Moments From an Old New Year

I’ve never been much for arbitrary dates—I’m not into birthdays or anniversaries, for example—but New Year’s is the one that always gets to me. In part it might be something about the weather—I’ve noticed it hitting me harder ever since I moved back to the east coast. But I think most of it is a leftover artifact from college, stuck in my somatic memory even though I’m almost a decade removed from those years.

Winter break was always such a clean demarcation, in an era where every semester felt like a lifetime, and I have so many memories of sitting in my old room in my parents’ house, assessing how the year was going and how I’d changed, and wondering what was in store for me in the next half. Most of the memories from my youth that are still vivid involve going somewhere or seeing someone or doing something exciting; these are pretty much the only vivid memories I have of just sitting around and thinking about stuff.

New Year’s 2009 I was a sophomore in college and I’d kissed a good friend on the last day of the semester only to find out right afterward that she might not be coming back for spring. I’d had a crush on her for some time before we’d kissed, though of course back then I’d had a crush on all my friends; everyone was young and beautiful and since our own identities were still so fluid, our relationships to each other were as well.

We tell ourselves that every New Year’s is an inflection point, but that moment felt like an even more significant one than usual. I had a whole vision of how, if she did come back, we’d get together and my entire life would change, and as I waited to find out for sure I listened to the Leonard Cohen song “Tonight Will Be Fine” so many times that I still have all the lyrics memorized. And when she ended up taking the next semester off and nothing else ever really happened between us I spent at least the next year or two still thinking of that winter break as a Sliding Doors moment, where my whole life would have been different if things had gone the other way.

Of course, now it’s over a decade later and I know that it probably wouldn’t have made that much difference for either of us one way or another. The biggest inflection points in our lives rarely seem like such in the moment; the seemingly big decisions we agonize over often don’t matter as much as we think, while the tiny moments we barely notice sometimes end up changing our lives forever. But I can still summon the exact feeling of those moments in December 2009, sitting in my room with “Tonight Will Be Fine” on repeat and waiting for another text from that girl. And I still find myself listening to that song over and over around this time every year.

I’m not entirely sure what this all has to do with New Year’s, other than having taken place at the same time—which I suppose is all that ties the entire concept of “New Year’s” together anyway. But I beat my all-time personal record for the latest I’ve ever stayed up the other night (a record I feel like I should probably not still be beating in my thirties), and I’m very tired today, and something about this time of year always puts me in a pensive mood. Besides, now that even the Postal Service isn’t reliable anymore, the consistency of this newsletter is the only thing any of us can count on in this mixed-up world.

It’s been a pleasure writing to you all for the back part of 2020, and I look forward to 51 more of these in the rest of 2021.

Yours in just now remembering that the girl in that story reads this newsletter,

Max

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Listen of the week: Teddy Thompson’s cover of “Tonight Will Be Fine,” which, as with so many Leonard Cohen covers, is even better than the original.