December 31, 2017 – Sunday
“You know I ain’t gonna be surprised,” Russ grumbles as Brandy drives.
“Can you at least pretend?” his sister asks.
Russ glances in her direction. Her wavy brown hair is pulled up in a high ponytail, and she’s dressed up, which means her nice jeans and a new sports jersey. Brandy was a jock in high school and is the soccer mom who coaches her kids’ games. She’s happiest in a pair of sweatpants and a T-shirt. While Russ has a hard time finding enough leg room in Brandy’s Focus and his head grazes the ceiling, Brandy has the driver’s seat moved as close to the steering wheel as it can go. They share only their light brown eyes.
“I’m no actor,” Russ says, smirking.
Brandy huffs. “If I weren’t driving, I’d pop you one in the arm, bro. You know me, Ed, and the guys went through a lot to put this thing together. And on New Year’s Eve of all nights! You know places are booked months, years, in advance. The reservation fee alone’s probably more than your monthly salary.”
Russ chuckles. “You don’t know how much I make a month.”
“No, but you ain’t exactly living in high society if that hole you rent in Inwood’s anything to go by. I still don’t know why you gotta live in Manhattan. It’s a betrayal, Russ. What’s wrong with your home back in Queens?”
Russ grins. “What’s it to you? I hardly stay there. Maybe it’s time to move, but getting back to this stupid party, I never asked any of you loons to do anything.”
Brandy pulls the car into a private lot and parks. After turning off the ignition, she turns toward her brother. “Ah, Rusty, we do it ‘cause we love ya.”
Russ cringes at his childhood name. “Don’t call me Rusty. I’ll go in, act all surprised, and grab a beer. Seeing my pals is reason enough to have a good time.”
“That’s the spirit!”
They step out of the car to frigid wind whipping their faces. Russ puts an arm around his sister as they hustle toward the bar, a hopping new place called Jazzy Sue’s not far from Penn Station. Once inside, they’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder with the patrons. Brandy calls over the noise of the crowd and the music to the bartender that they’re there for a private party.
“Back room!” the bartender mouths and waves them on.
Russ and Brandy shuffle through the crowd. Arriving outside the door to the party room, Russ grins at his sister and shakes his head.
“What’s so funny?” she asks.
“You all kept teasing me about throwing an ‘Over the Hill’ party for months. No one really thinks I’m gonna be shocked.”
Brandy smiles, amused. “Point taken. Let’s just get in there and outta this body heat. Ugh, I can feel the sweat between my–”
“Don’t say it.”
Brandy laughs. “C’mon.”
She opens the door, and the crowd beyond the threshold shouts, “Surprise!”
Russ smiles in spite of himself as he enters. Hands clap him on the back, and someone passes him a beer. He knocks it back.
“How’s it feel to be an old man, buddy?”
“Amazed you’re still walking without a cane!”
“Happy birthday, man!”
Russ can’t help but chuckle. So many faces, so many voices, it’s dizzying but great. It doesn’t take long before he’s swept up in the chaos. People he hasn’t seen in years are there. After a few beers, Russ’s guard drops. He’s caught up in conversations he won’t remember in the morning, but he’s sure he’ll remember the feeling of being thought of by all these people.
After rounds of junk food and a large slice of cake, Russ leans back in a chair, full. Some of the crowd has thinned. His best buddy, Ed, pulls up a seat.
“You sure you won’t have another beer?” Ed asks, smirking.
Russ shakes his head, chuckling. “And get a beer gut like you, man? No thanks. Looks like I’ll be working out extra hard at the gym this week whenever I can.”
“You have a long way to go to beat me.” Ed pats his belly. “It’s been too long since we talked about real shit. There a special girl in your life? Time’s tickin’ away if you ever wanna settle down.”
Russ frowns. “What d’you know about settling down?”
Ed straightens in the chair and regards his friend. “Hey, be nice. That was years ago, man.”
Russ knows it’s s sore point to bring up Ed’s ex-wife. “Nah, there’s no one.” Despite what he says, and maybe it’s the alcohol talking, he half-smiles. “Well, there’s this one girl, but she doesn’t count.”
“It’s nothing. I shouldn’t even be thinkin’ about her.”
“Well, shit, buddy, now you gotta tell me.”
“Her name’s Shelley. Beyond that, I don’t know much.”
“How’d you meet? Online dating?”
Russ laughs. “Nope, not even gonna go there. You know it’s next to impossible to meet someone with my schedule.”
“Well, how’d you meet?”
“You ain’t gonna believe this, but she was at one of the rest stops along my route. Somewhere in Ohio, past Cleveland.”
“Sounds romantic.” Ed chuckles and finishes his beer. “Sure you don’t want another? You only turn the big 4-0 once.”
“What the hell? Why not?”
Ed leaves and returns with two bottles of some brand of Christmas ale. The liquid gold slides down Russ’s throat with ease.
“Doubt I’ll see her again,” Russ says. “She might be homeless.”
“Dude, that’s messed up. You’ve got a thing for a homeless chick? What’s her best feature? The lice in her hair or the trash bag she wears?”
Russ stops smiling. “Don’t be a jerk, Ed.”
“Sorry, sorry.” Ed sets down his beer and holds up both hands in mock-surrender. “Just a bad joke, but c’mon, pal. You don’t really think you’re gonna score with a chick like that.”
“No.” Russ smirks, but a prickle of sadness creeps into his heart. He hasn’t had any feelings for a woman in years. The long hours on the road, the time away from home–it keeps him busy and thinking about anything other than falling in love again. Or that’s the lie he feeds himself.
Ed slaps Russ on the back, snapping him out of his thoughts. “Look at the time! It’s almost the New Year. I gotta find Susan. Find a girl somewhere in here to kiss. At least give yourself that.”
“Go get your latest fling, you crazy son-of-a-bitch.”
The TV above the bar shows the ball getting ready to drop in Times Square. For how close 42nd Street is, he’s never been there on New Year’s Eve, but as the seconds count down to 2018, everyone in the room chants. Arms snake around Russ, pulling him into the fray, and he finds himself counting down with them.
“Happy New Year!”
Someone grabs Russ and lays a wet smacker on his lips. When he pulls back, he’s stunned to see a girl who’s barely legal.
“Who are you?” he asks.
She laughs and darts out of the room, leaving Russ bemused.
“Happy birthday, old man,” he mutters.
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