New Year’s Eve 20-Something
Injuries aside, my life was going as scheduled. Everything was great. Until it was not.
I broke a leg once. Literally. It snapped, the way breadsticks do with tuna. I was in high school and we were playing this 5-a-side match with my friends after school.
I’m chasing the ball by the side of the pitch and my ankle bends in this odd unnatural way. Then I’m moving like a crab and tell my friends, I think I broke something.
They keep playing and say that no, I didn’t break anything. They say, “When you break a bone you feel sick and throw up everywhere.” I was just fine, they said.
A few minutes later there’s a watermelon hanging down my shin. I friend drives me home and when my mum sees me, she curses and damns every football players in history. I mean, I couldn’t blame her. Two years before I twisted my knee and broke a few ligaments. It took two surgeries and months of physiotherapy to walk again without crouches.
Looking at my swollen ankle my mum is shouting so loud that every neighbour knows I broke something. Again. Then she puts her coat on and drives me to the hospital.
It turned out my ankle had snapped in two. They had to drill a piece of metal in my leg to help with the correct calcification of the bones.
That drove metal detectors at the airport crazy. They’d check and tap my legs two, three times before they’d let me go to the gates.
When I started walking again, I made an official announcement. To myself, to my friends, to my mum. I told everybody, “I swear, I’m never going to kick a ball ever again.”
My football career was over. Pinky promise. Scout oath.
Mum crossed herself and thanked God in her night prayers. Ignoring that a teenager promise is worth less than a second-hand toaster.
I started Uni, fell in love with this girl who apparently loved me back. Passed all my exams. Worked as a waiter in a fancy restaurant to pay my bills.
I decided to start boxing.
I collected black eyes, broken lips and a twisted nose. Even now my nose is still a bit jelly but you can’t really tell until you touch it. And no one really plays with your nostrils unless you ask them to.
One day a guy twice my size shovelled his fist in my stomach and left me out of breath for two weeks. It fractured my ribs and strained my diaphragm. I didn’t even know a diaphragm could get strained. There’s so much you can learn in the A&E.
That aside, my life was going as scheduled. Everything was great.
Until it was not.
I moved to France. Studied there for my master degree. Trying to procrastinate with a purpose.
Then my last year at Uni, I fly back home for Christmas. All my pals are there, flying back from the US, Spain or wherever life brought them.
A few days after Christmas, they suggest playing a 5-a-side match. They say, for good old times sake.
And I say, no, thanks. Really, I shouldn’t.
By then things with my girlfriend weren’t going well. We had decided to book this romantic trip to Venice for New Year’s Eve. Trying to fix things up and work out what was left of our relationship.
It’s just a stupid football match, my friends say. They insist.
I shrug and say, fine. I mean, what can go wrong.
We play. Five minutes in, the football hits my eye socket and I’m on the ground. Hands over my face.
My friends, these friends of a lifetime I grew up with, these friends I love to bits, they keep playing, telling me to stand up. Shouting, “Jeez, you’re such a drama queen.”
I was. But I had also turned blind from one eye.
“I think I’m blind,” I say. And someone from the other end of the pitch shouts, “Yeah sure. And I am Jesus.”
They keep playing, ignoring me. I cup one hand over my eye and haul myself outside of the pitch.
When I get back to my parents’, my mum is standing in the kitchen. Peter-Pan pose, hands on her hips, saying, “Don’t you dare.”
I stumble on a chair and slam my elbow on the doorframe. With only one eye everything turns sort of mono-dimensional. My mum says, “Don’t tell me you hurt yourself again, otherwise I swear to God I’ll kill you.”
I tell her not to worry. Twirling my ankle with the giant shark bite left by the surgeon years before. I squat on my knees and say, “See, nothing is broken. I’m whole.”
And my mum says, “Thank God.”
Then she looks at me with a squint, one hand still cupped on my face, and she says, “What’s wrong with your face then?”
I tell her, nothing. Really. I’ve just turned blind from one eye.
And she starts screaming. Mum cursing and damning every football and every pitch in the country. You’d be surprised by how many she could remember.
She drove me to the hospital and they sent me to a bed in the ward straight away. The doctor said I risked to lose my eye. I had to stay there for a couple of weeks.
The doctor smiled and said, “You’d better cancel any plan you had for New Year’s Eve. This might take a while.” Eyes don’t heal like bones or wounds. You only get one shot.
I call my girlfriend and tell her that we have to cancel our romantic save-our-relationship trip. She takes a long pause, breathing on the phone. Then she goes, “Are you cheating on me or what?”
I say, just a second. Let me check.
With the phone on my hand, I wave at the doctor and ask him if there’s any chance I could make it in a couple of days. He shakes his head and says, “It’s either this or an eyepatch for the rest of your life. You choose.”
