Alex studied her face in the mirror above the bar and sighed inwardly. Taking herself out for New Year’s Eve had not, after all, been a roaring success. New to Chicago, she had forced herself out the door, telling herself she would be glad later to have done so. She wasn’t looking to meet anyone, or party. She just wanted to experience the buzz of a new city on a big night as a fly on the wall, enjoying the spectacle.
Normally this would work. Alex was good at flying solo. She liked being with friends, but she also liked being on her own, soaking up new environments with quiet delight. She frequently travelled this way, everyone marveling at how “brave” she was, while she knew it was just - good. Tonight, however, she just felt lonely. Perhaps attempting this on a night defined by excess and partying wasn’t the best move.
She put her glass down and turned to go. Time to call it quits. No point in dragging it out. A book and bed sounded delightful.
As she made for the door, she stepped aside for a very exuberant party dressed as - were they the characters from Mary Poppins?? My god, they were! Well done, too. She couldn’t help but grin. They were flown on good spirits, but not obnoxiously so, and infectious in their cheer - everyone in the bar suddenly seemed a little higher, a little more giddy, a little more excited. As she brushed past a guy dressed as a chimney sweep, he grabbed her hand and spun her around, then planted a chaste kiss on her cheek and shouted in an atrocious Cockney accent, “for luck, luv!”
That was a good end to the evening, she thought walking home, hands tucked deep in her pockets against the cold. It gave her the little lift she needed, and she could return guiltlessly home without the night feeling like a total waste. There was just an hour until midnight - she would get in her pjs, read, listen for fireworks, and go to sleep at precisely 12:02.
As she stepped into her apartment, she heard the sound of a small bell. “Odd”, she thought, but dismissed it and picked up her drink again, noting that a man dressed as a chimney sweep had sat down on the stool next to her and was smiling at her in the bar mirror like an old friend. She smiled back - stranger danger and all that, but his eyes were kind - and turned to him. “What’s with the costume?” she asked, mildly surprised to hear her voice clear as a bell among the tumult of the New Year’s Eve crowd.
“Good luck,” he answered. “Every time I wear it, I find someone interesting to talk to. Never fails. For example, I can tell you’ve been to some interesting and exotic places. What’s your favorite place in the world to drink coffee?”
“That’s a hell of a pickup line,” Alex laughed - but actually, what came out was “I’d say the Piazza del Campo in Siena on a rainy day.”
The sweep nodded. “Makes sense to me,” he said, picking up his coffee cup and gesturing for her to do the same. “There’s something magical about it, isn’t there?” “Mmmm,” Alex agreed, gazing dreamily at the piazza, unusually empty of people with the fine drizzle coming down. A man with a newspaper over his head scurried across the medieval space; a woman and a child strolled more leisurely, protected by an umbrella, child stomping gleefully in puddles. “This is how I first saw it,” she told the sweep; “I got sick of Florence all of a sudden and ran away to Siena and did nothing for an entire afternoon but drink beer, write, and people watch in the rain.”
“Oh, are you a beer drinker?” the sweep asked with interest. “Do you remember your first beer?”
“Of course not,” said Alex - but actually what she said was “It was a weissbier, on a hillside in Bavaria, and I was much too young to drink but it was amazing.”
The sweep picked up his enormous Maẞkrug and toasted her. “A day like this, I imagine,” he said. “Sun out, breeze blowing, cows in the distance!”
“Exactly like!” said Alex happily, and sipped her beer. Below them the countryside spread endlessly, neat fields ending in dark green hedges, tiny flocks of cows and sheep browsing peacefully. The sweep pushed a plate of wurst her way, and they ate for a while in silence, soaking up the sun.
“I could use a walk,” the sweep said eventually. “Do you have a favorite trail?”
“Oh, anyplace will do,” said Alex - but somehow what she said was, “there’s this trail outside of Yachats, Oregon that ends up in a field of wildflowers.”
“I know it well!” said the sweep, turning off the main path onto a wooded track that wound upward through tall spruce. Red and purple blooms crowded their ankles, and a brook babbled in the distance.
“So how did you end up in Chicago?” the sweep asked, as they walked a fiercely sunny beach lined with palm trees. Alex found herself telling him everything - not her usual “They made me a (job) offer I couldn’t refuse” go-to joke, but the loose-endishness she felt after her mother died, how disconnected she felt in the job and city she had been contented in for 10 years, the unexpected LinkedIn outreach that led to an intro to her personal idol, the surprise job offer, the hopeful move, the initial excitement, and the rapid disillusionment. How her idol had turned out to have feet of clay; how much she hated the Chicago cold; how everyone was super nice - “Midwestern nice” - but also had friend groups going back to kindergarten that just didn’t have room for a new person; how her apartment was barely affordable and yet the shabbiest place she had ever lived.
The sweep nodded thoughtfully, Sydney Harbour shining below them as they dangled their feet from the bridge. “What’s the hardest part?” he asked, like he really wanted to know.
“Oh, probably the friends thing,” said Alex. “Sucks to be single and friendless in the big city” she said breezily - or at least she aimed for breezy, but somehow it came out wobbly, and she found herself blinking away tears that blurred her view of the snaggletoothed Zhangjiajie mountains.
The sweep regarded her with sympathy. “That’s hard,” he said. That was all, but somehow Alex felt warmed - as if someone had covered her with a cosy blanket and gently kissed her head.
She jerked her head up. What time was it? Her clock said 11:59 - damn, she had nearly slept through New Year’s! Warm jammies, check; sofa, check; book, check; but not so much the staying awake part! She went to the window and pulled open the curtains. As if on cue, a soft “boom!” resonated through the air, followed by cheers and popping. Alex’s window gave out on an airshaft with a sliver of street and sky visible, but there was just enough for her to see the occasional sparkle, and the sounds of people celebrating in the street felt good.
Drinking coffee the next morning, Alex was surprised by a knock on the door. No one ever knocked on her door - she literally couldn’t remember it ever happening. She opened it hesitantly to a woman in her early 30s wearing an ironically ugly sweater and carrying a glass. She looked diffident yet bold - like she was embarking on something new. “Ah - hi!” she said, nervously but cheerfully. “I’m your neighbor down the hallway. Mariah. I’m doing french toast and mimosas with some friends. Want to join?”
Alex stared for a moment - just a moment. Then she said “I’d love to! Just let me get dressed.”
One hasty shower later, Alex was headed for the door. Before she reached it, there was a rattle at the window - not loud, but enough to make her pause and look. Peering down, she saw someone standing in the airshaft - of all things, some guy dressed as… was he dressed as a chimney sweep?? She knew she should feel alarmed by a scruffy stranger standing in what should have been an inaccessible airway, but somehow she just felt cheered. The sweep smiled and waved; she did the same; and as she turned away, she thought she heard a faint fake Cockney voice say, “best of luck, luv!”
And then she forgot about it, and headed expectantly to mimosas and the next adventure.