In her head, in the last hours of 1994, Morgan had been exactly the person she is tonight.
The bar is crowded and loud. A live band is playing the most popular, upbeat songs of the fading year from a tiny stage, and tipsy revelers sway and sing along with the familiar lyrics. They are wearing an array of flashing headgear and plastic jewelry announcing the new year. “2000” they glitter, a new millenium.
Morgan tips her head back, staring up into the warm darkness of the ceiling lost in shadows. She is only on her second drink, but she feels like she is glowing and spinning a little - like she is one of those bioluminescent algae that swarm the beaches of Mexico, swept along in the rhythm of the ocean against the shore.
Her friend on the bar stool beside her leans in close, “Morgan, why are you staring at the ceiling?” she asks, “are you having fun? Should we go somewhere else?”
Morgan drops her gaze back down to the revelling crowd in front of them. “No” she sighs, “this is perfect.”
Her friend eyes the crowd too, her brows creased skeptically, “I wouldn’t say perfect but if you’re having fun…” she shrugs.
It is an hour before midnight when he emerges. He has a broad smile and his blonde hair is slicked to the side. He reminds Morgan of the orchestra teacher at her old high school. She’d never played in the orchestra, but her seat for assemblies had always been down on the floor of the gym, right behind where the orchestra set up. She’d been close enough to see the sweat on the back of the little man’s neck.
“Hey,” he says to Morgan’s friend, with a sideways smile, “You look like you want to dance. What’s your name?” his voice is slow and a little too loud.
“I’m Ruth,” she says, and he takes her unoffered hand, shaking it vigorously.
“Ruth,” he says, “Won’t you dance with me, Ruth?” he presses her hand against his chest.
Ruth shakes her head, loose blonde curls bobbing around her bare shoulders as she pulls her hand back, “No, I don’t really dance. But Morgan here likes to dance, don’t you Morgan?”
He turns his gaze on Morgan. Because of his glasses and the darkness of the room it’s hard to tell, but Morgan thinks his gaze drops from her face to her waist and then back up again.
She straightens in her seat and crosses her legs. His faltering smile re-emerges.
“Yeah? Do you want to dance with me, Morgan?” he asks.
Morgan considers him. He is a little shorter than the hazy man she’d imagined on the eve of 1995. He looks young too, maybe a little too young. But the man in her head five years ago had asked her almost the same question: Will you dance with me, Morgan?
“Sure,” she says, sliding out of her seat.
He takes her hand and leads her through the press of people already dancing. Morgan looks back over her shoulder once, and Ruth waves.
When they seem to be at the very center of the room, he faces her and settles his palms on her hips. They are hot and alien, and they pull Morgan down out of her gently-spinning euphoria. Anxiety trickles into the pit of her stomach as she remembers the last time she danced. It had been twenty years ago, with her father at a cousin’s wedding. She had stood on her father’s shiny dress shoes and he had carried her through the steps.
The air around Morgan is dense with the body heat of strangers.
But quickly the song fades and turns into something slower. It sounds wistful, like the whole, jubilant night is pausing to cast a glimpse back at the waning year. Morgan relaxes into it and drifts with the melody, into a slow circle until her back is to her partner while the drums that are the backbone of the song sound like ocean waves.
His hands drift up her sides like he is counting ribs. He talks into her ear; his heavy, alcohol-scented breath is hot against her hair and his words are almost entirely drowned out by the chorus of the song. But she catches something about “midnight” and, when she turns back around to face him he leans back and says, “you know,” with a different kind of smile. She thinks, behind his glasses, he is looking at her mouth.
And she had imagined this too, five years before. But suddenly he is too close, and taller - looming over her with the weight of murky expectations.
Morgan stops dancing and steps back. “I’m going to get another drink,” she says to him, just as the band launches into a loud, slightly somber chorus.
“What?” he yells back.
She leans in toward his ear and he takes the opportunity to slide his hands up her sides again, his thumbs curling around the underwire of her bra.
“A drink!” she repeats, loudly, and gestures to the bar.
“Me too!” he shouts back. His hands fall to his sides as she turns away. He tries to put them on her waist as he follows her out of the crowd, but she walks too quickly and they fall away.
A tall man had taken Morgan’s place at the bar. He and Ruth are talking to each other with locked gazes and smiles pulling at the corners of their mouths. Ruth notices Morgan’s approach, and glances between Morgan and her trailing dance partner.
“Having fun?” Ruth asks as Morgan squeezes in beside her at the bar.
