Darla sat in her old Toyota Corolla, Pearl, it was the color of champagne and about 15 years past her prime. Darla was taking Pearl out on a dark, damp Friday afternoon. The rain was coming down harder now and the sidewalks filled with shades of black and blue umbrellas, with the occasional delightfully decorated ones, catching Darla’s eye. Her coffee tucked into Pearl’s cup holder awaiting the commencement of Darla’s daily caffenation. Steam was bouncing off the hazel in her cup, so Darla put the cap back on and let it cool a moment more. A loud thud caused Darla to jump immediately up towards her window. A gentleman in a dark navy blue pull-over sweater, was standing outside her car. Darla could barely see his eyes as the hoodie reached the edge of his nose. The man was tall so he was looking down through the opening of his hood towards Darla. Darla quickly looked away and gestured with her hand, an accompanied, “I’m sorry.” She inched up to avoid any further embarrassment. Darla noticed the small sign the man carried, though it was beginning to flop over from the rain’s persistence. It read, ‘Happy Holidays, Spread the Joy and Spare some Change.’ Darla frowned at her dismissiveness and pulled her bag from the passenger seat. She rummaged through the lipstick, tissues and old receipts. She made a clearing to the bottom of her bag, she found the cash she stuffed in there on her way out the door this morning. As soon as she looked up the gentleman was right back by her window. It slightly annoyed her. Darla rolled down her window and handed the man some money.
“Thank you. Happy Holidays. Would you actually–Uh–How bout that coffee too?”
The man pointed inside Pearl at Darla’s daily latte.
“My coffee? You want my coffee? Well, what if I drank from it already? That isn’t very sanitary.”
“Have you had a sip yet?”
“So, how bout it? May I?”
Darla felt the annoyance return but once again dismissed it. Darla thought about her caffeine habits and how she would get migraines on the days she didn’t have coffee. She was frustrated by her dependency but she felt like there were worse addictions and in this lifetime that would be her vice. She thought about the cafe that ran three blocks down from the supermarket, once you make a left at the pharmacy on the corner. Darla remembered it was mainly residential over there and those neighborhoods truly lit up during the Holidays.
“I’ll just grab one from there.” Darla said out loud.
“Uh, nothing, um, yeah, sure. Here you go.” Darla handed the man the cup and rolled up her window. She saw the gentleman run to the sidewalk which ran parallel to the highway. The man held a newspaper over his head which didn’t prevent much of the rain from getting him soaked, but he sat there smiling while sipping his coffee. Darla was frustrated with the lack of movement, she didn’t want to spend her New Year stuck in traffic. She wanted to make her trip to the supermarket short and sweet, especially since Pearl hasn’t been operating at her best lately. When Darla would start Pearl in the risings, it would take Pearl minutes to warm up with the engine coughing up the cold night’s air.
A sigh of relief escaped Darla when traffic started to move, only to hear shrieks from Pearl.
“Oh come on, Old Friend, don’t do this to me now.” Darla’s hands brushed against the dashboard to comfort Pearl. “Just let me get through the end of this year, Old Friend. Then we’ll both move on with our lives.”
Pearl was exhausted. A sigh escaped from Pearl this time, but it was no relief to Darla.
Pearl had seen her last days. Perhaps the Holiday rush got the best of her. Darla was being honked at, the cars piled up behind her were filled with angry voices cursing at her now. She rolled down her window.
“Oh shut up.” She said, Her eyebrows scrunched together and her lips pursed mournfully. Darla felt like she wanted to cry, she reached for her coffee in the cupholder, only to be reminded it was no longer there.
“Happy New Year.” She murmured in a bitter tone.
“Need help?” Darla looked up at the man standing at her window again, this time she could see his whole face.
“You again.” She groaned, no longer holding back her aggravation. “Are you following me now? Look, I don’t have any more cash. I'm sorry—”
“I thought you could use some help.” The man seemed oddly cheerful. It perplexed Darla and bothered her when she thought too much about it. “Right, and expect something in return. As you can see I don’t have much to offer.” Darla gave the man what she thought was a polite smiled, but its insincerity was obvious.
“Have more than me.” The man said, almost gleefully.
Darla looked at him and instantly felt foolish for her remark.
“Hey listen, I’m not doing anything at the moment, I just thought you could use an extra hand. Did you expect anything from me when you gave me that coffee?”
“A thank you.” Darla was being playful now.
“Ok then, a ‘Thank You’ in return.”
Darla and the gentlemen did their best to push Pearl to the side of the highway, Darla was driving in the lane closest to the sidewalk so she felt it was all the luck she’d receive for the day.
“Well–Thanks.” Darla said, honoring the agreement. The gentleman smiled and turned to walk away.
“Wait.” Darla opened Pearl’s back door. She pulled an umbrella out from the backseat and handed it to him. The man smiled once more and nodded on his way off.
