NYE first photo

New Year’s Eve has never been a favorite holiday of mine, so I tend not to put much pressure on it. Don’t get me wrong: I love over-imbibing and celebration in general. I appreciate the idea of looking back and thinking ahead to new opportunities, but there’s something about the hype around New Year’s Eve that feels forced to me. Still, despite this aversion, I often find myself remembering the holiday mid-year. It’s possible that I do this because my birthday falls at the end of May, and birthdays seem to be a similar annual marker of celebration and progress.

None of this is to say that I haven’t had my fair share of wild year end celebrations. I lost my virginity in the wee hours of New Year’s Day to a fellow grad student. (Yes, you’re correct, I was a bit older, 22 to be exact, when I lost my virginity. Either you’ll accept the excuse that I went to theater school where there was one straight male to every fifteen women, or you’ll draw your own conclusions: that I was insecure or uptight or a late bloomer. All of these theories have at least a modicum of truth, so do what you will.) Earlier that night, before the clock turned, I’d decided to “embrace the old,” and publicly made out with a former undergraduate classmate at a party. After we rang in the new year, though, it was a current colleague that I accosted in the back of a cab we were sharing home, ready to find the “new me” of 2006. I love/hate that I lost my virginity on New Year’s Eve. It seems absolutely appropriate, like some harbinger of the year to follow, like a crux on which my life could pivot, but I hate that it sounds fake and planned, like it was a resolution I made, which it was, if only in that it was a vague hurdle I had wanted, for some time, to have already jumped. The New Year, though, had nothing to do with it.

New Year’s Eve, a man and a woman went for a walk near the road named for luck.

They ambled through corn cockle and duck-lettuce, the thick woods a blindspot to the west. The man spoke of their plans, a quick drink before attending the woman’s friend’s party, where they’d be up late dancing, how they’d sleep in the next morning, bowed across the mattress. The woman listened to the hum of the man, his words shuffling past dented soda cans, his thoughts disseminating along the dirt road. The man and the woman followed a line, not looking, woolgathering. The woman was aware of man’s boots, galumphing like dogs on the winter ground.

A man and a woman went for a walk this New Year’s Eve, near the road named for luck, and found the skull of a boy. They would miss the woman’s friend’s party to tell the story of their discovery to the police, blood warming their faces as they stood in a patch of witchweed. They wouldn’t be able to sleep late the next morning, or at all.

Skull of Local Man Found in Woods.

In death, the man was held in abeyance. When the newspapers weren’t calling him “local man,” they called him “Mr. W.” In fourth grade, he was “Danny.”

Danny had long since vanished from my memory, a child at the edge of a photograph, his hair like the bangs of a horse. A skinny brown belt holding up his uniform pants.

Danny disappeared in 2000, a man at twenty-two, no note, no wallet, no cell phone. Ten years missing, ten years his mother looking for him, marking his birthdays. Yet Danny had never really gone. He had been there all along, his skull blooming in the ditch like a mushroom.

Investigators with both the sheriff’s office and the coroner’s office will try to determine the cause of Mr. W’s death.

Dental records, cadaver dog teams, forensic anthropologists. He was depressed, his mother said. He had not gone in to work. Tests will tell us if Mr. W was intentionally killed, struck by a car, or died of natural causes. Ovals you fill in with lead, A, B, C or none of the above.

Danny had never seemed depressed. He could count his innumerable ambitions on his fingertips. He ran every recess; he was short but quick. He was average and unremarkable, elfin and sturdy. He lived under a halo of dust and blood. A collection of minor injuries, sick days on the office couch, skinned knees and threadbare socks. He was a little boy, so he was all of those things. He was a promise.

1988, St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School, we climbed on plastic chairs for the class photograph. Danny was instructed to stand directly in front of me, slightly to the left. Fourth grade, Mrs. Dunn’s class. The next year, Sr. Fintan arranged us for our class picture. We stood on the same chairs, in nearly the same position. 1989. Danny would change schools soon. We are eleven in this picture, and in a few months, I will never see him again. Not as Mr. W., at twenty-two. Not at thirty-three, the age I am now, the age we might both have been.

I think about his mother, waiting. Ten years for the wound to change shape. 2011, she was going to begin a new year, the mystery beginning to scab over. Another year of believing he was still alive. Was it better to have had the mystery?

“We knew this boy,” my friend said to me. We read the newspaper. A skull near lucky Shamrock Road.

