The bus stop is nearly empty, the night air lending a touch of chill to the metal seats. Black spots of old gum cover the pavement and little butts of sodden cigarettes litter the corners. The wind bites through the cracks in the dirty plastic barriers, making me pull my coat up around my ears. My so-called 'sensible' silver flats seem frivolous now in the chill-inducing wind. I tuck a stray strand of strawberry-blonde hair behind my ear and pray for the bus to come soon.
The only other occupant of the grimy bus stop is a man in his early thirties in a black peacoat. While he's too shoddy-looking to be a businessman, he's obviously not a bum. I peek at him out of the corner of my eye, but don't dare to directly stare. Strange people ride the buses at this time of night, not just out-of-luck girls that work at laundromats.
I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye and turn to look; the man is shaking a cigarette out of a half-empty box. With practiced hands, he lights it and cups his hand around the flame, sucking the smoke in before letting it drift out of his nostrils. He sighs and leans back, then catches me watching him.
"Want one?" he asks, talking around his cigarette. Catching my wary glance, he promises, "Don't worry, I don't bite."
Normally, I don't take anything from strangers, but I ran out of money for cigarettes three days ago and I'm illing for some. I take the proferred cigarette and lean over for him to light it for me. I take a slow drag, sucking the smoke deep into my lungs, and that's when I taste it.
Cloves. The man has given me a clove cigarette. And all of a sudden, everything comes rushing back.
We were sixteen in your mother's vegetable garden when you offered me a cigarette and I smoked for the first time. I coughed and choked, but you just told me to do it again, so I took another drag and promptly retched into the radishes. You told me to just do it again, and this time, it tasted better. I asked what it was in there that didn't smell like tobacco, afraid it would be pot or something else I didn't know much about. You told me it was cloves. What are cloves? I asked you, still wondering if it was another name for pot. You laughed at me, your slow, low, sultry laugh that always made me squirm. Cloves? I don't know. They're just cloves. I think you can cook with them or something, but they make the best cigarettes.
We were seventeen in your bedroom when you asked, Rielle? In a voice that was so unsure that I looked up from my magazine in surprise to find you right there. Eliza? I asked. Rielle, I... And then you took my face in your hands and you kissed me, soft and sweet and slow. And I tasted spearmint gum and lipstick, mostly, but there was that faint aftertaste of smoke and cloves. When we broke apart, you just smiled.
We were eighteen in a hotel room, alone, in the city for your birthday. And you looked at me from your side of the double bed, my hand in your hand, and asked, Rielle? In a voice that was unsure, but with an undertone of...something else. Eliza? I asked. An hour later found us laying with my head on your shoulder, our clothes in a pile on the floor. Do you want a cigarette? you asked, reaching for the pack on the nightstand. I smiled at the cliche, but I said yes anyway. And we talked and chain-smoked all night and fell asleep watching the sunrise.
We were nineteen when you walked down the aisle on his arm, looking radiant in your big white dress, smiling bigger than I'd ever seen you smile before. You had invited me to the wedding, out of politeness, I assumed, but I came anyway. I wanted to see you one last time. When the wedding was over, and the reception was winding down, you came over to me, smiling a little stiffly. It was, ah...nice of you to come, Rielle. I was standing by your mother's vegetable garden, smoking. It was nice of you to invite me, Eliza. Congratulations. You nodded at me. I pulled another cigarette out of the pack in my pocket. Want one? I offered. You shook your head and smiled a little sadly at me. I quit, Rielle. I quit. The look in your eyes when you looked at me said that you quit more than cigarettes, and I knew it was time for me to go.
So here I am now, taking the second drag on this cigarette in this filthy bus stop.
I say to the wind, or the man beside me, or maybe even Eliza,
"I've been trying to quit since I was nineteen, but I just can't let it go, you know?"
I just can't let it go.