The clock struck midnight. 1983 began with me sharing a first kiss of that year with Ms Keogh, soon to become my cherished companion. We would be lovers and living together before the year’s conclusion. We would share every first kiss of every new year for the next thirty-five, never missing a one. Thirty-six consecutive kisses. Even having to pull over one year into a deserted Texaco and climb out of the car into below freezing weather. We embraced and kissed, then hurried back into the car. 2019 is the first year to be missed. Ms Keogh died in June.
I declined to join others this New Year’s Eve, anticipating my unhappiness and not wanting to spoil anyone else’s fun.
In 1982, I was living in New York City. My parents went every New Year’s Eve to an international folk-dancing camp in Maine. I house-sat for them, throwing a low-key New Year’s Eve party in their absence. It was no different at the end of 1982. My party was a tradition. I went down to Pennsylvania and took over my parents’ house, a three-bedroom, single-level, wood-frame house in suburbia. I never invited anyone. People just showed up. I played records of classical music and kindled a fire of apple wood in the living room’s fireplace. I paid for the food and my friends cooked it. We indulged in alcoholic beverages, but we were never rowdy. After the arrival of the new year, conversations slowly diminished and eventually everyone had tumbled into sleep in every available space of the living room. They were like an array of seals out of water.
Ms Keogh and I were already friends, having met a few months before. It might have been only our third meeting when she brought her kids to New York so I could show them the town, the Christmas lights, and Macy’s windows. In a telephone call with R, who was also planning to come visit but at a different time, I mentioned that his former girlfriend was to be visiting me. He said he knew. “Thank you for introducing us, I am really grateful to you,” I said. He replied, “That’s okay. You can have her. You can do anything you want with her.” It was a distasteful remark. It was born of anger I did not understand.
Ms Keogh wanted to come down from Boston to join my famous new year’s get-together. She would accompany other friends of mine who offered her a lift. Why did she need an invitation? Because her ex-boyfriend, R, told her explicitly she could not come. R, who was a dear friend, was coming down days before the party to have extra time with me. Theirs had been an on-again, off-again relationship that was now hard over. I failed to see the problem.
When Ms Keogh arrived at my party, R was visibly upset. He took Ms Keogh into the master bedroom for a private conversation. It went uncomfortably long. I wouldn’t learn until the next day that he was making demands on her to make-believe she was still his girlfriend so as to maintain his dignity in front of his old friends. She said absolutely not.
Ms Keogh found me in the kitchen later that evening cleaning dishes so they could be used again. She asked, "Who do you intend to kiss first for the new year?"
"You," I informed her. "That is if you'll let me."
She gave me an undemonstrative smile, and I don't remember the words of her reply, but her tone was a teasing, "What makes you think I'd want to be kissed by you?"
But it was to be.
Several hours into the new year, my friends dropped off to sleep while I was again in the kitchen, again washing dishes, pots and pans, packaging and putting away the uneaten food. Ms Keogh came in – she was still awake! – and she assisted me. We talked. We embraced. We kissed again. Before morning we found the only space left where we could nap. Beneath my parents’ baby grand piano we formed a crescent with me embracing her from behind. We talked a bit more, then slept for three hours. I woke in love with her. I am in love with her still. But it would be another couple of months before the feeling was mutual.
We woke to angry glares from a number of my guests. We had no comprehension of what we had done wrong. I asked. They were angry with me for the attention I showed R’s girlfriend. That it broke his heart and humiliated him. What were they thinking? She wasn’t his girlfriend. They broke up more than a month ago. Ah, but unbeknownst to Ms Keogh and myself, R had gone about the evening before telling everybody that Ms Keogh was his girlfriend. It was very odd. I was sorry about it then. R made sure I should feel sorry for it the next few days. A week later, I was no longer sorry about it, would never be sorry about it again.
Before I met Ms Keogh, I was alone but never lonely. With Ms Keogh, I was never alone nor lonely. Since her death, I am often not alone, but I am always lonely. It is an unfamiliar sensation and I don't know if I will ever grow accustom to it. But now I understand the desperate lengths other people go to not be alone no matter how bad the relationship.
It is not as if there are occasional reminders of Ms Keogh. Everything reminds me of Ms Keogh. The memories are constant. I recreate her humorous banter within my imagination in response to everything I experience. I can hear her scoff at my wrong-headedness and the way she frequently volunteered her opinion. It isn’t just knowing what she would have disapproved of, but also what would have made her happy and where she would become intimate. I am still obliging many of her preferences over my own. I hate that she is absent from existence.
New Year’s Eve 2018, I became part of the crowd that had gathered in front of Cardiff’s City Hall. They had built a Winter Wonderland with many attractions, food stands, perilous rides, an ice-skating rink, and a live band. In the crowd I found privacy in anonymity. Leaning my back against a tree, I watched the fireworks over Bute Park herald 2019 and cried unnoticed.
Selected Suburban Soliloquies, the best of Mr Bentzman's earlier series of Snakeskin essays, is available as a book or as an ebook, from Amazon and elsewhere.