The frost on my apartment windows and the white snow covering the ground confirmed what I feared—the bitter Chicago winter had arrived. I began digging through my closet to find my pink down jacket, probably the most unstylish piece of clothing I owned.
“Ivy!” I turned as someone squealed my name. The front door swung open, and I couldn’t help but smile as Ella, my roommate and best friend of five years, walked in.
There was always a certain comfort that came from being around my very best friend, especially when she could be so lovable and fashionable at the same time.
“You would be the girl bringing, like, 72 bags back after Christmas,” I said as she tumbled through the door with her holiday haul.
“Hey! Don’t fault me for my style. You know it’s impeccable,” Ella retorted. She carried several shopping bags into her room, dropping two as shoes spilled out onto the floor. Balance wasn’t her strong suit, yet Ella, as always, looked elegant with her long, auburn hair.
“Well, as long as I can borrow at least three pairs of your new shoes, I’ll allow it,” I teased.
agreed. “So, how was your Christmas and your trip home?” She asked. I had just returned from visiting my family in Ohio for the holidays. Although I love my family, it was good to be back in Chicago, back with Ella and the girls.
My mother and sisters had a way of crowding me when I came home. It was a million questions I could do without. “How’s work?” “When are you getting promoted?” “Still no boyfriend?” And the best of all, “You’re wearing that to Christmas dinner?” Followed by an over the top eye roll from my mother. It was a relief to be back in the company of Ella who was the type of best friend who understood how I was feeling without even having to say it.
She was my saving grace in college when I gave her one look and she knew instantly that I didn’t want to talk to the guy wearing a popped-collared pink polo shirt or that I was pretending to care what some irritating sorority girl thought of my new clutch. Ella knew I would rather vomit than continue those conversations. She pulled me away before I’d say something sarcastic that came off as downright mean. And with several drinks deep I was always one moment away from that. It’s how I ended up pouring a drink over the head of a fraternity boy when he was cheating on one of my friends. He banned me from the frat house. Which was actually impossible to do since I had more friends there than he did, which of course I let him know. I was the wild card and Ella was the safety net. It’s what made us work.
“It was great to see my sisters! Got filled in on the high school gossip. And you will not believe who I ran into!” I gushed, eager to finally tell Ella about my holiday. We’d texted back and forth while I was out of town and she was spending the holiday with her family, but texting wasn’t the same as being able to talk to my bestie face to face.
“Who?” Ella asked. I could tell she was running a list of all the people I wouldn’t like to see through her head. It was a long list, too long maybe.
“Ryan!” I said, not sure how she’d take the news.
“Ohmigod! Are you serious?! Where?” She asked, her eyes growing huge. She looked as shocked as I felt when I bumped into him.
“Yeah. I saw him at the mall. I had a mini-freak-out. I mean I hadn’t seen the guy in three years!” And I wouldn’t mind if I never saw him again.
“God, has it been that long?” Ella reminisced.
“Yeah. It was super awkward. I kind of just said, ‘Hi’…and left.”
“Wow. He was always an interesting one,” Ella said cryptically. And yet, I knew exactly what she meant.
“I know, and then he sent me this text saying we should grab coffee sometime.”
“What did you say?”
“I said, ‘No thanks! I’m not a fan of cheating rat-bastards!’”
“Ivy! What? You didn’t!” Ella’s eyes grew even wider. I knew deep down that Ella had always rooted for things to work out between Ryan and me. She was naïve in that way. No matter how much she or anyone else rooted for us, there was no way things could have ever worked with Ryan. Even if I could have forgiven him, I would never forget it.
“Okay, okay, fine. I didn’t say that, but I wanted to. I just ignored his text. He doesn’t deserve a response.”
