by: T.E. Cowell ((Photograph taken by Dan Weiner.))
As the page turns on another year, the cure for loneliness lingers still out of reach…
Doug, standing in his hotel room, a glass of water in his hand, is disgruntled by the fact that another New Year is fast approaching and that he has nothing new to show for its passage of time. Staring out the windows at the condominium across the street, he’s battling tiredness. He’s not used to staying up this late, nor is he used to drinking as much as he had in the previous hours. He is so tired, in fact, that he’s debating whether to just collapse onto the made bed in the other room and pass out even though the countdown to the New Year is less than thirty minutes away.
The condominium across the street is a tall circular building, much taller, Doug can tell by craning his neck, than his hotel. He notices that the great majority of the windows that make up the condominium are dark, and he wonders how many people who live there are sleeping versus who are out celebrating. He figures most are out, like he should still be if only he didn’t feel so tired, so old even though he’s not yet forty.
Doug used to like seeing the New Year’s Eve fireworks, but that was a long time ago. That was before he’d known about loneliness, before he’d had regrets. The New Year is probably Doug’s least favorite holiday because it reminds him more than any other holiday of what had once been and makes him seriously wonder if he’ll ever have what he’d had again. It’s why he’s chosen to come to the big city this time, to drive the ninety miles from the town he calls home: the idea of being in the big city, surrounded by so many people, even if they’re all strangers, had its appeal. Doug had thought that he might not feel quite so despondent in such a densely populated area.
He yawns and scratches his head with his free hand, the latter being something he does unconsciously when tired. He spots a workout room in the condominium’s lower levels, which is located a few floors beneath his room. The lights in the workout room are on, and Doug can see treadmills and stationary bikes. Then he catches movement – a person, a woman – walking on one of the treadmills. He stands perfectly still, his mouth partially open now as he takes her in. He has a clear view of her. He can see that her face, for instance, is red from her exertion and that her hair is tied back in a ponytail. She is maybe thirty-five, Doug thinks. She is not a beauty, he reasons, but neither is she ugly. She is ordinary looking, more or less, one among millions. Billions. Doug raises his glass of water. He takes a sip. He swallows. His eyes don’t leave her. He thinks that she would do just fine. That she could be the one to save him. He sees that the woman’s staring at a small TV screen attached to her treadmill, and Doug wonders what she’s watching. Her ponytail bobs up and down, left and right in accordance with her steps. Doug imagines what her sweat tastes like. He wonders whether she’s single, and then he assumes she must be, walking on a treadmill on this particular day at this particular hour. The countdown to the New Year is what, twenty minutes away now? But if she is single, then why, Doug wonders, isn’t she out celebrating?
In the end Doug makes it, he manages to stay up for the fireworks. He isn’t able to see them from his hotel room, as too many neighboring high-rises block his view, but he is able to see the effect they leave on the dark sky, the sudden bright light they bring.
As the fireworks go off, Doug looks from the sky to the woman in the condominium, still in the workout room, still walking on the treadmill, though at a slower pace now, like she’s about to stop. She’s looking out the windows now, at the sky. Her expression is calm, unconcerned. It’s as if she couldn’t care either way that a new year is just beginning.
When the fireworks stop, she gets off the treadmill, turns, and disappears from Doug’s sight into the heart of the building. Still, he keeps his eyes on the condominium, looking from the now-empty workout room up at the mostly dark windows above him. He is aware that there might be something creepy, or at least foolish, to what he is doing, but this doesn’t stop him from doing it. Fifteen seconds go by, then another fifteen, and then he sees what he’s looking for: a light comes on in one of the windows high above him, and he’s certain that it’s her, that up there is her bedroom, the place where she lives. He wishes he could see her again but knows it’s impossible now, that she’s just too high above him.
He goes into the bathroom to brush his teeth and use the toilet. He is still tired, though it seems that the fireworks have given him a slight reawakening. When he comes out of the bathroom he goes back over to the windows and cranes his head up toward her room once more. The light is still on.
He thinks about saying something then, and then he does. “Well,” he says, “Happy New Year.” Then he draws the curtain, turns off the lights, and falls onto the bed. He sighs, feels the bed ease his body, his muscles, his joints. He isn’t going to set his alarm. He already made sure to get a late checkout. He plans to sleep in. Tomorrow is another day, the first day of the New Year, and Doug wants to be rested for it, to be ready for whatever it brings.