Unrequited Nicotine

By Megan Paske

Before I met him, I had never taken a drag from a cigarette in my life. Until the month my last semester of college ended, I had no reason or desire to smoke. I grew up with two smoke-fearing parents. My mother claimed she barely survived her own childhood with both lungs intact. Her parents both “smoked like chimneys” to use her own, clichéd words. Though she admitted to once having tried to char her own lungs, she never failed to display her contempt for all things tobacco (and all people who used the substance) whenever she found a chance.

I had always been rather turned off by the idea of smoking. During my three previous summers, I worked in the shipping yard of a foundry. I can still close my eyes and remember the fumes: rotten eggs and moldy cabbage. Those were the most “pleasant” odors I worked around. I began to prefer them to the constant stream of smoke coming from any one of my co-workers, at any given time of my shift. Towards the end of the summers I looked forward to simply once again breathing without worrying about a piece of my lung decomposing from within my chest.

My genetically instilled intolerance for smoking transformed quickly, however, during those last few months of college. My newfound smoker empathy took on the shape and personality of a tall, maladroit intellectual named Michael Dooghan. Michael smoked like a chain-smoker on death row, smoking every last bit of every last cigarette he ever lit. He easily put my foundry buddies to shame with the way he inhaled.

Sometimes if he were drunk enough—though it did not take much to intoxicate his lanky, six foot, two inch, 150 pound frame—he picked up discarded cigarette butts, lit them, and made enthusiastic efforts to smoke whatever remaining tobacco they contained, despite my disgusted pleas not to.

Michael entered my life as nonchalantly as his musty, secondhand cardigan sweaters hung from his bony shoulders. His cavalier attitude towards other people, and his blasé attention to me in particular, seduced me into his strange little world. He held little regard for conventionality and exercised even less tact proclaiming it. One inebriated evening, I taught him an explicit phrase in French, equating to “take me.” Upon exiting a gloomy pub in the capital square, he proceeded to shout, “Prends – moi!” with overzealous fury at any building that appeared to house authority—the capitol in particular.

What struck me most about Michael was the rate at which he fluctuated from his flippancy and callousness to what might have been interpreted as unnerving compassion. At rare flashes, Michael transformed into the antithesis of the coolness his character exuded. His kindness was subtle; it seemed he went out of his way to disguise it as another part of his frivolous spontaneity.

He once called me at quarter till one on a Wednesday morning and asked if I wanted to go the grocery store with him. I asked him why, hoping he may admit to feelings toward me that went beyond this bizarre friendship we had begun to create.

“Because you don’t sleep and I had to go to the store.”

That was the only kind of answer—and the closest thing to a confession of caring for me—that I ever received from Michael; it remained safely noncommittal, while vaguely alluding to some deeper connection between us. At the time, I dealt with a bout with insomnia. The lack of sleep came to feel normal, and I began to prefer it. I felt more alive; sleeplessness and wakefulness blended together until being awake felt like a constant hum. A drone of cicadas trapped in my mind, propelled me forward into the next moment.

I decided Michael was an effect rather than a cause. He was a result of my insomnia; the intensity of our passing interaction, a symptom. I never intended or expected what occurred between Michael and I. It was a psychological accident.

That was how we met—by accident. I was sitting at a bench in the university’s library. I often studied there, stooped over a table in the throbbing fluorescent light of the pass way between the computer labs and the entrance. The day I met Michael, I sat in my usual place, listening to a pop song strung on repeat. I shoveled the last bit of my lunch in my mouth when his tall figure slumped past. I thought little of his walking past me and glancing down, but then this unconventionally attractive stranger hesitated, and turned around to face me.

I looked up. Nervously, I removed one of my earbuds, and brushed a few stray strands of my normally carefully-managed blond hair out of my eyes. I looked directly at him—a guilty little kid caught with her hands full of cookie dough. I had no reason to, but I suddenly felt an enormous rush of self-conscious adrenaline pump through my veins.

Though he never actually made eye contact with me, I had no doubt about to whom he was directing his lazy attention. I was the only person in the corridor except for the loquacious young man by the rear entrance, immersed in an unnecessarily loud cell phone argument with what could have easily been either his mother or significant other.

