She sits quietly on the steps, enjoying the final drag of her cigarette. Despite the burnt taste from smoking it right to the filter she closes her eyes, savoring the last puff. Lungs protest from the strain and she lets the smoke slither lazily from between her slightly parted lips. Eyes sting and the scent is sharp, nothing worse than her own secondhand smoke, abrasive in quality.
She butts the burnt tobacco on the porch, a dusty ring blackened from the reminiscence of past smokes. Ashes left to await the next rainfall when they will be cleansed into the gutter. The spot will blacken again. She throws the dead smoke haphazardly onto the sidewalk. Then lingers on the step.
He pulled the last drag of his cigarette as I sat beside him on the step leading to the back yard. Our knees slightly touched as I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, his features half lit by the kitchen lights. He flicked his cigarette into the brush with a simple flick of the wrist as he turned towards me with the slightest crooked smile. A smile almost invisible to the naked eye. A smile that could easily ruin me, I thought.
But it was the way he flicked in such a light manner that made my breath catch in my throat. I knew I had never met a man like him. He was well traveled and had a collection of vinyl stacked in the corners of his studio apartment. Everything about him hung heavy with experience, his mind a thick library of music I’d never heard and opinions on things I didn’t know mattered. He had a tall and angular body that loomed above me, relaxed and languid. This man of the world held in place only by the small doorway we shared. Easily impressed and new to Toronto I watched as he lit another cigarette and placed a hand on my knee. His thumb stroked along the grooves of my skin. I stared at that hand and waited with baited breath while feeling him momentarily with me. He pulled another drag. Time slipped with each drag.
She was still on the step, sitting perched and examining the street. She shook another cigarette out of her depleting pack, Belmont’s even though her parents smoked Player’s. Holding the stick delicately in her mouth she strikes a match, shielding the soft flame from the breeze. The woman pauses, watching the tip glow hot red, vapors entering her mouth. She shakes the match with a quick flick of the wrist, eliminating the flame.
Using matches always seemed better to her. Being able to enjoy the sharp sulfuric scent and the quick official sound as it tears across the phosphorous strip. The warm sense of accomplishment when she lights it on the first go. And matches just seem sexy to her.
The woman sitting precariously on the step, enjoying the momentary quiet of the evening, always brushes her teeth after two smokes.
The first cigarette I ever had was while living in Italy. I don’t see how anyone could move there and not pick up the habit. The only way to truly appreciate the view atop Janiculum hill was with a three Euro bottle of red wine veiled in cigarette mist.
Cigarettes followed me and my friends everywhere we went in Rome. We’d sit perched on the highest steps of the fountains, letting people introduce themselves to us in-between drags. Or I’d see an attractive man and ask, abashedly, if I could bum a smoke, knowing that at least a cigarette’s worth of conversation would follow. That was all the time I needed to decide if I wanted to sleep with them or not.
People cycled through these nights, pleasant encounters ending in the promise of seeing each other before I left. Promises usually never kept. On the odd occasion I would see them again it never felt quite the same as before. The initial spark already dissipated, no longer would I feel the same tingling excitement of having been in the right place at the right time to have met them, finding enjoyment in the grand coincidences that the twisting streets of Rome offered. And the sex would feel old, the bodies too familiar under my exploring fingertips. The heat left where we had initially lighted our cigarettes and said hello. I’d lie in bed as they snored and flick through possible quiet escapes routes, fearing what I may be missing outside of those beds as Rome breathed with life around me.
Her tongue brushes over her teeth. They feel fuzzy and there is a stale taste in her mouth. Or maybe not a taste, but a quality. She hasn’t left her stoop. She waits a while longer, savoring the quiet moment. The cigarettes always remind her of the translucent quality of time. Always passing and never pausing, concrete moments slipping through her parted fingertips. Her life is a series of disjointed images of people she has met and places she’s been. It feels as though her own life is a piece of fiction because the past always has a quality of falseness as she tries to recall the fading memories. As though they didn’t happen to her at all, but to a character made up in her own image. In the end she is always alone on her front step in Toronto, smoking cigarettes and trying to feel complete in the moment. She is tired of travelling, but lonely at home. She cannot escape her own company as people constantly fall in and out of her life. She is the only constant thing. People move on as her cigarettes continue to burn out. But there is always another adventure looming in the distance as she can never stay in one spot for too long. It was this place she did not like. The place in-between moments. Every time she comes home she stays as long as she can, but each time her stay grows shorter. When she pictures places she doesn’t see landscapes and monuments. She sees all of the people she will meet and enjoy brief intimate moments with. Moments that will end and give birth to more moments. She does not know if she will ever be content.
I noticed him because he was rolling a cigarette at the bar. I stared, watching as his fingers pinch the edges and fold in the finely cut tobacco. I had only seen people do that in Europe. It reminded me of a night I spent in Barcelona, sitting in my hostel with a guy as he taught me how to roll.
First he rolled his own, talking through the steps as he provided little tips of technique. However, the first attempt at rolling my own I ripped the paper. He gave me a new one to try again. I replaced the make shift filter, a rolled up piece of bus ticket, and sprinkled in the dry tobacco. He watched bemused as my clumsy fingers attempted to seal in the plant substance. I was the pinnacle of focus, but the end result was a very loosely packed smoke. He laughed as he rolled me a new one.
Sitting in the bar and watching this man roll a cigarette piqued my curiosity. After he got up and went to the patio I counted to ten, hesitated, counted five more, then went outside as well.
I needed a reason to talk to him. Pulling out a cigarette I patted my pockets, feigning distress. Feeling the slim matchbox in my back pocket I asked, careful to sound embarrassed, for a light. He smiled as he leaned close with a match while saying, “Sure.” His accent turned out to be Australian. I enjoyed the small inward celebration that my instinct had been right. Not from this neck of the woods at all.
We chatted in between drags, the smoke becoming apart of the conversation. Each toke providing punctuations to a phrase. I carefully looked out at the street while feeling his eyes gaze all over me.
Our cigarettes finished abruptly, but we tried to pretend we had reason to stay outside. As we crushed our smokes into the ashtray it seemed as though our bodies were being drawn inside, and we were even able to fight it for a moment. But then my friends were leaving and I had to go. He knew the afterhours club we were going to. Said he’d probably see me there later. I even think he meant it.
But the moment was over, not to be resurrected and I did not see him later. Which was fine. I met a Spanish guy that night on the patio, he made do for the night.
Her mind drifts easily. She considers the chill, decides she doesn’t mind it.
She pulls out another cigarette. Stay out for another smoke? Go in and brush her teeth? Something has to happen, some sort of action needs to occur, something to pull her into the next chapter of her night and whatever it holds. She puts the cigarette back in the pack and stands up, knees popping as her back sharply protests. It had been too cold to stay in that spot, she just hadn’t wanted to admit it.
*Originally Published in Pictures & Portraits