[Ed. Note: The following story is written from two perspectives. The male perspective is by George Drake, Jr., while the female perspective is by Kayla Gruenewald.–K.F.]
Mars is bright in the sky tonight. Not crowded by other stars, Orion’s belt diagonally crossed beside it. Blade and all. Unlike some stars, you can look directly at Mars without it disappearing. Nor does it twinkle. Like the spots in your vision that avert your gaze when you try and look at them. It looks like it burns hot, but it doesn’t burn at all, it’s just a globe of gas and dirt.
It’s cold out. A thin layer of snow crunches beneath my feet. Mainly ice now. I can’t tell the exact temperature but when I exhale my breath hangs then dissipates. Maybe 25°. Close to it. Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’ plays from upstairs, people sing along. It’s absurd — the correlation between inebriation and singing. As a depressant alcohol does wonders for the human voice or perhaps how the brain perceives it. I’m not drunk, but I’m drunk enough to need a stimulant.
As I smoke my cigarette down, I realize two things. I should have brought my jacket because it’s fucking cold. And that I should have brought my jacket because that’s where the rest of my pack is. I brought down two thinking that would be enough. Time flies when you’re having fun, but time flies at a faster rate when you’ve been drinking. I’ve already smoked one and it feels like it’s been two minutes. I light the next one with the butt of the first. My mind is so prone to conserving — mainly recyclables, but also turning off lights and packing the dishwasher to its fullest extent — that I figure lighting this one with one I originally lit with my lighter would reserve that fuel for another. I smoked the first down to the filter, and I don’t mean close. I mean when it gets hot because of how close it is making the last drag a bitch. That close. The camel at the base… burnt to a crisp. I will do the same with this one, regardless of how painful the last drag is.
As the embers reach the bottom I can hear the countdown from upstairs. At two, my lips get burnt. At one, I flick my cigarette to the ground and begin the trek back up to the second floor. Five years ago, before “us” you told me at 11:58pm that I would be “your kiss” for the new year. ”You’re mine,” you said, “I called you.” Five years later, it’s him — wedding ring and all. It’s amazing how three years and two proposals will evoke nothing close to “yes.” However, six months and you allow him to slide one on your left hand.
It smells like the opera inside of the apartment. The mix between expensive perfume and stale cigarettes. But this also has the strong stench of booze, which the opera does not. I stand in the doorway for a minute allowing the fog to disperse from my glasses. It’s no use, I clean them off with my tie. ”Burberry” you said as I walked in earlier, “it looks nice.” Nice. I had it the entire time we were together, you must have seen it. You see me and walk over. My stomach churns with every swing of your left hand. ”I looked for you during the countdown, I couldn’t find you,” you say. Would it have mattered?
“Yeah, I stepped out.”
“Well, you missed the countdown.” No shit.
“I heard it” I say, perhaps a bit too ungrudgingly.
“Did you ever talk to Nancy?” You mean your friend from college? The one you’re blatantly trying to set me up with?
“Absolutely.” Try again. “She’s very sweet.” Try harder. “I like her.” Too far.
“Good! She won’t shut up about you. Talking about your smile… she even likes your beard.”
“It’s new… I’m still trying it out.”
“I like it” you say. Liar.
“Thanks, I’ll probably shave soon.”
“You should go talk to her… she’s been looking over at you this whole time.” I glance behind me and there she is. She waves and lets her martini slip off the counter and a bit dribbles down her dress. You quickly get the focus back on what you’re saying. ”She’s so much fun, I really think you two will hit it off.” The thought of being with someone so close to you makes me even more sick than the weight you have tied around your finger.
“Yeah, sure. I may be heading out soon, I’m not sure.” Bowie’s “Life On Mars” begins to play. I laugh.
“What’s funny?” you ask a bit rudely. It’s not about your drunk friend who’s apparently only noticed the bottom half of my face. Don’t worry.
“Nothing… it’s just… well you can see Mars in the sky tonight.”
“Mars? What does that have anything to do with anything?”
“The song… ‘Life On Mars.’ Get it?”
You laugh, I can sense it’s fake. Three weeks of fake laughs towards the end. I’ve learned to pick up on it.
“Yeah, okay, I get it.” You continue to “laugh.” ”Well don’t go too soon, have some more to drink — the night’s still young.” I’m not sure why you said that last part with a British accent, but I won’t ask. “Go talk to Nancy. She’s been so down since her divorce.” Just what I need. A drunk, horny, needy divorcee.
