It’s New Year’s Eve and I’ve been single for way too long. Well, not like way too long, but definitely a long time, depending on how you count. A serious relationship? Half a decade. A short-term fling with a tourist I met at the hotel bar near my apartment? A month ago.
“You gotta settle down,” people tell me. Forty is just around the corner. I’m getting up there. If I want to have a family – and I do – I need to hurry up and get it going. Nobody wants to be the geriatric at their kid’s Little League games.
My friend Salome says she’s throwing a party. She just got out of a relationship. “It’ll be great,” she says. “You invite all of your single friends and I invite all of mine and we see who connects!” Brilliant. I love it. I find two single guys to invite through a networking group I joined to meet women. I only found dudes to watch sports with. One of them can’t make it, so it’s just me and Antoine.
Antione is the kind of guy you can’t really take anywhere because he’s too handsome. Salome met him once and her eyes fell out of her head like a cartoon. I am nervous about bringing him to the party because he will draw all the female attention, but he’s very picky so I tell myself it will be fine. Antione is a good hang regardless.
When I arrive, Salome says she has a friend she wants me to meet. “You’ll love her!” she declares with the confidence of Cupid launching his arrows into a crowd. It’s a cool, rainy evening. I arrive soaking wet. She asked me to get ice so I stop at a place near my apartment and then walk thirty minutes up a hill carrying a ten-pound bag plus a bottle of champagne.
She is amused. “Did you come from a pool?”
“Sorry.” I hand over the ice and follow her down an eerily quiet hallway to her one-bedroom apartment. “I shouldn’t have walked.”
She shakes her head and laughs. “It’s fine. Just dry off in the bathroom.”
I walk into her apartment and freeze. Blue Dress. My face turns bright red. I finally understand Romeo’s question: “What light through yonder window breaks?” It is the east and Blue Dress is the sun. I am Mercury, tidally locked and trapped by her light. A knockout in the truest sense of the word. I am floored. I am on my knees cradling my heart because it has leapt out of my chest and declared that it would rather be with her than me.
“Hi,” I stutter. Her eyes are tiny blue Earths and her smile is pure ivory.
She tells me her name and I instantly forget it, so blinded I am by her beauty. Her lips move, but all I hear is my own longing. She is inflicting pain and I am a masochist using small talk to beg for more.
More people show up to the party. I ignore them to ask Salome about her. “She is my best friend and she lives very far away.”
“She teaches a very difficult subject at a very prestigious university.”
“I will read every book ever written about it.”
Her poor university must be lined with the bodies of the men whose hearts she breaks on a daily basis without even trying.
A sideways glance at a barista? His heart is in her coffee.
A smile at a colleague? He is ready to leave his wife and burn his own house down.
A friendly chat with a student? He mentally prepares to jump in front of a train for her.
“She has a boyfriend.” Of course, she does. There is no universe where someone like this stays single for very long, if at all. It would stun me if there were ever a day she left the house without a stranger telling her that she has changed their lives by her very existence.
The thought makes me feel bad for her. It must be exhausting to have such power.
Maybe she needs someone to talk to about it.
“Besides, that’s not who I wanted you to meet,” Salome says and points.
Freckles. A smile so sweet it will give you a cavity. I had recently dreamt of a freckled girl. Deep-set brown eyes. Thick black curls. Looked like a lesbian I knew in high school.
I look again at Blue Dress and wonder why all my dream girls are unattainable.
Freckles is nice. She asks me about myself and listens to my answers. There is real interest here. As we count down to midnight, I move closer to her. She’s brought some friends, a couple who can’t keep their hands off each other. I am jealous.
We count down. I look at Freckles. She looks at me. We are surrounded by people, many of whom are kissing before the clock strikes twelve. I wonder if I should lean forward, just go for it, but decide to hold back. We are surrounded. If I lean in and she turns away from my face, I will be humiliated.
I look over at Blue Dress. She’s laughing at something some guy said. I wish I were him.
I look at Salome and she is with Antione. When he walked in, she was like a tick on a ten-point buck. At midnight their two faces become one.
“Want to dance?” Freckles asks me. It’s past midnight and everyone has got that good buzz going. I don’t see Blue Dress anymore. I barely see Freckles. Soon it’s 1, 2, 3 in the morning. At 4, those of us who remain, finish the champagne by using it to chase tequila shots.
Blue Dress and Salome sit on one corner of the sectional. I sit with Freckles on the other. She has changed into big flannel pants and a spaghetti-strap top. “I figured this would happen so I brought my PJs.” It’s very cute. She is trying. I should give this a shot.
I look over at Blue Dress, and there’s a gnawing.
She lives far away.
“Where do you live?” I ask Freckles.
“Not far. Just a few blocks away.”
That settles it.
Five years later and we’re back at Salome’s. She’s married and they just bought a row house in the NE. It’s a beautiful, narrow, three-story brick building.