“Well played!” Ella declared. She tied her chestnut hair up in a bun, a style she kept after quitting ballet. I felt gratified knowing that at least Ella had my back. “So, more importantly, what are we doing for New Year’s Eve?” I asked. I intentionally wanted to switch the subject before Ella started saying what a nice guy Ryan was despite all his flaws. I loved Ella to death, but she sure loved to question my decisions. And I just wasn’t in the mood.
“I don’t know. What’s on our radar? House party or bars?” Ella asked.
“I was thinking of something a little more epic,” I said as I sat on her bed and watched her unpack.
“Like what? You know New Year’s Eve is always overrated anyway,” Ella hung her new clothes with the tags still on them in her closet.
“People who say that just don’t know how to have a good time. We are not those people.” I picked up her blue shiny blouse and held it in front of the mirror. It would look great on me. It matched my eyes perfectly.
“Well, I’m not sure if blacking out for the past three New Year’s can count as a good time. If you can’t remember it, how do you even know it was that great?” Ella gave me her most penetrating look.
“Because you told me I was a blast! And everyone else agreed. Besides, I only get like…that…once a year.”
“Once a year?” Ella rolled her eyes. She knew me too well. Ella had seen me cradle a trashcan more times than I can count. But that was back in college. I had vowed this New Year’s Eve would be different.
“Well, I only aim for once a year! It’s all the same,” I said, sounding more defensive than I intended.
“Well, let’s discuss plans tonight with the other girls. Maybe they’ve heard of a party or something.”
“Are you guys talking about me?” Our other roommate Bobbie chimed in as she walked into the room smiling. I envied her for her gorgeously tan skin and perfect almond shaped eyes. Her family celebrated the holidays in Hawaii which sounded much more enjoyable than the frigid winter in Cleveland.
“You’re back!” I said, giving her a hug. I could feel the winter air clinging to her coat as she brushed snowflakes from her hair.
“Back and ready for a glass of wine!” Bobbie said. “Let’s open a bottle. It will be my reward for not wiping out in the snow yet.”
“Already lost that competition,” Ella admitted sheepishly. We all laughed. Ella had a tendency to trip and stumble over almost everything—a side effect of only wearing four-inch heels.
“No surprise there,” I said. I grabbed the bottle of Pinot Grigio and poured three glasses right then and there as we sat down at the kitchen table.
“So, what did Olly get you for Christmas?” I asked Bobbie. Bobbie had been stressing about what to get her new boyfriend for the big day weeks beforehand.
“Well. . . he didn’t. . . really get me. . . anything,” Bobbie stammered.
“What?” Ella said. I thought she was going to fall out of her chair.
“Seriously? It’s only the biggest holiday of the year!” I said. I’ve always hated guys for doing stupid things like that. Every girl wants a stylish, romantic Christmas gift. And no matter how stylish it seems, a basket of soap wrapped with a bow is not a romantic gift—it’s soap! Besides, Bobbie was a fantastic girlfriend. She deserved a fantastic gift.
“It’s not that bad. He wants to go to a wine tasting,” Bobbie explained, sipping on her wine.
“Oh, that’s cute! I knew he’d pull through,” Ella said, immediately forgiving Olly. She was always rooting for everyone else’s romances but never, oddly enough, for her own.
“Getting drinks is way better than the kinds of gifts most guys give,” I said. So, maybe he wasn’t totally clueless.
“Never start dating around the holidays. It’s the worst!” Bobbie said, “Besides I don’t think he really liked the sweater I got him.”
“I’m sure he did,” Ella said as she took a sip of her wine.
“You got him a sweater?” I blurted, nearly spitting wine everywhere. “That’s what I get my uncle for Christmas!”
“Thanks, Ivy,” Bobbie said sarcastically, “real helpful.”
“I thought you were getting him concert tickets,” I said.
“It sold out,” Bobbie explained.
“I’m sure he liked the sweater,” I said, yet again regretting opening my big mouth. Ella gave me a sharp look as if to say, “Shut up, already!”