I tell my girlfriend that I really would like to keep both my eyes for as long as I can. We have to cancel our plans, I’m sorry. I tell her about the football match, the hospital and everything, I’m sorry. A pretty detailed persuasive description if you’d ask me. I even tried to sob a bit to make it more effective. Squinting to have a tear spurting from my good eye.
I say, I’m really, really sorry.
And she says, “God.” She’s crying now. Her voice is breaking up in sobs. She says, “This is by far the most idiotic stupid fucked-up, made-up story I’ve ever heard in my entire life.”
She hangs up, but first, she shouts that it’s over. I can go fuck myself. Me and my blind eye.
My hospital room had two beds. Next to mine there was this guy with a mono-brow sprouting over his eyes. He talked with a whispering voice I could never understand what he said and he was always frowning. His face looked angry and upset even when he tried to smile.
They began to stick a needle up to my arm every day. Feeding me with a plastic bag of liquid hanging above my head. Every morning at six o’clock a nurse asked me to turn on my belly and drop my pants. She asked questions. What did I do for a living? Did I have a sweetheart? Who did I vote for on last elections? And before I could answer she’d stick an icy syringe in my butt cheek.
Every day I had an ophthalmologist looking at my eye. Whoever an ophthalmologist is.
And after a few days in that ward, the world turned back two-dimensional.
My friends were planning to crash this New Year’s Eve party. I asked the doctor if I could take a day off. Sick leave from my sickness or something. He said, “What do you think this is? A motel?” He said, “You choose, the party or an eyepatch for life.”
The last day of the year came and my parents pop over for their daily visit. My mum asks if I want them to stay with me. Dropping their plans for the night and spend it together.
I say, no worries. You really don’t have to.
And my dad whispers, “Thank God. This hospital stinks.”
I say, I’m going to a party later anyway.
And I’m laughing. My parents laugh harder. Hospital ward humour.
I say, what’s so special about today anyway?
Putting on my best serious face. Disdain for humanity and chronic boredom pouring from my every word.
I say, it’s just one of the 365 days in the year. It doesn’t mean anything.
Learning how to lie it’s like riding a bicycle: do it once, and you’ve got it for life.
I say, seriously. Go and have fun with your friends. You deserve it.
We’ve always had this tradition with my family. The first day of the year, a few minutes after midnight we call each other and cry our eyes out. We meet the day after, but those numbers you dial right after the minute-hand hits midnight, those are the people who count the most in your life.
My parents kiss me goodbye and say they’ll call me after midnight if I’m not asleep.
I say, I won’t. Trust me.
Then I’m patting the ward walls all the way to the café downstairs. I buy a few beers and I tell the guy behind the counter, “There’s ten of us upstairs ready to have a last glass together before the year is over.” He rolls his eyes and says, “Whatever.”
Back in my room, I hide the beers under my bed and wait.
A guy pops over with a plastic bag full of alcohol and slams it on the table. He says he’s planning to stay over. “New Year’s Eve, you really don’t want to spend it all by yourself,” he says. He’s Mono-brow’s friends. He’ll spend the night with him to celebrate.
A few hours before midnight I get a message on my phone and I jump out of bed. I fold my denim and a jumper in a plastic bag. I fish the beers from under my bed and give them to Mono-brow and his friend, saying, “Thanks for doing this.”
They look at each other, then back at me. His friend pops a beer open with a lighter and says, “Are you sure?” The cap flips away and lands in a corner of the room. Filling a plastic cup with more forth than beer, he says, “Are you sure this is legal?”
To be honest, I’ve no idea.
When I press the elevator button, a nurse walks by and smiles. I smile back and say, “Worst night to be on shift, isn’t it?” The elevator hits the floor. I press the reception button and the elevator doors slide close with the nurse still peeking at me.
The hospital was a brand new one. The pride of the area. Ten floors of wards and all sort of medical departments you could imagine. It sat right by the motorway. They wanted it to be easily accessible from everyone in the region.
When the elevator hits the floor, the doors slide open and I’m by the reception.
I’m wearing my denim and my jumper. Sleeved rolled down to cover the needle still stuck on my arm and a baseball cap to hide my panda eye. Still wearing my pyjamas beneath. The plastic bag folded in my pocket. You’d say I popped over for a late visit to a friend before the big night.
I wave at the security guard in the booth and say, “Not the best night to work, isn’t it?” He looks at me and squeezes his lips with something that says I really don’t care.
Too bad. I do.
I say, “Happy New Year.” And walk out of the door.
It’s dark outside. People are either at home planning dinner with their friends or waiting in the wards for everyone to fall asleep and drink bubbles to celebrate.
There are just a few cars in the parking lot. Only one begins to flash its high beams at me. When the light hits me, there are screams. Someone is hysterically honking the horn. Phones with their flashes on capturing the moment.
This is how drunk movie stars must feel surrounded by paparazzi on a night out.