Morgan doesn’t know how to answer that question. She should be having fun, and she should feel good - after all this was what she’d wanted. “I’m not a very good dancer,” she says, and turns to get the bartender’s attention.
He comes up behind her. His chest brushes Morgan’s arm as he crowds in close. He shouts at the bartender over Morgan’s shoulder, “her drink is on me,” (he doesn’t say her name. She wonders, suddenly, if he remembers it) and, “a shot of Tequila for me!” He keeps shouting - repeating the order - and the harried bartender glares at him over the beer she is filling at the tap.
“Dude, shut up,” someone else says to him, but he only shrugs.
“I’m not being rude, right?” he asks Morgan. She turns and hops up onto a barstool. He crowds in even closer, his thighs brushing her knees.
“Maybe a little bit,” she tells him.
“Aw, really? I’m just trying to get you a drink. Ruth, you’re so beautiful!” he says.
“I’m Ruth,” Morgan’s friend says, dryly, “she’s Morgan.”
“Aw, no!” he says, “I’m so sorry, I’m so drunk. You’re Morgan, I know you’re Morgan!”
“Right,” Morgan says. She regrets sitting down. She feels like she is slowly getting closer and closer to his feet. The bartender sets her drink on the bar and Morgan hurries to pass the woman her credit card before he can attempt to pay.
“Hey, let’s dance again!” he says.
“I just got my drink, maybe you can ask someone else.”
“But this is my favorite song!” he grasps her arms. She almost spills her drink, “I really like dancing with you Ru- Morgan!”
“I’m going to finish my drink,” Morgan says again. She holds the glass between them. At least if he spills it, they’ll both get wet.
Ruth leans close and says into her ear, “Morgan, you don’t have to dance with him. You can tell him to get lost.”
Morgan shrugs, “It’s fine,” she whispers back.
“But do you want to dance with him?” Ruth asks. Morgan takes a long sip through the little red straw in her glass. She thinks about sea turtles, and how she’d seen on TV that they sometimes get straws just like hers stuck in their snouts and die.
“What are you girls whispering about?” he asks loudly, leaning over Morgan.
“Hey man, they don’t have to tell you,” Ruth’s tall new acquaintance says.
Ruth is still looking at Morgan with a small frown on her pink-lipsticked mouth. Morgan has the same color on her lips. They’d gotten ready for the night together, and Morgan didn’t own any lipstick of her own. She suspects the color is better suited to Ruth.
The melting ice collapses in Morgan’s nearly-empty glass with a tinkling sigh. She tries to listen to the drums again. Five years ago, this is what she had wanted.
“I’ve always wanted to dance with someone on New Year’s Eve,” she tells Ruth.
“Come on, what are you talking about?” he asks again. He taps one foot on the floor like a frustrated toddler.
“None of your business,” Ruth says.
When Morgan’s drink is finished, he is still right there. He’d taken two more shots of tequila as he’d watched her sip her drink through the tiny, turtle-killing straw.
She lets him lead her back out onto the dance floor anyway, because it is almost midnight. When they are back at the center of the floor, she looks down at her bare legs, luminous in the low light of the bar. She likes the way they are there, shuffling along with the others like seaweed caught in the same ocean tide.
He slides his hands down over her ass suddenly and she starts. She moves back so his hands slide up again. He grins, “You’re SO beautiful, Morgan!” he shouts, “Morgan Morgan Morgan - sexy, beautiful Morgan!”
“Five minutes to 2000!” someone on stage announces.
Morgan makes herself smile and loops her arms around his neck as the next song starts. She imagines she is somebody else, watching her and this stranger dancing, looking happy and caught up in the moment, at home in this crowd.
As midnight nears they count down together, shouting along with the crowd and the band on the stage.
“Three!” he wraps his arms around Morgan’s waist, drawing her close against his body. All around them couples and would-be couples are doing the same.
“Two!” She can smell sweat on his neck, and just a little too much cologne - the cheap kind favored by college students.
“One!” and his open mouth is covering hers.
Everyone else seems to be shouting “Happy New Year!” but Morgan is not.
Because his tongue is pressed insistently against her lips and she is worried about her lipstick. She’d used a straw that might kill a sea turtle one day just to keep her lipstick in place. When he pulls back all she wants to do is wipe her mouth.
And all she can think about is sea turtles and straws, and her wheelchair tucked away in the closet of her parents’ home.
He is shouting in her ear about her plans after this. He’s talking about getting a taxi and asking where she lives.
Morgan opens her eyes. She moves her hands up from his shoulders until she is holding his face in her palms. They are almost the same height.
