I’m sitting at a table just outside the action in a bar in Darling Harbour, drunk on one too-expensive vodka soda and one-too-many cups of pregame goon. My head’s spinning. I rest it on my hand to prevent it from swiveling off my neck.
One of my friends, the only other American from our international dorm on tonight’s excursion, lolls in the booth next to me. He’s telling me a story about the girlfriend he broke up with before coming on his semester abroad in Sydney, Australia. Or maybe she broke up with him. Either way, he still cares for her. Actually, he’s used the word “love,” which is the softest, most genuine thing I’ve heard him say in four drunken months of knowing him.
“Have you ever been in love?” he asks, unexpectedly turning the conversation toward me.
I’m 22 and have never had a boyfriend.
“No,” I tell him.
He looks hurt, as if he’d half-expected me to say I loved him.
“That’s so sad,” he says.
“Not really,” I say.
He’s unconvinced, and I realize the look I mistook for hurt was actually pity. I sit myself more upright, try to assemble a countenance of strength and defiance. I need him to see my loveless life as a chosen path of independence, but while I’m formulating the words to express my resilience, a few more of our friends from the dorm drop into seats around the table.
When I open my mouth to defend myself, he’s already debating the finer points of circumcision with his uncut European companions.
Now picture this:
I’m two drinks deep, far too sober to mistake my date’s boredom for anything other than boredom. I’m 24, “trying again” with a guy who’s abruptly dumped me twice already, twice texting me a few weeks later as if we’d never stopped speaking. As if I’d imagined the breakups entirely.
“Still living at home?” he asks, smug, like I’m not in on the joke.
“Yeah,” I say, spinning the ice in my drink around my straw.
He smiles, apparently satisfied that my life hasn’t progressed remotely in his absence. I feel ashamed and indignant, the way bantering with him always makes me feel. But instead of wondering if his supposed superiority over me is simply an oversight on his part, I’m desperate to impress him.
“I’m thinking of applying to grad school,” I tell him. I’m eager to talk about the academic program I’ve set my heart on, to cut out an interesting slice of my brain and present it to him for examination.
“Oh god no,” he says. And then: “Who’s paying for it?”
“Me.” I take a peevish sip of my drink.
“You mean dad?”
“No,” I say, too forcefully. “I mean me. I’ve been saving for it.”
I’m not being entirely honest, but I don’t want him to be right about me. He sees me as a spoiled brat, more than happy to waste my parents’ money on a useless degree just to escape the real world for an extra year. And I’m only angry because it’s my deepest fear that he might be right.
I’ve been living at home for over a year and all my income has gone into my savings. The truth is that I’ve saved enough money for my accommodation and travel expenses, with enough left over to cover groceries, potential medical bills, and other costly surprises. I’m paying for my application, my visa, and my insurance.
Everything, in short, except graduate school.
My date scoffs at me in a way that makes it clear we’re not bantering. Maybe we never were. It never made me feel like we were having fun when we’d tease each other.
“How much money do you have?” he asks.
“Are you serious?”
“None of your business,” I say, because I know I’ll lose no matter what I say. If the sum is too low, it proves I’m incapable of actually supporting myself. If it’s too high, it proves my money, like everything in my life, has been handed to me.
We don’t say much, or if we do, I forget what. Maybe he tells me about another girl he’s seeing who’s also applying to grad school, or maybe that was on another date. I give the leftover ice in my cup an angry stab and he throws the remainder of his drink back. We’ve already paid the separate bills. He stands.
I look up at him and his expression has changed entirely. He’s staring at me, his face all soft edges, eyes hazy and mouth melting butter. He offers me a hand and I let him pull me up. He leans close to me, breath warm on my neck. I’m annoyed, both at the incongruous display of affection and at my unreasonable desire to turn my head and kiss him anyway.
“Don’t,” I say. But I’m teasing, uncommitted to it.
We walk out of the bar together. Linger on the street corner. Make awkward, gentle conversation that might sound sweet if we had been kinder to each other beforehand.
