—the three of them. Or, at first, just one of them, I should say. My elbow was taken. I was guided forward by a large male hand.
Rape. Rape drug. Kidnapping.
All the reliable thoughts went through my head, and I was still half-blind with the wash of tears. “Darling, that pig of a cow just left you standing there by your lonesome, didn’t she?”
My glasses cleared.
One of the three men at the table bent forward. “I apologize for Ethan,” he said. “We shouldn’t be calling anyone a cow of a pig. Not kind. That’s not right no matter how you slice it.”
“But what if someone deserves it?” another of the men said.
“My friend—she’s all right,” I said. “Really. She was just excited. About seeing her friends.”
“But aren’t you her friend?” the third man asked. He introduced himself as Joshua. Next he introduced the others. The first one who spoke had been Ethan. The second: Charlie.
Something identified as Lost in Paris was set before me. A martini with an actual pear slice on the rim.
“You don’t have to drink it if you don’t want to,” Ethan said.
Appearance of kindness used to disguise malevolent intent. New tasteless odorless tranquilizer?
I glanced over at the far corner of the bar. It looked like Brit was wiping her fingers off in some guy’s hair.
I took cautious sips of the martini and studied the men I was sitting with.
Old. So old. So old they could have been triplets. The same whitish hair. One of them was a white man but all three men looked pretty much the same.
Escapees from retirement home? Will I be asked to administer CPR soon? Is Joshua’s mouth drooping?
Ethan asked me questions which I answered. The twangy hideous music in the bar became so loud that I couldn’t hear. By then I was ready to leave but wondered how I could without being rude.
Was I being held hostage by my own manners? Yes, of course. Like people who help a serial killer with heavy packages?
“Whoa,” Charlie said, tapping my hand. “Not to be a nag, but those martinis hit hard. I had one of those last week and couldn’t walk home. It’s the gin.”
“Gin’s a hallucinogen,” Joshua said.
“Ha ha ha,” Ethan said. “Gin’s a hallucinogen.”
I let a fantasy take hold—walking through the door: one of these men’s grandsons. A nice-looking kind man who was recently divorced by someone wicked, and instantly attracted to me. He lopes to the table, pulls up a chair, asks, “Are these guys bothering you?”
“I better get going,” I told the men.
“Wait. Wait for August.”
“It’s still December,” I said.
“No, August is a person. You’re his type.”
“A friend of yours?”
“No, but he’ll be a great friend to you.”
“He’s a portrait artist. He’ll want to draw your picture.”
“You have a face.”
“He means that you have a memorable face. The kind August likes to commit to paper or canvas or whatever.”
Skin of face peeled and used as mask.
I thanked them, stood shakily, and headed over to Brit’s table.
“I have to go,” I informed her. “Are you okay? You want to go with me?” She was leaning her head on a man’s shoulder. He shrugged her off after I spoke. She shook her head.
“You stay,” I said. “I’m fine.”
The night air was making me alert. The shadow of a man loomed ahead and I crossed the street.
It’s exhausting being a woman. Maybe it’s exhausting being anyone. It must be hard to be an animal too. Maybe the problem is that we are animals. I don’t know.
When I got two blocks from my apartment I realized I’d left my purse, with my keys, behind me at the bar.
I turned as a man ran toward me, waving something in the air.
A gun. Mace. An electric prod.
“Your stuff!” the man shouted.
He was younger than I was. Puppyish. Smiling broadly under the streetlight. Squinting, running his gaze over my face. I do have a memorable face, which isn’t necessarily a compliment.
“I’ve been trying to catch up with you. The guys…”
I thanked him.
“Did you make any resolutions?” he said, panting between each word.
“I always do,” I said, retrieving my purse and scarf from him.
Exercise. Avoid bread baskets. Give 5 percent more to Foundation Fighting Blindness. Stop wanting so much. Be humble. Develop confidence. Avoid dangerous situations. Don’t talk to strange men.
“What about you?” I asked.
“I never make resolutions,” he said.
Prideful. Malignant narcissist. Intolerant. Over-compensation for deep-seated self-loathing.
Three months later August and I were married. And agreed to divorce in December. By then we had already agreed to divorce on three other occasions.
It was obvious: we had married too soon.
Ridiculous attempt to expunge loneliness. Willful refusal to ignore the obvious: Tendency toward long periods of silence. Sudden sensations of estrangement.
Robbing the cradle syndrome. (August is seven years younger than I am.) My workaholism.
Plus, August’s doubts about his talent.
The thing was, I was glad that August never stopped trying to earn a living from his art. He could make some people look like their idealized selves in portraits. And occasionally he infuriated someone with a portrait that appeared evil and menacing. He gave one man an extra eyeball. That was his best work.
August actually believed he could paint human souls.
You learn that about a person and your first thoughts are: Mental instability. Obsessiveness. Over-inflation of the ego.
Then you love the person more and see their side of things. With August, for instance: how innocent and mystical he was.
And how wrong we were to have married so soon, so desperately.
By that December he had moved out of our apartment and was living with his great uncle, Ethan.
Dependent on older family member. Unable to secure a reliable income. Tendency toward depression. Absurd willingness (masochism?) to tolerate tired jokes from relative and relative’s friends.
When New Year’s Eve came around again I was determined to go out, and then, thinking rationally, I was determined to stay in. Do what I should have done on the night I first met August. Keep off the cable channels. Let the world turn. Nothing was going to change for me, except for the inevitable. Why should things change anyway? Why change profoundly? Life will change everything soon enough—without your permission.
A loud knock at the door. Thunderous.
The first horseman of the apocalypse. Home invasion. Robbery. Notification of a death. One of our creditors.
I looked through the small window next to the door.
It was August, holding a bag.
Guns. Explosives. Divorce papers in an immense binder.
“Happy New Year!” August cried out from the center of his dear, innocent, somewhat stupid-looking face.
“To you too!” I shrieked.
Behind him, Ethan, Charlie, and Joshua, clapping their hands, weaved on the porch steps.
An intervention. A cabal. The three drunken magi.
“How can one bag hold so much?” I asked August after he pulled out an antipasto salad, a tub of linguini, and three bottles of wine.
Within minutes August’s uncle Ethan began reciting that old Edna St. Vincent Millay poem: “We were very tired we were very merry we had gone back and forth all night on the ferry. I can’t remember the next line I think it’s: we looked into a fire, we leaned across a stable….”
“It’s a table,” I said. “’We leaned across a table.’” I was sure of it, and it felt good to be right.
There is, however, a reference to a stable in an earlier line. In the poem the couple give away most of their money along with some pears and apples to a poor old woman. But they don’t give away the change they need for the subway. They weren’t idiots. They would have to be careful though. Bad things can happen on the subway.
Murder. Thievery. Aggressive panhandling. Even before you step in, you can be tossed off the platform and electrocuted on a rail.
We were very tired we were very merry we were very dead.
That night we stayed in far past midnight, ringing in—all five of us—the new year and the new morning. By three a.m. possibly out of sheer laziness I made my resolution: not to divorce August precipitously.
Precipitously: at the precipice. At the edge of a steepness. A cliff. A rockface.
Poor August. To be given such a confusing name. Wise? Or most boring month?
And without me, who knows? Who knows what might happen to him?
© Lee Upton 2018
Lee Upton is the author of Visitations: Stories, as well as Bottle the Bottles the Bottles the Bottles: Poems and The Tao of Humiliation: Stories. She lives in Easton, Pennsylvania. Her website is www.leeupton.com.
I Had Never Had a Halfway Decent New Year’s Eve in My Lifewas read by Annabel Capper on 1st August 2018 for Pleasure & Pain