“Yeah, I will. You go… go have fun.”
“Thanks, happy New Year,” you say and kiss me on my cheek. ”Tickles… your beard.” Shut up. You walk away to go back to him. Nancy’s been burning a hole in my back this whole time apparently. I can see where her martini landed by the bits of clumped tissue. I slyly hold up one finger as to say “I’ll be there in a minute,” grab my coat and head back downstairs.
Mars hasn’t moved, Orion’s knife is still in its sheaf. Light from the streetlight illuminates the cars below, putting them in the spotlight — literally. There’s no need to draw focus to a Accord. There’s never any need unless it’s at a police auction. I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing outside again, the urge for a third cigarette has gone away but I light up without thinking anyway. I can see Nancy looking out the window. I quickly turn around without catching her gaze. I can feel the hole start to burn.
I head back upstairs to the party full of people that knew me back when we were still together. I don’t want to see any of them, but they all make it seem like they want to see me. I guess that’s what you get for hanging around with a group of actors. Why did I feel the need to say “yes” to your invitation?
I approach you and he looks at me before you can even turn around. ”I’m heading out… I have another party to get to.” Liar.
“Oh… well, alright. Did you get to talk to Nancy again? You should get her number.”
“I was going to do that before I left, yeah.” Liar.
“It was good seeing you again,” you say patting my right biceps. I guess we’re on that level when he’s around.
“Yeah, you too. Take care of yourself.”
“I will, you too. Hey, don’t be afraid to call me, okay?” I look at him, he looks at you, you look at him and shrug. Congratulations, you have just successfully made this much more awkward.
“Yeah, for sure. We’ll… get coffee or something.” Pants on fire.
I avoid Nancy who is currently trying to hit the same notes as Christine McVie in “You Make Loving Fun.” You wouldn’t. I walk out without saying goodbye to him or shaking his hand. I don’t see a need to because he’s never going to see me again. Nor are you. It’s been two years and I’m sick of having only Nancy after Nancy. Remember that time I told you that there was a firm out in Seattle that I had always wanted to work for? Well, I don’t have a job there, but I will. Sometime. I’m leaving tomorrow.
From the outside, the first thing one notices is the sky blanketing over the people they love or have loved at one point or another. On this night, Mars is bright enough to light up the faces of all those people that I am surrounded by. Sometimes I would prefer living by this kind of light. It shines just bright enough to show all the good parts of people.
As Clapton’s ‘Cocaine’ plays from the speakers in our apartment, I pause in a single moment of sobriety to notice everyone feeling comfortable in their own inebriated bodies. I’m tempted to grab another High Life from the fridge so I, just like everyone around me, has a good excuse to do something stupid. Sometimes I crave the drama life presented before my life was so structured and formal. I’m not saying I don’t lead a good life, in fact, it’s quite wonderful. I am in love. I am employed. I am happy. These are the things I have been wishing on stars for my entire life.
I walk to the kitchen and grab a glass of wine instead. This should do the trick and in less time. I finish the first glass in one greedy swig and refill it before I head back to join our guests. After some time, I feel the wine moving through my blood stream. As it enters my legs, they weaken and I dance even harder to spite this lack of control. I sing along with my friends and the man I chose to marry and begin to remember the different routes of life I had taken that got me to this particular place. Why is it every time I drink I get all nostalgic? It should be the time for escaping the constant pressure and questioning I force on myself, but instead it makes things worse. The only thing alcohol does for me is take away any feelings of guilt and that can be construed as both good and bad.
My conscience is interrupted by the sound of Dick Clark’s voice beginning the countdown. I yell the same numbers out as everyone else does at this exact same time at the end of every single year. ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five. Where is my husband? four, three. I can’t be alone at this time. two. I could never be alone at this time. one. And there he is, the man I married. He whips me around and kisses me on the same lips that have been shared with others at this exact moment in previous years. This fact doesn’t bother him though, which is why he let me invite you. You must have disappeared during the countdown. I invited you because I selfishly wanted to see you. I’ll always care for you. It’s been five years since we ended our relationship and I figured this was enough time for you to get used to the idea of us as individual people with no “us” attached. A lot really has changed in those five years and now a new one is beginning.