I didn’t tell her I couldn’t remember anything about him. That when I thought of him, I thought about the boy from the photograph, my memories culled from a single image. A morning in 1988 spent standing on a plastic chair, the back of his head in front of me. I didn’t admit to her that I had forgotten his name.

“This was Danny,” she said. “He was there with us.”

I decided to do something different this December 31st. For as long as I’ve been celebrating New Year’s Eves, I’ve been greeting the subsequent morning with blurry eyes, a hangover that proves impervious to all the bacon and coffee I can throw at it, and a sullen and increasingly loud resentment of sunshine.

Which isn’t to say that there haven’t been some very good New Year’s Eves in there; the problem is usually the reverse. Some of my particular favourites have been spent working in clubs, because there’s nothing quite like the combination of free alcohol, double time pay, and a crowd of a couple thousand people, all secure in the knowledge that no matter what happens, they don’t have to go to work the next day, to spell out a good time.

But, after the train wreck that was 2009, it was time to switch up my style. Not only did I swear to myself I wasn’t going to wake up hungover on New Year’s Day, I also decided it was time to use the fresh start that everyone talks about as just that: a fresh start. After some lengthy discussions with the incomparable Zara Potts, I worked out just what I was going to do.

For a couple of days prior to NYE, I’d been writing down everything I was done with. Personal demons and demonic persons, mental confusions and spiritual contusions, grim frustrations and grimmer situations… everything got named and nailed down onto scraps of paper; mugshots of the things I wanted to change. I stuffed them all into a cardboard box and sat it on my desk – from time to time I would eye it off uneasily, half-expecting the unpleasantness defined inside to stage some kind of Dillinger-esque break-out as I added to the collection.

At sunset on New Year’s Eve, I took the box outside, placed it on a concrete slab so there would be no last-minute fire outbreak (although I would have grudgingly acknowledged the irony of such a well-placed final fuck you from 2009, and half-expecting one, I placed a bucket of water nearby), and put a box of matches to it. Of course, as I lit the matches, they flared up in a burst of sulphur and singed my fingers. Couldn’t resist one last bite out of me, could you, assholes? I thought, and dropped the matches into the box¹.

It burned sullenly, at first. The flames flickered around the thin cardboard edges of the box, catching in parts, then sputtering out with the job only just begun. The papers at the top were left singed and charred and rimmed in glowing lines of ember, giving the impression that everything had burned, but I refused to fall for that ruse.

Sorry, guys, I thought. There’s no escape. Not this time. Not for you.

Remembering the basic physics of fire (Dear Mr. Strohfeldt. Thank you for being such a wonderful high school science teacher. I remain truly sorry about the time I filled your classroom with the smell of deodorant. It was horseplay gone wrong, and nothing personal), I flipped the box and lit it from underneath, where the flames could suck in oxygen from the surrounding atmosphere and burn upwards.This time the fire caught rapidly; hungrily it ate through the stacked papers, long tongues of red and orange and yellow flicking across the undersides of notes crowded with the things I longed to erase. And I stood and watched every last piece of paper burn to ash until finally everything, box included, had been consumed.

Let me tell you, that’s a satisfying sensation.

Minutes after the fire was done, the clouds opened up into thunder and lightning and rain. And I drove to my friend Dean’s house to ring in the new year.

I got home the next morning at five, and sober², with an hour to wait until dawn and the second half of my plan.

Minutes before six, with the first sunrise of the new year starting to move up from behind the horizon, I took the second box, the one in which I’d stored my notes of all the things I wanted for myself, my family, and my friends in 2010, and tied the fifteen helium balloons I’d bought for just that purpose to it. I walked out to my back yard, found the clearest space I could, and, at sunrise, released them.

It was overcast and breezily cool, and I was worried the wind might carry the balloons into the higher branches of one of the surrounding trees (which would have been an undeniably bad omen). But the wind died just as the clock hit 6:01, the time of the rising sun. At first the balloons broke ranks and split away from each other, jostling for direction, but they quickly moved back into a cohesive unit that looked, to my fatigued eyes, as if it was moving with definitive purpose into the air.

And I stood and watched my colourful balloons and the box of my hopes and dreams rise swiftly up to the moody grey sky. In a few seconds, they were a tiny dot far up and away towards the clouds.

That’s right, 2010, I thought. You and me, baby.

