Seeing the city in daylight was a startling change for Sarah. She was used to experiencing the city mostly at night, with lights shining from thousands of windows above her, and the fog of car exhaust from the street and her breath all mingled together against an ashy black sky. But today being a holiday, she had gotten out of work early, and the sun was just starting to set. Its golden light was diluted to a watercolor glow by grey clouds and grey buildings and grey asphalt. The people she passed as she walked home were vibrant with color, though, with rosy cheeks and bright coats and hats, instead of the silhouetted figures of black and grey she had grown used to sharing the sidewalks with. Not only that, but the holiday spirit seemed to have infected the city; there were smiles on faces and calls of “Happy New Year!” all around her. She felt dazzled, like there was something wonderful happening that she couldn’t participate in. Like Dorothy in Munchkinland when (Ding! Dong!) the witch was dead.
When she got home and came in through the front door of the townhouse she shared with two other girls, she heard voices in the kitchen. One she recognized immediately: Cameron, her roommate's boyfriend, whose friendly tone and easy laugh brightened their home several nights a week and weekends, too. The other was her roommate, Jenna.
After tucking her coat and bag away in her bedroom--everything in its place--she padded into the kitchen to make a cup of tea. Her roommate Jenna was perched upon the counter, a bottle of beer in hand, and Cam was leaning next to her, sipping from his own bottle.
As soon as he saw her, his eyes lit up and he greeted her the way he always did, by loudly announcing her name, "Sarah!"
And as always, she blushed in response. Averting her gaze, she answered, "Hello.”
Just like she always did, Jenna glowered at Sarah. "You're home early," she said.
"Yes," was all Sarah could think to reply. Since she was busy filling the kettle and setting it on the stove to boil, she didn't have to look at either one of them.
"Got big plans for tonight?" Cam asked, eliciting a derisive snort from his girlfriend. "If you're not busy, you could come with us. We're going to some fancy club." The way he said the last three words made it obvious it wasn’t his first choice.
Jenna sneered, "She can't come. She has to stay home and light her candles."
At this last dig, Sarah finally managed to level a gaze at her roommate. "Hanukkah is over," was all she said.
Cutting through the tension, Cam asked, "Hey. You want a beer? Have a drink with us."
Jenna turned to her boyfriend, shaking her head as if Sarah were pathetic. “You know she doesn’t drink.”
"That's okay. Not everyone can be a party girl like you." He leaned in to kiss her nose affectionately, and she took the opportunity to wrap her arms around his neck, pull him between her legs, and kiss him long and deep.
Sarah busied herself pouring hot water over a tea bag into a mug, her cheeks burning.
Cam quickly broke the embrace and sat down at the table, beer bottle between his hands.
"Hey, Sarah," he said, "maybe you can settle an argument for us. Right before you came in, Jen and I were debating the effectiveness of New Year's resolutions."
Jenna quickly announced her position: "They're pointless. Most people just resolve to lose weight or something stupid, and then they never keep them anyway."
Cam nodded slowly. "That’s true. Most people don't keep them. But if done right, if you're setting goals that are actually measurable and attainable, they can be very effective. And, either way, at least it provides an opportunity to examine oneself and how one might improve or grow. So...what's your vote? Yay or nay for resolutions?"
"Ummm..." Sarah stirred a spoonful of honey into her tea, thinking for a moment. "Well, I guess you're right that it's a good idea to set goals and try to be a better person. But you don't really need to wait for the New Year to do that."
"Ha!" Jenna nudged Cam with her foot in triumph.
Cam persisted, "But don't you think the New Year is the perfect time to start fresh? Turn over a new leaf? Making concrete resolutions is a positive way to stay on track."
"Yes...but personally I feel like making a resolution is too much like making a vow, and I don't think people should make vows they can't keep. Vows should be sacred and meaningful."
"Huh." Cam looked thoughtfully into the distance, used his index finger to push his glasses back up to the bridge of his nose. Sarah recognized the gesture as an indication that he was just warming up to a debate.
Apparently, Jenna recognized it too, because she jumped down from the counter and grabbed his hand. "This is boring. Let’s go upstairs and get ready."
Cam rose to his feet, his lanky frame unfolding fluidly. "Hey, are you sure you don't want to come with us?" he asked, genuine friendliness lighting his eyes.
Sarah sipped her tea, and burned her mouth. "Thanks, but I actually do have plans."
Later, Sarah was settled in bed with her laptop. She started a video call to her parents; when they answered and she saw them on the screen before her, she couldn't stop the grin from splitting her face.
"Hello, Saree," her father boomed out. For some reason, he never could understand that you don't have to shout to be heard over the computer.
"Hi," Sarah laughed.
"Sarah," her mother started in, "are you in bed at seven pm? Are you in your pajamas?"
Sarah glanced down. She had decided to pamper herself and wear the pink satin sleep set she’d ordered online. She realized the tank top was perhaps too casual for an audience with her parents.
