Holiday Short Story Contest: Kissing at Midnight

Kissing at Midnight
By Sarah Tillitt

Another Christmas – the time of joy, giving, crushing disappointment and bitter recriminations, if you were spending it at my house anyway.
Everything was a point of contention. The location. The food. The after-dinner movie. (My sister’s house, so we didn’t have to choose between Mom and Dad, ham and tofu for both friend and foe of the pig and anything not rendered in claymation, respectively.)
And then, of course, before the sting of Christmas had even faded, it was New Year’s Eve. Which, for me, meant Jamie’s and Julie’s annual New Year’s party, spending the evening with a roomful of couples and dodging unappealing men at midnight.
But not this year. Well, okay, realistically, this holiday would in all likelihood bear a striking resemblance to all those before it, but this year the mayhem would have a silver lining. A little icing on the cake, even if the cake was the horrible fruity kind nobody liked.
This year my sister Clare had a gift in store for me far more exciting than the typical bath and candle sets. Which were nice, don’t get me wrong, but without the sizzle factor of the flesh and blood man she was delivering this year!
Before you get the wrong impression, this was not a, er… gentleman of the night that she’d invited to Christmas dinner. Crazy as we may be in my family, that sort of carrying on would not go over well on the Lord’s birthday. No, this was her hunky husband’s cousin, Marc. Hopefully, her hunky husband’s equally-as-hunky cousin, Marc.
“Angela, he’s perfect! You’re going to love him!” she gushed the night before.
“If he’s so perfect, why’s he coming to our sideshow of a Christmas? Shouldn’t he have loved ones of his own to make miserable?” I was suspicious, not to be played the fool.
I’d discovered an interesting phenomenon in the past few years following my twenty sixth birthday. In light of my unwavering single status, the term “perfect” had become synonymous for “male and single.” It seemed my friends were under the impression that literally anyone would do.
“Well, technically Nate would qualify as a loved one,” Clare pointed out. “But he’s not spending Christmas with his parents because he was supposed to be spending it with his girlfriend’s family in Denver, but now they’ve broken up. And his parents had booked themselves a holiday cruise since he wasn’t going to be around, so now he’s coming here!” she finished triumphantly.
Hmm… seemed understandable enough. And since he’d been planning to be out of town, there was a chance he didn’t have any New Year’s Eve plans yet…
Clare and I spent the next half hour planning strategy for the next day and I went to bed with a feeling of excitement I hadn’t felt on Christmas Eve since I was a kid. It wasn’t that I was desperate, mind you (well not just that, anyway), but I refused to end up alone at midnight in Jamie’s and Julie’s living room once again.
People in couples seemed to be completely unaware of it, but as the stroke of midnight got closer and closer, a bizarre form of musical chairs began among the unattached party guests, with everyone trying to shuffle closer to a desirable kissing partner or farther away from the Quasimodos of the group.
However, it was all very covert and under the pretense of natural, nonchalant mingling and milling about. Making an obvious lunge to or from someone at twelve o’clock would leave you branded desperate or a rude kill joy. As such, at past parties, I wound up enduring kisses from two of Jamie’s and Julie’s weird neighbors, all the while some other lucky girl got to kiss a far more palatable man that I hadn’t dared to get within twelve feet of for fear of looking overeager and foolish.
I woke up extra early. Spent a long time prepping. Used a special new coconut shampoo and conditioner on my hair. By two o’clock that afternoon, I had done as much prep-work as possible and was ready to go. Properly buffed, polished and scented, I headed out the door.
Two hours later, things were not off to a roaring start. Clare and I had decided it was best not to mention our matchmaking scheme to Marc or Nate to avoid any awkwardness or whiffs of desperation. However, it seemed to be working a little too well. Marc and I had barely spoken. He’d been holed up with Nate in the kitchen watching football on their iPhones and complaining about his ex, who he’d apparently spotted with another man at dinner earlier this week.
Although, lucky me, he was well within earshot to hear Granny tell me how much “better” I looked since I put on a “little weight,” as she did every time she saw me for the past seven years. I shuddered to think how large I must have appeared to her at this point.
“Ugh, this is a disaster,” I sighed to Clare.
“No, no! It’ll get better. Once we get the present opening out of the way, you guys will have a chance to hang out.” She pressed mini-champagne into my hand as a bribe and shooed me into the living room.
The present opening was always a bit silly with our family. Rather than surprising our loved ones with holiday gifts, it had become more like doing monthly shopping, given the specificity and strictness of the lists. Going “off-list” was frowned upon and impressed no one.
It started with the gym membership we gave Mom a few years back. She spent the rest of the evening in a frosty silence, only deigning to speak when the chocolate peanut clusters came her way. “Oh, no. I couldn’t. Apparently, I don’t need any,” she said pointedly.
Then there was the leather purse given to my brother Josh’s vegan wife. The size twelve pants given to Clare, who claimed emphatically to be a size ten, despite all evidence to the contrary. Oh, and the at-home manicure set given inexplicably to Clare’s husband one year. We assumed it was an issue of mislabeling, but no one fessed up, so Nate was forced to ooh and ah good-naturedly, while Clare, Josh and I snickered behind our hands.