Darla called for a tow truck and sat in Pearl watching the water droplets zigzag down the window. She almost felt a rush of pity pass over until a horn blew her back into reality. The tow truck arrived before Darla’s tears could escape. She patted her nose with a tissue and stepped out of her car. After Pearl was holstered up and seen off, Darla was alone. She ordered a cab and sat at a bus stop while the rain danced on, uninterrupted.
Darla exhaled as she positioned herself comfortably in the back of the cab. She watched an array of Christmas lights, colorfully flashing green, red, blue, yellow and orange along rooftops. Snowman, garland, twinkles of bright bulbs and icicles. A feeling in the pit of Darla’s stomach resembled nostalgia and she let a small grin free itself from her lips. She hasn’t felt the Holiday Spirit since her father passed last winter. Yet the holiday lights never cease to mesmerize her. Darla’s eyes widened when the driver passed a gentleman on the side of the road, holding up a sign that read ‘Happy Holidays, Spread the Joy and Spare some Change.’
“Can you pull over?” Darla asked the driver.
“I have you going to–"
“Yeah, I’m just picking someone up.”
Darla rolled down her window and shouted towards the gentleman. “Hey.” Ushering him into the car.
“He’s a friend of mine.”
The driver was confused and frustrated with his passenger, but Darla offered an extra tip to relieve his irritation. The gentleman entered the cab on the opposite side of Darla.
“Hey.” He said, smiling. The Christmas lights flashed across his face, brightening him slightly.
“Would you like to get coffee?” Darla asked the man. He simply nodded and turned to face the front window of the cab. He watched the streetlights change from Green to yellow to red. While the windshield wipers attempted to chase the rain away.
Darla and the man arrived at the shopping center, she told him there was a cafe she loved nearby and they turned the next block to what was usually a dark street in the evenings. But during this time of year, the houses are glittered with garland and twinkling lights. Darla thought she should have been frightened walking with this stranger. Intuitively he didn’t feel like a threat.
“It’s beautiful.” He said, breaking his silence.
“It is.” Darla exhaled. She could see her breath and a shiver took over her.
“It reminds me of home.”
“Where is your home?” Darla asked bluntly.
“I’ve made mistakes.” The man responded, not making eye contact with Darla, but rather looking at his past.
“But you do have one?”
He was sad, briefly and it made Darla uncomfortable.
“I’m sorry.” She said. They walked in silence the remainder of the stroll, until they reached the cafe.
Darla and the gentlemen spent the next few hours sharing life stories. He told her it’s been two years since he’s been clean. But he still has “addict brain”.
“You have to say no everyday.” He said, opening a pack of sugar.
Darla was enjoying his company, she told him about her dad and her distant mother.
“Ever since he passed, we haven't really talked much.”
Darla didn’t have much plans for New Year’s Eve and so she asked the gentlemen if he would stay at the cafe and watch the ball drop in Times Square on their TV.
“That’s where I grew up.” Darla told him. As they sip their coffee watching ‘Dick Clark’s Rockin Eve’.
“I’ve done a few stand-up routines in Manhattan.” He said.
“You’re a comic?”
“Used to be.”
“You lost your humor or something.” Darla said, laughing lightly in her uncomfortableness.
“Or something…” He said, sullenly. “So you ever been to Times Square on New Year’s Eve?”
“Ha. You are funny.” Darla said, taking a swig of her coffee. “–all the people…”
“Well Maybe the next time you go back home–to see your mom.”
“Sure, sure.” Darla said, looking up towards the TV.
The two sat in the cafe until the ball dropped.
“Hey, get yourself a motel room for the night.” Darla said, handing him some more money. She didn’t know it yet, but she wouldn’t see her new acquaintance again for a whole year.
Darla had all but forgotten about her encounter with that gentleman until she ran into him again at that same cafe the following New Year’s Eve.
“Next.” The barista called for Darla to step up to the register, the gentleman in front of her was putting his change away in his wallet when Darla brushed past him to place her order. She apologized to the man, who had briefly cast a smile to let her know it was okay. He moved to the pick-up area of the cafe and Darla realized it was the same gentleman she had helped a year ago.
“It’s you again.” Darla said, inquisitively as she positioned herself next to him, on the pick-up line.
He paused a moment looking at Darla, she had almost caught a glimmer of embarrassment when she thought she had the wrong person, until he smiled at her. He greeted Darla and told her all about his past year. He thanked her for the motel room that night and told her he had forgotten what it was like to take a hot shower and crawl into a warm bed for the night. He had taken several jobs since their last chat and landed himself a full-time position. He was able to support himself again. Darla told him about her year, her break-up, her rekindled relationship with her mother, her new car, Sol.
“Happy New Year.” Darla said, clinking her coffee cup to his. “I’m happy for you.” Darla was taking Sol up to the mountains. She was meeting friends up there to ring in the New Year.
“Hey.” Darla said, before exiting. “Let’s meet here next New Year’s Eve, 5pm.”
“If the fates allow.” He said, waving goodbye to her.