“Was it a good kiss?” he asks loudly, over the crashing drums.
“I couldn’t walk!” she shouts.
“Yeah,” he shouts back, “It's cold so I think we should get a taxi!”
“...or drive, or dance, and nobody wanted to kiss me!”
“Yeah, I’ll kiss you!”
But she tightens her fingers and holds his head in place, away from her. She tries to make out the color of his eyes, but it’s still too dark and his glasses reflect the flashing silver headband of someone behind her. She strokes his cheekbones with her thumbs. His smile falters.
The drums soften. The singer's voice slips over them in a clear, acapella note and Morgan stops shouting,“Why are you still so far away?” she asks. But he still doesn’t hear her.
“What?” he asks.
She drops her hands and steps away from him.
“Sorry!” she shouts, so loudly the people around them turn to look at her too.
“Where are you going?” he asks.
But she is already pushing back through the celebrating crowd, past the harried bartender denying someone more free champagne, past Ruth who’s lipstick is smudged as she smiles up at the tall man beside her, past the large bouncers who try to stamp her hand and yell after her that she won’t be able to come back inside.
And then she is breathing. The night is frigid and her long exhale is a fading trail of ghostly steam. Hard-packed, slippery snow lays threateningly in patches across the sidewalk. Music and voices spill out of every bar front, and a cluster of underdressed college girls press into the jackets of their male counterparts on the other side of the street, their laughter high-pitched and carrying.
The street itself though is nearly deserted - clear of both cars and people. There is only one lonely taxi a block away. It’s driver is a shadow against the red glow of brake lights, his lit cigarette pointed at the night sky like a straining, would-be star.
Morgan walks out into the street with slow, careful steps. The asphalt is slippery and black. She stops with one foot on either side of the centerline and tips her head back.
The cold makes the stars seem closer, like she could cradle a cluster of them in her hands if she reached up. Instead she curls her chilled fingertips into her palms. Like this, Morgan and the stars stand face-to-face, caught together between the cold darkness at her feet, and more of the same above them.
Five years ago, from the seat of her wheelchair in the driveway of her parents’ house, the night had been just like this one.
Morgan tastes ocean water on her lips.
She drops her gaze, and Ruth is waving from the sidewalk.
“What are you doing? That isn’t safe! Come over here!” Ruth calls.
A couple is climbing into the taxi a block away. The driver is grinding his cigarette into the cement under his shoe.
Morgan waves back, exhaling another long puff of silver. She’d met Ruth less than a year ago, in the hospital after Morgan’s spine surgery. As she cautiously begins to make her way back to the sidewalk, Morgan wonders what Ruth’s night had been like five years before, and who she’d been with.
As the taxi passes just a little too close behind her, Morgan slips on a patch of frozen snow packed against the curb. Ruth catches her, fingers pressing into Morgan’s arms.
“You need to be careful!” she scolds, “Geez Morgan, you just got your legs back, go easy on them!”
“It’s been six months,” Morgan reminds her, surprised by how the words come out slightly slurred, “The PT gave me like… eight gold stars for my walking!”
“I don’t know what that means!” Ruth says, smiling, “and you’re drunk, you lightweight!”
“Not my fault, I started with the drinking late in life!” Morgan says.
“I know,” Ruth says. She helps Morgan regain her balance and pulls her onto the sidewalk, “I know. What happened with that Wallace guy?” Morgan couldn’t remember when he’d told them his name.
“I think he wanted to take me home,” Morgan says.
“And you don’t want to, right?”
Morgan shakes her head vigorously, “No,” she says, “no no no.”
“So… you ran out into the middle of the street? You don’t have to get hit by a car to avoid a guy, you know.”
“He was pretty clingy.”
Ruth rolls her eyes, “Still. Do you want to go back inside? We’ll make him leave you alone.”
Morgan holds up her bare right hand, “No stamp,” she explains, “no going back.”
Ruth shakes her head and sighs. She releases Morgan carefully and squats down, holding the back of her hand against the packed snow at their feet. Morgan follows her, balancing precariously on the balls of her feet. “What are you doing?” she asks
“Hang on, it just has to melt and get the stamp wet.”
“I’ll show you.” Ruth reaches for Morgan’s hand with her free one, holding it in her palm. After another handful of seconds she lifts her hand from the snow and holds the back of it against the back of Morgan’s. She presses hard, and her skin is very cold.
After a moment she lifts her hand away, and Morgan sees the ghost of Ruth’s stamp on her own hand. Both marks are smudged and faded, but Ruth smiles.
“There, you’re good,” Ruth says, and they stand up together.