I went to bed early last night, on New Year's Eve. I don't believe in celebrating a number on a calendar. I gave that up when I was still a teenager. Getting drunk was okay, but standing around with a glass of weak bourbon listening to small talk and forced laughter made any emotion I might have wanted to feel curdle in my gut. So I smiled until my cheeks hurt, and I flirted a little, pretended to be having a wonderful time while the universe stood still over us. Time was just a flurry of atoms whirled into orbit by gravity.
Years ago on such a night, my father would blow on a conch shell on the doorstep of my aunt's house in Brooklyn, when his eyes had turned a little glassy. He puffed on a cigar with my uncle, and then they came in again. The sound of fireworks would crackle and split the night air for another hour or so. We would stand around and sip on sweet wine; even the kids could pour a small glass and join the adults, who were already soggy. The little square-faced TV had on some variety show with dancers throwing out their arms as they jitterbugged. The TV host would lean in and fill the screen with his sweating face and declare that it didn't get any better than this. I would stifle a yawn and sit down in an old, World War II upholstered chair and wonder how long I could stay awake. "Happy New Year" was the fading cry I heard from the street.
But this ritual came along every year, and you were not quite aware that you were growing up, then growing heavier, growing older as the magnets that pulled time forward were beginning to alter your life. The spindly girls were gone; the boys who used to hold up a bicep and show off in the mirror were not thinking about asking someone to dance. The walls were pushed back, and the stairs became shorter. You could run up to the bedroom and not even know you had exerted yourself. You were just up there, turning on a light and looking for your wallet. A year had passed and you were taller, your foot heavier on the carpet, your eyes darker with certain mature aches. You had become complicated. The stupid ritual of blowing on a kazoo had melted away into the insect hum of the vanished past. Your future was waiting like a country road lit by your headlights. You heard your friends calling for you at the foot of the steps and you were gone in a rush of air.
There were compensations to sloughing off the skin of your former self. You glistened in the light of a table lamp. Your hair was combed, and your face had those intriguing hollows in each cheek that made you seem rebellious, a restless dreamer. A girl wanted to be held in such arms as you now extended, with the sleeves of a white shirt rolled up two or three times above your wrists. You bore the traces of wilderness in your blood; you were middle-class and domesticated by the monotony of the suburbs. You didn't go to jail, or sit on a bench at the precinct house after a night of mudding. You went to school each day and got passing grades, and came home with some battered books you might read in the dead patches of afternoon.
And the night closed in around your house with the first little whip-crack of a cherry bomb out on the street. You heard laughter, maybe a bottle breaking as some old junker roared by on the way to a party. It was New Year's eve again, and your arms could pull up sixty pounds of barbell weight, maybe even eighty. You carefully felt your chin for bristles, and shaved as close as you could so that your cheek could slide against a girl's soft skin. You hissed your disapproval of anything touching on forced gaiety. You had some sour words to share with friends, who would guffaw at your irreverence. But you meant every word, even if you couldn't quite grasp why you objected to this empty ritual each year.
But it marked something in your emotions, these annual returns of kids screaming from their front steps, sparklers throwing off huge flakes of light, laughter coming out of the darkness. It marked that you were letting slip from your hands the unfamiliar chill of wonder, even if you said you didn't feel a thing. Something as vague as an ocean crept into your eyes when you beheld this moment. You knew it was stale, and as flimsy as lugging a bag of candy around on Halloween. You had discarded the next rind of innocence as you stood there gazing into the mirror. You were going out on a date, and the girl would be cool in her feelings toward you, sizing you up for possible marriage down the road. Nothing you did could escape the demands of the future. Your grades were either opening doors or slowly closing them. You would quietly put away the shirts that no longer fit your personality, and carefully choose which shoes to wear. You had obligations and as the New Year approached, you would consider your next social move. The year before you had gotten drunk and it didn't go well. This year you had to be self-contained. You were measuring up to some unspecified dream that was beginning to become a reality.
The new year was almost exactly like the old one. You could smell perfume in the air, and hear voices murmuring over dinner at a restaurant. You felt a hand take yours under the tablecloth and squeeze some inarticulate message of desire. Your voice had changed; it spoke in deeper tones, like the cello notes of some mournful passage on the radio. You were no longer a mere wanderer, trying to keep up with your imagination. You were headed somewhere, and the sidewalk was relentless. The great bongs of a church were falling over the tombstones in the graveyard, announcing the end of the year. Everyone knew the game you were playing; it was exhilarating to maneuver yourself around the dangers. You kissed with intensity, and your eyes stared down into the depths of someone else's life until you grew dizzy.
You thought you knew yourself; you had unfolded a road map with the same idle curiosity, and plotted some destination you left hanging in the abstract moment. A ham sandwich wouldn't do to satisfy your hunger. A glass of milk was an anachronism in the kitchen twilight. There were things you couldn't have that your heart ached to possess. The screech of some tire outside told you others were impatient to arrive, to leap into the future. You were taking your time, and your ear was eager to lap up the stark vibration of horns and noisemakers as they filled the evening, and someone's hoarse throat shouted "Happy New Year!"
Oh for a love song at this moment, with your hands on your old belt, and your shoes lying there waiting to be put on. You were married, and your child was asking you about your childhood. You would smile and be affectionate, take the bony little creature into your arms and hug its fragile weight. You had been there once, and now you were standing in the bedroom light filled with understanding. You knew what lay ahead for this child, the wonders, the mistakes, the imprecision of most moves. You had walked that path and couldn't offer any useful advice. A new bike was standing in the living room next to the faded Christmas tree, ready to take the journey. The air split down the middle with the first nerve-tingling shock of a firecracker thudding against your ears. It was telling you that only by this violence could you let go of your immediate past, and get ready for the future. Your child slipped his hand into yours and you could feel the anxiety of a pulse close to your own. It was comforting, and there was the unmistakable signature of mortality in it. The grinding of time would eventually mean you would let this delicate hand and arm go, and wave to it as it waved back.
As night drained the shadows out of the front yard, you sat alone in your frayed easy chair. You were old now, a man who had swirled his whiskey in a smudged glass and put down his pipe. You stood there with head cocked slightly, waiting for the sound of some far off celebration of the turning of the year. It still thrilled you somewhere deep in your loins, and your heart would knock a little against the ribs because there is no escaping the lathe on which your life turned. Let the rockets soar, you told yourself, but you were too sleepy to stay awake.