"So what if she is?" her father defended her. "What's wrong with being comfortable?"
Her mother tsked in disapproval. "You should be out having fun, meeting new people. Isn't that why you moved all the way out there?"
“No, Mama, I moved here for school, remember?”
“Of course I remember. And how is school going?”
Sarah fiddled with the tassel on the pillow beside her. “It’s...okay.” She had moved to this city because of a scholarship she had won at a nearby university. Her parents were so proud. They had hung onto the dream of her becoming a doctor ever since she had opened a pretend hospital for her stuffed animals as a little kid. But now that she had a year and a half of studies under her belt, the whole white coat and stethoscope act seemed all wrong. She just didn’t know how to tell them. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to be a doctor.”
Mama’s eyes widened in surprise. “Why not?”
Sarah shrugged. “I’m not...good at it.”
“You’re plenty smart enough!”
“It’s not that...I…” Struggling to find the words, she shook her head. “Never mind, Mama.”
Her father smiled benevolently. “Don’t let it get you down, sheifale. We have faith in you.”
She smiled weakly. “I know, Tatte.”
“Maybe you could find someone there to cheer you up,” her mother suggested. “Aren't there any nice young men at synagogue you can spend time with?"
Sarah was reluctant to go down this road. Her mother didn’t seem to know how very little experience she had with the opposite sex. “There are some,” she admitted, “but they don't even notice me."
Both parents made noises of disbelief.
"Are they blind, or just meshugga?" Tatte demanded.
Her mother shook her finger. "Jewish boys these days are not so smart. Remember our neighbor, Mrs. Kravitz? She had a friend who had to get a matchmaker for her daughter. At the time, I thought it was old-fashioned foolishness, but now I'm beginning to think I should do the same for you."
"Mama!" Sarah protested.
"It worked!" her mother insisted. "She found a nice Jewish man and has been happily married for several years."
"Riva," her father gently chided.
Her mother turned to him defensively. "I only want her to be happy! To have a husband, and children, and a happy home. Is that asking too much?"
"Saree, we really do want you to be happy," Tatte said. "It hurts us to see you so lonely and sad. That's all your mother means."
"I know. But you don't have to worry. I'll be fine. Really!" She managed another smile, but this time it was forced.
If they knew she was faking it, they didn’t let on. Her mother launched into a monologue of all the neighborhood and family gossip; Sarah knew she only needed to contribute the occasional “Oh?” or “Mmhmm.” By the time an hour had passed, Sarah was desperate to end the call.
“Well, I should go,” she finally said.
“Okay. We love you, Sarah,” Tatte said. “Zei gezunt.”
“Love you too. Goodnight.”
“Go find a nice young man!” Mama called.
Sarah couldn't close the laptop fast enough. She heaved an exasperated sigh, her head thrown back against the pillows. There was a time when she could take all of her problems to her parents, and they would comfort her and help her look for solutions. Now, it seemed like they just didn’t understand her. Tatte thought she was still his little girl, and Mama apparently only thought of her as a broodmare for future grandchildren. No, she would have to figure things out on her own this time.
She suddenly remembered what Cam had said about the New Year being the perfect time to try to improve and grow. She pulled a spiral notebook out of her bookbag and opened to a clean page. Just because she was a Jew didn’t mean she couldn’t embrace the spirit of the season. Measurable and attainable goals sounded like exactly what she needed right now.
A few hours later, Sarah was almost asleep when she heard the front door swing open and slam against the wall. Then, someone raced up the stairs and into the bathroom, slamming the door behind them, causing her to jerk up in alarm. A second, heavier pair of feet followed up the stairs more sedately. She quickly crossed to the bedroom door and opened it a crack, listening and straining to see through the darkness.
A man stood at the bathroom door, knocking quietly. "Jenna," he whispered.
Sarah opened the door, light from her bedside lamp spilling into the hallway. "Cam?"
He spun in surprise. "Oh. Hey, Sarah," he said, keeping his voice low. "Jenna's sick."
As she stepped closer, Sarah saw that his thick black hair was mussed and his face creased with worry.
"Sick?" she probed. "Like...drunk?"
"No," he sighed. "Like maybe she ate something bad. I don't know. All she wanted was to come home." He shrugged. "Now she won't talk to me."
This was answered with a retching noise from behind the closed door. "It sounds like she's in no condition to talk," Sarah said. Then she had a thought. "I'll be right back."
She hurried into her bedroom and returned with a small basket. She slipped past Cam and knocked on the door. "Jenna," she called, "it's me, Sarah. Can I come in?"
There was a groan from within, which Sarah decided to take as a yes. "You stay here," she whispered to Cam.
Inside the bathroom, Jenna was sprawled on the floor, her head resting on the toilet seat. Sarah could see that her clothes were a mess. "Oh, dear," Sarah murmured.
Jenna squinted up at her, tears and snot running down her face. "Go away," she ordered, then hiccuped. The hiccup turned into heaves, which after a moment subsided into sobs.
