Julia releases the breath she’s been holding. She stares at the list she’s working on, then closes her eyes as if she can’t stand to see it. Every year she feels the expectation to come up with New Year resolutions, but nothing seems right to her. Instead of supporting her goals for the coming year, the list creates a weight of self-conscious dissatisfaction. Julia rests her arms on the table, and her head on her arms. Tears prickle her eyes. She closes them before any can fall.
When night falls, Julia decides to take a walk and clear her head. Even though the chill is biting, the people around her smile and celebrate. They jostle her as they go by, and rarely does she get an apology. She doesn’t mind. Some part of her is happy there are others actually enjoying the night before the new year starts.
Pulling her coat closer, she walks to a park near her apartment. There’s nothing happening here, and the quiet feels disturbing after the noise of the crowds. Lost in thought, she almost doesn’t notice when someone sits next to her. She smiles, because she knows exactly who it is.
Mark exhales, his breath turning icy in the winter air. He turns to look at Julia but she stares determinedly forward. There’s a sadness that he can’t quite place, and it feels mildly inappropriate to interrupt her thoughts.
* * *
Ten Years Ago
The lights flare blindingly and the music blares deafeningly. Julia, Brittany, and Lindsay gyrate clumsily on the dance floor, the drinks in their hands slosh around their glasses. The three of them scream at each other to be heard over the sound of the club, then laugh raucously at the absurdity of it. At twenty-one, this is the most mature they’ve ever felt.
Julia’s drink spills onto her hand, then onto the floor. The moment she slips, everything changes. The surprise of it causes her to gasp, and it feels like she can’t breathe. The world is spinning, she’s spinning, her stomach is spinning. When everything stops with a strong tug at her waist, the only reward she offers the man who caught her is vomit covered shoes. Julia tries to breathe, and slowly, things come back into focus.
She looks up to see Brittany laughing her head off, and Lindsay filming. At that moment, she wants to do or say something, but sturdy arms haul her up and pull her away from the camera. When they reach the bar, a warm, husky voice asks for water. After a couple glasses her head doesn’t feel like it’s swirling quite as much, and she breathes a little easier. She gets a better look at him. His concerned-filled, milk chocolate eyes, and cherubic, heart shaped face burn themselves in her brain.
Then his lips form the words, “let’s get you home” and he helps her to her feet. She hears the countdown, but it barely registers until everyone shouts “Happy New Year!” Julia and the stranger stumble out of the club with a billow of balloons that had just dropped. They bundle into a taxi, and he asks for her address. She slurs as she says it, but he somehow understands. When they get to her apartment, he walks her to her door, finds the key in her bag, and unlocks it for her. She goes inside, straight to her room, and falls into bed without locking the door again.
* * *
Nine Years Ago
Julia watches Amber dance like no one’s watching, when, in fact, there’s quite a large gathering around her. She’s always admired how Amber never seemed too concerned with what other people think. Amber jumps and pumps her fist, and the crowd around her joins in, but Julia keeps her distance. She’s at the bar, drinking slowly, when a slightly familiar figure crosses her path.
“Hey!” She calls out as if speaking to a friend.
He looks around in surprise, then makes eye contact with her. The same look of uncertain familiarity clouds his expression. “Hi, I . . . don’t think we’ve met?”
“I’m Julia,” She smiles and gestures to the seat next to her. “And I don’t actually think we’ve met either. I just could swear I know you from somewhere.”
“Mark.” He pauses, giving her time to recognize the name. She doesn’t. “Anyway, it was nice to meet you. Or see you again, I guess. Whichever.”
As he walks away, internally beating himself up for saying something so stupid, she calls out to him again. Her voice is smaller this time, embarrassed. This suspicion is confirmed when he turns and sees her blushing.
“Do you have somewhere to be?” It’s an accusatory question, but she says it so curiously and innocently that he doesn’t feel defensive.
“No,” He answers honestly despite himself. It probably would’ve looked better if he was in a rush to get somewhere.
She doesn’t say anything, but gestures to the seat again, and this time he takes it. There’s a nervousness as he orders his drink and she delicately sips hers. It’s the most cliche thought he’s ever had, but he swears he sees sparks fly.
“What brings you here?” He asks as suavely as he can manage.
“Home for the holidays, although,” She giggles at some inside joke. “I go to school here too. So, I guess I never actually left home. What about you?”
“Same,” He smiles along with her. “Except I did leave home.”
Their conversation is light and easy, until the realization hits them. Their eyes go wide as they look at each other again. She flushes so crimson that her face matches her hair. He starts laughing, and her green eyes give away her mortification.
“I remember how we know each other,” He gasps out between chuckles.
“Me too.” She whispers into her drink with her head in her hands.