So with a clean slate, a request list for the year to come, and 365 days that I’m really looking forward to, I have only this left to say:

Happy New Year.

¹ sadly, the box³ neither screamed nor did any gibbering phantoms fly out, as I was kind of hoping.

² mostly

³ yes, I lifted the phrase ‘Box Full of Evil’ from Mike Mignola. I apologise for nothing.

On New Year’s Eve, a friend asked if we were doing resolutions.  “Well,” I answered, “I think mine is the same as it always is — to not be so easily annoyed with people.”  She responded that hers was to be nicer to people.  “But I guess that’s kind of the same as yours, isn’t it?”

“Oh, no no no,” I answered.  I’ve read all those articles about how you should make your resolutions things that are actually possible, so as not to set yourself up for failure.  Therefore, as I told her, “I don’t actually have to be any nicer to people.  I’m just going to try not to get so irritated by them.”  If I’m really successful at keeping my resolution this year, no one will ever even notice.

On New Year’s Day, I went to my local Y to go swimming.  (I’m a big fan of forms of exercise that don’t make you sweat.)  Since I’ve had a week and a half off work, I’ve been visiting the pool quite frequently — I would go every day, but I feel the need to take a day off in between to allow the skin on my legs some time to grow back after being chemically singed by the high dosage of chlorine.  Anyway, I figured this was the perfect time to test out my resolution, since a great many behaviors irritate me at the gym.

Test 1: Locker room nudists.

Entering the locker room, I was greeted by a pair of shirtless middle-aged ladies chatting about their holidays.  One was blow-drying her hair.  I understand the need to take off one’s clothes in order to put on different clothes.  I can even get, sort of, why one would prefer to stalk naked from the showers back to one’s locker — though the locker room, especially on such a frigid day, is never all that warm, so I don’t really understand why one would shun even the meager warmth of a thin gym towel, but whatever.  But once you’re at the hair-drying stage, why not at least don a bra?

But I soldiered on, suppressing my bafflement and irritation, even when one of the shirtless ladies asked, as I was tugging on my bathing suit, how far along I was.  I swallowed the temptation to say, “Why whatever do you mean?” and told her that I’m due in March, making an effort to make eye contact and not stare at the drooping display of my post-breast-feeding future.  I even reminded myself that this was friendly of her to ask, and smiled at her as I headed to the pool.

Test 2: Splashers.

I am a vision of loveliness by the time I reach the pool, with my pregnant belly stretching my non-maternity bathing suit to its limits, my bright orange bathing cap revealing my head’s slightly conical tendencies, and my mirrored goggles lending me the look of a curious insect.  It makes no difference to me, as I can barely see a thing without my glasses.  I mean, I can’t see how many swimmers are in my lane until they are two feet in front of me, and that is no exaggeration.  I can’t see the clock on the wall, though I can sort of remember where it is.  So I walk cautiously, mindful of the twin hazards of near-legal-blindess and slick tile, and lower myself into the slow lane.

There are many ways in which my faceless fellow swimmers can annoy me.  People who swim too fast in the slow lane are particularly loathsome — a few weeks ago a lanky teenage boy practically grabbed my ankle as he menaced me down the lane.  One memorable irritation was a big, sloppy swimmer who reared out of the water once to ask the lifeguard how many laps were in a mile.  “Oh,” he said loudly, “so I’ve already done a half-mile.  Not bad!”  As if everyone in the pool might start Hoosier-clapping to his success.  He then proceeded to breaststroke down the center of the lane, so that the other three of us had to dodge him on every lap.  All of this is made worse by the fact that I can’t even see anyone — but today I remind myself that they don’t really know this, and it’s not exactly fair to be annoyed about that.

My most enduring irritation are the splashers.  I don’t know much about swimming, and I’m not a particularly skilled one, but at least I keep my splashing to a minimum.  Is there some reason for excessive splashing that I don’t know about?  Possibly.  This is what I tried to imagine on New Year’s Day, every time I came up for air and instead inhaled a mouthful of water released into the air by the exuberant kicking in the next lane over.  Nothing to be annoyed about, I told myself.  You are in a pool, after all.

I was feeling pretty good by the time I’d showered and was ready to leave.  I had talked myself down from two great ledges of annoyance.  I was on the path towards New Year’s Nice Persondom.

Until, that is, I stopped by the grocery store on the way home.  Guess how many items the person in front of me in the “12 items or less” line had?!  Just guess!!

Well.  There’s always next year.