I didn’t see Emile at The Webb the next few days. His usual booth sat empty. I sent him Tomie and Matt’s address, but he never responded to my message. I wasn’t sure he was going to come at all, but I dressed up fancier than usual for the New Year’s party just in case. And here I was, sitting by myself in the kitchen in the nicest dress and heels I owned. Everyone else here had paired themselves off with a date. Well, everyone except Sid, but even he had whoever he was texting on that cell phone he was glued to. I didn’t even have that. I was truly the most pathetic person at this damned party.
I picked at the snacks on the table and debated on whether or not it was too early to break into the hard liquor. It probably was. The party only started about an hour ago. I’d only look more pathetic if I was the first one trashed. I stiffened and jumped from my seat when the doorbell rang.
“I hope you’re someone’s dad,” I heard Tomie shout loudly enough for me to hear from the next room over. Sure enough, Emile was in the doorway behind her as I rounded the corner. And while he was probably ten years older than everyone else here, Tomie didn’t have to be so rude about it.
“He’s with me,” I said as I pushed past her.
“Hello,” he greeted, “I didn’t know what to bring.” He gestured to two bottles of wine that he offered to Tomie.
She accepted them, but audibly muttered, “What the hell are we going to do with these?” She had a point. This wasn’t really a wine crowd. But Emile couldn’t have known that, and it was sweet of him to bring something. Tomie passed the bottles off to her boyfriend, Matt, who led the way back to the kitchen.
“Do you like wine?” Emile asked as he claimed the seat opposite to mine.
“Sure,” I lied. It was a stretch to say that I liked it. It was alright at best, in my experience.
Tomie cast me her strongest ‘You Are SO Full of It’ gaze before turning to my guest, “I can’t drink—because of the medicines I’m on. But it makes me a better host for parties like these. I can keep an eye on everyone.” Although she spoke with a smile, I could tell she intended that last sentence as a warning.
“And you have a lovely home for hosting,” Emile complimented.
“Thank you,” said Tomie, “Matt got promoted at work about a year ago. We moved in not long after, so we’re pretty well settled now.”
“Congratulations, then. What is it that you do?”
“I work at a bank,” Matt said quietly. He wasn’t going to elaborate on what he did. Hell, I’ve known him since we were all in high school together and I still wasn’t exactly sure what he did. He wasn’t very talkative, and shared personal details only when asked directly. Even then, it was like pulling teeth.
“How about you?” Emile asked Tomie.
“I’m on Disability,” she seethed in response. It was a sensitive subject.
Emile furrowed his brows in the way that suggested to me he was about to tell her that she ‘didn’t look disabled.’ I needed to diffuse that landmine before it was too late.
I chimed in, “Where do you work, Emile?”
“The Tower off of Broadway.” It wasn’t far at all from The Webb, which made a lot of sense considering how often he was there.
“That’s a government building,” Matt stated, as if we didn’t all know that already. It’s a huge fortress of a building downtown. Everyone knows it. It’s notorious. You can’t miss it.
“Are you some kind of agent?” Tomie asked, “Do you do, like, spy stuff? Everyone says that’s what goes on in there.”
“Something like that,” Emile chuckled. “Sorry, but I can’t really talk about it.”
“That’s no fun. Well, we’re being shitty hosts. I’m going to go check on everyone else. I’ll see you guys around,” Tomie made her way out of the kitchen. Matt followed her, trailing like a duckling behind its mother. Emile and I were alone now.
“Do you think they have a corkscrew?” he asked.
Crap, I had no idea. My friends and I hang out here a lot, but we never needed a corkscrew. We never drank wine together. I always felt like that was something sophisticated older adults did at fancy dinner parties, like with cheese and crackers and gourmet olives. We never had those kinds of parties. But now a sophisticated older adult wanted to drink wine with me, and it was probably painfully obvious that I wasn’t used to this kind of thing. I rummaged through a few drawers and cupboards before I found some kind of pocket knife with what looked like a corkscrew on it.
“Here you go,” I said as I handed it over to him. I sure wasn’t going to humiliate myself by attempting to use it. We’d probably have to pour the whole bottle through a strainer to get all the little bits of cork out. If it came to that, at least I knew where the sieves were.
He opened the bottle effortlessly—because of course he did, even with a shitty pocket knife bottle opener attachment—and poured each of us a glass. Or rather, a plastic cup. It still felt pretty fancy for my blood. I took a sip and was surprised to find that it was sweet.
“Blueberry wine,” he answered, before I could ask what it was, “It’s not my favorite, but I hoped you might like it.”
“I do.” At least I didn’t have to pretend to enjoy it. And enjoy it, I did. We drank and chatted as we lost track of time. We ended up asking each other some pointless, trivial questions. As it turns out, his favorite color was green, his favorite food was fish, and he was quite the outdoorsman. Emboldened by the time I polished off my third cup, I decided to cut to the chase and ask the question I was really wanting the answer to. “Are you seeing anybody?”
“If I were dating someone, I wouldn’t be spending New Year’s Eve with you and your friends.”
“I’m glad you’re here tonight,” I blurted out. I was feeling flushed from the alcohol. My face was certainly beet red.
Before he had a chance to reply, a booming voice rang out, “NO-NO! Come here!”
We found Vee in the dining room, where the table was cleared.
“We’re doing an arm wrestling competition,” she announced, “We need one more person.”
I sighed, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“The prize is the last cocktail shrimp. It’s one of Liz’s family traditions!”
“My dad calls it the Shrimp Showdown,” Liz explained.
“Marisol’s going against Tomie. Liz is going against Teddy. Doug’s going against Mark. We just need someone for Matt.”
“Why aren’t you competing?” Emile asked Vee sensibly.
“Because I’m the ref. And I’m holding Liz’s beer while she plays. Isn’t that hot? C’mon, it’ll only take a minute. Sid’s exempt because he’s allergic to shellfish.”
Emile declined to participate and excused himself to smoke on the porch. I agreed because going along with this would get it over with faster than arguing my way out of it. For all of Marisol’s smack talk, she lost swiftly in the first match. Tomie showed no mercy—not when it came to shrimp.
I took my place at the table next. Matt’s hand was cold and clammy. It felt gross as we clasped each other. I realized that this was probably my first time touching him in all the years I’d known him. Vee called for the match to begin, but neither of us were exerting any effort at all. It was obvious that both of us were peer pressured into this competition. Since Matt wasn’t doing anything, I buckled and pulled his arm on top of mine to throw the match. I didn’t stick around to see who won the Shrimp Showdown before joining Emile on the porch.
“You didn’t win me a shrimp?” he asked jokingly, trying his best to look disappointed as he exhaled a puff of smoke.
“Sorry.” I shrugged, “I’d say I tried my best, but I’d be lying. I lost on purpose.”
Outside, we could easily hear the enthusiastic neighbors counting down to the new year. “Ten! Nine! Eight! Seven!” I steeled myself to do something stupid. “Six! Five! Four!” I prayed that I wouldn’t regret this once I’d sobered up. “Three! Two! One! Happy New Year!” I grabbed Emile’s blazer for support and stood up on my tip toes to press a kiss to his lips.