And so, these mishaps, among countless others, led to the institution of the Christmas lists two years back. The rules were simple and few: One – As a gift-giver, avoid deviating from the list. Two – As a list maker, all items should be readily available at the nearest shopping mall. All in the vain hope of securing a Christmas gift that was not crap. But no dice. Somehow we still got it wrong.
“Oh… er, lovely,” I said as I unearthed a misshapen tangle of yarn.
“It’s a sweater!” Vegan Mary proclaimed. “I made it myself! All synthetic, no animal products whatsoever!”
“I see that… yes, um, lovely.” There were a lot of “lovely’s” exchanged, usually followed by an awkward silence and a cough indicating the next victim was up.
But here was the real kicker. We actually made it all worse! In the past, at least after we’d opened our crappy, unwanted gifts, we were well within our rights to pillage the after-holiday sales and purchase what we really wanted. But not anymore because, apparently to some, a nasty man-made acrylic sweater with wonky sleeves looked just like a cashmere Donna Karen. So now, it would seem that there was no real reason I’d need to buy myself the sweater I’d actually wanted.
“Put it on, put it on!” Mary urged.
Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. I scrambled to come up with a reason not to. Allergies? But to what? Hard to say what this thing was actually made of… Germaphobia? Probably wasn’t going to fly mere minutes after invoking the five second rule for a fallen canapé…
“Oh... sure. Yea... great!” I enthused. I sulked past Marc into the bathroom to trade my soft, emerald sweater for the lumpy, oatmeal colored atrocity.
Clare gave me a sympathetic look when I re-entered the family room. Nate and Marc, who up until now had been engrossed in the snack tray, chose this moment to tune back into the festivities. Thumbs up and smirks from both.
It was at this point that good judgment and I parted ways. The humiliation of the lumpy sweater combined with the lack of attention from Marc was making me dreary and self-pitying. I barricaded myself in the den with a tin of Christmas cookies and someone’s gift basket of wine.
Halfway through the bottle of wine, I regained bits of confidence and optimism, indisputably under false-pretenses, but convincing enough to cause me to rejoin the others. I was a little wobbly at this point, but thoughts of New Years past, and kisses not had, drove me out to try my hand once again with Marc.
It did not go well. I began by sitting too close to Marc, overcorrected and slid off the couch. Then pictures were brought out from the tumultuous bad-hair junior high years, and my resemblance to Justin Bieber was commented on and agreed upon by all. I laughed too loudly at all of Marc’s jokes and ignored Clare’s frantic looks.
The coup de grace was when I eventually spilled taco dip all over the table and my nasty acrylic sweater caught flame as I reached over a candle for the napkins. Sufficed to say, I didn’t end the evening with any more hope for a New Year’s Eve kiss than I began it. I didn’t bother mentioning the party to Marc.
A week later, I was at the dreaded New Year’s Eve party. I was eyeing the crowd, keeping close watch on who to avoid come eleven fifty five when the musical-chairs-midnight-kiss shuffle would begin.
And then I saw him. Marc. Marc, who I made a fool of myself in front of. Marc, who was looking handsome and standing with a group of girls, all of whom were laughing adoringly up at him. How had he ended up here? In that moment, I cursed Jamie, Julie and their ever-expanding social circle.
Shit. Not only did I not have a date, not only would I have to spend midnight evading the more repellant party-goers, but now I’d have to steer clear of the only attractive single man to avoid compounding on my pathetic Christmas day performance. If I could just slink away before he spotted me…
“Angela, hi!” he exclaimed, waving.
Damn, too late.
“Hey, Marc. How’s it going?” Breezy smile. Calm, cool, nothing like the flustered mess from Christmas.
“Good, good!” He made a show of grabbing my arm to examine my sleeve. “Still intact, I see,” he said with a grin.
“Oh, yes…er…. so far!” I felt my cheeks redden. I quickly forced out a little laugh, gestured at my empty wine glass and used the excuse to dart away.
He attempted to catch my eye a few times throughout the evening, but frightened with the possibility of rehashing more “funny” occurrences from the week before, I smiled noncommittally and looked away each time.
Who cares anyway? I thought. So what if I acted a little silly? And so what if I embarrassed myself in front of a sexy man in my last ditch attempt to find a kiss for New Year’s? It wasn’t the first time and sadly, probably not the last.
As the countdown began, I listed off my resolutions in my head. This year, I would be serene, more collected. Mysterious, even! I would not let myself be humiliated by bad junior high haircuts, ugly sweaters and spilled taco dip. I… I suddenly noticed a bit of movement to my right.
And there, with five seconds left in the countdown, doing the overly-nonchalant-midnight-on-New-Year’s-Eve-shuffle in my direction, was Marc! I adopted my own equally-nonchalant-glance-away-as-if-I-didn’t-notice-him look, hid a smile behind my glass and prepared to ring in the New Year.