“It doesn’t matter what you gave him. He’ll like it because it was from you,” Ella said squeezing Bobbie on the shoulder. Damn Ella, she always knew what to say, but that’s also why we’ve been best friends since college.
“Think it’s okay to give him a sweater again next year? I’m so over presents,” Bobbie said, throwing up her hands. Ella and I laughed.
There was a knock at the door. When it swung open, in walked Meryl. Her blonde hair was combed to perfection. Meryl lived above us. At 27, she was like the older sister I never had and always wanted. I think we all felt that way about her.
“You know, it’s awfully quiet around here when you girls leave,” Meryl said. I wondered if there was some sort of extra sparkle in her shampoo bottle; Meryl’s hair always seemed to glow.
“Meryl!” Ella slid off her chair and went to hug her. The rest of us followed, exchanging quick embraces.
“Grab a glass. We’re getting back into our wine ritual,” I said. The girls of 721 Dearborn had a tradition of drinking wine on the rooftop of our apartment building once a week. Even in the winter, we snuck up there in down-filled coats that made us look like puffy marshmallows and snowmen. With hats, mittens, and a bottle of wine, we’d lose track of the night amid the sparkle of the city lights. The rooftop was our safe haven. We could say anything without being judged. It was our sanctuary.
“Are you trying to make Barbara cry? She would die if we didn’t come down and say hi before heading to the rooftop,” Meryl said. Barbara was our landlady, but really more of our grandmother. She made us soup when we were sick, took out our trash, and checked up on us when we needed it and even sometimes when we didn’t. She treated us like her own grandchildren.
“Oh, of course not! Let’s go visit her,” Ella said.
“I love Barbara, but if she goes on another hour-long tangent about her modeling days, I’m faking sick,” Bobbie complained, half-joking. Bobbie used to be an agent at a modeling agency, and Barbara used her job as chance to bring up memories of her own glory days as a model.
“Bobbie!” Meryl said. “Have a heart. She’s old and doesn’t have anyone but us.”
“I know, I know,” Bobbie agreed.
“This is perfect,” I offered, “It’ll be a good opportunity for us to give Barbara her Christmas prezzie.” With that, I scooped up the small, lovingly wrapped gift that I knew Barbara would adore.
We left our apartment and headed upstairs to Barbara’s place. It was always the same. There was tea sitting on the table and the walls were covered in books. I eyed the dingy floral curtains on the windows that needed some serious updating. The distinct smell of cinnamon lingered in the air.
“Hi, Barbara. The girls are back!” Meryl said as she walked in. Meryl was the closest to Barbara. She watched over the older woman and even installed an elevator in the house a few years ago so Barbara could get to the upper floors more easily.
“Looking stylish!” Ella complimented Barbara. Barbara was wearing a bright green scarf wrapped around her head, a pearl necklace, and matching pearl earrings. She was the very essence of old Hollywood glamor. On days like today, it was easy to imagine her having been a model.
“It’s so good to see you girls! I was getting lonely without you,” Barbara said, sincerely.
“We got you something,” I said proudly and handed over her belated Christmas gift.
“How sweet! You girls are just the most wonderful darlings,” Barbara cooed. She opened up the silver box with a white bow to find a glamorously framed photo of all five of us—Barbara, Meryl, Ella, Bobbie, and me— on the rooftop last summer. Tears welled up in the corner of her eyes.
“This is just precious,” she said and kissed each of us on the cheek. “Thank you. Now, how about some tea?”
“How about some wine?” I countered, holding out the bottle.
“Oh, Ivy, you just love your wine,” Barbara winked at me. “Let’s have both!”
For the next hour, we sat on Barbara’s couches sharing our Christmas stories and chatting about how fast the year had flown by. Bobbie talked about her newly sprung romance with Olly. Ella went on about how much she loved seeing her brothers at home. Meryl shared her newest charity venture, and I gave the lowdown on seeing my ex. All the while, Barbara just listened patiently to it all. It was her best talent.