It never feels like a new year when you look out the window and still see the same snow from 2009 strewn across the streets in what is now 2010. But everyone cheers as though everything has somehow changed. The only thing that has changed is the confetti that is now all over the floor and will need to be cleaned up when everyone leaves for their own clean homes. How do I always get dragged into hosting these parties? There you are, walking back into my husband and I’s apartment. As I head in your direction your eyes keep meeting my left hand and I wonder if it’s still too soon for all of this.
As I reach you I try to think of something casual to say that wouldn’t allude to the fact that I was a little upset that you missed Dick Clark and the whole purpose of this party. “I looked for you during the countdown, I couldn’t find you.”
“Yeah, I stepped out.” You always were selfish.
“Well, you missed the countdown.”
“I heard it” Kind of a smart ass too.
“Did you ever talk to Nancy?” Maybe this is a bad idea setting you up with a friend of mine, but you always just look so lonely.
“Absolutely. She’s very sweet. I like her.” I never knew you to be a liar though.
“Good! She won’t shut up about you.” More descriptive. “Talking about your smile.” So what if she really wasn’t. “She even likes your beard.” It does look nice.
“It’s new…I’m still trying it out” you say. Don’t you see that I’m trying to help you.
“I like it.”
“Thanks, I’ll probably shave soon.” Why do you always have to do that? One compliment and you turn into an ass.
“You should go talk to her…she’s been looking over at you this whole time.” You turn to look behind you and there she is making a mess of herself. You notice and shake your head while turning back around. I try to shift the focus back on her good qualities “she’s so much fun, I really think you two will hit it off.” You just need someone to return the love that I never could with you.
“Yeah, sure. I may be heading out soon, I’m not sure,” which you follow with a laugh.
I ask you why you’re laughing because I’m curious as to what could be so funny besides consistently refusing my friend.
“Nothing…it’s just…well you can see Mars in the sky tonight.” Still not getting it.
“Mars? What does that have anything to do with anything?”
“The song…‘Life On Mars.’ Get it?” Apparently that’s whats playing right now. You always were paying more attention to your music than me.
I give a little laugh to make you happy. I think you notice it isn’t genuine.
Change the subject. “Yeah, okay, I get it. Well, don’t go too soon, have some more to drink.” Be playful. In my British accent, “the night’s still young.”
You don’t laugh. Not even a smile.
“Go talk to Nancy. She’s been so down since her divorce.” For God’s sake, all you have to do is say the word and she is yours. Put a little effort into it.
“Yeah, I will. You go…go have fun.” That’s it. I’m done trying to help you.
I reply with a thanks and the typical happy New Year phrase as I kiss you on the cheek. “Tickles…your beard.” You’re not impressed. The wine must still be making its way through my bloodstream because I feel no guilt in toying with you at this moment.
I walk back inside where my husband is waiting for me. I turn and see Nancy eyeing you down as you grab your coat to head back downstairs. Dammit, why can’t you stay in one place for more than two seconds? My friends pull my attention back to them by asking about the fireplace we just had put in. We spent way too much money on that damn thing. “Yes, isn’t it lovely. There was a sale on Victorian fireplaces and Mr. ‘I’ve got to have it right this minute’ decided we had to get it right that minute,” gently elbowing my husband in the ribs. They laugh, but it seems like everyone is laughing at whatever people say these days. It’s sad to think people will go through life never actually knowing whether they are funny or if their friends are just trying to make them feel better about themselves.
I look at the door right as you make your entrance back into the room full of your old friends that you seem to despise now. I’ll never understand you. I turn away from you so not to give you any satisfaction of my stare. You always seemed to take advantage of things without even realizing it.
I hear you say, “I’m heading out…I have another party to get to.” I’d rather you not go.
“Oh…well, alright. Did you get to talk to Nancy again? You should get her number.” One last attempt.
“I was going to do that before I left, yeah.”
“It was good seeing you again.” I pat his right arm because it’s not just the two of us anymore.
“Yeah, you too. Take care of yourself.”
“I will, you too.” I mean that. “Hey, don’t be afraid to call me, okay?” I mean that too even if it doesn’t seem appropriate. I look at my husband and shrug. I’ve told him all about the hard time you’re going through. I tell him everything.
“Yeah, for sure. We’ll…get coffee or something.”
I have a distinct feeling that you’re lying and that this might be the last time I watch you walk away from the people that have loved you and cared for you. I’m scared that you’ll do something stupid. I’m afraid you don’t have enough courage to do something great. I hope I’m wrong.