The New Year’s Resolution
by Laurence Klavan
The city was so quiet, it seemed uninhabited. It had been this way ever since the wealthy became the only ones who could afford to live there, the wealthy from other countries who deigned to drop in on their way to their apartments in London or Moscow or Beijing (the homeless being the only ones who shared the city with them).
New Year’s Day was especially quiet, Abigail thought; even the rich who had alighted on the city were gone. No one was stumbling home after a drunken one-night stand; there was no discharged vomit on the street, no discarded cone hats. No one was even sleeping it off: Abigail herself had been up for hours, and it was only eight o’clock. She was flying out that day, had chosen this return date because there’d be the least amount of passengers on the plane.
Abigail always lived like this, avoiding people. She had flown in to see her parents in the suburbs for Christmas yet insisted on staying alone in town at the apartment of a (rich, foreign) friend abandoned until January 2nd. She would be returning to the smaller city where she lived and worked at home, online, rarely seeing her employers. She felt accosted by people, accused by them, unprepared for what they would expect of her, which she would only fail to provide. To her, any human encounter was like a mugging if she was without a purse; she feared she would be killed for what she did not carry.
Being alone had become an obligation: she owed it to herself, though made miserable and exhausted by it: crying at night, curled on her bed, masturbating, frantically, rubbing at herself as if trying to remove the tag on a mattress she’d been told to leave alone. Abigail felt like a junkie who could no longer find a vein, longing to quit because there was no way to continue.
“Oh, no,” said Rory, the man in her bed.
This day—this year—would be different. Resolutions were the corniest kind of cliché, but who cared? She had made one. She’d started by leaving her parents’ New Year’s Eve party early (and what party? The two of them sitting before the TV, watching the huge celebration held in a midtown square, now attended only by computer-generated crowds and green-screened minor celebrities, since there were no longer enough residents or tourists? Was it their reclusiveness that Abigail had inherited? Probably). Then she’d gone to a bar after arriving at the train station.
It was one of the few crowded places in town, one of many in the chain called “Dive,” made to replicate the sleazy environs of earlier times. Obscene graffiti had been pre-placed on walls treated to look filthy, wooden bar tops came complete with knife marks made by children in factories far away, and a urine smell had been added to pristine commodes. The customers were not down-at-the-heel drinkers but other sons and daughters of the suburbs who had caught trains tonight to drink in a simulacrum of somewhere sinful.
Rory was one of the few actually from the city itself, he said—screamed—as others sang and laughed deafeningly around them.
“My Mom and Dad were in the same apartment forever,” he said. “They moved in when it was affordable. My Dad is dead and my Mom and I live there now.”
Abigail didn’t ask his age but thought he was a little younger than she, in his mid-twenties, and even more lanky—lithe was the word. (They had carded Rory when he ordered a drink, and she hadn’t been surprised.) She concentrated on his appealing face so as not to dwell on the pushing, clawing people who had penned them in, so close she felt they were like planks in a floorboard but standing up, if that made any sense; she would have been hysterical if not for him.
Abigail never drank, not needing another reason to be at a distance, and Rory nursed the one he was holding before he asked, “Would you want to go outside?”
She believed he had picked up on her discomfort and good sport effort to fit in, and that this meant that he was sensitive.
“Yes,” Abigail said. “Thanks.”
The two forced their way out, elbowing, rolling and ramming, and she was reminded of the drills that burrowed through and displaced the dirt when they had first built the subways, that’s how hard it was to do.
“Jeez,” she said, when they made it to the deserted block. “I thought I’d die in there.”
Abigail had said it facetiously; this was as much as she’d reveal of her anxiety; why unnerve him when they’d just met? Still, how could he not notice the sweat on her face and neck, at her underarms and the small of her back, which had soaked through her blouse? And it wasn’t even as warm as it usually was on New Year’s Eve; it was only seventy.
Yet Rory hadn’t noticed. He had his own preoccupation: He was looking for the best place to bend slightly and throw up, which is what he proceeded to do, aiming at the side of the “Dive” door, barely missing the top step of a laundry nearby, which had its front door one floor down.
Afterwards, Rory shook his head, dismayed by the damage he’d done, his face illuminated and revealed to be pale by the bar’s blinking syringe logo. Abigail realized he had not asked her outside to help but because he’d been about to be ill.
