Auld Lang Syne

New Year’s Day, I wake up in grey light. Someone has cracked open the curtains. Of the four of us, I am closest to the window; I pull a pillow over my head and press my back into Tommy’s chest. He slides his arm up my side and around my belly. He is tall, and I fit inside his contours with room to spare. His gold cross tangles in my hair, digging into my scalp.

I chose him as soon as we walked into the bar. Partly because he’s tall and easy to pick out of the crowd, yes, but mostly because of that pretty black magic that draws people to each other. He is babyfaced the way I like, and a sweetness floats in the air around him. He was dancing with a group of women when we walked in, but clearly not trolling. We held eye contact as I followed my friend Leigh to the back of the bar; I turned away first. In ten minutes the ball would drop in Times Square, less than a mile away.

Ten, nine, eight. Leigh and I ready our champagne glasses for the toast. She is beautiful and dynamic, and tonight she brought the party girl out to play. Someone has draped an arm around her shoulders, laying a claim. No one has triedĀ  to claim me, and that’s just fine. I want it, and I don’t. I’ve been claimed for the last thirteen new years, first by Jeanette and then by Brad; this year I want to claim myself. The ball drops. Leigh and I share a quick kiss, say we love each other. Her admirer kisses her, dipping her backward, trying to sweep her off her feet. As an afterthought, he leans over and offers me a small, chaste peck. It’s a sweet gesture.

I glance around. Tommy is watching me.

He makes his way over in time to the music, keeping his eyes on me and moving his shoulders, so by the time he reaches me we’re already dancing together. The dance floor is crowded and we are jostled from all sides as we introduce ourselves, but somehow keep from touching each other. I forget his name as soon as he says it. The couple next to us starts making out again and Tommy shrugs and gives me a kiss, for theĀ  New Year, he says; it’s the first contact we make. Leigh comes over, more introductions. Can he buy us a drink?

We are drinking whiskey, neat. Knob Creek for me, Jameson for Leigh. This confuses him. Bourbon and what? Just bourbon. Just pour. He is mixing vodka and Sprite. He does seem a little young to appreciate liquor on its own. My lipstick rubs off on my glass. As I reapply, Tommy leans down, offering pouted lips for me to color in. I get greedy, smooth more color onto my own lips and lean in, telling him I have a special technique. (Greedy AND cheesy, I should say.) He pulls back before I can make contact. The cycle repeats. Clearly he doesn’t want me to kiss him; I shrug and continue dancing, thick with lipstick.

Then Joey shows up.

Tommy had mentioned he was out with his best friend. That’s Joey. Joey is a twenty three year-old Jersey Shore stereotype. Short, heavily muscled, extremely forward. Goodfellas accent. Joey seems to think that he has claimed me for the evening without having asked for my input. He tells me over and over to touch his abs, and insisting that if I just take him home he will fuck me like crazy all night long. This makes up about 85% of our conversation (the other 15% is about his ex, with whom he is not on good terms).

I think Joey doesn’t know much about women.

I tell him that we are not going home together; he sticks around. Fine. Somewhere between Joey spinning me around the dance floor and providing an unsolicited lap dance, Tommy disappears. Despite having my hands full, I notice. As Joey buys me another drink, I ask him about Tommy, why he’d pulled away and disappeared seeming interested. “Tommy?” Joey asks. “Tommy’s gay.”

Ah. It’s no wonder I liked him, then. He is my people. Leigh squeals at the information and runs off to find Tommy and squeal again with him. Before the bartender comes back with our drinks, Tommy shows up again. I lean across Joey’s back and tell Tommy that Joey had mentioned he was gay, that I’d been surprised he’d turned me down earlier but it made sense now.

“I’m not gay.” No anger at his friend’s lie, just a simple statement of fact.

I grab my drink and Tommy’s hand. I don’t look back as I drag him to the other side of the bar. As the night goes on, I do get him to kiss me, and claim me, and this time I like it. Tommy is sweet, gentle. Unlike his friend, he does seem to understand women. He flirts with both Leigh and I, leaving no one out. When she buys me another round of bourbon (neat), he takes it from me with a small plea. “Don’t drink that, please don’t. If you drink that you won’t remember.” I don’t drink it. I want to remember.

Still, as the night winds down I tell him the same thing I told Joey — he’s not coming home with me, either. Not because I don’t want him to, but because I’m sharing a hotel room and I don’t want to do put Leigh in an awkward position. We start considering our options, wondering about the odds of finding an open hotel room this time of night. Not good, we think, but we’ll try. We’ll try.

Leigh finds a boy of her own; things change. We can go back to my hotel, and we do. This story’s already too long, so I’m going to leave off, but whatever you think happens next? Does.

The only boy who could ever reach me (and all the rest of them)

He always was the kind of boy that Dusty Springfield ought to sing about; the son of a preacher man, gentle and sweet with a hint of wicked. I loved him in that aching, desperate way teenage girls do. I wrote poems, lived to hear him play guitar, clung to his image with wanton abandon. I kissed him in the backseat as our friends drove, held his hand as we ran through dirty festival grounds and tangled up together in stacks of straw. I fawned, and pined, and waited for him to fall in love with me.

He didn’t.

Somehow he never knew. Maybe that’s why we remained friends. Tangentially: the love that filled the room when we got together could suffocate you, but we didn’t get together that often, keeping up with each other through word of mouth, pictures on the internet, that special metaphysical gravity that you develop with the people you love when you’re young. Miles, states, coasts apart, we continued to orbit each other and the sun of a shared history. Then, something shifted. We aligned again.

Summertime, he came through my town for seven hours: ready, set, go. Lord, I’d missed him. Stealing kisses from me on the slide.

Winter found me on a bus headed toward Baltimore and familiar arms. Taking time to make time. Twirl me, I said before I came. Show me your city.

Teach me again is what I meant.

Teach me again how to dive into love like I did back then. Teach me how to offer the back of my hand for a kiss, how to rest my hand on your chest before we kiss. Take my face into your hands and send lessons firing like sparks up and down my spine. Climb up on the roof and give me the sunset, flirt with the people selling food on the street. Dance with me while we wait for dessert, because they played your song and because we can. Decide this will be our anniversary, and remind me every year. Be wild and tender and romantic, then hold on to me tight, I’m leaving in the morning. Remind me how it can be. I’m leaving in the morning.

He did.

He plays bass now, mostly; upright, an instrument you embrace and coax notes from. His hands are still graceful and wise. He writes in verse, even if we don’t call it poetry anymore. And he will forever, ever, ever reach me.

*****

When I was younger I fell in love hard, and frequently. I suppose I still do, to a certain extent. I love making eyes, flirting, first kisses and the moment right before when the world swims through closing eyes.

Now that those pleasures are available to me again, I’ve been taking advantage where I can. I wouldn’t have guessed, but the best new connections I’ve made have been old ones. I’m being taken apart and put back together by a small army of familiar small-town boys.

Most of them are new to me in one way or another, but the difference between old-new boys and the new-new ones is that I don’t have to be anything for the old ones. There are no expectations; they already know me as someone, so I don’t feel like I have to change to please them (which is something I do with new people). And surprise surprise, they want to be with me anyway.

And each one of them who remembers me who I was before I knew to hide her, and loves me anyway? Each one of them chips off a little bit of the plaster I used to cover over myself. Each one peels another onion layer, leaves me a little more vulnerable and a little more safe in that vulnerability. Each one heals me a little more.

He’d kiss & tell me everything is all right…