Tommy shows up at Lee’s apartment a little after ten in the morning. Because it’s New Year’s Eve and he doesn’t have to be anywhere outside of walking distance, he helps himself to a beer. He doesn’t have any plans tonight but he assumes he will by the time it gets dark. He’ll clean up by then, but right now he isn’t showered, standing in the kitchen in torn, stained jeans and a ratty long tee he really should get out of the habit of wearing. None of this would have mattered, though, if Selena wasn’t also here.
She’d parked in the service alley behind the street, so he hadn’t seen her little blue Mazda when he walked up the drive. Lee’s cousin has eyes puffy from sleep, and her hair is tousled in a way that suggests both sleep and a staged photo shoot. Tommy remembers her skin as being almost toasted when he met her in the summer, but now in the first couple weeks of winter it has mellowed to the color of light tea.
“Oh, hey!” Tommy tries for a note of casual, pleasant surprise, but his hand runs quickly across his beard to check for any loose whiskers. He has a zit where hair meets cheek, and though it had looked generally out of sight when he caught it in the mirror this morning, now it feels slightly more prominent than a third arm. “I forgot you were coming into town!”
Dammit dammit dammit.
“How was the drive?”
She rolls her eyes and puffs at a thick lock of hair. “Garbage. You know, I thought the traffic was bad in Queens, but how do you people fucking get anywhere around here?”
“We vent our anger through gang-related violence, for the most part. That or a Falcons game. Depends on how well they’re doing that season.”
Selena sleeps in a contrasting mash-up of tank tops and heavy fleece pajama pants. The bottoms she has on now are blue with huge white snowflakes along each leg. Her purple toenails are nearly lost to the folding avalanche. They’re almost the same shade of purple as her top. If he wasn’t so nervous Tommy might find the coincidence funny.
Lee calls from his room. “Is that Tommy?”
“Yeah, it’s your boy!” Selena yells back.
“I’ll be out in a minute, brother!”
“Take your time.” And before he can let it sink in how predatory that accidentally sounded, Tommy asks Selena “So how long ya in town?”
“Just the weekend.” The kettle she’d put on when she came in is steaming, and just as it starts to whistle she picks it up and fills a nearby mug. She unscrews a jar of instant and carelessly shakes four or five spoonfuls worth into the water. “I don’t think Lee could handle me crashing here much longer than that.”
“Any plans tonight?”
She shrugs. “I’ll probably just third-wheel it with Lee and his girlfriend tomorrow.” Lee comes shuffling in then, dressed to the nines as he always is. Thick black hair placed perfectly with a sweep of the hand. Smile that’s just a little too easy. Jesus, Tommy thinks, is everyone from Guatemala this beautiful?
“Sup, brother.” Lee claps Tommy on the shoulder and follows his lead on the morning brewski.
“Breakfast of champions,” Selena tells them.
Lee ignores her and thumps Tommy’s arm. “You goin’ out tonight, man?”
“Nah. It’s lookin’ to be a quiet New Year’s.”
“Man, shit.” Lee swigs his beer. “Wish I wasn’t fuckin’ workin’ tonight.”
“I feel like paramedics get the real party anyway,” Tommy tells him. “Making sure all the drunks really do have a Happy New Year and all.”
“Oh, yeah. Big fuckin’ party. So what the hell? No plans?”
“No kiss at midnight?” Selena smiles above her coffee.
“The only kiss will be the one I give to the cheek of my sainted mother,” Tommy tells the room.
“Careful. Your Irish is showing.” Lee checks his watch. He’s been up all night. “If we’re gonna do this we should head out in a sec, man. I gotta crash by one.”
“Alright.” Tommy swigs his beer, then drops the bottle and its last swallow in the trash. “You goin’ out tonight?” he asks Selena, trying to sound casual.
She just shrugs and turns back to the guest bedroom. “We’ll see.”
“You know she’s into you, right?”
Tommy and Lee are at a ratty VFW bar, the place reeking of smoke and shaking to Twisted Sister. They’re the youngest two in there by a good ten years, but Lee served with the bartender and everyone here likes him. Everyone everywhere seems to like Lee. And because they all know they’re best friends, Tommy could come here too if he wanted. But of course he doesn’t. He’s a man who’s acutely aware of being out of place, even when he’s not.
“Who? Laura?” Tommy’s ex has been texting him most of the morning, wondering if he wants to buddy up for a party the next county over. He’s taken the bait before, assumed innocence when all she wanted was a histrionic “talk.” His responses have been very pshaw-pshaw.
“Psh, no, that bitch is crazy. My cousin, man. She’s into you.”
“Sure coulda fooled me. I tried to ask her out back in June.”
“Aw, man up. Ask her again.”
“Why do you think she’s into me?”
“She’s asked about ya a couple times since she got back.”
“She was just being polite.”
“Y’all hung out a lot when she was here. You made an impression, man. Besides,” he shrugs and downs a shot of whiskey. “I got a feeling. Usually it’s a pretty reliable feeling.”