“How many did you have before I got there?” she asked.
“That was my first,” he said, and she decided: He may not have been sensitive but at least he had a sense of humor.
“How far do you live from here?” she asked, wondering if he could get home all right.
“Three stops,” he said, his voice raw.
“My place is closer. I mean, my friend’s place.” She felt this information had been organically offered: She hadn’t pushed or pulled or created it artificially, the way a magician did a bouquet from his cane, and she was impressed with herself.
Rory didn’t take the hint, just swallowed with difficulty and seemed to sway a bit. So Abigail completely rebelled against her internal resistance and saw the drills start spinning again underground until they broke through and brought huge amounts of light and dust down on her. “Would you like to come over?”
In the apartment, Rory was quiet and polite, like a child on his best behavior, which was bad (she wished them to misbehave, in the old-fashioned sense of the word) and good (she felt young, too, or at least inexperienced). He sat in a chair with his hands in his lap, balanced there as he might two teacups, filled to the brim. He became more attractive the longer Abigail looked at him, less young, with appealing little wrinkles around each eye, though they might have been temporary, made by the stress of nausea or something; that didn’t make much sense, either, but she was nervous.
Since Rory was not initiating anything, Abigail knelt on the floor before him, placed her hands on his knees, spread his legs apart unintentionally, which was awkward, like she was doing the Charleston, that old dance, for him, and kissed his lips, pressing in her tongue, tasting just the mouthwash strips he’d swallowed on the walk there, nothing nasty, well, maybe just a memory of the (how many?) Vodkas he had had, a combination which was young and old, like him, and aroused her. Then she pulled back, having gotten little participation, though she sensed he found it pleasurable. Rory soon explained:
“I’m sorry,” but he was still too sick for sex. He wasn’t more apologetic and didn’t appear embarrassed, which was a relief; either would have made him seem insecure or insincere. “Can we just sleep?”
Abigail was touched by his directness and physical misery. At least he wasn’t leaving; that would have meant her resolution was kaput right away and cut into her confidence.
“Okay,” she said.
Rory slept soundly, utterly at ease in someone else’s bed, unlike Abigail, who was unhinged by his presence and restless, she couldn’t help it.
In the morning, Abigail awoke surprised she’d slept at all. She saw that he was already up, sitting beside her, his back against the wall, going through his messages. Shirtless, Rory looked even scrawnier, still sickly, and completely caught up in what he was seeing or not seeing, she wasn’t sure, on his phone.
Abigail stood and checked out the window, hoping he’d notice that she was nude (he was still also in his underwear) which he didn’t—or maybe he didn’t want her to know he’d noticed, maybe that was it. Maybe there was still hope, she thought. Anyway, this was when she perceived that the city was silent and right before she heard him say, in an obviously upset response to what had just appeared or not appeared on his device:
“What is it?” she asked, because he seemed to be requesting her attention (or had she just imagined it?).
For a second, Rory hesitated, as if the thing was too private to share. Then he came to a conclusion. “It’s nothing.” Still, he kept sighing, staring at the same spot on his phone, maybe testing her, seeing if she’d keep advancing, as it were, the more he pushed her away.
Abigail did: She reached over and placed her hand softly on his device (it was a new one, the small square that opened like an accordion but showed no sign of the screen having been folded; she didn’t understand the science). He let it slip from his fingers and she cradled it, bringing it close enough to her face—she wasn’t wearing her glasses—that her breath fogged the screen. She felt more intimate with him at that moment than in all the time they’d been in bed.
Abigail read a message from the police. They informed Rory that an intoxicated woman named Naomi had fallen down on a midtown street. She’d been identified by a neighbor and taken to a nearby hospital, where she was being held for observation in Intensive Care. If he was interested, he could call this number or go to the hospital itself, thank you, and Happy New Year.
“She always picks the holidays to do this,” Rory said. “That’s when she gets the most attention. Or maybe when she’s the most lonely, I don’t know. My mother, I mean.”
He had added the identification as if he’d forgotten he hadn’t clarified this and didn’t want to assume she knew. He was aware of Abigail now, in other words, which she appreciated. Their fingers touched together briefly as she passed back the phone, which she now knew was an important piece of him, a connecting cord to someone else. His skin was hot.
“She’s been drunk, basically, ever since my father died five years ago,” Rory confessed to her, switching to dependence from seeming obliviousness, “and usually ends up in the hospital.”
