Raising her dollar store flute to toast the wasted mass of acquaintances in front of her, Ara Hopkins gulped down cheap champagne, plastered on her most believable smile, and began making her way through the New Year’s hopefuls and falling confetti.
Ara felt about New Year's Eve the way most people felt about riding a crowded subway car on a hot New York City day. Claustrophobic. Fighting crowds for enough oxygen to avoid the slow burning pain of suffocation was not her ideal. But she was good at faking it, at least; she’d taught herself how to come out on top long ago. It was basic survival of the fittest—or the most f’ed up. Whether the elite or the sludge of humanity won at life was a classic game of chess known all too well to its occupants.
The best part about the city, though, was that it was forgiving at its core, allowing you to be whoever you wanted the next day, no matter what troll you had resembled the night before. Anything could be chalked up to evolution of character.
Still, Ara hated the pressure of New Year’s Eve and its “New Year, New Me” hashtags. The pathetic promises partygoers made to themselves, conveniently disguised as elaborate, imitative resolutions. The sparkling two-thousand-whatever party favors people felt forced to wear. It also could be the holiday’s ability to label you a pathetic loser for lacking a midnight kiss. New Year’s Eve topped the worst days to be single charts, second only to Valentine’s Day, the most messed up holiday of the year. What a fresh way to kick off the much-hated hashtags. Hashtag screw brunch, hashtag I’d rather sleep in, hashtag let’s stop being fake and acting like we like each other. The hipster resolutioners were the best example. Their paleo, cross fitting, Namaste kicks often
ending in despairing, binge-eating mutilations. Damn, Ara thought, we millennials can be so dull.
She promised herself never to be so pathetic. Not for a second did she dream of a social media certified existence. As if nothing in this life actually happened unless it was confirmed through a snappy Instagram post, complete with a clever caption, so loads of double-tapping ‘friends’ could show their stamp of approval.
Ara Hopkins seemed normal though, by all millennial standards. It was on the inside where she despised it all. But lately, she felt like she’d reached a tipping point of sorts, becoming increasingly unsatisfied with her repetitive, yet chaotic life and now having to ‘make something of herself’ in a down economy that despised her generation. What about the bastard baby boomers who seemed to repeatedly screw the generation and the country that would eventually need to care for them? And they said millennials were self-absorbed.
She needed a plan, and not having one twisted her stomach in knots. How could she be expected to sit back and hope all the plays fell in her favor? Despite the numerous three a.m. insomnia-induced self-help Google searches and soothing mantras that promised her the ability to become as peaceful as Buddha himself, Ara enjoyed being in control and loved nothing more than a good, solid strategy for this game called life. Her therapist, Dr. Dan, had a name for it, said it was a fear of imperfection. Ara could only wonder, who wouldn’t want a perfect life?
For as long as she could remember, she had been mapping out her future. Get in to a good college; meet the perfect guy, preferably from a financially comfortable family; have a successful career; and live happily ever after. But little by little, one disappointing
casual hook up after another, she began to realize her perfect plan was dangerously off track. The education part was easy, but finding Prince Charming in a packed college bar when there was always a younger, drunker, and more promiscuous bandeau-wearing girl waiting on deck, was not quite the same. Maybe she should have picked a school where the female-to-male ratio was less than four to one.
And there was always Raina.
Raina Martin, queen of said millennials—who somehow managed to defend the title of Ara’s “stepsister and best friend”—was sloppily kissing a guy named James on their newly-purchased Craigslist love seat. A familiar occurrence: Raina preoccupied in casual lust while Ara awkwardly pretended not to notice getting ditched for the night.
After spending four years as roommates, mostly due to their parents’ encouragement, Ara was convinced that Raina’s greatest aphrodisiac was seducing any guy with a pulse away from her—despite Raina repeatedly claiming her innocence in situations where she just happened to end up in bed with one of Ara’s crushes. Fact being, that girl desperately needed male attention. It never seemed to matter that when a hook up didn’t call her again, she would find herself with her head in the toilet and a mascara-stained face, slurring that all guys were pigs. And it definitely never seemed to register that Ara was the only one rubbing her back at three a.m. after a night of Cuervo. Raina wanted love, and idiotically thought she found it in every beer-soaked weekend hot spot.