“Usually it’s pretty reliable?”
Lee downs another shot. “And anyway I already gave her your number.”
“Oh, what the fuck, man?”
“I told her you might text later.” Lee types something into his phone, and Tommy’s own phone buzzes a second later. Lee has texted him Selena’s number. “There, now you don’t have to make a liar out of me.”
“Ohhh, poor baby!” Lee swigs his beer. “Just remember she’s family, and I can kick your ass from one end of Broadway to the next if I have to.”
“You’re the fuckin’ spirit of romance.”
“Spirit being the operative word. Get yourself good and lubricated before you try to talk to her. Watching you at the house was like seeing ice freeze.”
“Ice is already frozen. That’s why it’s ice.”
“Oh, fuck you, I’ve been drinking.” Lee slips a few twenties out of his back pocket and slaps them on the bar. “Alright, Newt, I’m outta here.”
“You gonna swing by tonight?” Newt calls from the glass washer.
“I might, depending on how much you over-pour.” Lee grabs the cash, leans over, and drops it beside the register. “Don’t let it get too crazy!”
“Are you kiddin’?” Newt hollers as they leave. He’s pouring boilermakers for two old ‘Nam vets. “These motherfuckers come here to quiet down!”
Around 11:30 Tommy gets a text from Selena’s number. “You ever end up going out? :)”
Tommy sits at the dinner table with his parents. His sister sips wine and reads a paperback while the folks watch the Times Square special on ABC.
“It’s just a shame your cousin Danny didn’t want to come by earlier,” Tommy’s mom says.
“Danny doesn’t like me,” Tommy reminds her, not that he needs to.
“I wonder why you guys can’t get along.”
Tommy can’t find a polite way to mention that Danny’s an alcoholic, pill-popping white supremacist, so instead he just shrugs and says “Some folks just can’t get along, Ma.”
Beth chuckles at that, but their parents don’t seem to notice.
“But you two are family!”
“Well, some families don’t get along either.”
“Tell me about it!” his dad pipes up, still looking at the screen. He turns then and points at Tommy. “I still haven’t forgiven your uncle Wade for fucking me over on that land deal.”
Uncle Wade had put about ten acres of forest land up for sale over twenty years ago. Tommy’s dad had wanted to buy it, but another buyer came along and was able to pay the entire price up-front. Tommy’s dad has never gotten over losing land he’d never owned in the first place.
“Well, me.” Tommy’s mom shakes her head. “Beth, how’s school?”
“Oh, pretty good. Thesis is coming along alright.”
Tommy texts back. “I did, actually. But I’m playing the good son so I’m visiting my parents, hahaha.”
“Oh, Beth, honey, careful you don’t drink too much.”
“This is the same glass I poured two hours ago, Ma. I should be fine.”
Another text, this one from Laura. “I kinda really miss you right now.”
The TV shows cities across the world celebrating New Year. Young Japanese scream and drink straight from the bottle. Tokyo was fourteen hours ahead. They’d been drinking in the New Year the same time he and Lee had.
“I could go for some sake right now,” his dad mutters through the blur of pain meds. He’s healing pretty well from surgery, but back operations are slow to recover from no matter what. Tommy keeps it too himself that the Japanese people on TV were chugging champagne.
“So no kisses for you at midnight? :)” Selena texts.
In Singapore, fireworks illuminated the entire skyline, and confetti exploded from air cannons along rooftops. Hours ago, London was a shimmering flicker of flashing billboards and decorated buses.
Beth talks about her thesis some more. A year or two ago their dad would have been right in the thick of the talk. She’s majoring in Ed. Psych., same as he did. But oxy is dulling his conversation lately. He hates it, but hopefully it won’t be too much longer that he has to take it.
The Eiffel Tower glows from tip to base. Berlin is a whirlpool of spinning lights and shaking amps. Lee speeds a drunk driver to the emergency room. The talk in this quiet dining room overflows with technical terminology. This world is such a busy place, in every corner, in every moment. And once a year, we seek to remake it. We complicate with a desire to simplify.
The countdown is on. “I told you,” Tommy texts back, “I’ll be kissing my mother’s cheek, like the good Catholic son I am.” He sends it, then in a rush, before he can change his mind, follows it with: “Guess you and I will have to rain check it?”
4, 3, 2, 1…
Once an hour, on the hour, twenty-four times through the day, whole cities shake to their foundations. The new year is a heavy wheel, steamrolling its way across the globe. In the sparkle of booze and the white noise of our cheers, it flattens the tangle weeds that weigh heavy on our minds. If we keep cheering until bed, we can ignore the fact that the brush will just spring back up tomorrow.
12:01 AM. Text from Selena. “Guess so. ;)” Then another: “¡Feliz año nuevo!”
Fireworks erupt and there is the occasional rapport from pistols fired into the ground. People scream from house parties down the block. In the home of Tommy’s parents, in this little room, there are hugs and kisses to the cheek, and sincerely held wishes for a happy new year.