He leans in a little, enough to make it clear he wants to kiss me, but only just enough that I know I have to be the one to decide whether or not we do. I’m hesitant. If I walk away, I’m sure I’ll never see him again. But if I close the gap, I have no idea.
I lean in, meet his lips. It’s a limp handshake, neither person pressing hard enough to suggest we care. So I pull back. I smile like I’m being cute, like the softness of the kiss was some sort of coy trick. I say goodbye and skip away. I don’t look back. I get into my car. I try not to cry. I wonder what’s wrong with me. Why kissing makes me feel so empty. Why I ever expected to be loved.
One last image:
It’s New Year’s Eve, the winter after most of my friends have graduated college. For the umpteenth time in my life I’ll go without a New Year’s kiss, but I never quite relinquish the hope that this time might be different. This year we’re being hosted by one of our friends in Chicago, the one who loves planning parties, tradition, and grand gestures.
We’ve just met her boyfriend and he’s a tool.
But she’s in love, so we keep our mouths shut. I try to forget the rude things he says, the seasick way one particular comment makes my stomach feel.
Instead, I keep a running list of his good qualities: he’s clearly attracted to his girlfriend, he made a reference to The Office, he’s good with names. And maybe some of the bad things aren’t actually bad: he might seem standoffish, but sometimes shy people get argumentative just to get themselves talking when they’re uncomfortable. Maybe he’s just shy, and I’m the last person who has a right to judge shyness.
The night goes on. As is my NYE tradition, I’m scanning the room for unknown hotties. As is also my NYE tradition, I’m finding no one who isn’t already taken. Half the crowd appears to be coupled off, the other half includes my lifelong gal pals and a few males giving off a strong “actually, white men are the most discriminated group in today’s world” vibe – they’re friends with The Boyfriend. I throw in the towel after a few conversations with them that make me feel even less datable (or even just New-Year’s-kissable) than before.
Still, the night goes on.
By this point, one of my friends and I have locked ourselves in our hostess’s room to hide from The Boyfriend and his friends. She has to knock on her own door to tell us it’s nearly midnight – she doesn’t want us to miss the fireworks.
So we pull on knit hats, toss scarves over our shoulders, lace up boots that don’t have enough traction, and zip long parkas all the way up. Our hostess leads the entire party in a pack down to the Lake Michigan coastline, winding through the neighborhood down slippery sidewalks until we reach a stretch of frozen beach sand.
“I’m gonna go get some Doritos,” The Boyfriend says to no one in particular.
He’s drunk, so I should learn to forgive his disappearing act. Maybe he really thinks he has plenty of time to go buy a bag of chips from the 7-Eleven before the clock strikes 12.
We’re in a cluster out on a residential dock that no one appears to be using, gazing down the lake at the downtown Chicago lights. We keep checking our phones. Five, four, three minutes to midnight.
“Have you seen him?” our hostess asks us.
“He’s buying Doritos,” I say, too bitter to cushion the blow.
“Oh,” she says. “Okay. That’s okay.”
It’s not okay, not to her anyway – not to a romantic soul who planned a NYE party with the express intention of ringing in the New Year with her boyfriend and best girlfriends.
I’m checking my phone more frantically, willing the seconds to slow down so that maybe Asshat Boyfriend can make it back in time for that New Year’s kiss my friend so clearly wants.
We count down from ten, shouting, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!” as the fireworks explode softly in the distance. Everyone’s cheering, couples are kissing, and our hostess wears a smile that (I could be wrong about this) doesn’t reach her eyes. I pull her in for a hug. I want to rub her shoulder and say, “there, there, honey,” but I don’t.
Instead, I plant a kiss on her cheek. The rest of our close friends circle in to do the same. We don’t pat her head or mention her sadness, because our love doesn’t pity. We just crowd together, a group hug between women who’ve been group-hugging since girlhood, because there’s warmth in a huddle and New Year’s is for loved ones.