I don’t understand those people standing out there in the cold, waiting for the ball to fall on New Year’s Eve. I don’t understand why they wave at the camera and, most of all, I don’t understand the screaming as we cross an arbitrary line on the calendar. With or without celebration, with or without our approval, time keeps on moving, and all the shouting in the world won’t stop it. You can bang a noisemaker or drink yourself unconscious, but you can’t change your fate. Whatever the new year intends, whatever corners will be turned, whatever turbulence awaits, awaits.
But reason, sense, doesn’t put a damper on the giddy gladness in my spirit as I dress for our evening out.
I remember a time midcentury when I had New Year’s Eve date anxiety. Would I have one? Would he try to kiss me in the cab? Would he bring me a flower to pin on my breast? Would he pass out at the party and would I end up alone listening to my Frank Sinatra records on the Victrola, dancing with my reflection in the mirror as the morning star rose over the first day of January?
But the good Lord and my highly skilled orthodontist did not intend for me to be a wallflower. So for a few New Year’s Eves, I was at the most glamorous party in town. A prominent family owned a town house in the East 60’s and on each floor a different generation gathered on New Year’s Eve. The candles shone on white tablecloths. Champagne bubbled in long fluted glasses. A winding staircase went up and up. There were silver dishes of candy and little girls in velvet dresses and big girls like me in tulle and satin. There were bankers and lawyers, and people connected to judges, and judges connected to people, and on my generation’s floor we danced cheek to cheek with the lights dimmed, and then we went to the buffet tables where rows and rows of chafing dishes and an army of butlers with shiny shoes awaited.
I didn’t quite belong to this world, but I had been invited in and I saw that any girl in America could have silverware with a gold monogram if that’s what she wanted, and I believed that this house would be spared the sorrow of other houses, and within this enchanted circle that displayed paintings with French names on them I, too, was safe. I took a deep breath and inhaled with my rye and ginger ale the mingling odors of perfume, cigarettes and chocolate. I believed that this house was the castle in the fairy tale high up on the hill, permanent, protected by a wide moat and always benevolent. I drank a bit too much and grew dizzy. I let my date touch where he was not allowed. I liked it. I liked everything about New Year’s Eve.
I’m certain that that particular party continues, although I no longer attend. The formerly young generation is now stately, and everyone knows that real estate prices being what they are, no one in New York can afford a moat around their house anymore. I have been to other New Year’s parties in artist’s studios with the smell of turpentine hanging heavy, and I have sat on New Year’s Eve on fire escapes on Avenue A, shivering in a low-cut dress and listening to plots for novels or plays. I have been to parties in dining rooms of hotels in the Caribbean, and once I was in an airplane on my way to Mexico for a divorce on New Year’s Eve. And even then, at the stroke of midnight, I felt a magic tug, an irrepressible excitement: The future was coming.
It used to be that drinking on New Year’s Eve was the big thrill. I can no longer think of alcohol as a mere accessory to glamour. I know too many whose livers and brain cells were fried in pursuit of the drink to soothe, the drink to calm, the drink to cover shyness.
Now I know that the safety of the Lehman house was an illusion created for the children. Society is fickle and stock markets veer oddly and no one has a purchase on the social center. Pecking orders reverse themselves at the drop of a dollar. Judges end up in jail. Politicians are voted out and no one remembers their names. Fame is like the bubble in Champagne, flat the morning after, and being German Jewish is no big deal at all.
At the party we now attend, there are crepes that you make yourself with caviar filling and sweet cheeses. At the party we attend, there are friends who know us well and forgive us our imperfections, or at least I hope so.
For the last 30 years, I have had the same date each New Year’s Eve. He still wears the same tuxedo he had when we met. We go to a party with friends in an apartment that overlooks Central Park. At midnight, the fireworks burst into our faces with an improbable beauty, with a child’s glory. We look down and see runners with numbers on their backs set off on their course around a path. They disappear in the shadows around Tavern on the Green, where the trees are covered with tiny flickering white bulbs. The city beneath us seems so urbane, so sophisticated, so much the place to be, that I feel most acutely the lack of a long black cigarette holder and a gold compact with my initials in diamonds. I hang my sometime social conscience on the outside coat rack. I place my hand in my date’s. I feel the heat of his palm. I know everything about him. I am not waiting for a kiss. I take it when I want it, even before the stroke of midnight.
As the red and blue of the fireworks splash upward, I feel Smoke Gets in My Eyes (even though no one smokes anymore). I’ll be walking around After Midnight, not in My Tennessee Mountain Home, and I’m no Jersey Girl, either. I feel like The Last Time I Saw Paris, A Tisket a Tasket and Luck Be a Lady and I’ve Got the World On a String and I Ain’t Misbehavin’, and I feel Stormy Weather and I know I’m Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and I’ll Ac-cent-tchu-ate the Positive and I Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans. You say po- tah -to and I say Tea for Two. I’m smooth like Ella and growly like Armstrong and witty like Noel and smartly pickled like The Thin Man ‘s Nora and, most of all, I feel time pouring down, pouring through me, the rain of the universe, pushing forward. Blood pumps in the overheated heart, more to do, next year, time still ahead, running out but racing forward, swing and Charleston, tango, macarena and hip-hop, twist and box step, waltz and disco. Will you still feed me When I’m 64? The beat of time, past and future kissing cousins, the lights on Fifth Avenue, the horns that bleat like frightened sheep, the new year, a byproduct of the Big Bang, arrives.