Last New Year’s Eve, I thought I tried to do it all. My family was having our annual New Year’s Eve party: an hors d’ouvres spread to feed an army, enough wine to flood the Ganges and hours of games and laughter with the family that loved me before they knew me as an adult, and no less than that after.
That year, I had a boyfriend on New Year’s for the first time in years. He invited me to a fancy, late-night dinner at our favorite upscale restaurant, forty-five minutes from my suburban home. “Get dressed up, come out with us and we’ll ring it in right,” he had said.
And I was torn, but not for long. “I’ll stay for the family party until ten, drive to the restaurant and spend a few hours there, then come home in time to see everyone leave,” I told myself. A compromise. A way to have my cake and eat it, too. It would work. It had to.
New Year’s Eve came, and I pulled on my favorite dress, butterflies in my stomach. The spread was set, the family arrived, and I was on the edge of my chair the entire time.
“You look like you’re preparing for an invasion,” my Aunt Tammy joked to me. She lived in Virginia, an eight-hour car ride away and came back to New York a few times a year. New Year’s was the one holiday we spent together, and she had texted and called me excitedly about the upcoming festivities for months.
“I’ve got a date, at ten,” I told her. “And I’m hoping I can make it on time.”
“Relax,” she told me. “Enjoy where you are for the time you’ve got.”
I tried. I tapped my toe through our annual game of Apples to Apples, stared at the clock as I sipped the one glass of wine I was allowing myself before I had to drive, choked down a plate of canapés that tasted like sawdust. And when the clock struck ten, I leapt into my car, barely stopping to let my relative’s kisses brush my cheek.
Off to phase two, I thought. And the clock was ticking.
I got to the restaurant just in time, out of breath and frantic from a harrowing drive in blustering snow.
“Relax,” my boyfriend said, greeting me with a warm hug. “You’re here now.”
But I couldn’t relax. I checked my watch every fifteen minutes or so, my mind floating back to what my relatives at home must be doing, what they always did, what we had always did at that time. Dinner was delicious: escargot and champagne with bubbles like brushed velvet, but it stuck in my throat as I thought longingly of the shrimp cocktail from the grocery store and bottles of “Two Buck Chuck” wine my aunt always brought from Trader Joe’s.
Midnight came and my boyfriend pecked me sloppily on the mouth, his affection made salacious by gin and tonic. I excused myself a few minutes after the turn of the clock and stepped outside to call home.
“Happy New Year!” I heard my assembled family call down the line. “Wish you were here!”
I saw my parents dancing arm-in-arm in front of the television, where the ball drop would be glittering on the TV. I saw my cousins, my brother and my aunts and uncles guzzling Andre sparkling wine from mismatched wine glasses, since we had no champagne flutes. And I glanced back through the frosted windows at the dimly lit restaurant, my boyfriend in his suit and his friends in their finery.
Our friends, I reminded myself as I yanked open the door and slid back inside. This is where I wanted to be. Where I had worked so hard to make it.
But a pang of loneliness settled in my chest as my boyfriend pulled me into a waltz. The smooth jazz music sounded wrong in place of the jangle of Christmas tunes I knew would be playing on the stereo back at my house. My head wasn’t where I was, I realized. It hadn’t been all night. In attempting to have everything I wanted on New Year’s Eve, I had left myself with nothing.
I came home to a darkened house several hours later, the crusting relics of the appetizers congealing in the sink and half-empty glasses littering end tables and countertops in the dim glow of the oven clock. As I peeled off my evening dress and threw it in the hamper, I made myself a promise: to choose one blessing to cherish next New Year’s, lest I forget to relish either.
The boyfriend dumped me three days before that Valentine’s Day, so the problem solved itself, but I haven’t forgotten the lesson. This weekend, I’ll be ringing in the New Year with my relatives by my side. Drinking cheap champagne out of a red wine goblet, watching the ball drop on our television and playing Apples to Apples around the dining room table. It may not be swanky. It may not be romantic. This year, I understand it doesn’t have to be.
“Be where you are,” says a piece of paper I’ve tacked above my vanity mirror. This year, I intend to do just that.