The handsome beatnik appeared not to notice his chatter as he took a couple steps in my direction. He had an earthy smell of old books and stale tobacco. I noticed a small coffee stain on the cuff of his right sleeve, which protruded slightly from his fraying overcoat. A tangle of his hair, tied back in a knot at the nape of his neck, fell in front of his face as he bent his head in my direction.

Next to him, I felt uncomfortably synthetic. I shifted on the smooth lacquered bench, more self-aware than if I’d been on stage in front of hundreds of spectators. I hoped he would take no notice of my conspicuously adolescent ensemble of an ankle length denim jean skirt, white tennis shoes and a pink hoodie. He was the poster child for starving poets; I felt like an over-nourished, pop star-idolizing Mouseketeer.

“You speak French?”

The question sat in between us—a dart fallen short of its target. At first, I remained speechless; I was still recovering from the momentary panic of why I had chosen that particular “look” to walk around in that morning. My attention remained fixed upon the right side of his strikingly attractive face; I fought an urge to move the hair from his forehead. I responded to him after a few awkward seconds of inane blinking. I smiled. His eyes began to reciprocate.

“Uh, of course. I speak French.” The answer shot out of my mouth as though I were responding to an interrogation. “Why?”

Before he had a chance to answer, I looked down at my side and discovered the reason for his sudden inquest. My French dictionaries and a couple of my university paperbound books—French plays, a few Molière—were sitting on the table by my discarded sandwich baggie.

“Do you ever read Rimbaud?” he said with a wink in the inflection of his voice. “Great shit…”

“Yeah, I guess so. Why?”

I was starting to sound like a parrot. Before I had a chance to prove I actually did know what he was talking about, he interrupted my embarrassed mind clutter.

“We should get together and speak French sometime. I need to speak French.”

“Ok.”

He scribbled a number down on one of my notebooks, using my pen with the purple ink. I blushed.

“It’s Michael.”

He started to walk off, as though the conversation had never happened, leaving me in a state of excited confusion. I panicked.

“Hey! Margaret. My name’s Margaret.”

“Nice to meet you Maggie. Call me.” He kept walking without a glance over his shoulder.

That was how Michael fell into my life. I never put my finger on why. It felt as though it was never supposed to happen. Some misalignment of other peoples’ fates had jumbled us both up in the library at the same moment. We had opened a line of communication that I will never fully understand.

His simple request before he left me that day, his “need” for speaking French, turned a semester of my life into a foreign season. Michael’s short play in my life left imprints upon my mind that to this day I carry. All he wanted from me was my mind. I willingly forked it over like a mother spoiling a child who was ungrateful for, and unwilling to receive her generosity. I wanted Michael—his mind and more. I wanted him to want the rest of me, the rest of my life: the living, breathing version of my mind.

That day became the first of many where we accidentally crossed paths. It never felt like an accident, more of an unspoken rendezvous—a moment when we both believed (or hoped) the other to be near. I walked out of a building, or turned a corner, anticipating his presence. He faithfully materialized, as though I had sent him a text a few minutes before. He always wore a similar ensemble of worn corduroy pants and a woolen pullover; he held the same expression on his face as though he also expected me to be there.

One unseasonably cool April afternoon, I walked slowly down the main drag towards the capitol, planning to stop for coffee. Michael leaned against a lamppost smoking. When he saw me approach, he sheepishly tucked his disheveled, dirty-brown hair behind his ears. He nodded hello.

“Hey…fuck…you’re here.”

I received a similar salutation from him no matter where we met; the tone and inflection changed depending on his desire to see me. That day, he gave me an impression that I had disturbed his present thought. Not a frown, but a small flicker of tension rippled through his wistful expression and resulted in him attempting to fold his deep chestnut eyes further beneath his eyebrows.

His meek behavior suggested an apology. I considered inviting him for coffee but held my tongue. On days like that, his distance spoke for itself. After a brief plea (on my part) after what he was thinking, he turned his gaze towards his feet. I rarely succeeded in eye contact during our exchanges.

“Ah…Fuck, I don’t know. Someone just bummed my last cigarette.”

I offered to buy him a new pack. Cigarettes may be more tempting than coffee.

“Fuck, I don’t know…Fuck this shit…ahh…”

He trailed off at the end of his sentences, which he rarely finished. He rarely started sentences. Michael started in the middle of a thought and let his silence finish it. After he finished his cigarette, he awkwardly shuffled past, hands shoved into the pockets of his overcoat. He nodded his goodbye.

