I am walking in the city when I see him. Sixteen, with a cigarette in mouth. Wearing a white shirt with stains in the underarms. Knock-off Wayfarers tucked into the collar. Hair slicked back. He is pulling a comb from his pocket and out comes a lighter too. He smirks, flips his comb open, lights his cigarette and then, while looking off into the distance, finally answers my question. “Yes,” he says, “I’ve got a lighter.”
Two years later, I skip gym class and find a boy sitting on a snowy tree stump just past the school gate. He is 18, with a large wool peacoat thrown over his lean body. A bit of pudge sticks out from under his wrinkled white dress shirt. I see him drinking beer after beer, and smiling larger with each one. I shiver and walk past him, until he calls out, “Hey, you got somewhere to be?” I turn around. “Not really, no.” He scoots over, making room for me on the stump. “Want to take a seat?” I sit down slowly and offer him a slight smile. He takes a sip of his beer-cheap stuff, likely stolen-turns away from me to burp and then excuses himself, and then says, “Cigarette?”
At the end of the school year, I see my boyfriend lighting a cigarette in his car after an exam. “You smoke now?” I ask. I am so annoyed with him. He tries so hard to be something that should take no effort at all. I have to look out the window to keep from cringing at his deliberately untucked shirt, artfully messy hair, and now the cigarette posed perfectly between his “just chapped enough” lips. “I’m stressed,” he spits back at me. I study the snow and roll my eyes. When he’s finished, he starts the car and puts on a smooth jazz station, tapping his fingers on the steering wheel to the song. Three months earlier, I tried to take him to a jazz bar and he told me everything I liked was “old-ladyish and weird.” When we reach his house, I get out after him and then steal his pack. Later that night, he heads to his car to “think” and then comes back a few minutes later with his hands shoved deep inside his pockets. “That was fast,” I say. “Yeah, I just had to get some fresh air,” he says, while slipping into bed, smelling of nothing but pine. He is snoring in two seconds, so happy to be relieved of his smoking habit that he’s fallen asleep half-smiling. I look at him for a few seconds, then slip out of the covers, grab his pack from my jacket pocket, and go outside. I return smelling of tobacco and pine.
A few years later, I take myself out to a bar and see a man putting his cigarette into his mouth, flicking his lighter, and smiling at me as he inhales. A cloud of smoke is blown into my face as he asks me my name. I give him a fake one. I don’t feel too much like myself anyway-eighteen, and standing on a street congested with bars and traffic at two a.m. We go into the upper level of the closest bar and inside, he buys me “whatever’s on the tap” with the change in his pocket. “Honey,” he says. “Honey, what are you doing in a place like this?” He is combing his hair as he says this, and I am suspicious that he is only looking into my eyes in hopes of seeing his reflection. I laugh in response. To this, he declares, “I need a smoke break.” He opens his pack, puts one in-between his teeth, and then offers one to me. I shake my head. “Suit yourself,” he says. “I won’t be too long. Otherwise I’ll start to miss you.” I watch him walk down the stairs as I sip the last of my beer. I am about to join him when I notice a back door. I check my watch, then walk down the bar’s fire escape and go home. He can’t miss what he doesn’t know.
That night, with my elbows resting on my fire escape, I light a cigarette and look at the sleeping city. Hot red lights, trucks unloading in the dark, the occasional scream of a car horn cutting through the stars. I suck in deeply, hold the smoke in my throat for so long that I almost forget it’s there, and then exhale. Gone. I am secondhand smoke. I have been breathed out by so many mouths that the stale smell of me clings to your clothes. I am in your new girlfriend’s hair when she comes home from the bar. I am floating outside your window when you return to our old apartment. And I am blackening your lungs one touch at a time.
—The Cigarette Stories | Lora Mathis (via lora-mathis)
The self-portrait: Swallowing glass chips to stay interesting. Keeping my insides cut so at least something comes out when I open my mouth. Spitting up blood. Calling it poetry. Calling it a performance. Calling it everything but what it is. Self-deprecation for the sake of humility. Self-dissolution to keep them guessing. Playing the same game until it stops becoming one. Turning tricks until they become habit. Here are some jokes I’ve made so many times they’ve lost their punchline: Texting late at night, check. Bleeding dirty thoughts and regret. Throwing up and forgetting the mess. Getting thin out of pure neglect. Check. Check. Check. This isn’t a way to grow up, but what else is there? Nice house? Nice car? Nice mouth? Nice girl? Wait. Didn’t you used to be such a nice girl? (I stole that line right out of the mouth of the concerned aunt who gave me a once-over last Christmas.) Let’s try this again. Nice girl. Nice girls don’t stay out late. They don’t forget their friends. They don’t drop everything and move for the sake of adventure. Nice girls don’t lie in the middle of the street and call it therapy. They don’t know how to become ghosts in two seconds flat. Nice girl. What happened to her? Killed her. Cursed her. Kept her hungry in the basement for so long that she gave up and went home. Pushed her aside and cared for poetry, coffee, and burnt curtains instead. Nice girl. Why don’t you call her up again? Ask her where she’s been? Ah, but where’s the fun in that?