Fireworks Over Boston Common

essay

My sister and her boyfriend visited me over New Year’s. On the day of the eve, after having our fill of window shopping at Newbury Street, we decided on a whim to go see a movie. In the darkness of the theater, we whiled away the afternoon alongside similarly bored Bostonians, and by the time we left the theater at seven, the sky too had darkened to an inky black.

“Do you want to go see the fireworks in the park?” she asked me, proposing yet another unplanned activity. I hadn’t even known that such festivities were taking place, much less at this early hour. I suppose it takes someone from out of town to recognize all the things that occur in your own city. (It’s strange how I feel that it’s my city, though I’ve lived here for less than a year. I attribute it to experiencing the city on foot, feeling each crack in the pavement rather than gliding high over the roads in a car.)

The website listed the event location cryptically only as “The Ballpark”. I vaguely recalled having wandered past a baseball field in a post- all-you-can-eat-sushi delirium, but had no idea how I would make my way back to it. We decided that the best course of action was to follow the largest crowd of people, trusting that they would take us eventually to the right place.

Our faith was misguided though, as the crowd took us instead to the Frog Pond, which in winter is repurposed into a skating rink (I do wonder what becomes of the frogs. Are they transported to a warm and safe place, perhaps close to where the ducks of Central Park are kept? Or do they stare up with crystalline eyes at the blades that pass over their faces?). I had suggested that we go skating earlier in the day, but passing by we saw that the rink was packed, children and adults alike skating round and round counterclockwise, uptempo pop music blaring out from elevated speakers. Watching their fishlike schooling, we lost our appetite for winter sports.

“Kevin’s a terrible skater anyways,” my sister told me, “We went once last year and he spent most of the time on his ass. Then someone fell in the rink and dislocated his shoulder, and he almost puked right there on the ice.”

She further described the twisted limb with a clinician’s fascinated glee. His face paled at the traumatic memory.

But now the rink had been cleared out for some sort of skating show. Instead of summery pop, the speakers were playing a crackly rendition of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. We tried to shoulder our way through the crowd to get a look, but they had planned in advance and were dug in too deeply to move. (Plus, it’s bad form to shove children who barely come up to your elbow.)

“Look,” said my sister, who had walked out in front of us, “We can get a pretty good view from up here.”

She was on top of a slight incline that let us peek over the tops of rule-abiding heads and into a corner of the rink. Occasionally, a sequined arm would flash into view, or the shadow of a ponytail would splash across the floodlights when the figure skater leapt into the air. The crowd was strangely quiet, enraptured by the lone woman who traced erratic loops across the ice, like a single flake of snow twirling through frigid air.

Joining another stream of people, we found ourselves swept to the base of the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. In the darkness, its skyward column seemed sinister, the bronze faces on its side cold and inscrutable. As if in rebellion, teenagers had clambered atop the marble, laughing to each other and sipping from opaque bottles. For a second I felt the urge to join them, to take the sacred stone as my own; after all, it was to be a new decade in a few hours, and in that moment all altars to the past seemed foolish.

Instead I joined my sister and Kevin on the grassy hillside. She had located the Ballpark, whose usual fluorescence had been extinguished for the coming show. Couples spread picnic baskets on the frozen ground, not bothering to disguise their bottles of champagne. Strollers were parked sideways as to not plummet down the incline towards the incoming decade.

When the fireworks began I was startled by our proximity. We were close enough to hear the muted thumps as each rocket launched out of its tube, whistling unseen through the dark before it cracked into dazzling bloom.

I had never been so close to fireworks before. Each explosion reverberated deep within my chest, the shockwave travelling up my ribs to rattle my teeth. It occured to me as they sailed overhead, that if one were to misfire — reach its apex and fall without bursting — it would land right on my head, incorporating my unfortunate brains into its display of light.

This closeness to death felt fitting for the new decade. With each passing day, I collect from the airwaves more evidence of our approaching doom. It creeps closer with every missive about the warming earth, the reckless politicians on the brink of world war, the specter of a devastating worldwide epidemic. It moves with determination as immense as a melting glacier, and despite our protestations, we seem as powerless to stop its slide into the dark ocean waters. And even if the eschaton of our world is far in the future, my personal midnight still slithers nearer with every chorus of Auld Lang Syne.

But no wayward rocket found its way into my lap. Instead, for a brief moment, there was nothing in the world that mattered except the circles of fire that painted the sky. As the trails spread out from each concussion, I felt as if I was being pulled upwards toward them, so that I too was far above the city, among all that darkness and all those spirals of light.

As we made our way back to the edge of the park, I marvelled at how these thousands glided past one another with no friction. There were no traffic lights, no cops, no signs to direct the people. But still, we flowed past each other, taking paths as suggestions, erratically but surely surging towards the exits. I entered into the lives of strangers and left them the next instant. A kid had broken his toy flashlight. A couple argued about which rideshare service to take. A man shoved by, talking intently into his phone. How did we appear to them, our little trio of foreigners?

Then we were out of the milling crowd and onto Beacon Hill, and suddenly it was empty and quiet.