When I first started working at the college, the smoking section was right outside the front entrance to the library. You’d walk into work through a cloud of purple black-and-mild smoke clouds—the various artificial fruit flavors comingling into a choking hazard. Butts littered the concrete walkway. On Thursdays, the maintenance guy would scatter them all off the curb with a leaf blower. I didn’t mind it, but apparently, everyone else did.
So the next year they moved us all into a little stand-alone brick room in the middle of campus. It opened in August, but the exhaust system wasn’t put in until November. The clouds of smoke settled at the top and hung there in a thick fog that reminded me of the smoke from the scale houses that fire fighters would have kids crawl through during safety drills. The aroma would seep into coats and shirts and books and stay with you all day long. “Dang Professor B., you stink!” My students would say when I walked into the classroom.
Now we walk to the edge of campus, light up and watch the drafts waft out in front of the cars. I told everyone at orientation this year that I quit, so when I’m desperate and I remember to bring them, I quietly remove one from the box, exit my office, and move quickly and quietly down the hall. I step outside and tuck it behind my ear and pray that no student runs into me to ask a question about the homework. This is my time.
Out through the emergency exit; cut across the grass. Move past the mound of wet dirt and down, in and out of the little ditch running under the road to the student parking lot. In the mornings, the dew sticks little blades of grass to your toe. When it rains, a ring of red clay wraps around your sole.
I move up the hill and onto the sidewalk, pull it from behind my ear and put it into my mouth, bring it to my hands and watch the first embers flicker away into the wind. In the early days, I’d feel a rush to the head and the world would go mute for a couple seconds. Now I felt nothing.
It had been one of my better ideas. If not better, then definitely brazen. Standing at the bar of the Forty-Watt one January evening, half-listening to Mike Cooley wail out the lyrics to “Zip City,” I dropped a five in the jar and moved in close to shout into the bartender’s ear. “You see that freakishly tall blonde over there,” I said. “Tell her she can have any drink she wants. Just put it on my tab. And I’ll have another Terrapin.”
He nodded, and then he walked over to her and pointed to me. I watched him pour the house bourbon into a tumbler with a splash of water, sugar, and bitters. He shook it and then dumped that old-fashioned into a cheap, clear-plastic cup. She tipped her glass in appreciation, and I nodded and smiled back at her. Then she waded through the lines at the bar and over to me.
“Thanks for the drink,” she said, leaning forward toward my ear. She didn’t have to stand on her toes, a definite plus. “Pretty classy move.”
“Thanks,” I said.
Then Cooley hit the solo and I couldn’t hear a thing.
“What?” I shouted.
“I said my name is—“
“I can’t hear you.”
She lightly clutched my shoulder and shouted into my ear, “Do you want go outside so we can talk?”
“Sure,” I said, grinning sheepishly, “but after this song ends.”
She smiled back at me. “Okay.”
After Cooley finished singing about his 350 head on a 305 engine and his lack of good intentions, she grasped my hand and led me out the door. She found an open space on the wall and leaned back, thrusting her wide hips forward while fishing through the pockets of her cardigan for her Marlboro Lights. She pulled one out, brought it to her mouth, pursed her lips, and drew in the smoke as the flame from her lighter ignited the end.
“Want one?” She asked, thrusting the pack at me with her free hand.
“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”
I can’t remember the first time I accepted. Maybe it was the night we went to see Dave Eggers read. Maybe it was the afternoon we first got high together, split a Spanish Fly, and wandered around giggling through Little Five Points.
On those Friday nights at her apartment we’d smoke a bowl, put on our coats and hats, take a shot of bourbon and stagger down the stairs. Her always in that black-and-white checkered coat and knee- high leather boots. On colder nights, she wore a dark green scarf that brought out the color in her eyes.
It was winter in the city and beautiful. The barren, sparsely-planted trees silhouetted in the hot, soft glow of the street light. Puddles of once freezing rain sat lazily in the valleys of the broken down streets. Car wheels rolled into them at low speeds, spitting a soft whiz that played like the perfect lullaby. Dazed and happy faces passed us by.
Every once and a while she’d grab my arm and whisper something delightfully snarky into my ear. Every moment with you is an adventure is what I wanted to say back to her every time. I never did.
She didn’t want children, and Southern men her age were all too eager to settle down and have a family. “You’re the perfect kind of man,” she said. “You’re mature for your age but you still want to have fun. And I can put my head on your shoulder when we’re dancing.”
We stumbled into our weekend routine and stumbled out of bars. I’d lay her on the bed and pull her boots off and she’d tell me stories. How she was an only child. How her parents had her late. How her father was a Green Beret and how he was one of the first troops to hit the ground in Vietnam. How he died right before she graduated high school. How when she went off to college that fall, she dyed her chestnut hair blonde, took up smoking, and insisted everyone call her by her middle name.
“Did you know,” she said once—that Marlboro Light lazily gripped between her pale lips, “that possessing a glass bowl with resin is a felony offense in the state of Georgia?”
I told her I loved her on Memorial Day weekend. She ended it three weeks later. The first thing I did after I got off the phone was step outside and light up. After I finished school, I wrote her a letter to tell her that I still missed her and I was moving to the West Coast and never coming back. Sixth months after that, I was unceremoniously laid off and back in the southeast. We were only hours apart again.
On my way to work one summer morning I popped into a corner store for some spirits. There she was standing at the counter. I tensed up for a second and slowly moved to my right, but it was no use. She saw me. “Hey you!” She said with a smile. “I can’t believe you’re in Nashville!”
“Coming up on almost a year now,” I said.
“Got a new cap, too, I see.” She said, grasping at the bill and then yanking it off my head. “And hair now. Look at you.”
She turned my hat up and stared at the insignia, running a finger over the red-and-white stitched ‘P’. “I so wanted to call you after they won the World Series. I knew you’d be really happy about it. But I didn’t. I didn’t feel like I should.”
“I would’ve answered,” I said.
I wanted to tell her that I now realized what I felt for her wasn’t love. It was more an addiction—the kind that would drive a man to pinch pennies for a few loosies at the corner store the day before payday or have him fishing for a few unsavory puffs off a smashed butt in the ashtray. I wanted to tell her that I was living with someone. That I loved this someone and I now knew what real love was and that I was sorry for pushing for something that wasn’t there. I wanted to tell her I wasn’t mad at her anymore. I wanted to tell her that every day I’d find myself on the sidewalk outside work, and that some of those days I’d look down at the cigarette in my left hand and wonder how she was doing. But instead, I waited.
She put my cap back on my head and stared into my eyes. “It’s so good to see you,” she said. “I’ve got somewhere to be, but I’ve got a few minutes if you want to stand out on the curb here and smoke.”
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