New Year’s Eve, 1990
by Tara Lindis
My mother took me to that New Year’s Eve party at the Nolts’ because my eighteenth birthday had been the day before, and my own friends were still away for the holidays. She said I could pretend this party was all for me, that it could be my secret. I liked secrets, didn’t I? My mother and I often played these types of games since my father had left. They were private games, for the two of us, where no one else would bother with the rules, which changed often. Playing and pretending were often more the point of these games, and mostly, no one won.
When we arrived, my mother’s friends absorbed her into their huddle. A glass of champagne materialized in her hand. She motioned with her chin to a table with a punch bowl and assorted bottles of wines on the far side of the room. Mrs. Nolt floated through the room in a black tea-length ball gown: boat neckline, fitted bodice, tulle skirt. Black heels. A choker of pearls at her neck. She had been a ballet dancer in Houston before she married, and I could never look at her without simultaneously envisioning her as a swan. Her touch on my elbow was slight; even her fingers were graceful. “It’s good to see you,” she said to me, and then she moved on to the next guest.
Above the punch bowl was a mirror, and I did a double take to recognize myself. My mother had dabbed her coral Maybelline lipstick across my lips in a series of dots that tasted like chalk. She skipped the blush, because my cheeks flushed pink easily, as if I were always on the brink of embarrassment or humiliation, but she painted on liquid eyeliner above and below my eyes and followed it with a smoky glittery eyeshadow and jet-black mascara. I borrowed her cashmere shawl and a rhinestone choker, both inherited from her own mother, and wore them over simple sheath dress I had found in a thrift store for the Spring Formal. In the bathroom mirror at home, the shawl and choker had felt elegant, with my hair pulled up into a twist and a few tendrils curled around my face. But now I saw that I was less elegant, and more an awkward high school senior with too much make-up, pretending to be a woman she wasn’t sure she wanted to be.
The punch, red and sickly sweet, fizzed and sparked on my tongue and made me want to sneeze. Across the room, a friend of my mother’s introduced her to a man. I could tell my mother liked him, or at least enjoyed the prospect of flirting. She laughed louder, jutted her chin out with confidence, as if she was on a dare. She tossed her honey blond curls, freshly colored that afternoon. Her friends often told her that she and I looked exactly alike. It was meant as a compliment to her and her skin; it was meant as a way to prevent one of her moods. But it pained me when I had to fake a smile and my agreement, my pleasure at her strong genes.
It was the first party I navigated alone without my own friends or a parent at my side. I sipped my punch, winced, met the glance of a guy my own age, who laughed. He grabbed an extra glass of champagne off a tray and made his way over to me.
“This is a better option,” he said. “That punch is lethal.” He took the punch glass from my hand and replaced it with the champagne glass.
I recognized him from the previous year at school. I felt embarrassed to be so overly dressed and made up. But he didn’t say anything, nor did his face register anything askew.
“You’re Jeremy from across the street. David Nolt’s friend,” I said. Jeremy was tall, thin, with curly brown hair and glasses, overly pronounced knuckles on his hands. Generally nice and funny, active in the theater. I had seen him in the hallways, knew friends of his, even if he and I didn’t hang out. He was the type who had a lot of friends who were girls, but no girlfriends.
“I’m at Dartmouth now,” he said. “Home for the holidays.” As if I couldn’t have figured that out.
A large television recapped the past year via the local news. Someone had muted the sound, so it didn’t interfere with Harry Connick Jr. on the CD player. Behind the presidential podium, George W. Bush announced Operation Desert Shield, followed by headlines about the War on Drugs, the AIDS epidemic.
“We don’t need the sound on for George,” my mother yelled from the back. “We can all READ HIS LIPS!!!” Her friends burst out laughing. I could tell she had burned through her first two glasses of champagne. Her face glowed with laughter. Her eyes shined. The man she was talking to leaned on one shoulder against the wall, in the style of Cary Grant. With her painted nails, red lipstick, and drape sleeves, my mother slipped into her charade, where her witty jokes flattered. Acquaintances were always her best friends.
I swallowed and my own spit got caught in my throat.
“I don’t really feel like watching the countdown,” I said.
“It’s awhile yet,” Jeremy said.
We held hands as he led me to the dessert table, where we overfilled small plates with thin slices of cakes, cream puffs, chocolate truffles, chocolate covered strawberries. We snuck glasses of champagne and small green bottles of Perrier. We balanced everything between fingers and forearms and made ourselves a picnic on the stairs going up to the balcony, our own private perch, where we could watch everyone. Guffaws of laughter rose from the room, the low rumble of several conversations at once, of everyone talking over one another.
Jeremy imitated the adult conversations in different voices, mocking their serious concerns of pointless affairs or disappointing children who differed from them, jobs they hated because they had failed at what they loved. He impersonated our high school guidance counselor, who often advocated having a “Plan B” for colleges or fields of study. Jeremy went on about how now everyone lived “Plan B” lives. I laughed until my stomach muscles hurt, even as I knew we were laughing at our own fears, at the adults we did not want to become. We were still years away from our own failures.
Our champagne now warm, we took it outside to the back porch to have while we smoked. The cigarette tasted better and sweeter than all the dessert. Mixed with the cold, the smoke burned my lungs, but I loved the feeling. I couldn’t see or hear my mother from the porch. My skin pricked with goosebumps; I could feel my body contract with the chill, as if the night air defined the edges of my own body more clearly. There were still branches coated in ice, some of them fallen. Down below, they would have seemed like threats or potential danger, but from the porch, they looked like magic, painted by fairies. The downed branches pointed a path forward that I envisioned myself walking alone, not tied to my mother, not tied to anyone. In the clear night, for a millisecond, I felt like it was my own private party after all. I shivered with a fleeting joy, and then I had to pee.
Inside, I went down the upstairs hallway, thinking the bathroom would be obvious, but the house was large, and I had to open several doors in the hall. In an extra room, sat the man in an armchair, his head leaned back, and his eyes closed. My mother kneeled in front of him, her honey blond head and hot roller curls bobbing in his lap. I pulled the door shut, while holding the knob, so the latch didn’t sound. I walked back down the hallway, my heels sinking in the plush carpet. Finally, I located the Nolts’ master bedroom, and enormous master bathroom. Into the toilet, I vomited up the cream puffs, the truffles, the chocolate covered strawberries, the champagne, and the red fizz punch. I washed my face. I found a bottle of Clinique make-up remover and cotton balls and wiped off the liquid eyeliner. I found an unopened toothbrush in a drawer and brushed my teeth. I reapplied my make-up using Mrs. Nolt’s stash in the medicine cabinet. While my mother favored Maybelline, Mrs. Nolt used Chanel. The lipstick went on like silk. Her lotion smelled divine. The eyeshadow had no glimmer like my mother’s. Her mascara didn’t clump. It was straight and even. I looked like myself, not like someone pretending.
I found Jeremy on the stairs, where we had previously been perched. I sat down next to him, and I removed my heels. By now I had pinched toes and blistered feet. At midnight, the television replayed the ball drop from New York City three hours earlier. Everyone hollered, horns blew, champagne corks popped, cars outside honked, and in the distance, fireworks crackled. Plenty of people kissed, but Jeremy and I stared straight ahead; I knew by then he was gay. It was a relief to not act otherwise.
As guests began to leave, I located my mother alone in the guest room, sitting on the bed, her eyeliner smeared under her eyes. Her lips were pale; her lipstick long gone. She wasn’t as drunk as I thought she was. In fact, she was completely sober, which made it worse. I had wanted to harbor the slight fantasy she hadn’t known what a fool or how shallow she was, but she had. She had been playing her own game, and she hadn’t been pretending. She had known all along.
© Tara Lindis, 2019
Tara Lindis has work published or forthcoming in Streetlight Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, and Tributaries Journal. Originally from Portland, Oregon, she has a MA in Literature from University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and two children.
New Year’s Eve, 1990 was read by Ginny Bartolone on June 5th, 2019 for Freedom & Restraint.