[Five] Smoke

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Six months ago

You whispered through tears, “I love you.”

One month ago

I stood next to my car with you, experiencing the dawning realisation that this was going nowhere. I leaned on the door and shuffled my feet as you said you couldn’t have made it this far without me, but it was too painful to be with me now. I pulled you back to when life was bad and you needed too much. A cut-throat reminder that I was enough for only some things.

Well, I hope you enjoyed that little moment, that you took it home and wrapped yourself in it, feeling a swell of pride for having broken the unbreakable.

Twenty-nine days ago

I found your cigarettes in the bottom of my bag. The pack was crushed. I smoked them, one by one, all afternoon until I could breathe again, the skylight open above my head. I quit smoking a year ago, but that pack, that day, was not failure or relapse. It was catharsis. I was disgusted, as much by how I still wanted you to want me as by the now unacquired taste of burning tobacco.

Lying on my bed in a haze of smoke, I remembered your smile, your eyes, all those clichés. How amazing for someone who forgets most faces in an instant. But there I was, my own eyes red-rimmed and dark-circled, skin pale, hair wild and lips bitten, picturing your particular arrangement of features with painful accuracy. I pulled my sleeves down over shaking hands with chewed fingernails and tried to hate you.

One year and two months ago

The day we met. At work. I overheard you explode into a rant about how films and TV shows now were nothing more than remakes, reboots, reimaginings, sequels and prequels, how the whole entertainment industry had given up trying to climb out of its conceptual rut.

I knew right then that we had to be friends, so I spun around in my chair, uncharacteristically interrupting your conversation with a bewildered colleague, and said, “No-one’s brave enough to do anything that hasn’t already been mass-approved a thousand times over. Nothing’s new anymore and I hate it.”

You raised your hands in a gesture of praise and appreciation, then pointed at me and said, “See? You get it.”

One year and one month ago

You stopped at my desk, handed me a cup of coffee, and said, “I’m going shopping at lunchtime. You should come with me.” It wasn’t an invitation as much as a statement of fact. So I went. Because of course I did.

I wriggled into a dress I never would have chosen for myself, but that you decided would look amazing on me, and while I scrutinised my appearance in one of ten available mirrors, you looked me up and down and said, “You look stunning. Seriously. Stunning. You should wear things like that all the time. You should definitely buy it.” So I did.

You pulled off the sweater you’d been trying on and I saw the scars. I never asked. You never told me.

Nine months ago

We went out to a club, and I wore the dress. Maybe it did look stunning like you said, but everyone was staring at you. Everyone was always staring at you. We shared a taxi home and arrived at your house first. You kissed me on your way out of the car and walked away without even so much as a glance over your shoulder, leaving me in shock with your lipstick smudged on my mouth.

Eight months ago

You quit your job. You showed up at my door at one o’clock in the morning and said in a rare expression of vulnerability, “I’m scared you’ll forget me if you don’t see me every day. I don’t want you to forget me.”

I invited you in and made tea and toast while you curled up on the couch and told me about a recurring nightmare where a strong wind blew down the trees in your front garden and the roots tore the house apart as they ripped through the ground. You said you thought it might have had something to do with feeling like the house shouldn’t be yours, that you only got it in the divorce because your ex-husband had enough money not to care and just wanted it all to be over so he could get away from you.

You spoke of a gnawing sense of nostalgia for a time and a place that you were scared you would never experience, and how you were sure there was a word for that, but you couldn’t remember what it was.

You told me about your ex-husband and your father and how history always repeats itself and people always let it because they don’t know how not to. Then you told me how much you admired my strength and wished you could be like me instead of living in a perpetual state of emergency. You turned your face away from mine when you said, “I can’t look in the mirror anymore.”

I didn’t know what to say because I might have been steady ground, but you were an earthquake and I was quickly becoming addicted to the sensation of breaking glass and cracking walls.

You lit a cigarette and asked if you could stay. I said yes. Because how could I not? And how could I not want you to?

That was the true beginning of the tempest, the vortex, turbulent and wild. Ships shattering, thrown against rocks in the darkness of a storm and lifeboats swallowed whole. A collapsing tower, a wheel with spokes on fire, a red sky at night. A warning. A warning I completely ignored. I closed my eyes and let go. I let myself fall.

This morning

I got a voicemail from you. It said simply, “I gave up smoking. I thought you should know.” I deleted it. I hope you can finally breathe.