The Soon and Ending Nights
by Joseph Waugh
I have this theory that smoking has the ability to bind people. Particles of nicotine get sucked through your lungs and into your blood stream, grafting the experiences of the night to your brain, even if you’re drunk.
I’ve met a girl at a house party. I’ve asked her on a date.
I’ve taken a break from the inside shrieks and full drunken screams to join the cigarette smokers out in the streets. There are groups standing around and I don’t seem to fit into any of them. I notice her alone as well. She is sitting on the curb and she has her phone in her hand. By herself. Another temporary outcast of the social smoker’s circles.
I sit next to her and light my second-to-last cigarette with a golden Zippo that I’ve bought for occasions like this. It has always served to start conversations that I would never count on myself to start without its help. She notices the click it makes as it opens and the undeniable flash from its fake gold surface.
She has long blonde hair. A black dress that fits to her curves. She has a pierced lip, a small silver bead. She has managed to fold her legs in such a way as to hide just how little of the dress covers her thighs. She has deep blue eyes. Deep not in color but in distance. I hold the still-lit lighter out for her and she’s just quick enough to pull a cigarette from her pack and catch the flame before I flick it shut again.
The pack she’s brought out is strange. Not red or white like Marlboros or Lucky Strikes. It doesn’t look like Camels. It also smells distinct. Something like vanilla. Cinnamon or caramel. Like cigar tobacco, but wrapped in cigarette paper and not tobacco leaf. It’s hard to tell but it smells good and somehow adds to her character.
I ask her what she’s smoking. Cohiba, she says. A cigar brand. She shows me the pack and I smell it. It smells different from what I’ve described. There’s a difference between the burned smell and the dry smell. Burned, it smells almost fruity, but this might be the way that the smoke mixes with her perfume. She smiles at me. She says she needs to tell me a story.
Her father used to smoke cigarettes. She could smell it from the comfort of her bed. Not the smoke particularly, but the smell, something warm wafting beneath the cracks of her bedroom door.
She would rouse her sister and they would gather together at the window sill, press their noses against the frosted glass, and watch him out there, sitting on the back porch of their Boston home in a low-slung yard chair with frayed seat webbing. Reading the morning paper and watching the gathering of the morning snow on the back steps. She tells me how underdressed he would be for the weather. Freezing cold in only his bathrobe, but barely shivering. Adding smoke from his cigarette to the clouds made by his breath.
I ask her what her story has to do with her smoking. She says that she feels the need to rationalize her addiction for me. That there needs to be a story behind a girl who’s smoking. Somehow the cigarette affectation doesn’t make a woman beautiful like it makes a man handsome. And so I ask her what her reason is, and it is, at least to me, the best reason I have ever heard.
She thinks that people take smoking cigarettes trivially. People take their pack out when they feel something. If they are bored or tired or frustrated or sad or upset or angry or lonely or aroused or pensive or relaxed or studious or friendly or afraid. She says that she smokes cigarettes for a different reason. She says that she smokes cigarettes because her father smoked cigarettes. But, rather than it being a father-daughter bonding routine as I suggest, it is because her father is dead.
I sit quietly. What am I supposed to say? We’ve just met and she’s already telling me this? She asks me if I want to know how her father died. I’m not sure that I want to get this involved this quickly. Still I don’t respond.
She says that when she smokes she can see him there. A man in a bathrobe, sipping a cappuccino-filled styrofoam cup on the back porch. And if she smokes long enough, sometimes he turns with a grin, and she has to duck out of sight, giggling with her sister, not wanting to be seen.
I can’t look away from her. Neither past her down the street nor in front of her at the glowing end of the cigarette that burns at her lips. All I can do is try to make myself listen to her words instead of her eyes. Because she’s right, isn’t she? Her story makes her smoking something beautiful. And she’s found a way, as I sometimes think I can on nights such as this, to isolate the moments that are most important to her. As if to bring them back through time, on a bridge of aroma and curls of white smoke.
I’ve asked her on a proper date. She says I’ll have to try harder than that. Answer pending.
* * *
I’ve met a boy. He’s asked me on a date.
We met at a party. Well... Outside of one. Party socializing seems to get excessive at times for me. There are the socialites at a party who can keep up their appearance without going slack. They can travel from friend group to friend group being themselves for the whole night. But me, I can only seem to keep it up for a half hour before I need a break. Before I need to step outside to be alone. To be someone else.
It was when I was taking one of these breaks, sitting on a curb out in the street. He comes up, sits down next to me with all the confidence in the world, and lights a cigarette with a gold lighter. It’s the kind of confidence usually put on by the dickheads who try to hit on you and, as it’s my “Being-By-Myself-Time,” I ignore him.
But soon a golden flame is being held out in front of my face and behind it a pair of possibly even brighter silver eyes. He’s resting his chin on his knee, his face half hidden, and he’s peering at me over his bicep while the rest of his arm stretches the lighter out toward my face. It’s hard to tell which spot I’m supposed to be focusing on and which is brighter, the flame or the eyes.
I decide it would be rude to let the flame go out or be extinguished by a burst of wind so I manage to get a cigarette out my pack before it flicks closed. We introduce ourselves. He asks me about my choice of cigarette. A typical boy would try the standard chat-ups. Tell me about himself or ask me what it is I’m studying.
My choice of cigarettes isn’t exactly a topic of conversation that I enjoy getting into with strangers but he seems interested for whatever reason and, since this is the “Not-Partygoing-Temporary-Selfseeking” me that he’s talking to, I decide to tell him.
After I tell him I watch his eyes for a sign of what he must think of me, but the brightness gives nothing away. He looks down the street toward the city lights that sit beyond and I notice for the first time that he is smoking a cigarette with a word written on it.
All cigarettes have words written on them: American Spirit, Pall Mall, written on the base or the filter. But this word is written in magic marker, lengthwise down the shaft, in an unneat hand. The word is a name. “Sarah.” And as I watch the coal crawl its way toward the filter, it begins to eat up the H and turn the paper to ashy black.
It’s my turn to ask, and when I do, he smiles at me. Oh you know. Just an ex, he says. I ask him if all his exes get smoked away when he’s done with them, and he says they all do. But he tells me they all get a cigarette in the first place. They all get a chance.
He tells me about some cigarettes that he carried around for years before he had to smoke them. If you’re smoking this one now does that mean it’s recent? Not recent so much as “just time” he explains. “I only smoke them when I really know that it’s over. It serves to provide a little bit of closure.”
The coal burns the rest of the S. He flicks the cigarette into the street and we watch it firework across the asphalt. I ask him what he thinks it means that he smoked his ex while talking to another girl.
He says that it doesn’t mean anything. It just shows that he’s single and would the girl he’s talking to like to meet for coffee when they are both sober and can have an intelligent conversation. I ask him if he’s so drunk, should he be making promises he won’t remember?
He says, here’s what I’ll do. He takes me by the hand and writes with a pen, his number on my palm. Then he writes “Emma” on a cigarette and sticks it right side up, back into the pack. He tells me, some people you meet are hard to forget. He helps me to my feet, kisses me on the cheek, and as he walks off down the road, I catch myself staring at the number written on my hand.
Headed back to the party, I find myself wishing the cigarette that sits in a boy’s pocket as he walks down the road will be the one that he will never smoke. And I find myself hoping that I will be lucky enough to spend my life wondering which is brighter, his flame or his eyes.
Copyright © 2017 by Joseph Waugh