There were fourteen minutes left on the timer.
“I can do this,” E said. “Ten minutes to finish, three whole minutes to carefully get to the second floor and back, one minute to spare.”
“And when have you ever known this to take ten minutes?”
“Oh, it takes you longer?” She remarked a little “hmph” to herself and set about her initial task. I could not help but watch her progress out of the corner of my eye with the rest of it glued to the screen and its ticking clock. She performed her duty steadily, just as I do, but a little more delicately. Her hands are more deft. Marching band member versus rocker. One of us has subtler fingers.
Subtlety has its applications. We were five minutes in and, though it did not look like she was halfway done, she also had not blown it all by being too forceful. That’s why she was the one doing the doing and I was the one doing the watching. I forced my eyes back up to the clock, as if the weight of my stare on E’s fingers might burden them down in her task. Hers always seem impossibly delicate to me, even though I have seem them hammer nails and move earth. Years ago I hardly could believe the one would bear the weight of my ring, but there it was glittering at the edge of my vision.
The clock ticked. We both watched the screen in silence as it panned across crowds of people breathing the same cold air as we were breathing but miles away. It was not going well for the woman the cameras were currently focused on, her fists pumping against the night as if trying to piece the dark and cold and slip away.
She let out a pained howl. The crowd cheered politely. Eleven minutes in, now, and just three minutes left. E was not finished.
“You aren’t going to make it.” My voice was still husky from all the commotion earlier in the night. “You could just stay.”
“I’ll be fine,” she mouthed back to me as she adjusted her grip.
Two minutes. I looked down to see E had finished, but she had yet to make a move. If it was me, I would be moving. Better to put things into motion. Pull the pin out, let the grenade lend you some urgency.
Seventy-five seconds. How long just to climb the stairs? E began to shift her weight, gathering her feet below her. Sixty. The count began. Fifty-nine. Fifty-eight. She rose, balanced, and crossed the room to the stairway with the stride of a dancer or a cat. All arches and flexed muscles, power hidden beneath lithe grace.
She disappeared through the archway. I hardly heard her on the stairs. Maybe she chose not to climb them after all. Maybe she had resigned herself that she wasn’t going to make it, and was just watching me as I watched the numbers close in on zero. Forty-two. Forty-one.
Twenty. Still enough time to descend the stairs and fit her body into the seat beside me, neatly filling the negative space. One day you stop being your own unit and the way you hold yourself starts to suggest the people that are meant to be surrounding you.
Ten. Nine. Eight. I stopped expecting her face to emerge from the arch at the front of the room. Seven. It was fine. Six. The mission was what mattered. Five. Four She would come back when she could come back.
Three. Two. One.
It was not the first new year that we would not open with a kiss, but at least the baby was asleep.
E returned at 12:02, blithe to the fact that her walk up the stairs with a limp, milk-drunk baby had taken the full three minutes she originally prescribed after draining the bottle rather than the fifty seconds she gave herself.
“Did I miss it?”
“No, it’s still 2014.”
“So I missed it. The ball.”
“They didn’t even show the ball. Just lots of awkward kissing. No more of that woman’s caterwauling, thank goodness. I’m surprised it didn’t wake her while she was drinking her milk? She’s down?”
We did not kiss. E whisked into the kitchen, in search of the champaign. Then we watched the Koi channel while everyone sipped champagne until I turned into a pumpkin at 12:58.
Happy New Year!