He turned around after a few steps and looked back at me—perhaps checking to see if I might be following him, or making sure I was walking in the other direction. I remained in the same place where he left me: waiting for him to come back, willing him to tell me when I might see him again.

I wanted to give him a chance to touch my hair, or grab my hand. When he performed these acts, a feeling of breathless hope mixed with elevated dread swept over me, for I knew it might be the last, the only time. Michael rarely repeated his actions. He changed them; he transformed them into something else, something bigger or smaller depending upon his mood.

One night around 2:00 a.m., we were sitting across from each other at a Greek version of a greasy spoon. It was just about the time young, drunken people emerged from the surrounding pubs and stumbled in to order an unnecessary meal. Michael looked down with an unsatisfied frown at his half-eaten vegetarian pizza.

“I still don’t understand why we had to come to a gyro joint for you to order a veggie pizza that looks like it’s been sitting under a light for about five hours.”

I always felt the need to keep the subject banal during our evenings (or mornings) together. I preferred to talk about him: his life, his family, and his plans. His fears. I feared if I started to open up or ask him to, he may pick up on how much closer I wanted to be to him.

That night he surprised me and grabbed my hand. Apparently all I had to do to make him notice me, to get him to touch me, was to make some asinine comment about an overcooked cheese and grease-smothered pita disguised as a vegetarian pizza.

With both of his hands, he turned mine over and studied it, never moving his gaze further up my arm than my elbow. I studied his expression, unable to tell, with mounting frustration, what he was thinking. For all practical purposes, his mind could have been elsewhere, and my hand just a consequence of his wandering thoughts. His forehead remained creased as he spoke, “Your hands are so small. How can you hurt yourself with such small hands?”

I had no idea what he meant and I had no answer to his question. I stared at him staring at my hand. I had no desire for him to let go. When he did let go a few seconds later, leaving my hand on the table like an unused utensil, I felt like crying. He absently looked across the restaurant.

“Fuck…you want to leave now?”

Michael careened in and out of my life—in and out of my line of fire—coming jut close enough for me to taste his breath, or sense his touch, but never close enough for me to hold on. I hung on his every word and every move; I always felt unneeded in the end. Undeserving of his presence and less deserving of his affection, on those rare occasions he gave it to me.

The main obstacle between us was an exaggerated, self-proclaimed artist—a flexitarian waif who refused to wear makeup, or anything purchased at a retail store. She made me look like a plastic-coated, overfed brat. She was a first year student at some private art school, for which Daddy was footing the bill, and no doubt, as well as for her quaint, upper studio apartment, strategically located above the campus coffee house. Her “granola” lifestyle could have been interpreted to coincide (and even complement) Michael’s clumsy way of living. To me, it just came off as kitschy phoniness.

I never understood why he was so smitten with this ageless female charlatan, “His Laura.” She lived—studied her art—two hours away, making it all the more fitting to inspire his internal yearning for her. In truth, Michael despised all aspects of modern “relationship” behavior. He thought it absurd and the furthest thing from poetry and reality—the two being a mutual concept in his mind. Dating meant rules and obligation and left no room for spontaneity or reckless abandon.

In truth, I despised “His Laura” for ever having put such an absurd idea into his mind. Here was someone who finally understood me, who finally was available to dig deep into my mess and who never cared if I came over and sat in his makeshift apartment with him for hours. Michael was someone for me who was perfectly imperfect and disgustingly deserving of my affection. He was someone who was not seeing anyone except for, literally, me.

Yet his one and only non-platonic ambition remained pining over a romantic fallacy, a mythical creature without appetite or need, a beautiful hole. I remained the closest thing in his proximity to a girlfriend and the furthest thing from his desire. I was his “Anti-Laura.”

One day I stopped by his first floor flat—a former foyer of an ancient two-story house refitted into a “studio apartment.” The front door of the house, which never properly closed, opened to the musty hallway that housed a staircase, badly in need of repair. The only bathroom in the entire unit was on the second level, which all four (or five, I could never be completely sure) tenants had to share.

I tapped on his slightly ajar door; it opened to an animated Michael, smoking an American Spirit and sitting in the middle of his floor. He shuffled through a pile of unkempt papers—drafts of term papers, random snippets of poetry, ripped pages from scattered novels—dropping on top of them an occasional clump of ash from the neglected cigarette hanging from the side of his mouth. He looked up as I let myself in. I received no greeting or acknowledgement that I was there. He continued ruffling through his papers then suddenly shot up.

