I sip my champagne and glance around the room over the rim of my glass. Cassie’s New Year’s Eve party is a wild success. This comes as no surprise; she’s a wild success. She’s crushing it in her consulting business and she lives in this amazing penthouse overlooking Denver and the Rocky Mountains. She’s even got the perfect-for-her man at her side. Evan is a hedge-fund manager she met during a consulting gig last year. He’s an excellent guy and they’ve been going strong since. I smile despite feeling sorry for myself; I’m happy for her—happy for them.
“Hey, Baby. You smiling because it’s almost time?” An over-cologned guy wearing a tight shirt open one button too far slides onto the white leather couch next to me. He’s leaning in, his breath thick with alcohol. “Want to meet up at midnight for a New Year’s kiss?”
My heart races and my throat tightens as I shove him away. I’m not good at being assertive toward men, especially drunk ones. “Thanks. But I’m good.”
Thankfully, he seems harmless as he stands up and winks at me. “Your loss, Baby. If you change your mind…” He waggles his eyebrows as he lifts his glass in an air toast and walks away, prowling for his next victim.
Why do I do this to myself? I always come to parties thinking things will be different. I tell myself this is the night I’ll meet someone real. This time I won’t let my desperation blind me into falling for Mr. Wrong yet again. This time I’ll be in the right place at the right time and love will knock me over, literally head over heels, the way it happened for Amelia and Damon. They got engaged last week over Christmas. Thinking about it still brings tears to my eyes. She’s my best friend and they are perfect for each other. They are true partners and one year in, their love is as real as the sizzling heat between them.
That’s what I want. Perfect-for-me. Partners. Love and sizzling heat. Now I just have to find him.
Amelia’s advice rings though my head as the party orbits around me. “Maybe you need to do something new? Change it up a little. Surround yourself with different people?”
I know she’s right. It’s a good plan, and yet—it’s so hard to execute. I can hear her in my mind, telling me to loosen up and take a chance. “You can’t plan everything, Jules. Sometimes you just need to leap or you’ll find yourself standing in the exact same spot.”
“Two minutes, everybody!” Cassie calls to the room. “Fireworks will be visible on the west balcony!” She hooks both arms over her shoulders, pointing to the doors behind her. Her penthouse takes up the entire floor and has a three hundred sixty degree wrap-around view.
I sip the last of my champagne and make my way across the room to the west-side balcony doors. The crowd is moving outside to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks over Denver. I lift a fresh champagne from a passing waiter’s tray and step into the crisp Colorado night. I find a space along the railing, under a propane heater blasting warm air and a fiery glow.
“One minute!” Cassie’s voice calls from inside. The waiters usher people to the doors. Cassie takes a tray full of champagne glasses from a waiter and tells him to take a break and enjoy the show as she carries the tray outside and passes out drinks to her guests.
I pull out my phone. I am about to open the camera to take a selfie with the fireworks when my eye catches the group text from earlier today. Stacy, our sorority president at Mi Alpha Alpha has kept all of us in touch after graduation. Her group chat always makes me smile. I tap the glass and the chat fills my screen. Scrolling back through heart emojis and all my sisters’ replies, I find Stacy’s message from earlier:
“Remember, ladies. Do it. Whatever it is you want to do. Wherever you have wanted to go. Whatever you want to try, to taste, to feel, to live… do it. This is our year.”
My time at Oak Ridge U seems like a lifetime ago. I had so many dreams about how my life would be after graduation. I’d get a job as a teacher, then I’d buy a house, and then I’d find the man of my dreams and settle down. Well, I got the first two out of three… but the missing piece—the man of my dreams—hasn’t panned out despite my best efforts and feels more out of reach than ever.
The crowd counts down, excitement in everyone’s voices, “Ten… nine…. eight…”
I look out over the city and the sprawling lights twinkling as they roll like a carpet toward the mountains. Amelia’s right. Stacy’s right. I need to make a change. I can feel it inside me like a Roman candle just waiting to explode. I have to break away from the same old things or I am destined to repeat them. I need to start something new.
Midnight arrives and the first of the colorful explosions lights up the night sky amid cheers from the party crowd. The DJ swaps the hip hop bass tunes for a classic version of Auld Lang Syne and everyone is kissing and hugging and swaying to the music. All but me. I’m watching the fireworks and the city as something inside me breaks open. It’s like a spotlight shining on all the things I need to let go of. All the ways that I am my worst enemy.
I’m done living my life from a place of fear, worrying about what ifs. I’m tired of making sure everything is planned out and scheduled. I’m done. Being so wound up and controlling has got me nowhere. This is it—I am going to loosen things up, take chances.
I’m going to do it. I don’t know what “it” is yet, but whatever I would normally avoid, whatever scares me, whatever it takes to break out of this rut I’m in; I’m going to do it.
I spot Over-Cologned Man from the corner of my eye. He’s managed to woo someone into a midnight kiss. The old me might have felt pathetic seeing them and still standing alone. But the old me’s gone. The new me is going to be fierce and spontaneous and she’s going to take chances.
I raise my glass to the glowing sky and silently toast my new me’s promise to the Universe. I exhale and watch my frosty breath move into the sky and disappear. That’s my resolution. I’ve put it out there. Whatever I’m supposed to do differently will present itself and then I’m going to leap at it.
This is my year.