Raina was also the reason she and Ara were hosting this party, despite Ara’s hatred of the holiday. Year after year, Raina would insist they host their annual soiree, with pinky promises that the party would be better than the last. But come every January
first, over a hangover-friendly meal on a sticky table that still needed to be wiped clean with Clorox, they swore that they would never host again.
But Raina always got her way. Manipulation was her strongest, and most fruitful asset. Like a smooth politician, she knew how to work a room, and she could also convince even the toughest of critics that casual sex was always a good thing.
“Ara! Come meet James’s friend.” Raina had come up for air and was forcing her way through the other inebriated twenty-somethings. “He’s super hot! And I think he’s a lawyer!”
Annoyed, Ara pushed through the crowd, brushing past Lane, a new addition to the group she didn’t quite know yet, and was met with a stunning pair of sharp blue eyes, possibly the brightest she had ever seen. “James’s friend,” who she recognized as a prominent New York congressman’s son, raised his hand, loosely gripping hers, and flashed a perfect Calvin Klein smile. Standing over her at six foot two, Ara could already tell she would fit perfectly into the nook between his shoulder and arm, her favorite spot of the male anatomy.
“Brad Bugia, law student, not lawyer,” said the now-named object of Ara’s attention.
This was her big play in life, she had finally won her game.
Or so she’d thought.
Five years and one month later, Ara found herself frozen with shock, staring
down at Brad’s lifeless body on the floor of their waterfront apartment in Newport, New Jersey.
It was like something out of a clumsy, cheesy horror movie, not reality. Red pools of blood filled any available crevice on their wood floor. Ara tried to scream but the words were lodged somewhere painfully deep in the pit of her stomach, a dreadful place she hadn’t believed existed until that exact moment. Where the pain was, unrecognizable to a 90’s raised, upper class, woman as herself.
She collapsed on top of him. Despite all logic telling her she needed to call 911 and get help, the bullet hole in his chest made it clear there was nothing anyone could do. She stared at the youthful, chiseled features, slowly turning stone gray as his blood stopped warming him. His face veiled in an ominous look of untimely death. She finally let out an anguished cry for their life together, from the moment they’d met to the overbearing one rushing at her from every corner of the room.
Their night played out in her head. Together for five years, married for two of them, she loved how they still dated. The dinner tonight had been at Del Posto’s in Chelsea near the Highline. They’d filled themselves with Italian delicacies and a bottle of overpriced red wine Brad had been happy to purchase off a back page of the extensive, wine list, even springing for a modern tiramisu despite not usually being the dessert ordering types.
“We’re moving up! No more by the glass table red for us,” Brad had said as they’d coyly clicked their glasses, her taking the tiniest of sips. She could tell he’d already had a drink or two after work, and she knew that he’d pour for himself with a heavy hand tonight, oblivious to the fact she was barely sipping her alcohol.
A flirtatious car ride home across the river to their Newport apartment had mimicked the most passionate ride of a one-night stand. Lip-locked, with eager hands
exploring each other between disapproving glances in the rear-view mirror from the Uber driver. Then, despite her protests, Brad telling her to wait in the lobby for ten minutes before coming up to the apartment. Explaining quickly as he exited the car that he had a surprise planned for them and needed time to set it up. Brad knew Ara hated surprises more than any of the other things that irked her: the dentist, crowded trains on hot days, etc. Being surprised topped her list. Instead of rousing excitement in her like they were supposed to, surprises usually left Ara uneasy and anxious about having the correct reaction the surpriser expected.
But not Brad. Brad loved surprises and every bit of the rush of excitement that came with them. An adrenaline junkie and life-on-the-edge kind of guy, every aspect of Brad’s life was a game for him just waiting to be played. He’d been that way since birth: if Ara had heard the tale of his twenty-three minute, exhilarating journey into this world once, she’d heard it a million times. His mother had practically delivered him through her ’80s-era Madonna style floral leggings while hospital staff had frantically tried to get her situated in a room.