“Fuck…I knew I didn’t finish it. Ahhh…”

He stood up and half-tripped over an ottoman, one of the few pieces of furniture in the cramped room. His “bed” consumed the corner next to me, behind a barely standing folding screen. It consisted of a flattened mattress covered with old sleeping bags and faded quilts.

He attempted to jam the piece of paper into a typewriter on a makeshift desk: a three-legged card table propped up on a stack of boxes of books. He began to type the same key incessantly with a fanatical look in his eye, all the while paying no heed to me, or anything else in the room. There could have been a giant gorilla sitting in the corner.

“Michael, your cigarette went out.”

I slumped down on his ottoman. I pulled at a string on the corner seam that was about to split into two. The rusty orange velour that covered it was threadbare and speckled with stains and cigarette burns.

Michael let his cigarette drop from his mouth, launching a verbal assault at his typewriter. The ribbon tore, he ejected it and attempted in vain to wind it back through. I stood up and walked a few steps towards him. I leaned my head towards the back of his. Because of his height, I reached to the nape of his neck. I stood there for a few seconds hoping he turn around. He continued to fiddle with the typewriter ribbon, never once breaking his streak of expletives.

I came close enough to inhale his warmth. The earthy, human smell that emanated from him made me sad. I silently begged him to turn around. To pay attention to me. To slap me. Anything. Finished with his tirade and apparently giving up on the typewriter, he whipped around and looked me straight in the eyes. I thought he was going to kiss me.

“My Laura is driving up…she’s coming…ahhh, Fuck!”

He grabbed one of my shoulders and wrapped his free arm around my neck.

He kissed the top of my head and pulled me so close to him, I could count the freckles on the section of his bare chest exposed from the collar of his too-large, well-worn, v-neck white t-shirt.

I wanted to hit him; I was so angry, and at the same time I held my breath, willing him to never let me go. He did exactly that seconds later, so suddenly letting go of his grasp on me that I nearly fell over. He walked past me towards the pile of papers again, as casually as passing a stranger in an airport.

He looked so happy; I stopped myself from making a snide comment about how she probably forgot where he lived, considering this amounted to the second time she took any interest in driving up to visit him. I wished to somehow create that same ridiculous look on his face that “His Laura” had perfected without even trying—and, from my vantage point, without caring.

What I ended up saying was, “Well, let’s celebrate—want a Newcastle?”

I held up a brown paper bag I had brought with me. I also threw him a couple of packs of American Spirits. As poor as the boy was, he had absurdly pretentious taste in cigarettes. While I grabbed a bottle from the six, I tried as hard I could to come up with a reason to leave at that very moment. I came up with, as usual, no reason to leave and at least a half dozen more reasons to stay.

As Michael pulled a bottle opener seemingly out of the air, and amazingly while lighting the new cigarette that had materialized between his lips, I grabbed another bottle. He opened them both, holding that giant dumb grin on his face, cigarette and all, and I took a long hard swig.

I stayed put, exactly where I stood, bemoaning my unrequited pining over this self-declared starving artist. This beautiful enigma drew me further into his world on a string so narrowly visible, I felt like a marionette manipulated by fishing line. Swallowing the sweet-bitter beer, taking long draughts—long enough to start a buzz going within a few minutes—I lamented I had not brought over whiskey instead.

Michael looked like a kid on Santa’s lap, believing he was going to get everything his tiny, misguided heart desired for Christmas. I fought the urge to slap him across the face—to destroy the illusion and yell, “Wake the fuck up! She doesn’t exist!”

I kept drinking my beer, watching Michael smoke, and trying desperately to make conversation. When I failed at that, I had another. Before “His Laura” arrived, we had polished off the six-pack.

Two hours later, I was sitting at a table at Café Monte Passé outside the capitol’s square downtown. The dim lights of the bar filtered through the semi translucent cloud of smoke, blurring the features from those sitting towards the back to of the bar. From where I sat they looked like a Degas painting. A dog—a seamless, stuffed toy—lounged patiently at the feet of a faceless bar patron. The bar was narrow but deep; we sat at a table near the front—about ten feet away from the door on one side, and half that distance from the first few bar stools on the other.