“Hey,” He comfortingly puts a hand on her shoulder. “Everyone has an experience like that, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. And . . it has been a year.”
She nods and meets his gaze. “Yeah, you’re right. I can handle my alcohol much better now.”
He smiles, and she smiles back. They clink glasses. They move on from that particular topic of conversation. After a couple drinks, he notices the change in her. She leans in closer, occasionally brushing her hand against his thigh. There’s a lust in her eyes, and he feels it too. For just a moment, he wants to give in, but she’s wobbling in her seat. He knows better than to play that game when she’s like this.
He pays for their drinks and walks her outside. The winter chill hits them the second they step outside. She shivers. He puts his coat around her shoulders. The shouts of “Happy New Year” fill the air. Their gazes pierce each other. The chill is barely noticeable now. He calls a cab.
“Your place or mine?” She tries her best at flirty, but leans back too far and loses her balance.
Mark goes to catch her, but he’s unsteady himself. They tumble to the ground just as a taxi pulls to the curb. He tries to get up, but she pulls him closer. Taking a deep breath, he pries her hands from his neck, and pulls her up.
“I thought you said you were better at handling alcohol.” He teases.
A smile tugs at his lips as he opens the car door for her. “You’re carriage, milady.” He bows, but nearly tips over.
She laughs as she gets in the car. “Are you coming?”
He shakes his head. “I’ll get another cab. Get home safe, Julia.”
Her smile is tinged with sadness, but she nods. “Thanks, Mark.”
* * *
Five Years Ago
Julia sits at her table in a coat that most people would consider unfashionably oversized. Her friends make humorless jokes and laugh too hard at them. She mindlessly pushes around the food on her plate with her fork. In her mind, she knows that it would be far too coincidental to run into him here, but something tells her that the possibility is very real.
Jake sits across from her, and she can tell from the way he’s looking at her that he’s not looking to be just friends anymore. The thought doesn’t excite her as much as she thinks it should. She fiddles with the buttons of her coat. Well, not her coat. His coat.
When she looks up, she blinks several times to make sure her eyes aren’t playing tricks on her. Mark is sitting at a table not far from her own. At first, she feels inexplicably lifted at the sight of him, then she feels even worse than before. A beautiful woman sits across from him, and they look very happy. She squashes the jealous feeling she has no right to feel, and turns to Jake with forced interest.
Julia tells herself that imagining Mark being with her was ridiculous, an obvious fantasy built from five random encounters. Yet, she still finds her eyes straying to him whenever the conversation at her own table becomes stilted. She wonders why she’s given this stranger so much power over her. She wonders why she doesn’t mind.
Occasionally, Mark's eyes flick away from Amy and land on Julia. She’s wearing his coat. There’s something about seeing her in it that makes it hard to look away from her. Amy is talking about how wonderful this holiday season has been, but Mark is only half listening. Sometimes, when Julia looks up, they make eye contact and she smiles like she can’t help herself. He pulls his attention back to Amy, but no matter how hard he tries he just can’t be fully present.
They leave at the same time, and Mark refuses to let the precious moment slip away. “Hey Julia! That’s a nice coat.” He calls out with a grin.
She turns in surprise and matches his expression. “Men's coats on women is the new trend this year, didn’t you know?”
“Shame that trend doesn’t work the other way around.”
They laugh until Amy nudges Mark and asks, almost accusingly, “who is this?”
Julia does her best to offer an innocent smile. “I’m Julia, a friend or, I guess, an acquaintance of Mark’s. And, actually, speaking of . . .” She trails off as she removes her coat. “This is yours.”
“This is his?” Amy’s question is aimed at Julia, but her fiery gaze never leaves Mark.
“Yeah,” Julia stammers. “But it doesn’t mean anything! He lent it to me a couple years ago, and I just thought I might run into him today so I brought it with me to give it back.”
Amy stares at her in disbelief, but Mark smiles and takes the jacket. It seems like he wants to say more, but he lets the moment pass. He says goodbye and puts his arm around Amy’s shoulders. Julia tries not to think that his arm should be around her, but she can’t help it.
When Jake pulls her close and whispers “Happy New Year” she forces the most genuine smile she can muster, and when he kisses her she kisses him back. This is the guy that will be around for every day of the year.
* * *
Two Years Ago
Julia sits on the steps of Jake’s apartment building. Tears stream down her face and she gasps for breath. Has three years really come to this? She wants to mentally check off all the flags she saw before this point. She wants to go back inside and beg him to come back. She wants to scream at him for wasting the best years of her life. She doesn’t want to start the new year alone.
Julia waits on the steps until she can breathe again, and the tears on her face have dried before she leaves. She walks mindlessly and aimlessly until she hears a familiar voice.
