by Emily McNally
“Hey,” he said, his eyes drifting from her face to the lit cigarette in her hand.
She ignored the cigarette for a moment, letting it dangle loosely in her hand by her side, like she could play it off as something she was holding for someone else or like it accidentally appeared in her hand through some kind of miracle nicotine deliverance system.
“Oh, my gosh, hi, how have you been?” She kept her voice bright. She took two awkward steps back towards the brick wall behind her. She hadn’t been hiding exactly. She was only a few paces off Main Street, after all. But, with fog rising in a cold twilight, she’d felt somehow encased in her lonely rebellion, invisible in a cloud of toxic smoke. Some people ate their feelings, she smoked hers. Or rather, she had. For many comforting years. This was her first cigarette in… how long? She tried to think. Then she took a deep drag and blew it out, wondering at the beauty of smoke traveling through throat to lungs, lighting up areas of her brain she hadn’t felt in years.
“Sorry about this,” She said with a shrug. Why had she apologized? He wasn’t her husband or child or mother. He wasn’t invested in her survival. Their paths sometimes crossed at school pick ups, but their kids were in different grades. She’d worked with him on the environmental committee. They’d gotten the cafeteria to stop using plastic straws and start using compostable silverware. These were the slender victories of her life lately.
“How are the girls?” His tone was neutral. Was he going to ignore the haze of cigarette smoke all around them? Her liking for him swelled. Though he’d always been likable. He was tall and barrel chested, like he’d been athletic once and the muscle structure still existed under the dad bod. His face was strong-featured and roughly handsome. Then there was his warmth and a quick humor that lit his face. Though neither were particularly present now. Instead he looked concerned, assessing.
“Good. Busy. You know.” She blew a plume of smoke into the mist rising around them. Everyone was busy. Music lessons, tutoring, soccer practice, play dates, birthday parties and clubs. The hum of activity that kept life thrumming along. She’d dedicated herself to it. She was a “homemaker,” a “stay-at-home-mom,” whatever you want to call it. The work of raising sane, kind, well-intentioned people had felt like a noble enough task for a long time. She’d shaken off so many anxieties and wonderings about who she might have been, what she may have accomplished.
It had been easy. Easyish. The occasional cold sweat panic, the odd sleepless night here and there, a restlessness on Friday evenings that rose with nightfall. But, somehow, without quite realizing how, the sometimes discontent had grown to a more regular thing. A pervasive thing. An uncontainable thing. A cresting rage sometimes took hold of her and she had to close the bathroom door with the fan on until calm returned. A wave of grief shook her while she unloaded the dishwasher or prepped supplies for dinner.
“I used to smoke.” He said. He gave her a shy smile. Then he moved his body a little more in front of hers, shielding her from the view of cars driving down Main Street. “Your reputation.” He said it simply, with a flash of the same small smile.
She almost laughed out loud. The scandal! Did you see Helen Scott smoking by the sandwich shop? What about her kids? Do you think she’s drinking too much? Maybe pills? It wasn’t a joke. In this small town at their small school, that kind of gossip could fly for months. It wasn’t a very interesting town. Or school.
“I mean, it’s not heroin.” She gave him a small shrug. “Or prostitution or drunk driving.” Or divorce. She didn’t say that out loud. She was trying at this very moment not to say it in her own head. Like the word had magical properties. Like if she said it by a brick wall (earth) with mist (air) wavering in like old ghosts and a lit cigarette (fire) in her hand, down the street from the ocean (water), perhaps she would summon the precipice she feared.
He laughed softly. “But, you know…” He let his voice just drift off while he kept his eyes on her. She knew all about petty small town gossip, but it was surprising he knew. Men were somehow exempt from the perfection stakes run by the Range Rover driving, placid faced blondes of the PTA. He gestured for the cigarette. For a moment she was confused and she imagined him snatching it and throwing it into the street. Then she realized he was requesting a drag. She handed him the cigarette and watched, fascinated, as he brought it to his mouth. A David Attenborough voice started in her head. Observe the odd and potentially deadly behavior of the adult humans. They actually take the smoke into their lungs, allowing the harmful chemicals to circulate first the cardiovascular system before targeting the brain itself. She’d almost said it out loud. She wondered if he would laugh. Her husband would laugh. Well, not about the smoking, but he would appreciate the joke, her feeble attempt at the accent.
As she watched him blow out smoke, she could almost feel inside his body. The surprise as the old, dead neural passageways relit themselves, like a highway coming to life at dusk, headlights suddenly brightening the darkened paths of asphalt, turning it’s blank black to wavering silver. And suddenly she could feel the way she could use him to blow up her life. His cold mouth opening as her lips met his. The feel of his chest through his t-shirt. His hand sliding, cold and tentative, under her sweatshirt. it would take little effort, small steps. She could feel loneliness radiating off of him, mingling with her own, tangled up with smoke and fog.
She met his eyes as he handed her back the cigarette.
“I am forgetting why I gave it up.” His expression was bereft, like he’d finally accepted god didn’t exist, or if it did, it was packed with nicotine into small pieces of paper and you had to smoke him to know him. “Shit, that all came back so easily.”
“It’s like riding a bike.” She said seriously. Then they both laughed.
` Like old muscles flexing she could feel the moment open up around them. She watched his face grow serious and still. Her heart skittered like an animal seeking shelter. But some other part of her remained cool, watching.
I am your true friend. That’s what her husband had said as she’d flown out of the house with her sweatshirt on half of her body, her purse clutched in her hand, stopping her just at the door. His face had been angry, but the words, spoken quietly, were anguished. She felt like a volcano, long dormant, with grassy meadows growing on top, a place where families could picnic. But her solid center had found heat again and the rock had turned to roiling liquid. She didn’t know how to stop it. She didn’t know how to keep her molten center from spilling out of her, destroying everything.
Street Lights flickered on like faltering torches in the fog dense street. He looked lost suddenly, hands hanging at his side, his eyes tracking her. She could have him, she realized in a flash, but she’d incinerate him and leave nothing behind but ash. She dropped her eyes from his to the sidewalk, cracked and broken under her feet. A little shock of purple wildflowers were pushing themselves up through the scarred concrete. She knelt and stubbed the cigarette out on the sidewalk.
* * *
Emily McNally has written about parenting for Red Typewriter Magazine, life on the Bay Area Coast for PUNCH (Spirit of the Peninsula), and had creative non-fiction or personal essays published in Herstry Blog, Sunlight Press and Salon. Her middle grade novel, The Rabbits of Tumbledown Field, is currently out for consideration. She lives in Half Moon Bay, CA with her husband and two daughters.