Laura and Michael sat across from me strategically placed so as not to appear a “couple.” Rather, they appeared to be trying with excruciating difficulty to give off a vibe of being asexual, pseudo-intellectual cohorts—platonically disengaged, and equally amused with each other’s longwinded sentences that led nowhere.

As they waxed philosophical, I continued to sip (or rather swill) the Chartreuse Michael had ordered. Knowing the tab would ultimately fall on my lap that evening—Michael undoubtedly had nothing but almost maxed out credit cards, and a few crumpled up ones in his pocket—I first attempted to order nothing but beer.

Michael insisted on Chartreuse. It tasted too sweet, but became both spicy and pungent after a while, like musky gin. I hated it, but drank it to impress Michael. And now his friends. Laura had brought a guest—a taller and lankier version of Michael, absent the personality and profanity. He looked like he could have been his older, duller brother. I sat in between him and a cheaply paneled pillar, which appeared more interested in me than the rest of my motley party. I leaned my head against it and turned sharply to the dull Michael.

“What did you say your name was again?”

“Forest.”

He daintily sipped his martini that, from where I was sitting, looked like a glass full of olives with a splash of vodka and vermouth. Did he just wink at me? I picked up a vibe of vague sexual tension between us earlier but blew it off. When Michael was in my presence I ignored any other man around. Being that Forest and I were the only singles of our “party” I started to pick up on his not-so-subtle flirtation again. Though it very well could have been the Chartreuse.

Michael looked up, lighting what had to have been his twenty-third cigarette of the evening. His Laura, feigning oblivion, absentmindedly shoved her slender fingers further up into her sleeves. Her sweater steadily and slowly consumed her hands, all the way up to her fingertips. Only one petite end of a thumb, with a carefully manicured nail—an odd juxtaposition to her obviously, strategically chosen second-hand ensemble—stuck out from her right sleeve, as the remainder of her wool-covered mitt held onto the stem of her wine glass.

She said nothing; just kept twirling her wine glass with her sweater-hand, moving it along the base as though she were attempting to milk it. One muddy brown eye that gave no distinction between her iris and pupil stared pensively out onto an undetectable spot on the table’s varnish, separating me from her and Michael’s little world. Her other eye remained sleepily concealed behind her sleek bob. With her waif frame and her almost pixie length coif, she pulled off an incredible combination of hobo-flapper chic.

I began to feel a little uneasy about the possibility that her hidden eye might actually pick up on my gawking at her; I was still unable to tell at what she was so intently staring. I refocused my attention again on Forest, with a small amount of trouble not to give away, through excessive eye-rolling, how moronic I thought the entire situation to be. He compulsively tucked his hair behind his ears, but it just barely reached long enough for it to stay put. His daft expression almost left me feeling pity for the boy. I do not recall any original thought being uttered from Forest’s mouth all evening.

“You missed a few,” I said, as I brushed the hair from his face. I decided if he was going to gratuitously flirt with me, then I was very well going to play along. I even entertained the possibility that Michael would become incredibly irritated with me and make a scene. That started to seem like my only path to any satisfaction from the evening.

Forest looked back at me with an intense stare that gave me the impression that he was about to either start crying, or make a profound statement on the travesty of the dying art of confessional poetry. Perhaps I misjudged him; perhaps he was holding back and maybe even a bit shy. Instead, he sneezed. The lock of dirty blond hair that I had just pushed away from his dull, grey eyes fell back into place. I decided I was closer to reality upon my first assessment.

Michael watched me watch him out of the corner of his eye. I tried with some degree of difficulty not to laugh at the sap that Laura had suckered into driving her up to meet her “non-boyfriend.” Michael had by now forgotten what he looked up for in the first place, and decided it was time for us all to get another round. He ignored my adolescent attempt to make him jealous (if that is indeed what I was trying to do) and moved the table out of his way.

The remainder of our drinks spilled out onto the knobby wood of the table and dripped off the side. Laura’s sweater sleeve was now full of red wine, which she quickly resolved by shoving it up to her elbow, revealing a delicate, slender wrist and forearm. I imagined those wrists wrapped up with Michael’s own bony arms and I began to feel lightheaded. I stood up and walked towards the bar where Michael was unsuccessfully attempting to order another round of drinks.

As I passed him, I felt Forest brush against the small of my back with his hand. I had just enough time to decide that I was a bit creeped out by this unsolicited display of affection before Michael himself repeated the exact action.