“Always the wild card!” Brad’s mother would say as his father, a pillar in the New York Democratic party and a current congressman, would brag how he knew since that moment that his only son would be destined for great things.
Tonight, Brad had untangled himself from Ara’s hold and waltzed to the elevator, giving her one last wink before the bronze doors closed in front of him like Broadway curtains following a show’s final scenes. He and his magic were gone.
Left feeling anxious and cold in the February air, Ara followed far enough behind him so that he wouldn’t turn around. After entering the building they’d called home for
four years, she decided to take the stairs to their seventh-floor apartment. The hike up the dark, rear staircase would probably take the exact amount of time Brad requested her wait. This wasn’t the first time she’d dragged herself up the stairs. It was something of a stress reliever when something was on her mind, and she’d done the exact same thing many times in the weeks prior. And, of course, in the early days when she’d wanted the perfect peach emoji-worthy ass for their honeymoon.
Now here she was. Here they were. Their textbook romance and pleasant life, seemingly created just for the two of them, radically cut short, stripped from existence. Their safe, cozy, love-filled home violated. Why did this have to happen here?
“Ma’am, step away from the body!” Ara looked up and saw three police officers standing in her doorway. Of course, one of her neighbors would have called 911 after hearing gunshots. This neighborhood prided itself on both its security, and its residents’ involvement in the community. Frozen from a blend of shock and fear, she could do nothing but stare blankly at the officers and defensively pull Brad in closer to her.
“Ma’am.” The uniformed men started toward her. Slow at first, as if she was a rabid animal that could pounce at any moment, then more forcefully, pulling her away from Brad, allowing his lifeless body to slump back to the floor with a thud. Ara started screaming and kicking, desperately trying to fight off the men taking her away from him. Tears streaked her once perfectly contoured face as another officer rushed toward her. Knowing that acting reckless in a situation like this would get her nowhere, she submitted to the officers, collecting herself to avoid being physically subdued.
“Ma’am, you need to calm down and tell us what happened here,” the tallest of the growing group of law enforcement said, just inches from her face—close enough for
her to smell the charred Dunkin Donuts coffee from the corner shop. “We can’t help you if you don’t work with us,” he said, letting loose another whiff of rancid caramel coffee, flipping her stomach.
All of her words seemed lodged in her throat.
“I don’t know, I just came in and . . . Please help him,” she said as the lead detective moved back and stared hard into Ara’s fear-filled eyes as she struggled to put a coherent sentence together.
“Your husband is dead,” he said. “And since you are the only one here, it looks to me like you might know something about that.”
The room began to spin. The intricately decorated walls that she and Brad had spent hours perfecting reeled uncontrollably around her. Numbness ran from the tips of her fingers straight down her spine. And this time, she vomited for real.
The officers stopped trying to question her and pulled Ara to a chair in the back corner of the room. She sat there for what felt like hours as the forensics team began combing through her living room, taking bits and pieces of her life away in evidence bags. When Lane walked in, she was never happier to see him. Brad’s life-long friend— almost a brother to him—and a brother to the boys in blue. A detective in neighboring Manhattan, she knew it was hard for him to keep his composure as he stepped past his best friend to comfort her.
Over the past five years, the two had become quite close, though Lane had been distant as of late.
Ara jumped from the seat and ran to his arms. Lane’s arms wrapped comfortingly around her, and after lingering in a defeated hug, Ara pulled away, as he brushed the free strands of hair from her face.
“Ara! Are you OK, what happened? I rushed here as soon as I heard over the radio, somehow the news already got to the city.”
“I just came in and found him like this. It finally killed him, it freakin’ killed him, Lane,” Ara said, her mind racing through all that has happened in the last few weeks.
“What? Who killed Brad, Ara? You aren’t making any sense.” Lane stared back, searching for an answer she was not able to give. Not knowing what to say, all she could do was shake her head, one hand covering her mouth.
“The detectives will figure this all out, Ara. Don’t you worry—we’ll get this all figured out.”
She let her head slump to his chest and took in her first deep breath since the car ride home.