According to the Encyclopedia Mythica, the Roman god Janus, for whom January is named, rules over gates, doors and passages, over beginnings and endings. He is depicted with two faces. One looks back, one looks forward.
New Year’s Eve 1978, Casper, Wyo.
I am 10 and hunched alone in my bedroom, listening to my new transistor radio — brown leatherette, a gift in the mail from my father. I’m not truly alone, though. My baby sister — she’s 3 — sleeps noisily in her bed, face to the wall. I want the No. 1 song to be “Grease.” My Christmas candy is long gone, but I do still have my sugar egg diorama from Easter. The sugar egg is not for eating, though — it is a knickknack. It sits on my dresser next to my jewelry box. Still, I lick it. It tastes like dust and school glue, but sweeter. I take the first bite. The No. 1 song is not “Grease.” It is “Shadow Dancing.”
New Year’s Eve 1985, Lake Phalen, St. Paul
“Careless Whisper” tops the charts, but I like the No. 2 song, “Like a Virgin.” I’m 17 and watching for my boyfriend. The window is thickly frosted on the inside, and I scrape a heart with my fingernail. This room I share with the other foster girls overlooks Lake Phalen, which itself is a mean sheet of ice crusted over with spurs of light. My boyfriend is late. He doesn’t love me but I love him. He has a car, a vintage Cadillac hearse. I can see the hearse coming from far away. He’ll pull into the driveway, even though the foster parents don’t like it. The downstairs is their real house, where they live with their real kids. Only the upstairs is a group home. A buzzer rings every time we foster kids open our door at the bottom of the back stairs. But after the midnight curfew, that door is locked. If the buzzer rings then, the police are called. I have been late only once.
New Year’s Eve 1988, Deer Lake, Minn.
I met a new boyfriend at my college telemarketing job. He is a few years older than me and he drives a perfectly normal car. I don’t have my license yet. He teaches middle school social studies. We are celebrating New Year’s Eve with his two good friends and their wives at his parents’ house, because they are out for the evening. The house sits sturdily on its slope above Deer Lake. We are to cook seafood and drink wine. “Trust me, this will taste just like lobster,” one of the men says, unwrapping a fishy package. The women talk about their jobs in marketing and human resources. They talk about the cost of fabric for drapes in their three-bedroom homes. They talk about having babies. I am 20 years old. My younger sister is still in foster care. At my apartment, I often make boxed macaroni and cheese and eat it from the pot while watching TV. This year’s biggest hit is “Faith.” Next year, I will marry this man.
New Year’s Eve 1990, the Dinnerbel Bay restaurant, Lindstrom, Minn.
Sophie is 5 months old. Her little baby hands are starfish — they open and close and grasp for me. Her eyes are gray and full of ocean. The whole world swims inside her. Sophie’s top lip has one perfect white blister from nursing, which she does greedily and with her whole body. When she is sated, her head lolls back and thin white milk runs down her sharp chin. The milk pools, sticky, in the spaces where her skin meets mine. Tonight, my husband’s parents are babysitting — because we are young, and young people go out on New Year’s Eve. My dress pinches around my swollen breasts. The bathroom at the restaurant is grimly lit, and the face in the mirror belongs to someone else. “It’s pretty good,” my husband says about the gluey mass of noodles on his plate. He is trying. We both are. Sophie lies in her crib in our house, a drafty Victorian fixer-upper with beautiful bones that sits high on a crest. The house looks out over the blackness of North Center Lake. Sophie is a seabird. She flies into the world through me. My glass case breaks and breaks and breaks. Fresh air rushes in, merciless. The No. 1 song this year is “Hold On.” Only years later will I realize I don’t want to look out over dark water. Maybe I never did. It takes so long to become anything, especially yourself.
New Year’s Eve, 2000-2014, home
By the time of the divorce, I have three beautiful children. So does the man who will become my second husband. In our effort to knit our families together, we focus on holiday traditions, including epic New Year’s celebrations. We make cheese fondue and chocolate-dipped rose petals and homemade bread. The kids and their friends pile in for endless games of Monopoly and Risk. We even let them build a mini-golf course with sand traps in an upstairs bedroom. They spill punch and trail crumbs all over the house while we adults toast our next opportunity for a clean slate. Sometimes we read fortunes or write our regrets on slips of paper for burning. The kids run around the block, banging pots and pans. One year, we make martinis and get drunk enough to gyrate ecstatically to “Dancing Queen” while saying impossibly embarrassing things. Mostly, though, we are lucid for these turning points. We look back, we look forward. Why, then, don’t we see it coming? Hear it coming? This feathery ruckus, the frantic then steady beating of wings, as our kids slice high into the air, one after the next? The New Year’s Eve before our youngest takes flight, the top song is “Happy.” You should hear how it is now, this clanging of radiators and the rise and fall of our breath, my husband’s and mine, inside the ribs of this empty house.
New Year’s Eve, future
The year turns on the calendar, yes, but also in our bodies. Not long into 2015, I awoke to a text from our youngest: “Mama! I will take care of you when you are old!” I was only 46 at the time, but this message was inspired by loss and example. My husband’s dear 94-year-old mother had recently died, and we were all so moved by how tenderly his sister cared for her. Perhaps the turning of the year is always as much a burial as a birth, a marked page more than a blank one. As English novelist Graham Greene writes of the winter holidays, “we require a season when we can regret all the flaws in our human relationships: It is the feast of failure, sad but consoling.” Still, as 2016 gives way (and none too soon, for many of us), I’ll put my feet on the floor and look forward and say, I’m alive! I want to be properly astonished by the miracle of being in a body in this world. If I were the resolution-making type, I’d resolve this year to love harder. I’d wish that for all of us: to love more ferociously, this bruised-up planet and each other, to love with our muscles and our bones and our spectacular teeth, our eyelashes and our precise, unmistakable skin — inscripted as it is with the scars and abrasions of where we’ve been. Let’s love as loudly as we can with our voices, too, singing and humming and hissing into the ether from within these strange and temporary shells that hold us.
Jeannine Ouellette is associate nonfiction editor at Orison Books and reviewer for Up the Staircase Quarterly. Her work appears in journals, magazines and anthologies, including Women’s Lives: Multicultural Perspectives. She teaches creative writing through Elephant Rock and is working on her first novel.