“I’m glad you’re here.”

“Are you enjoying yourself?”

My tone was haughty. I waited for his answer to come as a goony stare in the direction of his little Laura. But he surprised me by saying, “No, I wish she would not have come, because she’s going to have to leave. The “while waiting” is the part that’s real, you know? That’s the part that matters. She said she was coming; the “while waiting,” the part in between when you don’t know when someone is going to do what they say they are going to do.”

Michael was drunk, but somehow making sense, and at the same time infuriating me. I looked directly at him.

“I hate the “while waiting.” That’s all it ever is. That’s all I ever have with you and I’m sick of it. Why don’t you try explaining your tragic theory to your “non-girlfriend” over there? I’m sure she’ll just give you another one of her beautiful “witty” blinks.”

I experienced a sudden rush of blood to the part of my head that held all my feelings for Michael and typically did not allow me to speak of them. I felt unnervingly out of control, but Michael interrupted the next criticism I was developing about his tortured romantic situation.

“Nahh you don’t understand, fuck…”

He picked up the fresh drinks from the bar with both hands and unsteadily headed back to the table. I pulled a twenty out of my pocket and placed it on the bar, catching the bar tender’s sympathetic gaze. I turned around and rejoined our party.

Forest perked up when I returned, and pulling out a half-crushed softpack of some nameless, unfiltered cigarettes, nodded in my direction.

“Want a smoke?”

“She doesn’t smoke.”

Michael gave me a big brother, don’t you dare, look.

I found myself coyly replying, in a rebellious adolescent tone, which I would have balked at hearing anyone else use under normal circumstances.

“Fuck…why not? What’s good for the goose.”

I grabbed the cigarette from Forest’s pack, staring directly into Michael’s disapproving face. I assumed he was disapproving more for the cliché I had just thrown out then the fact that I was about to tarnish my virgin lungs.

I assumed incorrectly, however, because Michael suddenly made a clumsy move in my direction, spilling the fresh drinks he had just set down on the table, and uttering yet another form of expletive. It sounded vaguely like one of the many French phrases I had taught him.”

Tu veux dire, ‘salope’ pas ‘salaud,’ mon cher. J’suis une femme.”

I instinctively corrected him, relishing the thought that I was communicating on an alternate level with Michael, right over his lovely Laura’s head. She continued to play with her wine-soaked sweater and stare blankly ahead. Forest held up his lighter, but I ignored it, too irate with the current situation to even remember why I started shouting in French at Michael, well aware he was not in a mood to parle Français.

Combien de fois vas-tu dérranger le table?”

By then he had grabbed the cigarette from my hand and pulled out a lighter from his own half-empty pack. After a few unsuccessful attempts, he managed to light it. Unfortunately by the time he lit the end of the cigarette that was half bent, he stopped paying attention to what he was doing. The lock of his hair that perpetually escaped from his “man-bun,” slipped out again, landing across his left eye and falling into the small flame of his lighter. It was lit at approximately the same time as his cigarette.

The small wave of his hair quickly formed into a spiraling ‘S,’ climbing up his forehead. Before I knew what was happening or what I was doing, I grabbed my jacket and threw it over Michael’s face. Michael reacted at approximately the same time as my attempt to extinguish his hair fire.

What he did was no less idiotic. He took a drag from the cigarette, removed it from his mouth, muttered another expletive, this time in English, but which was muffled by my jacket having been thrown over his face, and sat down on the floor. His hair must have gone out. He continued to sit there, holding the unfiltered, nameless cigarette in his hand, with my jacket on his head, mumbling curses to himself.

Suddenly I lost any ability—that just seconds before I thought I’d mastered—to conceal my disgust at the absurdity of our little party. The canned way that Michael’s Laura seemed to react to everything had struck a final chord down within the epicenter of my hatred towards all things she took for granted in “Her Michael.”

She exhibited the same reaction to every single conversation and minor event that happened between the time she and her pound puppy pulled up in their ‘87 Brick Red Volvo sedan, and the precise moment Michael took his current position. She smiled her crooked, little half-smile, shook her hair from one eye for it to fall upon the other, gave an artificial sigh and, if she felt really ambitious, followed the whole prosaic display with a slightly orgasmic twitch of her shoulders.