“Julia, is that you?”
She looks up, and her eyes meet Mark’s. A strange sense of relief floods her. A laugh, albeit a choked and humorless laugh, escapes her. Of course, she won’t be alone. Not today. When she runs to him, he holds her close. It may just be because of the gentleman he is. The good, kind, gracious man that he is. But whatever the reason is for him holding her so tightly, she doesn’t care.
“Can we talk?” Her voice sounds cracked and worn.
“Of course.” He pulls away, but holds her hand as they walk. “What happened?”
“Jake and I broke up. Today.” She adds, realizing he may need that particular piece of background information. “And I’m realizing that I wasted three years.”
Mark doesn’t say anything, he just squeezes her hand to show his support.
“I probably could have told you, day one, that we wouldn’t work. So why did I pretend we could? Why did I stay for three years? There’s so many signs I saw and ignored, so many times I realized what a mistake I was making.” Her voice cracks and tears threaten to fall again. “I don’t know what I was thinking. And now, I don’t know who I’m supposed to be without him. Our friends, our family, they’re the same. Our lives are intertwined, and I don’t know how I’m supposed to get out of the web of experiences we’ve created.”
Mark encircles her with his arms. “Amy and I broke up. Quite a while ago.” Julia nods against his shoulder. “I felt the same way you did, at first. Years spent on nothing. But that’s not true. I wasn’t meant to be with her, but I was preparing myself for who I am meant to be with. No time is wasted unless you don’t learn from it, and that’s probably not what you want to hear right now. But, I just want you to know that it was worth it, because I promise it was.”
Julia sobs as Mark strokes her hair. “It doesn’t feel worth it. Nothing feels worth it. If it wasn’t for him, then why?”
“Just . . . why?” She can’t bring herself to form any more words. He’s trying to help, but he can’t understand what’s happening to her right now. No one can.
“Let’s get you home.”
The walk to her apartment is silent, yet comforting. When he pulls her in for another hug, she holds him so tightly it hurts. He holds her just as close. How well they know each other, yet how little they know about each other is on both their minds. This isn’t the right time to breach that subject. So, they ignore their questions and relish in their small moment together as shouts of “Happy New Year” fill the street.
* * *
“It’s funny,” Julia breaks the silence with a soft whisper. “I’ve known you ten years, but I’ve only known you ten days.”
“Heh, yeah. That’s true.”
When she looks at him she sees the years on his face. The fine lines and aged edge to his eyes. She wonders what he sees. He’s looking at her the same way he always has, as if she hasn’t changed at all. There’s something comforting about that. And something disconcerting.
“I think I made a mistake.” She tears her gaze from his. “Then again, you wouldn’t call it that. You’d say that I made a lesson to learn from.”
A smile tugs at his lips. “Did you?”
“Did I what?”
“Learn from it.” His eyes grow intense, and she feels the heat from them despite the chill.
She feels twenty-two again. “Sometimes I think you should’ve taken me home that night nine years ago. But I don’t think we’d have what we have now if you had.”
He quirks his eyebrow as if to say “what do we have now?”
“Is it weird to call you my friend?” She watches for any sign of discomfort. She doesn’t find one. “There’s a certainty with us that I haven’t found anywhere else. I know that you’ll be here every New Year’s Eve. Sometimes I wonder if I want that in my every day, if I can have it.”
His hand closes around hers. She thinks of the years of conversations. Some were simple pleasantries. Some were heart-to-hearts. Some were future plans. All were everything that she ever wanted from a partner. Was it possible that the man she’s been waiting for had been coming to her once a year every year?
“The first time we met, I thought I was helping some unfortunate, first-time drinker get home safely. The second time I thought ‘is this it? Is this what I’ve been looking for?’ But we were both drunk, and it didn’t feel right.” For the first time, he looks away from her. “I’ve often thought that was a mistake.”
She leans into him, an almost pleading look in her eyes.
“After that, I was aware that we had our separate lives. I told myself it didn’t make sense for us to get into a relationship. We only ever saw each other once a year.” He releases a shaky breath. “But I could help hating seeing you with someone else, and I couldn’t help thinking of you all the time. I couldn’t help my excitement for every New Years Eve. It’s my favorite holiday now.”
They both laugh, and it feels right. When she tells him how ready she is to start the next step, he tells her how excited he is to share every day with her. Everything clicks into place, and she feels tears in her eyes again. He brushes them away with his thumbs as he cradles her face. She knows he’s going to ask what’s wrong. But nothing’s wrong. Everything’s perfect. She leans in, and starts counting down. When she reaches one, he pulls her close and they share a kiss as electrifying as the fireworks behind them.
“Happy New Year, Mark.”
“Happy New Year, Julia.”