Abigail nodded, saying nothing, waiting for him to go on. His breathing had grown as fast as hers had been when she emerged from the bar.
“I better go,” he said.
Rory flew from the bed, the way cartoon characters bolt and leave puffs of smoke behind. The phone fell into the sheets, forgotten. He turned to retrieve it, not knowing for an instant which way to go—that is, he was desperate to go forward but confused how to handle what he left behind. She helped him, picked up and offered the phone to him in cupped hands, as if it now was water from a well that would restore him. He took it, with great and obvious gratitude. How could he not ask what she secretly wished him to?
“Want to come with me?”
Rory’s mother was being kept behind a curtain in the Emergency Room. As the only hospital left in the city, the place was inundated by the homeless: Abigail was impressed that, of all those suffering there, it was his mother physicians felt should be shielded. Was it for her protection or other people’s?
“Please wait here,” Rory said, as if protecting her, too. Before she could insist on accompanying him, he was out of earshot, approaching the exhausted female nurse who slumped like a wounded sentry at the curtain’s opening. As he was allowed in, Abigail saw a flash of a bruised, bloated, and elderly female face before the cloth, decorated by crowns, covered it again.
Behind the curtain, Abigail heard a high-pitched cry and the slurred words, “so glad to see you!” Then there was a lower-pitched demurral and impatient whispers as what sounded like a squabble began. The higher voice grew more insistent and piercing until it rang through the waiting room, like a broken bell warning of disaster in the year ahead. Now Abigail knew what they had hoped the curtain might mask.
Suddenly, Rory came back out. He—who had recently seemed to age—looked even younger and more vulnerable, an overwrought child announcing the cancellation of his little play, closing the curtain to cover the “disaster.”
“Let’s go,” he said, reaching Abigail. He muttered something unintelligible, which meant there’s no talking to her, she’s impossible, I can’t take it anymore.
“Do you want me to try?” Abigail said—blurted out, really. Rory just squinted in response, as if at a bright light, saying nothing. So Abigail marched toward the curtain, heeding only her need to become more involved with humanity this New Year’s Day.
As she approached, the sounds of piping distress grew marked from the obscured area. Abigail opened the curtain, startling the nurse who was attending to Rory’s mother, adjusting an IV in the back of the old woman’s hand, flesh falling and falling from her bones like tears.
“Who are you?” Naomi yelled, loud enough to shoot through the emergency room again.
Panicked, Abigail fiddled closed the curtain behind her, as if it were her own hospital gown. “I’m a friend of Rory’s.” Abigail expected the nurse to shoo her out, but the pooped attendant seemed thrilled to be spelled and, once the drip was secured, left the two of them alone. “Abigail.”
“Are you his girlfriend?” Naomi rummaged through her flooded mind and grabbed what she could of her maternal wariness.
“No,” Abigail said, but Naomi didn’t get it; the answer was too complicated.
“That’s nice,” she said. “I bet you’re worried. Are you worried?”
The old woman leaned forward, offering a comical confidence. “I’ve heard his mother’s a lush.”
Abigail smiled, surprised by the other’s whimsicality, though she could tell Naomi believed herself a mere tippler, not the addict she actually was.
“Is that right?” Abigail tried to think of something clever. “That’s too bad. But I bet she’s very nice.”
Naomi shrugged, tired of the banter. On her collapsed face, Abigail could see the remains of beauty, the way one spies a painting beneath another in a frame, through rips in the one on top. Naomi started to rush, trying to out-run the sobriety which would soon overtake and send her into withdrawal, the screams but a preview of what was to come. Or did she sense her days on Earth were severely limited? How many more times could she fall down, after all? The black-purple swelling adorned her left temple like a wrestler’s tattoo.
“Look,” she said, sharing another secret, this one in earnest, “it runs in my family. But he doesn’t have to worry.”
“Who? About what?”
“Rory. We had him altered.”
Abigail said nothing, not catching on. Naomi proceeded to explain, reciting information that she had obviously long ago memorized.
In vitro, she said, Rory had had gene therapy to encode proteins that converted alcohol into acetaldehyde and then acetate, making drinking toxic for him. It mimicked the natural mutation common in, say, Asian people that could make them sickened even by the tiny amount of alcohol found in mouthwash.
