He didn’t like the way I did our first Christmas. Candlelight dinner at the table instead of in front of the TV where he was watching A Christmas Story; presents he’d said he didn’t want (although he needed that comforter and looked really good in the black cotton loungewear I’d bought him). Mea culpa, I thought, so I asked him to plan something for our first New Year’s Eve.
Later I wouldn’t remember how junky his apartment was – the worn thrift shop chairs, his tech equipment on every surface, unpacked boxes, grease all over his stove. I wouldn’t remember how he made us hike, and got us lost, how we tramped through underbrush up and up and up a hill, legs aching, sweating in the December cold, or how many ticks latched onto the dog that had to be carefully removed later.
No, what I would remember was the food he cooked for us first – shrimp and green beans sautéed in fresh garlic and olive oil, layered over jasmine rice. I would remember what I saw when we finally crested that hill – the whole San Fernando Valley lit up before us like a museum tapestry, and the cliff’s edge where we had first-class seats, dangling our feet out over bottomless space. I’d remember the champagne and good cheese, chocolate, and treats for the dog, who laid quietly beside us, while we toasted with real glasses. “To many more years together,” I would remember that he said, as firework art explosions went off below us from east to west and back again, as if agreeing with him.
I wouldn’t remember how his gifts dwarfed mine – time and experiences instead of things.
Instead, I’d remember what it felt like to be on top of the world, and at the top of our game, and yes, what I would remember most was that once he loved me.
* * *
New Year’s Eve 1999. The night before I was going to try to quit smoking. Yes, for maybe the 20th, 30th, who knows maybe even 100th time. But this time I really wanted it to be the last.
My smoking history is embarrassing. I didn’t smoke until college, so first of all who the fuck starts smoking AFTER they’ve made it through high school? Me apparently.
I quit smoking when college ended. And stayed that way for about 10 years. Why did I start again? Because I was going through a bad breakup. It was a stress reducer, and a poor choice. I smoked for quite a few years from there. Eventually I quit again. And started again. And quit again. And started again. I know this doesn’t sound like 20, 30, 100 times. But keep in mind that when I say “quit,” as opposed to “try,” I mean for some years. I’m not detailing the MANY Sunday nights that I threw out my cigarettes and hid my ashtrays, only to dig them out and stop at the liquor store by Monday afternoon. Or bum a smoke at a nightclub by Friday.
So, there I was on New Year’s Eve. I had some friends over, and we were going to “party like it’s 1999” – cuz it was! I planned on smoking that evening and quitting the next morning, as I had done so many times, but this one I was sure would be the last. Because now there had been a new development: I’d begun to have a chronic sore throat. I knew things were not going in a good direction. And so I’d picked New Year’s Eve 1999 as the memorable night that I’d have my last cigarette.
One of my friends was allergic to smoke, so I planned on smoking out on the front porch. It was cold; I figured I’d have 3 or 4 cigarettes before the countdown to midnight. But after the first one, I never went out again. It was too much fun to be with my friends – to laugh and dance, eat hors d’oeuvres and drink champagne, play Prince and watch the big disco ball come down, and hug and kiss – than to stand and shiver alone outside with my cigarette.
Now, New Year’s Eve 1999 was 20 years ago, and I have not smoked since. For once, I listened to my body that night, and after.