The Countdown — Fiction (Published)
She held her cigarette tight between two fingers as she shut the balcony door. Sounds of the busy street mixed with cicadas below washed over her. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, in and out, nice and slow. When she opened her eyes, her vision darted to catch a bird flying past the balcony. Vanessa glanced at the street several stories below. The wicker chair with peeling green paint revealing old faded blue sat to her right. Vanessa sighed and took her throne with gusto, sinking into the ugly floral cushion.
With a couple sparks from her cheap Bic lighter, the end of the cigarette caught and she slowly took the sweet menthol tobacco into her lungs and exhaled, returning the lighter to her pocket. The smoke drifted briskly away from her lips and dispersed into the air around her and above to the scattered clouds reflecting the warm evening sun.
Vanessa sat back, biting her lip, careful to pull off the chapped skin. She drew the cigarette back to her lips. Ready to smoke, to think. It was a short time before she had to go back inside — roughly four-to-five minutes, maybe ten drags from the Marlboro hanging in her fingers, and she would be back to the cold, away from the embrace of the sun and the sounds of the city.
Nine. Two flicks.
She nearly forgot to take time between each pull to make it last and take in some breaths of actual air instead of the menthol crystallizing in her lungs. Vanessa curled the edges of her lips to a soft smirk, flicking her eyes to the metal bucket to her right. How many days are in there? Some cigarettes were from that day, others weeks old, months old, copious amounts of cigarette butts with different shades of red lipstick, some barren, like today’s, or a couple when she was trying to wear darker shades and he didn’t like it. Purples, blues, even some black lipstick; all faded, and forgotten.
Eight. Two flicks.
Vanessa took a deep breath of real air again and let her arm hang over the armrest of the chair, letting the light wind brush against her. He hated the smell of her when she came inside from the balcony. That’s three times a day (at least) that he wouldn’t kiss her, wouldn’t hold her. She had to brush her teeth if she wanted to be near him, and let the smell dissipate after a while. Perfumes sometimes helped, but not always. At the very least, he hated seeing her get weepy and panicking all the time, so she was allowed this solace on the balcony when she needed it.
Seven. One flick.
Flashes of memories struck her. The argument about that actor in that one movie last month really stuck with her for some reason. She said he was in a movie, he said he wasn’t in that movie, that’s all she can remember of what was said, nothing important was ever said during fights like that. He threw the remote at the wall and it rattles now. It took him forever to admit he got too angry about nothing, never saying the word sorry, she noted. They had sex to forget about it later that night.
The next week he was trying to diet to make sure that she wouldn’t leave him for someone better. He was so hungry that he told her to fuck off and die when she offered to make some food for them, but that was just him being “snippy”. It was warm out, too, he said, she knew how he got when it was too hot.
A drop of sweat slid down Vanessa’s cheek and hung to her chin. She brushed it away and threw her hair behind her shoulders.
Six. Two flicks.
She tried to rationalize. At least she had work the next day, and that will keep her mind off things. At least he did the dishes that day, for once. At least she had a job. At least he stopped cheating on me when I’m there, she thought. At least he apologized for that. Vanessa took time with the next long drag.
He wanted her to quit smoking, because he cared about her, he said. Why didn’t she care about herself? Doesn’t she understand that if she left him he’ll just die? Why didn’t she understand anything?
Five. One flick. Nicotine hits.
Vanessa leaned back in her throne and slowly exhaled the smoke, resting her head on the back of the chair, able to relax just a little. Finding comfort in his old chair, on his balcony, his apartment, was funny to her in some ways.
She found she just didn’t have the energy or the height to climb over the balcony railing many days like today.
The cicadas roared in the trees below.
Four. One flick.
She picked at the paint on the chair with her left hand. The red paint was chipping off her nails, too. Vanessa bent the tips of her fingers inward and felt the lip of the nails on her skin where she bit them down.
How many apologies has it been?
Three. One flick.
Enough, she thought.
She closed her eyes and felt the warmth of the evening July sun on her lids. The cherry was at the very end of her cigarette. Vanessa wanted another one but her pack was inside next to him. The argument would be a pain.
One. Squeezed out the cherry. Burnt thumb.
How many Julys has it even been anyway?
Enough, she thought.
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This piece was published in 2018 in Hair Trigger 2.0 (Spring) which can be viewed here: https://hairtrigger.colum.edu/spring-issue-2019-1/blog-post-title-one-tw2eg