I grabbed my jacket from the top of Michael’s head, threw it at Forest, and walked out the door. Two steps into my dramatic exit, I turned my head slightly, hoping to see Michael following after me or at least looking up. He remained sitting in his, same freshly charred, crossed-legged pose; he looked strikingly like a neurotic, malnourished squirrel that had just lost his chance at finding the last acorn before winter. Amazingly throughout all the tumult of the jacket being volleyed back and forth between me, Michael’s head and Forest’s general direction, his (or my) cigarette continued to burn, badly in need of ashing. Michael did not so much as lift an eyebrow in my or the cigarette’s direction.

I found myself in exactly the last place I ever imagined or hoped to be, and at about the absolute worst moment I could have possibly chosen. Plodding back from the café, trying to avoid stepping in muddy puddles, and Michael’s pathetic image still embedded painfully within my mind, all I could think about was who I really wanted to be with and who I truly needed to be comforting at that very moment. No doubt “His Laura” was doing a splendid job of looking pensive and incredulous, though in no way could I picture her picking up the broken little pieces of Michael I left scattered all over Monte Passé’s sticky filth of a floor. I had a hard time imagining her even taking notice of Michael’s despondency, to which I had become so finely attuned.

Who was going to take care of him tonight, when I—the only being who truly cared more about him than he did about himself—was being escorted home by a stranger? Forest held onto my right elbow with his left hand gently enough to imply I had nothing to worry about. He gripped me firmly enough to drive home the point to anyone within five steps of our follow-the-yellow-brick-road dance, that I was going home with NO ONE but this man.

Over his right arm hung the jacket that had just minutes ago snuffed out Michael’s little forehead brush-fire. Looking at my jacket, slung casually over Forest’s arm as though it were an extension of his body, I decided I had enough of this game. Though I was well aware I purposefully started it and unreservedly continued it throughout our evening, I now placed full blame upon my misfit companion.

“So, are you holding my jacket as hostage or am I allowed to put it back on now?”

At a breaking point in our banter, I still managed to coyly squeeze out a half-assed attempt at flirting, in between clenched jaws allowing me to suppress my many sarcastic inclinations.

“You threw it at me.”

He made no visible sign to return the jacket’s to its rightful owner’s bare shoulders. He had a mad look in his eye and I suddenly realized he began plotting out his next “move.” He was correct in that I did throw it at him. Unfortunately, because he did not truly answer the question, I decided not to push the issue any further. I was going to leave Forest at the curb of the house in which my room was, with or without my jacket, and whether or not he wanted me to.

After the jacket debate, and artfully dodging Forest’s advances—which picked up heavily—I fell completely silent for a period of what seemed hours, but in all actuality lasted less than five minutes. I simply stopped answering his questions or responding to his attempts to woo me into submission. I finally stopped flirting back.

At about the same time we arrived at the path leading to the back door of my house, Forest folded and stopped talking all together. I took the opportunity to snatch my jacket of his arm, dodged yet another weak attempt by him to pull me closer, and jogged up the path, without even a blink in his direction.

I reached the door, and began digging for my keys when I realized, to my chagrin, the keys that had been safely nudged in a pocket of my jacket had vanished. They fell out at some point along the route of extinguishing Michael’s hair and leaving Forest’s arm. I reasoned they could have been in dozens of places considering the amount of territory we covered, but I was in no way willing or spirited enough to deal with trying to locate them and avoid another marathon of nauseating insinuations from Forest. I lamented playing along in the entire escapade. The whole evening started to make me feel ill; the amount of Chartreuse I had consumed had not helped.

I stood at the door for a few seconds staring at the locked knob, knowing at some point I must once more acquiesce to Forest’s company. I turned to look where I left him standing with that “puppy lost his bone” look on his face—he was gone. He had just walked away, and must have truly booked it because no more than a minute had lapsed between our awkward division and my discovery of being locked out.

I began fixating with a selfishly vain obsession that someone in which I had no interest, and perhaps held a little disgust, had left me standing there, not even caring to make sure I made it safely inside my room. I acknowledged, however, that had it been ten minutes earlier and had he insisted on walking me to the door I would have turned him away.

My confidence in my own moral compass waned to a hopeless feeling of total ethical disorientation. My contradicting feelings began to overwhelm me. I needed a distraction and a plan to remove myself from my current situation. I decided that doing anything would be better than just sitting on my stoop waiting for dawn to break so I could go searching for my keys.