* * *
“Chick at four o’clock has her eye on you, bud.” Danny leans in to deliver the news with a knowing wink as his wife, Alyssa, pulls him to the dance floor. He laughs as he wraps his arms around her waist and they sway together, lost in the music and each other.
I take a sip of my beer and flash a glance over to my right and sure enough, there she is. She smiles as our eyes meet. She’s sitting at a table with several friends, all of them dressed to kill. She has long blond hair pulled back in a high ponytail, and a black ribbon tied around her neck. She looks like a doll in her black leather miniskirt that peeks out from under her fuzzy sequined sweater and black suede thigh-high boots that are definitely not meant for actual walking. She leans in to her drink and curls her tongue around the straw, pulling it to her lips, smiling suggestively at me while she takes a sip.
“Hello kitten,” I say to myself. I get up from my chair and walk over, running through the Ben Butler checklist in my mind:
Hot, young, party girl, looking for a good time, and no strings.
The first four items are pretty easy to assess from a distance. The last one takes a little time, but it’s totally worth the work. If there is one thing I don’t need, it’s strings. I won’t make that mistake again.
It’s been five years since I broke it off with Zöe and thinking about that whole thing still makes me sweat. We’d been dating for a while when suddenly she got weird about our relationship. She started demanding we talk about where things were headed with “us” and how I saw our future together. I freely admit that it freaked me out. I wasn’t ready for anything like that. Not after only six months of dating. We weren’t even living together, and we’d definitely never talked about it once. Given more time… maybe? Who knows? But I wasn’t given a chance to find out.
Zöe didn’t want to wait. She decided it was time, and she jumped without making sure I had my chute packed. She booked a fancy restaurant for our six-month anniversary and told me over dinner that she was pregnant and wanted to get married. I was taken completely off guard. We’d been careful, like super careful. She was on the pill and I always used condoms. Always. Still, I know shit happens despite even the best-laid plans, but I was still surprised.
My response to her was less than stellar, of course. I was so shocked, I couldn’t process anything. I kept thinking, how could this have happened? We were so careful. It didn’t make sense.
When she confessed that she’d stopped taking the pill months ago, I felt like I’d been sucker-punched. When she hinted that maybe she had tampered with the condoms I kept in my drawer, well… that was a kick in the teeth. When I found out the following week that she was lying about all of it, the baby, the pills, and the condoms… that was enough for me.
She cried when I left. “You would never commit on your own. You don’t know what you want!”
If nothing else, Zöe made me realize what I don’t want. I don’t want a conniving schemer. I don’t want a liar, and I don’t want to be tied down against my will. I am the only one who decides my fate, and after almost getting caught in a forever based on a lie, I have decided that I prefer to be free. Me, my dog, and the clear blue sky… that’s all I need. And the occasional hookup.
I arrive at Kitten’s table and as if some secret signal has been sent to her friends, they all peel off, heading to the dance floor leaving me alone with her.
Her eyes take me in from top to bottom and she says something I can’t hear over the music.
“What?” I lean in so my ear is close to her mouth.
“You’re very tall.” Her voice is girlish and high-pitched.
“Ben.” I offer my hand.
“Katie,” she says, slipping her hand into mine for a limp shake.
I can’t help but bark a tiny laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Katie… it’s like kitty.” I watch for her reaction.
She pretends to paw at my shirt with her claws and purrs. “Want to get out of here?” she says.
“And miss midnight?”
She bites her lower lip as she grabs my wrist and turns to look at my watch. It’s eleven-thirty. “We can be back in time for the countdown.”
“Lead the way.”
I follow her outside to the parking lot. I press the button on my key fob and my pickup truck chirps to life. “My place or yours?”
She presses the button on her keys and a nearby Escalade beeps to life. “Cadillac beats crew cab,” she says, grabbing my hand and pulling me to her SUV.
We climb in and I’m surprised when she drops her keys in the cup holder.
“Here?” I ask, taken aback. I don’t think I’ve ever done it in a car before.
“Here,” she whispers, climbing over the console and straddling over my lap.
She leans down to kiss me and slides her hand over to the side of my seat and we recline back to horizontal. I shift so I can pull out my wallet and the condom I carry with me. She takes it from me and tears the foil with her teeth and unbuckles my belt.
Parking lot sex is probably the worst and best kind there is. It’s the worst because, well, it’s uncomfortable as hell and no matter how roomy the vehicle, it’s still a car. But it’s also the best because screwing in a car is the ultimate in a no-strings adventure. There’s no bedroom to sneak out of, no addresses to share, and best of all, there’s really no way to stay after you’re done. I’m a little surprised I haven’t thought of it before.
We’re back inside at eleven-fifty-eight and Katie’s dancing with her friends when the countdown starts.
Five… Four… Three… Katie appears by my side at midnight, standing on her tiptoes for a kiss. I pick her up by the waist and press her into the wall, grinding against her as she moans. I kiss her pretty pink mouth.
“Happy New Year, Big Boy,” she says, breathless.
“Happy New Year, Kitten,” I reply, setting her back down on her feet.
One of her girlfriends swings by and grabs Katie by the hand, pulling her to the dance floor again. I salute them with my beer and watch them go.
“Later, Kitty.” I grab my coat and head home.
The perfect end to the perfect night, and the best way to start the next perfect year.