I am there with Freckles. We married two years after we met. Now we have a little girl who looks just like her mother and a boy on the way. I hope he looks like his mother, too.
Blue Dress is there, in a different blue dress – more Navy than Royal this time. She has a perfectly round pot belly that looks about ready to burst. Her husband is the same guy she was dating all those years ago. It worked out. Good for them.
I introduce her to my daughter. She is happy to meet her and says she has her own daughter on the way. Maybe they could be friends. I meet her husband, another college professor. He is older. He wears a jacket with leather elbow patches. He doesn’t seem to like me.
The party is different from the last one. We are all in our 40s now, most of us married with children. At midnight, we all kiss. At 1 a.m., we all head home.
A year later, work calls me to an event in the town where Blue Dress teaches. I find her email on the university website and ask if she is free for lunch. She suggests dinner.
She’s wearing a summer dress this time, looser and more of sky blue this time. “How are you?” she asks with genuine enthusiasm. She looks tired but still glows just as I remember her the first time we met. She seems happy to see me in the way people get when they have a lot on their minds and just want to share.
“Wonderful,” I tell her. It’s true. We talk about our children. Her daughter was born in late January, my son late May. We talk about sleep and how much we miss it when we can’t get it, how our bodies beg for it and torment us when they know that sleep is unattainable.
“I think I’m getting a divorce,” she lets slip in-between bites of her fennel salad.
“My wife has cancer.”
We both stop eating and look at each other. She goes off first. Her husband is a fellow professor who was married to another professor at a different university when they first met all those years ago. He claimed to be separated but Blue Dress believes the separation did not begin until they began dating. She has always felt guilty about that but set it aside because he was the most interesting person she had ever met. The attraction was illogical and all-powerful.
I know the feeling.
Since the baby was born, he had begun to spend a lot of time “mentoring” one of the new young professors in the department, someone who reminds Blue Dress a lot of herself when she first arrived on campus.
“We haven’t touched each other in months. I thought it was the baby, and maybe it really is the baby, but I just don’t want to touch him anymore. I never want to touch him again.”
I begin. Freckles has a tumor and there’s not much that can be done. They found it when she gave birth to our son. Doctors can’t believe they missed it. I can’t believe how much they miss. I want to kill them all. If she dies, they should die for failing to prevent her death.
I tell Blue Dress this and she reaches across the table and touches my hand. We order a bottle of wine. We order a second bottle of wine. She’s tipsy and leans into me when we walk out of the restaurant. My hotel is across the street. I ask her if she wants to come in. She doesn’t say yes and she doesn’t say no. She just walks.
A few months later, Freckles is gone. Her dad, who I always liked and always liked me, asks me how I feel.
“Like I’m going to be sad forever.”
He nods and puts his arm around me. He knows the feeling, but doesn’t know that it’s not true for me. I know for a fact I am not going to be sad forever. I know I have already started healing. I feel guilty, but I’m not going to do anything to stop it.
My mother tells me I should sell my house and move back home with her and the kids. She’s almost retired. I will need the help. A 4year-old girl and a 1-year-old boy are a lot for a single person working full-time. I tell her I work from home and my boss is a very understanding, flexible person. Everything will work.
Besides, I have a better plan.
Blue Dress is there. It is the first time I see her in a black dress. It feels like seeing her again for the first time. I wince. “Hello,” we say.
She looks at me and I know she wants to take my hand and comfort me and hold me and tell me that everything is going to be okay. She won’t, though, not in front of all these people. As soon as this is over, however, I will drop the kids off at the in-laws and immediately rush to her hotel room. I will cry in her arms and she will tell me that everything is going to be alright. I will believe her. She will say for the first time that she loves me. I will say it back, out loud, for the first time, though I have always loved her. I think I always will.
Later that night, she asks me to tell her again what I thought the first time I saw her.
“My life is going to be pure agony in pursuit of this woman.”
She laughs and kisses my face.
Ten years later and we’re back at Salome’s, this time in a smaller apartment. She is divorced. They sold the rowhouse. Now she owns a penthouse on top of a building with a beautiful view of the Capitol.
We left the kids behind with my folks so we could cut loose. At 4 a.m.. I ask Blue Dress if she remembers the first time we met. “Of course,” she says. We have discussed it a thousand times. It’s our little game now, one of those extraordinary secret things couples develop as they merge into a single unit over time. “You were sweaty and weird, but also interesting and handsome. I spent the whole night wondering why you wouldn’t talk to me. Then Salome told me she was setting you up with Freckles and it all made sense.”
“How do you think things would have ended up if I spent all night trying to talk to you instead of her?”
She throws her arms around my neck. “The same.” Midnight arrives. We kiss. We hear fireworks. I wonder if they are real or if it’s just the sound of my heart whenever our lips touch.