I don’t recall rain, which seems strange for December 31st in downtown Seattle.
We had only a few hours to go until we said goodbye to a dreadful year. A year in which the dot-com crash wreaked havoc in the Seattle economy and evening news reports described businesses dumping their no-longer-needed office furniture in desolate parking lots. A year when time stood still as I watched slack-jawed at footage of planes crashing into the Twin Towers from the doorway to the common room of an inpatient unit at the University of Washington Medical Center.
The economic and emotional tailspin intensified in the months after 9/11. Seattle was wildly expensive, especially on the $8.65/hour I was making as a psychology intern in my final year of training to become a clinical psychologist. My partner — Susan — and I had transplanted from Oregon for the year to a 800-foot rental we couldn’t afford on the north edge of the city with our three large dogs and one angry cat. We were away from friends and loved ones, alone and stressed. Each day brought a certain sort of tired ache, exacerbated by the dark and rainy Seattle winter.
Which brings me back to how surprised I am that I don’t remember rain that night.
A few days earlier, a friend came up from California. Together, we had planned a festive night out on the town for New Year’s Eve. An act of defiance to show 2001, with all its communal and individual trials and stresses, that it had not won.
The first of three bars we planned to check out was uneventful. The second was a one-room restaurant with a wall-length mirror that showed off the bar at one end. The smell of fish and booze and hope for a new year hung in the air. The room was bright, almost too bright, as if the lights were eager to reject the December darkness. We never made it to the third bar.
Around 10:30 or so, I got up to use the bathroom before we were to head to the final bar where we planned to ring in the new year. As I rounded the corner down a dark hall following signs for the restrooms, I heard an agitated man’s voice from the women’s bathroom. A stall slammed and something shattered. His steps approached the door and I ducked behind a pay phone out of his line of sight as he plowed angrily down the hall.
I tentatively opened the bathroom door and found a woman crying as she tried to gather shards of cell phone. Let me help, I said as we crawled around together, picking pieces of plastic and metal off the white tile floor. She was afraid and shaken, but assured me she wasn’t physically injured. She just wanted to get home, but lived pretty far outside the city and wasn’t sure how she could get there. Maybe she could call her sister, but what if he came back, she wondered aloud to me and to no one.
I have no idea how long we were in the bathroom, but together we made a plan to get to the table, where we’d have safety in numbers with Susan and my friend. She could use Susan’s cell phone (it was 2001…and we only had one cell phone in our family) to call her sister. We won’t leave you alone, I promised. But what if my sister can’t get here for a long time with traffic and all? We won’t leave you alone, I repeated.
We made our way out to the table where there were now three women sitting together – Susan, my friend, and someone I’d never seen before.
I smiled cheerily and said, Hey everyone, this is So-And-So, my new friend. She’s going to hang out with us until her sister gets here to pick her up.
To which Susan responded, just as cheerily, Oh, Anne, you remember Mary, right? Well there she was over there at the bar so I insisted she come hang out with us until her boyfriend gets off work and meets her here.
Mary, so great to see you … again, I exclaimed a little too loudly and a little to insistently. Acting was never my thing.
My new friend from the bathroom called her sister, who could be there in a few hours. In the meantime, Susan explained, in hushed whispers, about the scene that had unfolded at the bar while I was in the bathroom. A man (who I am sure is the Green River Killer and I am not kidding, she emphasized) was harassing the woman who we were now calling Mary. The would-be Mary had looked increasingly distressed at the bar, so Susan went over to her and made a show of saying, Mary! It’s been so long. I can’t believe I ran into you here. Come catch up with me at my table.
Turns out that Mary was just trying to safely pass the time until her boyfriend’s shift ended when the man started bothering her. She was afraid to leave the restaurant, lest the man follow her, and because this was where she was supposed to meet her boyfriend. Just before midnight, her boyfriend got off work and arrived. They left to ring in the new year together, away from the Green River Killer.
Midnight came and went along with last call, and still no sign of my new friend’s sister as the bar closed for the night. The four of us ended up out on the street among throngs of people leaving bars and seeking out cabs or sisters to pick them up.
Somewhere along the way, Susan had acquired a purple balloon on a string, which blew limply at her side in the light wind of the wee morning hours.
As we stood vigil waiting for the sister, crowds and traffic thinned, and the boyfriend reemerged. He was a short guy with a big attitude, almost a stereotype of someone who would smash a cell phone in a women’s bathroom to scare his girlfriend on New Year’s Eve. He had clearly been lurking outside waiting for her to be alone on the street. But she wasn’t alone, so I guess he waited until he thought she was alone enough.
He pushed his way into our space, literally a balloon width away from us as Susan pulled the purple-wrapped pocket of air up in front of herself automatically, defensively. Together, the three of us stood between him and my new friend. He craned his neck around us to try to cajole her into going with him. Then he tried to get us to leave. He called us names. He carried on. And we stood firm, with a promise not to leave her alone and one purple balloon on a string.
For what seemed like forever, he pranced about, chest puffed out, darting in and out of our physical space, jacked up on some cocktail of toxic masculinity. Until Susan bonked him with her purple balloon. She wielded that balloon like one of those old fashioned toys with a paddle, a string, and a rubber ball. Direct hit, straight to the chest with a balloon-sounding, latex bop. He was dumbstruck. We all were. Time stopped as we all looked at her, the balloon, him, and back again several times over. Then she did it again. Another bop.
Stunned at first, he regrouped quickly and began to rail with accusations that she’d assaulted him. He had stumbled onto a new plan, which was to threaten to call the police and report her for assault if we didn’t leave. Susan laughed and said go ahead: She would be delighted to hear him make a report about being struck in the chest by a purple balloon on a string.
Eventually, he got frustrated enough that he left, with more name-calling and carrying on. And finally, my new friend’s sister pulled up in a dark colored car. We all hugged goodbye under a rainless sky.
Twenty years later, this New Year’s Eve marks the end of another very long year. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that this memory keeps popping in my head. Of course, Susan and I have told this story dozens and dozens of times over the decades. The story often comes out as one about girl power and sisterhood in the gendered world women have to navigate. And it is.
But this year, it feels like it’s also a story about connection and kindness and reimagining community. Susan and I didn’t have much in the way of community that year in one sense — we didn’t have our crew of friends nearby or neighbors we knew. Yet we found community when we saw our fates tangled up with a couple of women in a bar. We got to be part of one another’s stories for a night.
Seeing our connection to strangers, and making community out of moments rather than in-groups and out-groups seems more important than ever this New Year’s. After all, we’re facing yet more uncertainty as we barrel into 2022 with crises all around us. Those crises, whether seeds of gender-based violence in a bar or climate change and wildfires up the road, show that our fates are tangled up together.
I’m pretty sure the only way through these crises is to see ourselves as part of each other’s stories and write a better ending together.
Update: Interested in more about fates tangled up together? Check out Every 90 Seconds, available from Oxford University Press and: