Story: Counting Cigarettes
Author: M. Reis AKA Crazywriter; firstname.lastname@example.org
Warnings or disclaimers: Involves a lesbian relationship and subtle themes of homosexuality. The characters are mine.
I watch as you sit on the steps, pulling your knees close to your chest, damning the cold you feel inside, not to mention the cold outside. Fumbling with cold fingers, you light your cigarette and take a drag, suppressing a cough. It's been so long since you smoked, too long. You gave it up, god, all the way back in July. You count mindlessly, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March… nine months.
And all for her. Her, I hear her name roll off your tongue, a strange mixture of a swearword and a prayer, a prayer God won't hear because God doesn't care anymore.
Cigarettes, one thing you gave up, one of the many things you did for her. Reading those books, trying foods, saying things like c'est la vie, and watching all those god damned John Cusack movies. All those wasted hours in a coffee shop with her… Not wasted because… you loved her? Did you?
I could answer that question if I could see your eyes, but I can't. I'm watching you from a few feet behind you. Forgetting who you are and who I am and what we were, I sit down next to you. You glance over at me, fear and confusion written all over your face.
I feel my face grow red in shame. I remember the words I've said to you, the way I'd mutter the word under my breath as you'd pass, just so you could hear it, just for you. The way I'd shout things, things only you could really hear over the noise of everything.
And I can see it in your eyes, see how scared you still are of me. "Um…" I stammer out and you just stare. You finally look away; deciding it'd be best to ignore me, a good idea to ignore the beast sitting beside you. I watch you more intently, you're trying not to provoke the beast you think is sitting by you and it breaks my heart all over again to see how far you've come from what we were. I follow your gaze down to a piece of paper. You don't hide it and so I read it.
I don't know a great way to tell all of you so out with it I guess! This may come as a surprise to some of you but he proposed last night! I said yes of course! We're going downtown to look at rings today. So there you have it.
I glance back to your face and see the agonized look on your face. "Whoa." I murmur, not so much as to you but to me. "Tough deal."
"It wasn't a surprise." You say the way I have, not so much to me but more to yourself.
"Did you know before?" I ask, although I can guess at the answer.
"October." You glance at your cigarette and I see you counting again… July, August, September, October… four months. And you were still tried for her after you knew. You count again, November, December, January, February, March… five months… you still tried for five months.
"Whoa." I say again, I ought to improve my vocabulary skills… whoa seems to be a favored word and we both know that won't take me far as an English major.
I blush slightly and I hope you don't notice the faint pink that has come to my cheeks or if you do, you'll think it's just the cold.
I study you harder than I ever have before. I never noticed how black your hair was or the way your cheekbones curve. I've studied you more and more in the last few months but I haven't noticed anything… I've been too busy distracting myself… but you wouldn't care about that anymore, I can see it in your eyes…
Your eyes… they're gray right now, that cold gray they always seemed to be when you got upset, not the happy blue-green I was so used to. I loved your eyes, even though they could always see right through me and my act and my lies and that's probably why I've hated you so much during these last few months.
So you probably don't care about that now… not that you should. After all it wasn't you who ended us, even if you were the one who broke up with me… I pushed you so far away from me after… well, you and I both know what happened… not wanting someone who knew and loved the old me to try and stop me from recreating my life and myself.
I see you staring at your cigarette and counting from the last time you started up again. February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November, December, January, February, March… fourteen months… fourteen months since we said good bye. Since you talked to me… you never said a word back to me; I guess that's part of the reason it drove me mad, made me keep trying. Trying for… some reaction. After all, who knew that fourteen months later I'd be sitting by you feeling all these things all over again.
"What's your statute of limitations on apologizing?" I ask you.
"A year," you tell me.
"Guess I'm too late." You nod. I can see you're counting cigarettes again, counting the months. How long from the first time you gave it up for me to when you started again fourteen months ago… May, June, July, August, September, November, December, January, February… nine months. That's how long you and I were together… nine months.
You look away quietly, "Yeah."
"I'm still sorry," You nod again.
"I'll accept." I smile my crooked smile and you look at it, a few new tears on your face. The tears that force me to go back to memories I've been forced to forget. I'm amazed that you let me take your hand until I realize what you've realized. Tomorrow, these feelings we're feeling again, these memories we share and our chances of being us will have again become…
You glance at my hand, covering yours. No… please don't pull away. You turn and stare at the letter again, a small burn mark from where you put out the last cigarette. Taking your hand from mine, you light another cigarette but…
You give me back your hand.
And it rockets me back in time, back to what you and I have both tried forget. Back to when it wasn't you or I… but us… and then came the rain. I glance at the letter.
"July." I whisper and you nod. I almost laugh and count cigarettes with you, in your mind… March, February, January, December, November, October, September, August… July… nine months.
It's July. And I'm going to the movies with friends. I see you there, standing next to her in the ticket line and she's telling you she wants to see that John Cusack movie. To my amazement, you agree.
You hate John Cusack.
After the movie I retreat to the one place I know I won't find you, a coffee shop. So I can be alone with my thoughts of you and I… what might have been. Should have, could have been.
After a few seconds of sitting there, slowly drinking my cappuccino I hear your voice, as you clamor into the booth behind me.
You hate coffee shops.
Used to say there was one kind of coffee, black. You used to say how every time another diner got turned into some sort of upscale Starbucks wannabe with ninety types of coffee it was just a sign that California was taking over Minnesota. Your Minnesota. And here you are sipping a mocha frappuccino like you've lived for them your whole life.
And was it my imagination or did you just say something that could be mistaken for bad gothic poetry?
But she laughs. She laughs at what I guess is some sort of attempt at dry humor. But this isn't you, this is never going to be you… but…
What's happened to you? I shake my head and sip my cappuccino, reading the newspaper slowly. Until you get up and sling your arm around her and she plants a kiss on your cheek like she's probably going to do a thousand times more… and I can see you want her to be… what I was to you.
You were in love with me…
And so I start to build these walls… brick by brick by brick…
To keep out the cold
A cold that is melted away when you touch your hand to mine. When the walls are broken down, like only you can, like only the Hebrews could break down the walls of Jericho. You break into me, chipping away the wall of oppression, and repression and the longing and all the everything.
"July," You confirm and I nod, like you nodded.
"July." I repeat, stealing a laugh from you.
"Why are you here?"
"Because I forgot who you are, who am I and I sat down." You give my hand a squeeze, satisfied with that answer. You take a final drag from your cigarette and put it out on the piece of paper, leaving another burn mark. I cringe, afraid you might leave and then the chances would undoubtedly be cold again. I almost sigh in relief when you light another cigarette. "Did you love her?"
"Not like you." You whisper and I start to smile, feeling like I've won some sort of battle. I stop smiling when I realize what a vague answer that really is. You shoot me a painful glance; "You made me feel words that I'd never felt before."
"You made me feel things I never knew existed." Things! Do you realize that? Things! Feelings! Not words… the words always meant so much to you, more than I did. Words… not love or emotion or feelings… my fault for loving a cynical writer. But maybe it was better that way… you stopped feeling those words fourteen cigarettes… I mean months ago… I didn't stop feeling those emotions.
March, February, January, December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February… fourteen.
"February," I say in a tone that is anything but committed.
"February," You say, agreeing more with your eyes than those damn words ever will.
Its over, are the words that ring in my ears when I think of February, that and the strains of Beethoven's Fur Elise. Alone in my room, kept company only by Mr. Beethoven, I hold the piece of paper you chose to scrawl your message on.
I hope your life takes you where you want it to go, you write and other crap like, I'm sorry it came down to this but in the end, what choice did we have? Damn you, there were always choices! The choice to stay, the choice to go. There's no reason for me to stick around anymore. But there is a reason, isn't there always a reason? No…
There's no reason, there isn't a reason why some of us stay and some us go, why some us feel love while others feel pain, why some of us live and some of us… some of us die… But let's leave that alone for now, hmm?
I mindlessly hum the first few bars of Fur Elise and your head snaps up, an inquisitive look on your face. I stop abruptly, winning a small smile out of you, that special smile just for me, the one I haven't seen in ages.
Ages, all the ages of time have melted into that smile, the inquisition, the renaissance, the ice age, prehistory whirls into a strange swell of emotion written on your face and I finally understand that when you smile like that… time stops for us. Time will always stop for us.
"But it was February, wasn't it?"
"No…" you trail off sadly, "Not really."
"September… you broke up with me in September."
"You broke up with me…"
"I said the words." You shake your head, "But you pushed me away."
"Pushed you away?" I cry indignantly, "You were in the middle of Germany."
"You know I would have come home," You reply simply, "You wouldn't let me." I nod, finally understanding, like the missing link brought into view. Like evolution finally makes sense and I realize we can pinpoint the exact date it should have ended. March, February, January, December, November, October, September, August, July, June, May, April, March, February, January, December, November, October, September… nineteen more cigarette. Nineteen more months, bring us to…
The second of September.
And its 6:37 in the evening and I've finally quit crying. I reach for the phone and click messages. One from you plays and I smile for the first time all day and pick up the phone, forgetting the time.
"Ja?" comes a tired voice on the other line in Germany.
"Oh!" You perk up, though I can hear how tired you are.
"Sorry it's so late but…"
"No problem," You say warmly, "What's the matter?"
"He's dead," I say quietly, "My dad is… dead."
"What?" you cry, I can hear you jerk into a sitting position, "Dead?"
"This morning." I can hear you biting back tears, knowing you've got to support me.
"I'll be on the next plane out."
"No." I say, knowing how important this time is to your German major, "No, you need these credits… I'll be all right and you'll be home in two weeks."
"Really, I can come back over spring break for the credits."
"No… I'll be all right… I've lasted the last month and I've got support." I assure you. "I have my family."
"Are you sure?" I hear defeat in your voice because you know I won't let you.
"Yeah. You'll be home in two weeks…"
"You know love you, right?"
"Yeah…" I trail off, "I've got to go… I love you too."
"I should have asked you to come home." I murmur.
"You pushed me away but…" you trail off; "I let go."
"Did she make you feel words too?"
You smile wistfully; "She made me feel words I never knew could exist… but I think I felt them before…" you trail off, "I could feel them again."
"Why you?" you question me and I nod grudgingly and shiver now, looking at you, you've lit a new cigarette and flurries of snowflakes have begun to fall around us. And if you listen real close you can hear me humming the last few bars of Fur Elise.
"October you said?"
"It was October." You confirm, a wistful smile still on you face at first until you remember what I'm remembering. March, February, January, December, November October… six months.
I'm sitting at the bar, nursing a rum coke. There is a bar like this in every college town. One like this… one pool table, one pinball machine and an old version of Ms. PacMan, one the wall are half a dozen signs, things like old cover pictures of the Saturday Evening Post… around them are a dozen neon signs. Heineken, Rolling Rock, Budweiser to name a few. It's a college kids bar, make no mistake about that. Littered strategically around the bar are seven or eight tables.
I see you sit down at a near by table. Close enough that I'll be able to hear. But it's not on purpose you don't notice me, your back is to me and I recognize your back, even though you saw mine a lot more when I was running away… I did all the running away. Running from you, the only thing that could make me happy. You.
I see you sit down, taking a sip of a coke, you wrinkle your nose, it's flat. What did you expect from bar coke? You're nervously wringing your hands. I raise an eyebrow in amusement, wondering why. I don't wonder long and soon a girl and a guy have appeared at your table. I recognize the girl; did she go to high school with us? An upperclassmen maybe? It's a few minutes before I can place her. The guy is a mystery and I size him up, he's cute, certainly not gorgeous. He's got a goofy smile. You hug the girl, kiss her cheek and give the guy kind of a half hug.
They sit down with you, the she sits next to you and he sits across. You're smiling your brilliant smile and they start talking excitedly. The more they talk, the more the brilliance of your smile fades and the more I can tell it's forced.
I find out why in a few minutes when I hear the phrase, "We're getting married!" She says it, talking about the guy I guess.
And it looks like you've been hit by a train but they don't notice… only I could. I've seen that look, I know the way you masked it… I saw it too much in those last few months.
"That's great." I hear you say, feigning happiness. "Wonderful, I'm behind you, one hundred percent!"
They grin and the she hugs you as much as she can sitting down next to you.
"We're not going to tell anyone for a while… but we wanted you to know." She says, a hint of youthful mischief mixing in with her unadulterated glee.
"Your secret's safe with me." I hear you say, another glimmer of false joy in your voice. I can't stand to hear any more of it and I get up to go play some pool. As I go, I make sure to walk by your table.
I mutter an insult softly as I walk by your chair. "Dyke." Your head snaps up and I don't look back, I think the expression on your face would… I don't know what it would do to me anymore.
I hear him swear; she says "what the hell?" indignantly. I also hear the pleading in your voice as you tell them to let it be. As you tell them I'm not worth it. Because to you, I guess I'm not anymore. I used to be…
I don't know why insulting you gave me any pleasure at all but… it did, it does… it shouldn't, we're not eighth graders and I ought to have outgrown that. By now I should have moved past that.
I shoot a couple rounds, flirting mindlessly with someone who joined me a few games back, I'm too busy watching you to pay attention to the game and he walks off with quite a bit of my money because of it.
I hear them excuse themselves, saying they're going to go celebrate and they invite you along. You shake your head, saying you don't want to intrude. I see her hug you, planting a kiss on your cheek like she has a thousand times before. You give him a real hug this time, it's an awkward hug… but it's one more hug than you'd give me.
I make my way back over to my barstool, the Pool-Shark following at my heels. Pool-Shark and I trade off buying rounds for each other before she trips off to a cab, leaving me her phone number. I shoot you one last glance and see what I never expected to see, you sitting alone at a bar, knocking back vodka and a look in your eyes that is so…
"Empty," I say to a likewise empty heart, one that could have seen through me once, if it had tried… if it had ever wanted to.
"Empty?" you question in a small voice, not knowing why.
"Empty," I muse, more to the wind than you or I, "Empty… strangely… unfulfilled. Like there's something missing."
"But you don't know what." You agree, nodding. "You never know what."
"All you know is it won't be filled because you lost something… something that won't be filled no matter how many phone numbers you get from how many waitresses or girls in a bar… but you don't know what's missing."
"Sometimes you do." I say to a heart that was never really open, my own… because I never really was open.
"Once… She filled that." You say wistfully.
"More than I?"
"She filled a void I never knew I had…" you pause painfully, "But you filled a void that I never knew could hurt so much."
"What about May?" I demand, "We've said every month but May."
"May hurts the most," you say quietly, flickering your lighter to start a new cigarette and watching the flame dancing in the wind, the way you and I might have danced once. In May. I watch you flick the ashes onto the fresh snow, the black burning against the white, the way I burned against you and you against me… in a time we've both wanted to forget.
The way I can gather she burned against you, deep in your soul, deep in your heart. I can see now that I was not and never will be the only one who set your heart on fire… she matters now to me, more than before when she was just that girl.
Because I can see how you fell for her…
"Well, what about May?" I say again, "I think that would hurt the least!"
"But…" you trail off, "It makes me remember I still lost you."
"I still love you, you know." I say quietly to the snow.
Your head snaps up. "What?"
"Even after all this time, it's still you… it's always been you." I say softly, a pleading in my voice for you to understand. "It's always been you," I repeat in a whisper.
"I know." You say in just as quiet of voice.
"But it hasn't always been me…"
"May." You interrupt, not wanting to hear anymore. Blocking me out, counting your cigarettes. There are too many cigarettes to count, because all the time has elapsed and it had to be… too many months, too many cigarettes.
May, a time when everything finally made sense when you were I and I was you, when it was we… when we began.
There are no words in dictionary to describe everything we had; even an English major like me has to admit that. But there was a time when I wouldn't have admitted that, when I would have thought everything was conquerable when I would have thought that love conquers all. Yes, there was a time when I would have wanted for everything to be… just that, everything.
And it occurs to me now that that's all humans are allowed: life, liberty and just the pursuit happiness… whatever that happiness is… whatever defines it; we can only pursue it. Which is why when we found it in each other that day in May, we couldn't have had that anymore, shouldn't have had that anymore. Society wouldn't let us… there were too many people with too much power in our lives… and two of them were you and I.
I thought about that a lot back then, to the point where I was almost going crazy; there's a fair argument I went crazy. To the point where all I could see was life's unending bleakness, a black cloth that only covered my eyes, a blindfold of words, tied back with memory.
Charles Dickens was right about a lot when he wrote, it was the best of time; it was worst of times. It was age of wisdom; it was the age of foolishness. It was the epoch of belief; it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light; it was the season of Darkness. It was the spring of hope; it was the winter of despair.
That's what I keep coming back to when I think about it all… it was.
You're not an English major, but you can still figure it out… it was, past tense. As in, no more.
"What about May?" I ask quietly, my voice cracking as I fight back tears.
"It all…" you trail off, "It all made sense in May." You stub your cigarette out on the paper again, the ashes taken by the wind. I stare aimlessly at the four burn marks that have collected on that cursed document… cursed to you at least.
"Sense?" I ask, remembering how it all felt when we found each other, when it was you and I. It seems so long ago when it all made sense and I can barely grasp the concept sitting beside you, your hand in mine. You light another cigarette and I see the pain in your face as you take slow, calm drag from it.
"The world all fell into place," you explain, "Because we needed it to…"
"Needed each other?" Yes, we needed each other, I think to myself, because that day we started, the phrase "going out" doesn't even do it justice… it was all… perfect.
You shake your head, "We needed the world to make sense."
And the world did make sense, the world made so much sense, it all seemed right and good and like we could never let go because we were drunk in, addicted to this new kind of drug. A drug that had some painful side effects when we let go of it.
New meaning for the words delirium tremors.
"Do you hate me?" you ask, pleading for me to say no.
"Hate you for what?"
"Letting go." You say quietly, confirming.
"Sometimes I wish I could, it'd make it all that much easier but…"
"I think it's myself I hate…" I concede nervously, "I think about hating myself until I'm maybe losing my mind."
"You already lost your mind, I lost mine too." You shake your head; "It was too late to keep from going crazy."
"I want to hate you," I tell you, "I want that so much, more than anything that I try to convince myself I do… but just when I'm about to believe it, I see your face in my mind and…"
"And I'm damned all over again!" I say with resolve, "Do you want this?" I plead with you, begging for the right answer, though I don't know what the right answer is.
"I can't do this…" you say in a voice that I can barely recognize, "This… I can't." You put the cigarette out and walk away.
The cold fully hits me and everything I thought could be is gone again, it's like February all over again, when I lost everything I was sure of. I shiver as the flurries surround me, covering it all up, the only evidence I had. I glance at the letter you left behind. Five burn marks.
Which makes sense because all of this happened, we relived all the months, all these cigarettes in… just five minutes.