I walked down the front steps, to the main street my house was on. I started walking toward downtown again, no direction or plan in mind. The buzz from all the Chartreuse and dry martinis wore off as I slogged along in my damp jeans and sweater. I began to shiver. I failed to focus on any direction—on where it was I wanted to go. I wandered about the street and turned down the alley leading to Michael’s ramshackle apartment. I truly wanted to see Michael again, even though I was more likely to meet up with Forest before anyone else.

As Michael’s building came into view, I barely made out a red pencil point glow, bouncing around and growing dimmer, then slightly brighter, as whomever on the other end of the cigarette puffed. Thinking it was Forest, I groaned to myself and spent the next couple of steps approaching Michael’s front porch, trying to come up with a creative way of avoiding further awkward conversation.

I looked up at the smoking figure as I stepped over a couple of overturned bikes on Michael’s front lawn. Walking up his front steps, Michael stepped forward, American Spirit dangling almost daintily from under the left side of his upper lip.

“Hey…”

No expletive. No smile. Not even his typical, self-conscious, hair-tucking gesture. He looked exhausted and deflated. A sudden guilty rush, of almost motherly shame for having left him sitting on the floor of a bar, came over me; a lump started to develop in my throat, blocking any sort of response that may have been surfacing. My only instinct was to rush to Michael and cling to him, a little panic-stricken kid reunited with her mom in the supermarket after having wandered through every isle.

Neither of us spoke for a few seconds, as we stared at the ground by one another’s feet. He did not ask where Forest had gone, and I cared not to find out if that meant he had returned. Similarly, I passed on bringing up inquiring where “His Laura” had wound up. I did not need to ask. Ten seconds into our silent foot-staring contest, Michael grabbed my shoulders and pulled me into his smoky, crestfallen chest. He sighed after a moment of the bony embrace, resting his chin on the top of my head.

“She left a couple of minutes ago. Said Forest sent her a text to pick him up at some bar.”

I tried, but failed to place the tone in his voice; I sensed no blame or resentment toward neither me, Forest or “His Laura.” I did not offer any comfort or explanation from my end, but simply stood there letting him use my head as a chinrest.

“Hey I don’t want to set another head on fire tonight.”

I broke our clumsy embrace, finally backing up to let him tend to his neglected cigarette. He took a long, slow drag, brought his foot up to rest on the porch railing, and looked me straight in the eye.

“I’m sorry Maggie.”

He snuffed out his cigarette on the sole of his shoe. He leaned against the porch rail behind him, his gangly leg still resting on the crooked, breaking spindles, and grabbed another smoke from the pack in his left breast pocket. He placed it between his lips—never breaking our eye contact.

I reached into my jacket pocket—the one from which my keys had performed their mysterious disappearing act—and took out a book of matches I had grabbed off a table in Monte Passé. I lit his cigarette and watched as he puffed the smoke out his nose with his eyes once again on my feet, distorted into one big frown. When he looked up again, he handed me the cigarette.

“What’s good for the goose, hey?”

I turned around and leaned against the rail next to him, holding the cigarette with as much grace and poise as though he had handed me a dirty Q-tip. Our hands touched, down by our sides. A few of his fingers loosely closed around my thumb and index finger, as though he were giving me final permission. I put the cigarette to my lips and inhaled. A second later I had my head buried in his chest again, only this time in a coughing fit.

“You really like that?”

I managed to blurt out the few words between coughs.

“No. I can’t stand it. One of these days I’m going to stop tearing myself up over it and just quit. Find something better to do.”

“Me too.”

Calming down, he put one of his arms around me. With his other, he took the cigarette out of the hand I had resting on the rail, holding it as far away from us as possible. As I listened to his heart beat, the side of my face pressed up to his chest, I watched him ash out the last cigarette of our evening.

“Yeah. You really should.

——————–

Megan Paske lives in Neenah, Wisconsin. She studied Journalism at UW-Madison. Her fiction has been published in “The Fable Online,” “Buck Off Magazine,” “The Furious Gazelle,” and “Riding Light Review.” Her other writing includes her blog, Live My Mad World, poetry, short stories, and a memoir of her life with Bipolar Disorder. She uses her creativity through her illness as an outlet and as advocacy for mental illness and its place within the creative arts.


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