Kools — Non-Fiction (WIP)
The first time I smoked a cigarette, I was in love. Not the warm melting feeling, but the sticky mess that happens when it’s the wrong time, wrong place, and the both of you are horrid for each other. The blackness in my heart stole me many times but I ended that particularly long overnight shift early after all the dramatics of going to the back storage room away from my manager just so I could cry every ounce of my organs and guts out onto the stock room floor while trying to conceal the noises as I wept. I don’t know or remember what particularly happened to make me so violently sad and angry with myself, but that was just how it happens, with anxiety creeping in, joining hands with depression, circling you until someone falls down. It tore me down to my knees and I wept for what felt like hours. My body felt like it was rocking, like I was on a boat in the middle of a storm, and the tides were telling me that it was useless, that I’ll never be free from this. I just about threw up.
All I really can remember is that Sam wasn’t talking to me at the moment, for some unspoken reason, angry at me for something I did or said. I learned to just wait, to write my texts out and let them sit, stewing in the possibilities, discuss with him in my head of all the possible things I did wrong, and that I am sorry for all of them. Most of the time it inevitably was just one out of a possible twenty possibilities that he was actually angry with me. He’d come back after a horrible week or so and act like nothing happened and I would do my best to forget.
I went to the front of the store after trying my best to make my face not look sunken or red and puffy, or soaked, checking the mirror of the sunglasses display for a solid two minutes. I looked like death. My manager, a lovely woman with not many more years over myself, with a soft round face wrapped in a hijab. With her kindness and motherly warmth that I seldom had in my life at the time, noticed I had been crying right away. Without hesitation, she asked me what was wrong.
I reluctantly forced myself to ask, giving up, just needing something. I mumbled it at first, but I know that the last word got through to her.
“Fatima, can you ring me up for some cigarettes,” I managed to say.
I remembered sitting with Sam in the Ford Focus that I own today, but at the time it wasn’t shitty or breaking apart, piece by piece. At the time, it was the car of a non-admitted entitled tall white boy who put it through way too much and his mom who was well off enough to throw money at problems until they go away. Somehow the car survived. I thought of all the memories in that car, strong with happiness and sadness, the feelings you get when you’re talking about everything and nothing at the same time. He was smoking at the time.
I used to hate smokers like my dad and his friends. The way Sam made me feel when he smoked, though, made me feel like I was in a high school PSA. He made it seem cool, with his calm expression, the way his long fingers held the cigarette, the smoke drifting from his lips in a sweet smokey menthol scent. I reacted to the smell of the menthol smoke, remarking at the mint smell mixing with the smoke, used to the cheap tobacco my dad smoked, and he told me what kind they were before I even asked. Sam offered a drag to me, because he knew I was going through a lot, knowing the feelings I had for him, the implications, the gestures. He knew.
A month before Sam let me take that drag from his cigarette, he told me that if we were meant to be together, we will be, he promised, “Just not now.” He was still with Kelly. I didn’t know what he meant by that for a long time.
After some worry and concern from Fatima, she rang me up a pack of green Kool 100s, the same long green pack that he smoked. My logic at this time was that I could smoke one or two, to just get me by for the night, and give Sam the rest and be done with it. I thought he’d also be happy to get a free pack of cigarettes, because I just wanted to make him as happy as I could. I just needed this for now. Fatima still saw the sadness in my eyes and asked me what was wrong again. I was open with her, as you need to be to survive overnights, with three more hours of our shift left.
I took a deep breath and told her about Sam, about how he was dating someone else and wouldn’t ever be interested in me like that anyway, we were best friends and I didn’t want to lose that, either. I didn’t want to make him feel miserable because I wanted something from him that he could never give me.
She instantly understood, nodding, and said that she had went through something similar when she was my age, before she got married. She told me that I can get through this, and because she had even met Sam previously from his visits to our store, said that we would most likely end up together some day, just not right now. I disagreed at the time but her accuracy has yet to be disproved. I nearly started crying again after explaining it all to someone who genuinely cared and wanted me to be happy.
Fatima noticed the delirious expression I was trying my best to hide, though, and said, “Go home and get some rest, Sabrina.” She was a head shorter than me but the firmness of her grip on my shoulder gave me needed clarity. She was wonderful. It took a bit of repeating and convincing but she was never forceful. It was only three hours before the end of my shift and I was physically and mentally drained, exhausted from my breakdown. I caved and gathered my bag together for the trip home, hoping the forty minute walk home would calm my nerves.
I wished deep in my heart at that moment that Sam would be outside waiting to pick me up from work, somehow knowing that I had left early, somehow knowing that I wanted to see Sam, so I could apologize for something I probably didn’t do, but at the same time needed him to forgive me for. I looked for the gleaming silver Ford Focus and tried not to let the disappointment get to me or hate myself for wanting something so unrealistic. I walked through the parking lot holding the feeling in my gut like a bullet.
At the end of the parking lot, I slid out the first long cigarette, playing with the smoothness of the paper in my fingers before lighting it with the pretty blue lighter I bought with the pack, feeling the smooth plastic on my thumb while I walked. I continued to glance at passing silver cars, hoping to find the distinct shape of a car I memorized, hoping, wishing, somehow, that Sam would drive by me and stop to apologize, tell me he actually loved me all along, something out of a romantic comedy, but this didn’t happen.
I remembered the advice I got from some British TV series I was watching at the time. “Inhale slowly into your mouth, then deep into your mouth, slowly exhaling after a second.” The nicotine hit my brain and I began to calm down as it mixed within me. My headphones were blasting sad and angry songs that reminded me of him, songs we even had sung together in his car. I sang my heart out, from deep in my gut, as I walked home, not caring if people could see or hear me in the cold echoing weather with the early dawn hushing all other sounds. I probably looked crazy and drunk, but I needed to scream, crying and singing all the way home through my suburban hometown. My walk had a lighter feeling to it as I sang with my messenger bag tapping my side at my thigh with each step.
While I still smoke now, despite it taking a very long time for me to become genuinely addicted, those cigarettes probably saved me in a way, which is an awful thing to say about cigarettes, but it’s how I feel. The depression I was going through was deeply rooted in the only option of getting out being suicide, and I just couldn’t do that, but smoking stopped the sobbing, which in turn stopped the breakdowns. Those couple years of longing taught me a lot about myself, about others, about life, and I am now thankful for all of that time spent, thankful for that pain, and thankful for that green pack of cigarettes that saved me and gave me clarity, if only, for a handful of minutes one winter morning.