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Issue Date: January 2011


Auld Lang Syne


Marsha McGregor

My boyfriend, a senior I'll call Doug, had made grand plans. We'd celebrate the new year on Public Square at a party orchestrated by Mayor Ralph Perk, complete with live entertainment and noisemakers. New Year's Eve in downtown Cleveland? I was a parochial girl living in Canton. I scarcely believed my parents let me go.

We double-dated with another senior and a girl I'd never met. I'll call them John and Nancy.

The four of us rendezvoused at Nancy's home, an elegant contemporary ranch with a sunken living room, all aqua and white. We sat on angular sofas flanked by tall bronze urns. Nancy served us crystal flutes of sparkling Cold Duck, and we toasted. Her parents were at a country club soirée.

I crossed my legs and tried to look casual, as if champagne and small talk across a glass-topped coffee table were as ordinary to me as pancakes after church.

We emptied our glasses then debated: Have another? No. We had an hour's drive ahead, and it had started to snow.

Of the Public Square party itself, I remember little except the dense crowd and being ridiculously underdressed for the weather. Stinging snowfall numbed my feet, which were absurdly clad in open-toed heels with ankle straps. I had no hat.

Newspaper accounts fill in details: TV newscaster Doug Adair introduced the evening's entertainment to a crowd estimated between 10,000 and 40,000. Mayor Perk, dressed in a plaid business suit, took the mic to lead singalongs.

My boyfriend and I exchanged a stroke-of-midnight kiss, a brief, sweet cocoon of steamy warmth against the frigid night, before elbowing our way to our car. Driving into zero visibility, we fishtailed onto I-77 then crept along in white-knuckled silence.

Doug said, "I think we should turn around and call our parents and tell them we're staying at a hotel."

Man, am I in trouble, I thought. But I was terrified watching cars spin off the highway.

We inched our way back downtown. John ducked into a wooden phone booth at the Sheraton-Cleveland Hotel and dialed home. He emerged tight-lipped and grim.

He spoke privately to Doug then turned to Nancy and me.

"My parents say no way," he announced. "We have to drive home."

Nancy and I groaned. Doug steered me forward by the elbow. "The salt trucks should be out now. Let's go." In the parking garage, he pulled me aside.

"Ten minutes after we left Nancy's house," he whispered, "their gas furnace exploded. Their house is just ... gone. Until we called, nobody knew if we were alive."

I stifled a gasp.

"We're not going to tell Nancy until we're almost home," he said.

All the way back to Canton, Doug hunched over the steering wheel. Nancy blithely chatted, and I tried to muster cheerful responses. Gradually, conversation dwindled to a silence that felt weighted with the terrible, unspoken news.

Finally, John turned in his seat and took Nancy's hand. "I have to tell you something," he said quietly.

I remember a stammer of confusion and disbelief. A scream: "My dog!" Then, she folded into herself, inconsolable.

Doug dropped me off at my house. I never saw Nancy again, nor the home's remains.

Later, I learned the bronze urns in the elegant living room had melted to the floor. The furnace sat directly below the sofas.

During my youth — once the shock wore off — that night was a survivor's tale, ramped up by the drama of disaster missed only by minutes.

Then the memory receded, nudged out by life's demands and distractions.

When I became a mother, a new perspective dawned. Even more than the traumatic loss of Nancy's home, I imagined her parents' terror-filled hours of uncertainty.

Now at midlife, I'm struck most by how the simple act of lingering — having one more drink — would have killed all four of us.

Sometimes the cascade of events that shapes our lives seems unnervingly random, hinging on mundane details: Taking a different route home. Choosing this flight over another. Pouring one more glass of Cold Duck.

Think about that too long, and you might never want to leave the house.

There's the paradox: The very experiences that open us to joy magnify our vulnerability. The longer we live and love, the more we have to lose.

So what do we do? Bundle ourselves against the fickle weather in layers so thick we can't feel the midnight kiss?

Nah.

Better to venture out — even hatless and exposed, in impractical shoes and too-thin coats — than not to venture out at all.


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