New Year’s Eve is the perfect time to take stock of your life. As some of our writers show, that’s not always a good thing.
Is there any holiday more confounding than New Year’s Eve? The expectation to have fun is steely and relentless, but all the avenues of pleasure are too crowded for movement: restaurant reservations, taxi cabs and babysitters are impossible to come by; food and drink are overpriced; and the clock ticks counting down to midnight, to that inevitable kiss, are always audible, stressing out the coupled and the single alike.
The hero of “Horst,” Sebastiano Vassalli’s outrageous and funny short story (translated by Gregory Conti), would probably concur. He’s the kind of gentleman who doesn’t approve of anything that is common. Like sex: “I, on the other hand, have never tried, in my whole life, to have a complete sex act with a woman, or with a man, or with another person anyway,” he confesses. “It’s too much for me. The idea of touching someone else, or of letting myself be touched, just makes me want to puke. Naturally, I’ve thought long and hard about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that the genital organs are repugnant, and disgusting, for a very simple reason: because everyone has them. (Without having done anything to deserve them.)” Instead of copulating, he raises praying mantises. Come December 31st, the Horsts of this world—we each know one at least—are likely to remain home and bask in their own sour sense of vindication. They’ll feel themselves superior.
But there are other, sweeter forms of loneliness. The passing of one year into another is an excellent opportunity for quiet reflection, an activity, the Estonian poet Doris Kareva reminds us, best enjoyed alone. “Idleness is often empowering,” she writes (translated by Tiina Aleman), “recreating oneself— / just as the moon gradually / grows full once again, / a battery surely and / steadily recharges, / so everything, everyone / must have time for the self— / for mirth and laziness / time to be human.”
Once we’ve regained our humanity, and are ready to seek comfort in the arms of others, we are often left to find that all this amorous business is more complicated than it seems. At no time are love’s thickets more clearly visible than they are on New Year’s Eve: no matter what you choose to do, the evening’s script is already written, ending with a kiss, poking you into finding a partner worthy of your lips and your hopes. But others are looking too, and unchecked passions could make for a messy affair. They did for the heroine of Eve Gil’s “Damned Spring,” (translated by Toshiya Kamei) who found herself with her girlfriend and her girlfriend’s boyfriend at an ice-cream parlor. “The first time our fingers touched Vanessa's,” she recalls, “Gabriel Garmendia flashed me an annoyed look, but neither of us broke the contact. Once relaxed, we came to a tacit agreement to share her. After that day, six hands and six legs began an orgy under the tables in the ice-cream parlor. Sometimes we didn't even know who was caressing whom.”
Of course, not all of us lead such exciting lives. For many of us, the height of the evening would likely be a hearty meal. Even in our cooking-show addled culture, where food is now a competitive sport, New Year’s menus stand out as needlessly ostentatious, with their penchant for champagne, truffles, and other edible forms of conspicuous consumption. How have we turned into a nation of gluttons? And why do so many of us spend the last day of the year simultaneously gorging on fat foods and vowing to begin a diet the very next day? Gogol, if he were alive, would have had some clever explanation: suffering from untold and undiagnosed gastric ailments, he nonetheless adored food with religious fervor. “Right at dinner,” noted one of his friends—cited in Darra Goldstein’s excellent essay about the writer and his stomach—“he would make the macaroni, not trusting anyone else to do it. He demanded a large bowl, and with the artistry of a true gastronome began to sort through the individual pieces of macaroni; he put into the steaming bowl some butter and grated cheese and mixed them together. Opening the lid, with an especially bright smile for everyone at the table he'd exclaim: ‘Now fight over this, people!’”
Lucky us, we needn’t fight. We’ve all the nourishment we need, for stomach and soul alike, and a whole new year ahead of us to enjoy it.