By Carly Miller
When she waves her arms, laughing, a cigarette brandished between her fingers, I think of dancers. I think of the frenzied pounding and switching of slippered feet.
She is a fierce smoker.
We are in the coffee shop, clutching our coffees by the counter. She looks out the window, turns to me. It’s hot out, but do you want to sit outside? We don’t have to sit outside, but so I can smoke..? lowering her voice on the word “smoke,” we really don’t have to though, it’s so hot. . .
We sit outside. Sitting outside is better than sitting inside. It’s a nauseating, swampy heat, but a beautiful heat; there are things to see out here, out in the world, and I see them all through her eyes. There is the boy clutching a bundle of fruit so violently colored; it looks waxy, his unselfconscious bite into a plum, juice dripping down his chin; there is the dog the size of a small bear, her eyes rounding to the size of coins as they follow its lumber; there is the mother whose child starts to scream on the sidewalk; the mother picking up the child by the ankles, saying, Okay that’s enough, we’re going home now, and the child screaming with laughter then. There is my friend raising her coffee cup to the mother, the exuberant: Now that’s a good mom!
I’m not interested in watching for myself, not really. I sit in the metal chair facing her on purpose; my goal is to see her see. I think that I will die if I cannot watch her watch. We sprawl. We fidget. She fidgets her feet, her arms, her legs. She runs her hands through her hair, smooths it, pulls it up again.
She observes the strolling people, now and then halting our conversation to point something out, something she’s seen just this instant, something that has fascinated her, like the man in the turquoise shorts, whose eyes run up and down her: I’ve never been checked out by a man in turquoise shorts before!
She pulls out out a pack of Camel Lights, urgently, Do you mind? Leaning forward, half a smile on her lips. No, I don’t mind. If you do I’ll put it out, she says. I hate people smoking in my face, she says, I’m like get that out of my face! She laughs and it is thick and dry, laughter pulled deep through belly into lungs up through years of tar into the world; beautiful.
No, I don’t mind, I say, still staggered by such a laugh.
The cigarette is yanked free with a flourish. Aha! White stick, a nub of orange at the end, like everything it comes alive and dancing in her hands. Lit so quickly I do not know how it happens, so quickly I cannot recall, now, the lighter that surely whisked in and out of her pocket all that afternoon. She sticks it between her lips, tamps her mouth down, sucks hard— it’s a long lost friend! Lets the air out with relief, craning her neck, watching the smoke swirl up to the tops of the buildings. She smacks the pack furiously with the flat of her palm—perhaps to the beat of her own solid heart, viciously alive—and tells me about how cigarettes will kill her someday.
Her claim: Honey, you don’t have to like something to be addicted.
And doesn’t she know? It isn’t the first addiction she’s had, but it’s the last, and someday she will let this one go too, dammit.
And I tell her that, desperate to believe it’s true, and she nods.
She drags the cigarette down to the dregs. Talking one moment, the next the cigarette jumping in her storytelling hands. Then it is arcing over the side of the fence that shelters the cluster of patio furniture from the sidewalks and streets. It smolders itself out on the cement, abandoned. I watch it through the slats in the wrought iron bars, and I ponder the idea of one’s burning out borne by their own velocity. That will not be her. I know that will not be her; I will do anything to make it not be her. Love, she says to me, there is a wrenching process from the logic of self-annihilation to the logic of self-preservation; it’s the straight truth. Though, it seems her whole life has been spent wrenching, and now, despite being told over and over exactly what is going to kill her, she is here, sitting before me, with that laugh and those waving hands.
The cigarette on the pavement is forgotten. She is already lighting the next, right down until the pack is gone, until she’s tucking the empty sleeve away in the black purse coiled on the chair next to her.
And then there is more laughter, and I love her laughter. It hits me: straight in the lungs.