The thick dryness of the vapor burns my lungs, and I can feel myself struggling to catch my breath every time the slim roll of paper presses against my lips. I know I should quit, but cigarettes seem to be the only remedy to numb the emptiness. Besides, I like the way the smoke escapes my mouth. I love the way it forms microscopic clouds into the oblivion, or the way it starts out as an intense crimson flame and transforms to a charcoal haze. The way one’s soul is struck by a match and converted into a forest fire, destroying not just itself but the atmosphere surrounding it. I guess there is such a thing called playing with fire, except that we are the fire.
I stub my filter into the overflowing ashtray on the bar. The lights flicker the way they did that night. This place reeks of stale smoke. A smoldering fog wafts in the air all around me. “Joe’s Pub” glares out from the window, the blue fluorescent light of the sign tingeing everyone who enters. With every nudge of the door opening, a gust of the bitter January air leaves a chill in my bones. I grab another cigarette to unknot the burden in my chest. I look at the couple across from me at the pool table. The man with the girl, who I’m assuming is her boyfriend, has his hands cradling her hips. He whispers something into her ear and her mouth ruptures into a laugh.
A month ago, that had been us. Eliza and me, here, beginning a story we never finished.
She had sauntered up beside me and leaned over the bar, arm stretched toward Jim, the guy who worked every Wednesday night. Music swelled around us, loud and insistent. The night was one meant for celebration, after all. Another year gone, another one beginning. She plopped down in the seat adjacent to me. She didn’t say anything, just looked straight ahead at the pool table as if she were waiting for someone. I peered over at her, and when her eyes stung into mine, I quickly retreated back to the comfort of my beer bottle.
She giggled softly. “You good?” she’d asked. I’d barely been able to make out her voice over the deafening vibration of the music.
“What?” My voice must have been muffled, too.
“At pool. Are you good at pool?” she asked again, leaning in close so I could hear her. Her breath tickled my ear like the first signs of snow.
“Oh,” I said picking up my beer and taking another swig. “I don’t really play much.”
She leaned in more, her knees grazing mine, two pool sticks in her right hand acting like a balancing pole. She reached for the bottle in front of me, took a gradual sip of my beer and shoved a pool stick into my chest. She meandered back to the pool table, so swiftly, hair bouncing with every step, my beer still in her hand. She then took another swallow, as if persuading me to follow her. I began to stumble out of my bar stool, my head feeling delirious as my feet balanced on the tile.
“Game on,” I declared. She started off the game by hitting the 8-ball right through the middle. I watched as the billiards rolled across the table, each one breaking in half. One of the billiards dropped into the target.
“Your turn,” she’d quipped.
I think it might be my turn forever.
The music from the jukebox brings me back into the present. Tonight’s bartender, Dan, is in front of me now.
“Can I get you anything tonight, Justin?” he asks.
I nod my head. “I’ll just have a Coke.”
He sighs lightly and grabs a glass from under the counter. I watch as the sudsy carbonation overflows the cup. The box of cigarettes in front of me beckons, and I contemplate lighting another one.
I hold the cigarette up to my lips and suck in the venom. The windows are painted black right now, night sitting heavy against them, and I can’t see the way the wheat bends, but I remember the way her back felt against my hand as she dipped toward the pool table, cued up and ready to shoot.
“Let’s get out of here,” Eliza had said as she buttoned up her jacket. She’d laid her pool stick across the table, tired of this game, ready for the next one.
I had taken a couple sips from what was remaining of my beer, the coolness of the glass prickling against my lips.
“I don’t know, I have work tomorrow. Maybe I should be heading home. It’s getting awfully late,” I replied hesitantly. I knew I was going to have a pounding migraine in the morning from all of the alcohol I’d consumed.
“Just one more hour, please! I want to show you something,” she persisted. She clutched my hand and started dragging me closer toward the door.
“Fine,” I stated as I grabbed my flannel jacket off the coat hanger and pulled it around my shoulders. As we stepped outside, the December air was harsh against my threadbare jacket and puffs of smoke released from my mouth with every inhale I took. The city streets of Philadelphia were awake and occupied this time of year. Buildings were alive with colors of orange and yellow illuminating from every window. Music ricocheted from all corners.
“Follow me!” shouted Eliza excitedly as she grabbed onto my hand and hauled me behind her. She began quickening, her legs bared to the winter night air. Eventually, her pace began to slow as we arrived to the view of a picturesque skyline. The lights of the city felt like stars to my pupils.
“We’ve arrived at our destination!” Her words were coming in short bursts now as she tried to retain her breath. Her eyes lit up the dark night of her pupils. “This is my favorite place to go when I want to be alone. I discovered it when I was ten years old after my parents divorced. I would come here and just sit and think. I would listen to the birds sing and hear the trees susurrate to the wind, and just dance and dance and dance.” She stuck her hands out to her sides and twirled like a child mesmerized in their own imagination. Her voice was full of longing. We were silent for a few moments until her voice rose into a raspy serenade.
‘I have seen a thousand dreams
A thousand worlds, as bluebirds sing
From up in this oak tree’
There was another pause of silence between us, but a faint car horn from afar startled me out of my trance.
“Your voice is absolutely beautiful,” I whispered, my throat closing up and becoming hollow.
She stood, propping herself up with her palms. Once she got to her feet, she turned towards me and extended one of her hands out. “Take my hand,” she enticed. “I want to show you something.”