“You know what I mean.” Rory’s mother pointed a fluttery finger. Even though Abigail was Korean-American, she’d never had a physical aversion to booze, just an emotional one. But she did not reply.
“He was never told,” Naomi said, softly, her energy even for going crazy running out. “We thought it best that way. We worried he’d think he was a puppet. When it was really just the opposite. He’s so sensitive, there’s no talking to him sometimes.” Did she mean herself? Or both herself and her son? In any case, she had given him a gift.
Naomi laid her mottled and translucent hand upon Abigail’s. “Please take care of him, honey.”
The hand slipped from hers, and Naomi fell back on her pillow as if from a great height. In a second, she was snoring softly. The effort had been too much for her, yet she’d thought it important to try. Rory’s mother had kept her own resolution, Abigail thought, using in another way the day she often exploited for attention.
Abigail exited and saw Rory against a wall. He was staring at his phone again, this time for diversion, his face blank, as if each new thing he saw administered more of a sedating agent. He had just enough energy to lift his head and ask, with trepidation,
“How is she?”
Abigail shrugged and didn’t answer. She walked out of the emergency room and then the hospital itself. Rory followed, growing more eager for illumination as the entrancing effect of all that information wore off.
“She’s fine.” Abigail stopped near the cul de sac that brought in the ambulances. “Look, why don’t you come home with me?”
“Yes. Not here. Back where I really live. There’ll be room on the plane. There always is. Most everyone greets the New Year unconscious. We’re already not doing that. You don’t have to stay for long. I’d like your company.”
Abigail was surprised by how easy this had been to express. She had been infused by Naomi’s determination, inherited her will right before it had been destroyed, with the old woman’s complicity stolen her commitment at the very last second.
Yet she saw that Rory was not okay with it. He blinked a few times, unnerved. Then he shook his head at what was unimaginable, “But who will take care of my Mom?”
Abigail looked at him, a portrait of childish helplessness, his sparse and unattended stubble the only evidence of his being adult. She knew there was a way to make him mature and free. The old woman had wanted it. Still, Abigail was aware she was also doing it for herself.
So she told Rory how he had been engineered, as best as she could, given her limited comprehension of genetic existence. She haltingly repeated what his mother had revealed, leaving out only the Asian part (she considered including it as a way to make them similar—since that was what Naomi had tried to do—but gave up).
“That’s why you were so sick after just one drink,” she ended with, understanding that he’d told the truth.
After she was quiet, Rory did not respond. His face held an expression of incredulity and both things made Abigail panic. Did he think it had been ridiculous to listen to his mother? Of course he did. In her condition, even at her best, she would have been raving.
Abigail felt like a fool for spreading the lie; she’d been desperate and, like most desperate people, she’d pushed away what she’d wished to attain.
Then, suddenly, studying him, Abigail knew she was wrong. Rory felt she was naive about something else. He pushed out a big, scoffing breath.
“I know that,” he said. “Don’t you think I know that?”
Rory said nothing more. He turned and stared at a storefront across the street. It was a faux-Irish pub which had opened for lunch, one of the few bars in the neighborhood doing business today. Rory crossed against the light since there were no cars. He disappeared through its small, dark, and aromatic opening, where he would stay forever. He didn’t ask if Abigail would come.
Abigail stood unmoving for a minute. Dreading to admit failure, she was about to follow. Then she realized she was perilously close to missing her plane. She started back toward her friend’s apartment.
As she walked, she became aware of the homeless on the street, the city’s only remaining natives, also attached to what didn’t sustain them. Abigail opened up and emptied her wallet, handing off every bill she had to them. She did the same with her coins. Was it a fee to belong, the kind she’d pay to start a lease in the New Year? Or was it a ransom, a way to escape? Abigail made a decision.
She would stay the night and take a flight tomorrow, one that would be filled with more people. It would cost her, she thought; there’d be a price for changing. Abigail knew there always was.
Laurence Klavan wrote the novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, “City of Spies” and “Brain Camp,” co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their YA fiction trilogy, “Wasteland,” was published by Harper Collins. His short work has been published in more than thirty literary magazines and his story collection, “‘The Family Unit’ and Other Fantasies,” was published by Chizine. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of “Bed and Sofa,” the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London. His one-act, “The Summer Sublet,” was included in Applause Books’ “Best American Short Plays 2000-2001.