My son runs into the living room. He wears the tuxedo he received last Christmas, the cuffs now high above his wrists. It’s New Year’s Eve, and I keep an eye on the clock. He holds out his hand. In his palm, a half dozen or more bang snaps. He asks if he can throw them out back. Sure, I say.
Cold air rushes in. He tells me to keep the porch light off. For a moment, he is lost, claimed by the dark. Then the bang, not a single pop but a cluster’s flourish, a flash of sparks. He returns, the door shut behind him, redness on his cheeks.
“Do you want to do more?” I ask. Another time check. We have to get in gear to make our dinner reservations.
The smile that asked my permission to step outside is gone. “You OK?”
“I’m not happy about the snaps. Their pattern predicted a bad year.”
As a child, I struggled to witness New Year’s first moments. I watched Dick Clark’s countdown. One year, I obsessively called the time number. It is eleven twenty-eight and ten seconds . . .it is eleven twenty-eight and twenty seconds . . . Midnight, and I’d open the front door, the cold braved to hear firecrackers and car horns and banged pots. In my late teens and twenties, midnight’s arrival was simply act two, and the night’s final curtain waited—for better or worse—on the other side of dawn. Marriage’s first years followed a similar yet more tempered trajectory. Then with thirty, another perspective switch. The proceedings’ merriment now struck me as forced, hollow after the soul-addressing one-two of Thanksgiving and Christmas. New Year’s Eve became an evening to be endured. The only thing worse than making plans was having no plans at all.
Finally, we’re ready, my wife and I outdressed by our son and the tuxedo that will not survive his next growth spurt. In the foyer, a last check of gloves and wallets and keys. Outside, my body stiffens in the late-December’s chill.
Ten minutes into the ride. A landscape of dormant farmland and electric towers. Our son rests his head against his window, his gaze lost amid the stars. He tells his mother about the bang caps’ pattern. We discuss omens and the power of perception. We argue that the fortune of the coming year can’t be determined by a few flashes in the dark. He considers this, but by his silence, I can tell he’s not convinced. He asks the time.
“Just after seven.”
“Only a couple hours and it will be 2012.” He pauses. I can’t see his face, but I can imagine his smile. “2012. The end of days.”
Son—like father—harbors a History Channel fascination, and this is Armageddon Week. My boy can tell you about Nostradamus and the Mayan calendar. He claims he doesn’t believe in the coming year’s prophesies. The world will end, he says, but not until we’re blindsided by an asteroid or incinerated by a red-giant sun. “But we’ll be gone by then,” he says.
We talk about man’s doomsday obsessions, the charismatics who’ve claimed to know the date. We talk about their followers, flocks driven by hope and fear. My boy recalls Harold Camping, who last year predicted not one but two raptures, our worlds intersecting with the You Will Meet God! pamphlets his disciples hung on our doorknob. I tell my son history has been full of such movements. Crazy, yes, but hindsight is easy. We talk respectfully about the ecstasy of belief and the courage to forsake all one possesses and knows. The believers stood upon mountaintops and rocky shores, awaiting the moment, their hearts aching in anticipation. Rapture’s moment came . . . then passed, the believers abandoned in a world unchanged.
“Why do people do it then?” my son asks.
I think for a moment. “Perhaps some want to believe they live in special times.”
My boy returns to looking at the stars. “I can understand that.”
We meet another couple, friends I’ve known since college. We’ve been celebrating New Year’s Eve at this small restaurant for years. The owner greets us with a hug. Business is good, the tables full, people of every color. Music plays. There’s the heady scent of spices, the sizzle of hot plates brought from the kitchen. Colorful draperies adorn the walls. The men are given party hats, the women sparkly tiaras.
At our table, an exchange of stories and pictures. I relax, my New Year’s Eve anxiety easing into the familiar. Our friend poses my son in his silly hat and snaps a picture. She shows us the shot—our boy frozen in time, his smile wide. Above his head, an arrangement of gold balloons that spell Happy 2012! I turn and consider the balloons, wondering how I could have missed such a display on our way in.
I smile back at my son’s camera image. I’ve been sullied by New Year’s past, the car crashes and fistfight and, in certain years, a crushing loneliness. Perhaps I’ve lost touch with the night’s revelry-buried themes of renewal and hope, its whisperings that happiness may lay just ahead. Tomorrow, we tell ourselves, things will be better.
We drive home. Our stomachs are full. Behind us, our friends, handshakes and hugs goodbye, our final Christmasy round of exchanged gifts. A half hour to midnight. The farmland roads run quiet, the partygoers settled in, all eyes on the clock. Cars line our street, the blocked-off town square a short walk from here. We park and step out. Music in the distance, the notes thinned on this crisp night. Two minutes to go, and we decide to remain outside.
My son points skyward. “There’s Orion.”
Last year, I showed him the warrior’s constellation, but I hadn’t bothered to look yet this winter. There he is, the arrangement as I’d remembered. We have grown old together, Orion and me. My perspective shifts, drawn not to the stars but to their reaches of hemmed-in black. The seconds tick. The year winds down. I put an arm around my wife’s shoulder. We have been married twenty-four years. Our son has been with us for nine. My father has been gone for three. Last week, two people we’ve known most of our lives told us they have cancer.
The first fireworks scream into the sky. A trail of white-hot sparks, a flowering explosion. “Happy New Year,” we say, kisses all around. The rockets scuttle, burst upon burst. The concussions thump in our chests. Soon we will go in, but not yet. Lights, explosions, a veil of man-made thunder. The months will pass. Seasons will come and go. Another apocalypse prediction will fizzle, and if my fleshy vessels allows, I will welcome 2013 with those I love, the ritual repeated until I reach my own end of days.
The display ends with a crescendo, a sky of fire and beauty. Then the return to darkness, gunpowder on the breeze. I take my wife’s hand. My son bolts ahead. The three of us retreat to the warmth of our house. I am already thinking about tomorrow.