I grabbed her hand and pulled myself off the ground, her body shielding me from the cold.
“There’s supposed to be a full moon tonight. The view is breathtaking from up here,” she exclaimed as she gazed up at the inked sky. I looked over at her. The way the moon reflected against her complexion made her face glisten like diamonds. My hand gently stroked against hers and our fingers intertwined. She pivoted around and faced me until we were only inches apart, maybe even centimeters. She then took her vacanted arm and tucked it around my neck and laid her head on my shoulder as we started swaying slowly to the rustling music of the leaves.
“Sing to me,” I whispered into her ear.
Her voice turned into a melodious harmony once more. I felt her chest rise and her singing pulsated into me as goosebumps formed on the surface of my skin. We danced all night into the next year.
This year, in fact. The one I now sit in without her.
The clinking of beer mugs from the corner of the bar makes my mouth water, and I wipe a bead of sweat off of my forehead. The familiar burn of the smoke resembles the pungent alcohol that used to sting my taste buds. I remember her hair was a jumbled mass of orange ringlets.
There’s a woman sitting across from me at the bar now. She is alone. Tears are trickling down her face, and she is fiddling with the rim of her beer glass. As she wipes the moisture from her cheeks, I ponder. Maybe she’s trying to fill a void, too. Isn’t that what we are all doing here at this bar on a Thursday night? I hear the creak of the door opening and for a second, my heart leaps into my rib cage, holding on to the tiny grain of hope that it could be her. Eliza.
The entire frame is filled with Frankie, the big burly man who comes in at this time every night. I should know that. Disappointed, I look back down at the ashtray. The stub on my cigarette is getting smaller with each inhale reminding me too much of the dress she wore that night, the black ash of my cigarette butt resembling the way the her flesh looked like poetry against the dark fabric.
The music at the bar gets lower and lower by the hour until all you can hear is the sound of the bartenders cleaning the remaining mugs on the countertop. It’s almost 2 in the morning, which means they close in ten minutes. Realizing this, I shuffle out of my stool, grab my jacket, put the cardboard box in my pocket, and slam a few crinkled dollar bills on the counter.
“Keep the change,” I say to Dan, as I begin walking towards the wooden door leading out to the city.
The streets are abandoned at this hour. A thin blanket of snow covers the macadam. I make a right into an alleyway, starting the familiar path I’ve been tracing for the past month. I walk and walk until my feet lose feeling from the frost. After about a half hour I finally end up at a grassy field, the weeds frozen like icicles. I walk up the hill and gaze off into the distance. I’ve visited this meadow every day since her vanishing in hopes that one day she’ll appear. I grab my last cigarette out of the box and let the fire warm the terrible sting in my fingertips…
We had spent the whole night dancing and talking, tipsy off of the alcohol and each other. Around 4 am, the year now full of newness and opportunity, we walked back to the city as the snow pelted all around us. My left hand had connected to hers, our fingers laced like ribbon on a Christmas present. We came to a halt at the door of the bar in which we met. She faced me. I thought of kissing her in this moment, but my body never did know how to catch up with my mind.
“I had a great time with you tonight,” I said, leaning from one foot to the other. “I’d enjoy seeing you again.”
“See, it was better than going home and being alone all night, am I right?” She joked in a sing-song voice. “Besides, you’re a pretty fine dancer.”
My lips parted in two as I began to laugh. “Oh, is that so?” I ask sarcastically. “Well, I’ve got to admit, you’re a phenomenal singer.”
“I’ve always wanted to be a singer.” She gazed across the parking lot, her words puffs of smoke in the cold.
There was a pause of unspoken words between us and I looked down at my Doc Martens. “It’s getting late. I should probably start heading home,” she’d murmured. “It was nice meeting you, Justin.” She waved back at me as she began to linger off into the paradox of the night.
“Wait… Where can I see you again?” I called after her. The words flowed out of my mouth as immensely as I could manage.
She stopped in her tracks, and her eyes turned me upside down.“Look for me in the meadow,” She echoed as she turned on her heel and began wandering off into the city street. The snow blurred her figure with every stride.
It is now April 31st. It’s been exactly four months since I’ve remembered the taste of alcohol. It’s been exactly four months since I was teased with the taste of her. As the grey bubbles of smoke fill the sky above me, I look off into the distance of the meadow. The sunflowers have already started to blossom in the field for the season. With every inhale I take, I can envision Eliza twirling in the beds of the flowers. An ivory dress billowing around her thighs, her smile, contagious and ebullient. The hem of her skirt brushing against my cheekbones. I still visit these meadows everyday and sometimes, I can feel her spirit looming behind; Whether it is the scent of her mahogany perfume or the way the roots blow to the wind like compasses. I only talked to her for eight hours that harsh December night, but there was a certain fragrance in the air, the kind you’ll smell years later and that takes you back to a specific memory, like deja vu. I take yet another cigarette out of the Marlboro box I just purchased this morning, and as I watch it ignite and let the fire burn in the back of my throat, I smell the crisp air from that night, the smell of cheap beer and smoke. The same night I pledged to her I would stop drinking. I think about how she has vanished from my life, and evoke the question of if she’ll return. It is harrowing knowing Eliza could have been my soulmate- but never knowing, never feeling her fiery hair caress my lips consumes me. Her presence is somewhere far into the crevices of this earth. And that’s when I realized that people like Eliza are the cigarettes. They’re impossible to quit.
-a short story i got an honorable mention for //ak