The following year came and went, Darla was deep cleaning her apartment on New Year’s Eve. She hadn’t planned any outings for the evening. She was focused on organizing and purifying her space. She wanted to enter her new year, sober and centered. She decided she was going to pick up tea and a blueberry muffin from her favorite cafe. Then drop by the supermarket to pick up some things for dinner. When she arrived at the cafe, she saw her old acquaintance sitting next to the window to the left of the entrance.
“You did remember”. He shouted cheerfully. Darla smiled half-heartedly. He handed her a coffee. “Happy New Year.”
Darla was annoyed, she had gone six months without coffee. She quickly shook off her frustration. “I have to be honest, I’m here by coincidence.” Darla admitted.
“So then it's meant to be.”
“I’m actually taking a break from coffee.” Darla informed him.
“Great, tell me more.”
Darla spent the evening, telling him all about her new job. How she's been publishing more of her writing.
“I’ve been writing too, actually.” He said, pulling out a journal. He asked Darla if he could go over some material with her. He had started writing jokes again, and had been in contact with some old buddies who were getting him a stand-up gig. “It’s nothing big-time. I mean it's all local stuff, really.”
Darla laughed at all his punchlines, until he got to one that didn’t make her laugh at all. It made her heart skip a beat.
“I’m–I’m sorry.” Darla said, grabbing the coffee she had rejected earlier.
“There’s hope I’ll go into remission. Plus my ex-wife allows me to see the kids now. Well every other weekend. They aren’t aware….yet. It’s just–I just got them back. I don’t want anything to ruin it.”
“Hey, why don’t we take a drive.” Darla said, grabbing her car keys.
It was 11:59am when Darla pulled up to his place, they counted down and wished one another a Happy New Year.
“Well at least I know where you live.” Darla said as he was opening Sol’s door to exit. “Take care of yourself, will you?”
“Let’s watch the ball drop next year.”
“Same time. Same place.”
“Let’s meet in New York.” He said.
Darla laughed. “Right and the year after that, Paris.”
“No, I’m serious. I’ve never seen the ball drop in Times Square. And you haven’t either. You can go see your mother after.”
“We’re going to meet in New York? Well how will that work?”
“If the fates allow.”
“Don't be ridiculous. There are thousands of people in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. We’d never find each other.”
“Let’s meet between 43rd and 44th, off of Broadway. Near Hard Rock Cafe. 8pm.”
Darla was skeptical. “New York. New Year’s Eve. Next year.”
“See you there.” He said assuringly, as he made his way to his front door.
The year came and went. Darla was pulling up her snow boots, as she sat on her living room couch with the news on in the background. It was predicted to start snowing in New York around 5pm. Darla’s flight was expected to land at 5:45pm. She arrived in Times Square by 7pm and was sitting at a nearby pub, just a few blocks from their meeting point. She swirled her whiskey in her glass and sipped it sourly, she was regretting ordering the cheap stuff. Yet arrived to intoxication, pleasantly fast. She hadn’t been back home in years. The smell of garbage trucks, pizza and liquor lifted her into a state of nostalgia, she hadn’t realized how much she missed New York. It was 7:50pm and Darla made her tipsy way over to the meeting spot. She didn’t feel the cold, as the three glasses of whiskey neatly covered her like cozy burning firewood. She was having such a good time watching the performances that she hadn’t noticed it had been over an hour since she arrived. It was overwhelmingly busy. She figured her old acquaintance had forgotten their agreement.
It began snowing, which discouraged many not to stay for the ball drop. It bode well for Darla, as Times Square blanketed with snow, and dissipated with crowds. Darla inhaled the cold night’s air. She had a moment of gratitude as the mix of snow and confetti gracefully fell into the New Year. She called her mother to let her know she would be on her way as soon as she could catch a cab. Darla thought she would be a lot more bothered by her acquaintance’s forgetfulness, but given the nature of their friendship, it was odd they even held such a tradition.
Manhattan was desolate except for sanitation who was now responsible for the pickup of every piece of confetti that coated the concrete. Darla looked up from her phone, she was having trouble finding an affordable cab at this time, she was about to walk to the train station when she saw the gentlemen standing across the street next to the Hard Rock Cafe.
“A couple hours late.” Darla said, walking toward him. He looked significantly different than the last time she had seen him. His face visibly sunken in, even with all the layers, Darla noticed he had dwindled in size.
“Happy New Year, Darla. Isn’t it beautiful?”
“Indeed. But, I think it’s time to go.” Darla said, sobering up and shivering.
He nodded and walked her into the train station.
“Happy New Year. It was good to see you. Short but–”
“Snowy.” He said, playfully, as Darla’s train pulled into the station. “I think I'll take a stroll. I love Manhattan when it's empty.”
Darla didn’t know it yet but that was the last year she would see her acquaintance.
She stepped onto her train. “So next year, the cafe? 5pm?”
“If the fates allow.” He said smiling, as the train doors closed.