by JOSIANE CURTIS
He smokes three cigarettes in the time it takes me to drink two beers.
Our first trip to the patio, I sit on a bench to his right. He notices the smoke drifting my direction before I do and moves to my other side, this time settling his body a little closer, but holding the cigarette as far away as possible.
He hasn’t changed. On the contrary, the time apart seems to have exacerbated the behavior that drove me away. He’s sunken deeper into the places I wasn’t willing to go, places I tried to, but couldn’t bring him back from; the damp, dark basements of his life. “I haven’t been great,” he says with sunken, sleepy-sad eyes, and I picture high-angle snapshots of his body in bed, a montage of horizontal positions in messy sheets while the sun comes up and goes down outside, over and over in a time-lapse video of the past three months. Up, around, down. He looks like he’s been hibernating in that cement cave. I picture him groaning and pulling a pillow over his head as the spring rains start flooding the floors around him. I picture mold growing on the walls.
Despite making the conscious decision to sit on his left when we go back out for his second cigarette, the smoke comes straight for me. He realizes and jumps to standing when I exhale heavily, blowing it away from my face.
He wants me to know that he’s been miserable. He shakes his head, says “I’m the same asshole I was,” and “I’ve really been feeling like shit about X,” and “I didn’t—I don’t deserve you.”
All night I just nod. With my left index finger and thumb, I twist the wedding band on my right ring finger, my grandfather’s, feeling for the seam with my fingertip to let me know it’s made a full rotation. Up, around, down, up, around, down. When we were together, I would have disagreed with him. Comforted him. Motivated him. You are not worthless. You are not an asshole. You’re honest, and kind, and creative. You’re finding direction. I was consistently his source of comfort, even when he was seeking comfort for things he’d done that had hurt me directly. Now, I just nod. Up, around, down. I hate seeing him hurt, still, forever, but I cannot justify anymore trying to make him feel better about making me feel bad.
After paying for our drinks, we lean up against the outer windowsill in front of the bar while he lights his third cigarette. By now he’s become oblivious to the smoke, and it billows into halos around our heads.
“It really is so good to see you. I just want to keep you….”
I know that he starts the sentence intending for it to go somewhere. I want to keep you as a friend, I want to keep you as a part of my life. But he trails off, leaving me with the ellipsis.
“You don’t get to keep me,” I say, maybe too soon, maybe before he really has a chance to finish the sentence he intended. In front of us, a homeless man pulls the lid off a trash can, looking for used butts.
“Here ya go, man,” he says, lifting his arm from around my shoulder to offer the remaining quarter of his cigarette.
Just before the time change, we woke up one morning in the throes, the way we started so many days together, not knowing who initiated, not being able to pinpoint the moment we went from dreaming to not. It was one of the first mornings of the year that dawn was breaking as we awoke, and I remember the silver light from the room’s one ground-level window outlining his body, how he appeared to glow. He hovered above me, illuminated from behind, and I laughed out loud because he looked like an angel. I was happy. We were.
He walks me to my car on a dark sidestreet, and I must have switched off the cabin light at some point, so even with the door open, the only light comes from a half-empty moon half-cloaked in clouds. His body is a shadow in front of me. I place a hand on his stomach, and he leans in to kiss me, maybe out of habit, but my hand, instead of sliding around his back to pull him closer, as habit would have it, stays planted just under his ribcage. My bicep flexes gently with resistance. When he realizes, when the hug becomes just a hug goodbye, his shoulders seem to crumble around mine.
He is already gone when I turn on the headlights.
Home, as I pull my shirt over my head, I’m overwhelmed, almost nauseous, with a blanket of smell, not just of cigarette smoke, but specifically of Marlboro-cigarette-smoke-in-hair. The scent of hair holding onto cigarette smoke is different than that of smoke itself. Like everything else tonight, it is somehow damp. Ash and mildew.
The smell reminds me of being 18 in Australia, waking up hungover with friends from high school after spending the night dancing, sweat-drenched in smoke-filled bars. Strangely enough, it doesn’t remind me of him at all. In the year that we were together, I never once noticed my hair smelling like cigarettes. Maybe we started so hot and fast that I got used to the smell before I could notice it. Maybe I unconsciously chose to ignore it. Part of me wants to believe that’s all love is: ignoring the things about a person that you wouldn’t be able to stand, if you let yourself see them. If I can reduce love to this, it would imply that, tonight, pacing topless around my apartment, contemplating a 10 p.m. shower to keep this moldy-cigarette smell out of my sheets, I am no longer in love with him.
I don’t shower. And while I hate that he managed to find a way into my bed, I also know that he is descending those dark stairs tonight, alone as he has ever been. I left him without a scent, a strand of hair, without a scrap of the person I grew into after him. It took me three months to get back what I gave, to redirect that comfort and motivation toward myself, to make myself whole.
And only I get to keep me.
Josiane Curtis is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Portland. You can find her twitter here. You can find her website here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about tiny things. Her work recently appeared on The Rumpus here.
"Love Beside Me" - Sarah McLachlan (mp3)
"Surrender and Certainty" - Sarah McLachlan (mp3)