There was another knock at the door. "Jenna?" Cam sounded slightly more concerned.
"We're okay," Sarah called. "Don't come in."
"I don't want him to see me like this," Jenna cried.
"I know," Sarah soothed. While she talked, she ran a washcloth under the faucet. "But he must care about you a lot. He's still here, isn't he? Here." She handed the washcloth to Jenna, who mopped up her face. "Listen. I'll go to your room and get you a change of clothes. I’ll send Cameron home and then you can get into bed."
Jenna nodded miserably. "Okay."
"And I brought something." Sarah showed her the basket. "This is a little 'sick day' kit my mom made for me when I moved away. It has everything you might need when you’re sick: chicken noodle soup, seltzer, tissues, a heating pad, a thermometer...but here. Have a little sip of ginger ale. That should help settle your tummy."
Jenna sniffled. "Your mom must be really nice."
Sarah smiled. "She is."
After helping Jenna get cleaned up and into some comfy sweatpants, Sarah made sure she was settled in bed with a box of tissues and a wastebasket nearby.
“Does your stomach still feel upset?” she quietly asked her roommate.
Jenna still looked sweaty and pale, but more than that, she seemed exhausted, struggling to keep her eyes open. “It’s better,” she weakly answered.
“Okay. I’m going to take your temperature, just to make sure, okay?” Jenna nodded, and Sarah pointed the state-of-the-art infrared thermometer at her forehead.
“Hm. A low-grade fever,” Sarah said. “You must have picked up a bug somewhere. But the best thing for that right now is rest. I’ll check on you again in a little bit.”
Drifting off, Jenna whispered, “You’re going to make a great nurse.”
“I--” Sarah looked at Jenna in shock, but the other girl was already asleep. “Thank you.”
Downstairs, Sarah was surprised to find Cam sitting at the kitchen table.
"You're still here?" she asked.
"Yeah. Is Jenna okay?"
"She'll be fine."
"I didn't know if I should stay with her..."
"She just needs to sleep. You can go home. I'm sure she'll call you tomorrow or the next day."
Cam stood and awkwardly twisted his hands together. He looked tired under the bald fluorescent light.
"Thank you for taking care of her. You were much better than I would have been... Much better than she deserves." He winced at his own words. "I mean, you were so nice to her. And she's never nice to you."
"Oh." Sarah bit her bottom lip and looked away, then turned back with a little smile. "I guess you could say it's my New Year's resolution."
He laughed softly, and she admired the way his eyes got lost in the depths of his laugh lines. After the silence settled around them once again, she felt the need to fill it. "You know,” she mused, “during the High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews spend a lot of time reflecting and considering how they should strive to be better people. I guess it's not dissimilar from your New Year's resolutions."
He took a step toward her. "You don't have to strive to be a better person, Sarah. You're already pretty amazing."
He closed the distance between them and kissed her before she even knew what was happening. His right hand cupped her cheek, and his lips were pillowy but strong against hers. She couldn't remember how to breathe.
When he drew away, her fingertips flew up to her lips while she gasped. "Cameron! You're drunk!"
He shook his head, a playful smile tilting his lips. "No," he murmured. "It's midnight. Happy New Year."
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. “You’re going out with Jenna.”
He hung his head sheepishly. “I know. It just felt right. And things with her...don’t.”
Sarah shook her head. “If you want to break up with her, fine, but don’t put me in the middle. I’m not going to be that girl.”
“It’s not like that. I just…” It was his turn to shake his head. “I’m sorry. I should head home, get some sleep.”
She nodded. “Things might look different tomorrow.”
He offered her a rueful smile. “Yeah. It’s better in the light of day, right?”
“Right.” She smiled gently back. “Happy New Year, Cam.”
Sarah returned to her room, intent on finally getting some sleep. But as she walked through the doorway, she spotted the spiral notebook spreadeagled on the floor by her bed. She gathered it up and in the dim light reread what she had written earlier that night.
“MY GOALS” she had scrawled across the top of the page.
“1. Have my first REAL kiss.” The one that had seemed the most impossible was right at the top. She grinned and grabbed her pen. “That was easier than I thought,” she said as she crossed it off.
“2. Make a new friend.” She nibbled the cap of her pen. She was glad that she had built a bridge with Jenna tonight, but she didn’t think they qualified as friends. She wanted someone to talk to, to hang out with, to be herself around. She hoped such a person was out there. She would keep working on that one.
The final item on the list was: “3. Drop out of school? Take a year off? Go back home???” This one she still didn’t have an answer for. Yet. But she took her pen and added one more option to the list: “Become a nurse?”
As she climbed into bed and pulled the comforter up to her chin, she marveled at the possibilities that suddenly unspooled before her. She had started the night feeling trapped and alone and defeated, but now she felt light and hopeful. Excited, even.
Cam was right, she thought as she reached to turn out the light, the New Year is the perfect time to start fresh.