I hop in the car and tell everyone inside if for the love of God they can keep it quiet.
I say, “Where is this party again?”
And my friends they just all look at me, saying, “Jeez, you look really shit.”
The party was in this old cottage. Someone organised it with pop music and colourful hats and fireworks ready to be shot at midnight.
There was a buffet, and everyone around getting drunk. The music blasting out of the speakers.
Then this woman shuffles her feet on the dance floor and comes closer to me. She keeps dancing, I glance at my friends and she gets closer. And closer. Until she brings her lips to my ear and says something. The music is so loud I’ve no idea what she’s saying. I show her the sleeves of my pyjamas under my jumper and the bruise on my arm. The internal needle still hanging stuck in my vein.
I say, I’ve just escaped from a hospital. And she walks away horrified.
There’s the countdown. The minute-hands on all clocks hit midnight and we’re all wrapped in a hug. We kiss. All a bit drunk. I cry.
I’ve always been a whiner. A hopeless chronic weeper. Every New Year’s Eve, before the last sixty seconds are gone, my stomach twists. Those movies where people see their whole life before dying. Well, that’s what happens to me every end of the year. A part of me sinks. And then I’m reborn. I sob so much, it’s mortifying.
Everyone tries to squeeze me in a long bear hug. But the tears don’t stop until half an hour into the new year. That’s how it works. I never understood why.
I’m all red-eyed and soaked sleeves with snot and tears when my phone rings. On the other side of the line, my parents shout together, “Happy new year.” They say. “Are you bored to death in that bed?”
The music is still pumping full-blast and they must hear it too because my mum says, “Wait, what’s this music?” A pop song kicks in and my mum says, “Where the hell are you?”
At a party, I say. It’s okay. I’ve got a man on the inside.
My mum says, “What the hell are you talking about?” And I can hear my Dad laughing next to her.
When they drive me back to the hospital there’s a smudge of sunrise peeking behind the hills. The hospital doors are locked. Two of my friends are asleep in the back of the car and the designated driver for the evening stops in front of the hospital and says, “And now what?”
And now we drive by the motorway and that’s how I get back in.
The whole hospital area is surrounded by a thick wire mesh. So you can see it emerging on a hill coming from the motorway.
I step in the mud and grass checking the wire mesh. My friends are all looking at me. Someone in the car shouts, “What the hell is he doing?”
Trying to get in. Although I hadn’t thought this bit through.
“Are you sure you don’t wanna walk in from the main door?”
Drunk. The visiting time will only begin in a few hours. There’s no way they’d let me in. The nurse’ll be in my room soon for my morning injection.
Then I find it. A bit of the wire mash is looser at the bottom. I lift it up and crawl in the mud. My top is hooked in a piece of wire and it snatches. Opened in two. My pyjamas showing beneath. I’m on the ground trying to roll on the other side. I can hear my friends laughing in the car. One says, “Oh well, that’s quite a shitty way to begin the new year.”
Then I’m on the other side. Waving at them behind the wire. I walk hunched forward and sneak by the main building.
Mono-brow said he could do it. There was a door that opened outside that was always shut. Only used for emergency. I had wandered around the wards the day before and made sure it wasn’t alarmed. I asked him to leave it ajar for me before he went to bed.
And I really prayed that he didn’t forget.
I’m walking drunk with wobbly knees. Everything is a bit blurred, I don’t know if it’s the alcohol or my eye losing sight again.
I find the door and it’s open. I pray for a deserted ward. I pray for no one to have a cardiac arrest and call nurses running to run around.
No one decided to die that morning.
When I walk in my room Mono-brow is asleep in his bed. His friend’s slouched and snoring on the chair. A trail of mud follows me all the way to the door. All the way in the ward. I’ve got scratches all over my arms. Over my hips. I make a ball out of my clothes and toss them under the bed. The sun starts rising outside. I made it. Nobody noticed. I hug my pillow and fall asleep.
Then someone is pulling my pants down. A cold hand slaps my butt. I really can’t open my eyes. I’m knackered. I’m still drunk. There’s another slap on my butt and the nurse says, “So, where did you go to Uni?”
I moan something with my lips sealed.
But the needle doesn’t hit. I open one eye and the nurse is looking at the door. Footprints of muds going all the way to my bed. She’s sniffing the air. She leans forward and sniffs me. The nurse says, “What the hell is this smell of alcohol in this room?”
I start wondering if the CCTV camera captured me. Rolling like a warm in the mud. Crawling in the building in the morning. My friends’ car parked by the motorway waiting for me to get in.
The nurse says, “What on earth you guys were up to last night?”
Mono-brown is still snoring. His friend moving in his sleep trying to get comfortable on the chair.
I say, “Well.” I say, “We — ”
And she stings me with the needle so hard that I begin to scream and wake everyone up.
And that, that was the beginning of one of the best year of my life.