“Y’know, they’re trying to pass this law to ban smoking in restaurants and bars?” I say.
“That’s crap,” Kristen replies, flicking the hand she is holding her cigarette with as if flaunting it in rebellion. “I heard about that, and it’s crap.”
“Well, smoking is bad for you.” I take drag of my own cigarette and Kristen rolls her eyes. She looks nice, nicer than I’ve seen her for a long time. Not that she’s been around for me to see. She’s all dressed up in a nice black suit from her new job, wearing too much make-up. There’s black gunk surrounding her eyes that looks like crayon. It makes her look intimidating. But she still looks nice. I don’t tell her that though; she would laugh.
“What’ve you been up to, Blake?” she asks after a silent moment. I don’t have an answer, so I shrug.
Then she gives me ‘the look.’ Head tilted to the side, mouth straight and hard, eyes unblinking. I’ve gotten this look before. It always seems derisive and makes me want to squirm in my seat, like she’s a high school principal staring me down to make me admit to cheating on a test. It was the kind of look that would make me admit to it too, even if I hadn’t done it. With the black eye gunk it’s extra scary. No wonder she’s back here with a new promotion and I’m still scrambling to get stories thrown my way at the local paper. With that look she could get anyone to do anything she wanted them to do. I guess that’s what they call ‘leadership potential.’
Her lips twitch into a grin and I know she’s teasing. I should’ve known the whole time, but there’s no telling with her. I answer anyway.
She taps her fingernails on the wooden table top in a sharp rhythm. I can tell they’re plastic.
“How’s the job?” she asks.
“Okay. Still waiting for my big break.” I almost wish I could take back those words once they’re out. I can already hear Kristen’s lecture I heard a million times during college. ‘You don’t wait for your big break. You make it happen.’ I wait a moment. She doesn’t say it. I guess at this point she thinks it would be like rubbing it in.
“Any girls?” she asks.
I think about the blonde intern who started two weeks ago, but I don’t think there’s a single guy at the paper who doesn’t think about the blonde intern who started two weeks ago. “No. You?” I instantly regret asking it. I don’t want to know about other men in her life.
“Girls?” she asks, making a joke out of it. “No,” she shakes her head. I decide not to rephrase the question. I know Kristen. If she has something she wants to tell me, she’ll tell me.
She flicks ashes neatly off the end of her cigarette into the red ceramic ash tray and it reminds me of my neglected Marlboro. I take a drag. She brings the end of her cigarette to her mouth but doesn’t inhale. For a moment it reminds me of Audrey Hepburn’s classic pose in all the Breakfast at Tiffany’s posters. I remember when Kristen made me watch that movie with her. Now there are two women who manage to make smoking look redeemably elegant.
A waitress with the hair on half of her head shaved off comes by to ask us if we need anything. I shake my head no. Kristen orders a Coke for herself and tells the waitress to bring a water for me.
“I like this place,” Kristen comments after the waitress who is missing half her hair is out of earshot. “It’s trendy.” She’s mocking me. I told her this place was cool when we made plans to go out, but now I realize she’s probably been to a million more interesting places than this in L.A. She might have appreciated this place two years ago.
Again, I don’t have anything to say, so I look at the painting on the wall over her head. It’s some of that splatter paint crap, too modern and too crazy for anyone to make any sense of.
The waitress brings the drinks. Kristen must have finished off her cigarette while I wasn’t paying attention because she’s stubbed out the butt in the ash tray and is rifling through her purse for another. I offer a lit Zippo to her when she’s ready. She smiles in thanks, and it’s the prettiest she’s looked so far because the smile balances out her blackened eyes.
I remember the first time she kissed me – junior year in college, beginning of December. We were in the hallway outside her room at 2:45 in the morning. I remember the taste of her lipstick, dull and chalk-like. I think she was wearing the small gracious smile she’s wearing now. And she smiled the same when she told me she loved me right before we graduated. She always went after what she wanted. It’s something I admire about her. It’s how she got me.
The blonde intern has nothing on Kristen.
“Thanks for inviting me out,” she says and the smile disappears because she’s now busy with words and the gracious memories disappear from my mind. “I lost touch with a lot of people back here when I was in California.”
“That happens when you move across the country.” It should have sounded pleasant, but I said it harshly. I remember that too – what she loved more than me. Maybe I was too harsh, because she’s suddenly very still, but I don’t feel bad.
I look at the condensation racing down the sides of my untouched glass and pooling on the table top so I don’t have to look at her.
“I really hope they don’t ban smoking in restaurants. That’s really just stupid.” She sounds angry.
“It’s the whole secondhand smoke thing,” I glance up at her and stub out my cigarette.
“There’s a billion things that can kill you faster than some stray secondhand smoke. Seriously. People are just idiots who like to complain.” She says it and then sucks hard on the end of her cigarette. The smoke escapes her mouth and it looks like her insides must be smoldering.
“Yeah, but sometimes people who’ve never smoked die from like, lung cancer, ’cause their spouse smoked or something,” I say. I agree with her. The law is stupid, or at least just inconvenient to me. But I want to argue.
“Sure, when they live with a smoker for twenty years,” she waves her hand around wildly and it leaves a thin trail of disappearing smoke in the air. “But if everyone is so worried about getting hurt by every little thing…you can’t even live.”
“A lot of people don’t mind risking getting hurt by what they do. They just don’t like getting hurt by other people’s shitty choices.”
Kristen isn’t really paying attention to me anymore. Just to the argument, to her defense.
“Well they’ve got to get some balls. You can’t live your life in isolation. Without the risk.”
“Maybe you’re wrong. Maybe you’re just being selfish. Maybe you shouldn’t trade other people’s happiness for your own.”
I fully regret asking her out now. But I’d heard she’d moved back in town and I always was a sucker for her. But I don’t know what I hoped was going to happen. I knew it would end up in a fight. Not this one, necessarily, but a fight. I think I came here for the fight, like it would prove something.
Her eyes narrow for a fraction of a second. “You realize you smoke too, right?”
I shrug one shoulder. “I’m thinking of quitting.” That’s a lie.
She finds this funny and smirks. “You’re more addicted than I am.”
“I could quit if I tried.”
She laughs and then she smiles at me again. Bigger this time, and I want to hate her for it but I don’t.
She puts out her second cigarette out.
“It was good to see you.” She doesn’t say anything else and it sounds final to me. Then she pulls out the money for her drink, leaves the folded bills on the table and my gut hurts.
She leaves, but the smoke still curls up from the end of the cigarette she’d only half-snuffed out in the ashtray.
Margery Bayne splits her time between her home in Baltimore, Maryland and her school, Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania where she is majoring in Creative Writing and minoring in Editing and Publishing. She has been previously published in LITSNACK and Outrageous Fortune.