Once a Smoker, Always a Smoker

  “I don’t know why you wanted to meet here of all places.”

She said it in a voice of perfect exasperation that was all at once disheartening and tenderly familiar to me. How many times had I heard that tone when I couldn’t decide where to go for dinner or when I’d taken too long agonizing over what outfits to pack before a trip and still wound up bringing too many socks and not enough underwear? That tone belonged to me, it was ours – or at least it had been. Now there was something terribly bitter that had snuck into the sweetness of it. Perhaps it was the fact that it no longer felt like mine anymore. Perhaps it was the simple fact that I probably wouldn’t be hearing  Josephine’s voice at all soon.

“One last drink together at Virgil’s seemed like a reasonable idea,” I said. “Where better to toast to the terms of our mutual surrender than the neutral territory of our favorite spot, our own little DMZ of sorts.”

She rolled her eyes in a playful way that felt forced from my vantage point. It was kind of her to fake it. I had been doing the same, though not so much for her as for myself. This was the first time I’d decided to broach the subject, to open the door to a conversation that neither of us had any desire to have. To be honest, I probably could have eased us into it a bit more tactfully, but it felt like we were way past that. Still, that didn’t make it any less awkward for us and neither, it seemed, did my attempt at levity. After all, what was there to joke about? The smile faded quickly and she let her eyes fall to the table.

“We can’t keep…” she began, then corrected herself. “I can’t keep…” she said before trailing off.

“Using me for my body?”

She had laughed at that early on, when the end had started, when we were only just beginning to creep towards the place where we found ourselves standing now. I think those wisecracks had been a way for us to avoid the truth of the thing and to tell it at the same time, which was vaguely comforting in a way it wasn’t anymore. Before, we’d been able to laugh it off, but lately it had gotten more and more difficult to poke fun at ourselves, at what we were doing. She didn’t laugh this time. She’d been laughing less and less. I had tried convincing myself I hadn’t noticed. But I had.

“Speaking of drinks,” I said balefully as I saw Manolo approaching our table from the back of house.

“Ah! Look who it is,” he cried out, beaming. “What a lovely surprise! Can I fetch you a cocktail? Or perhaps something to nibble on? The kitchen’s technically closed, but I’m sure Eddie would be happy get out from behind the bar and whip something up for you.”

“That sounds lovely, Manny,” she said pleasantly, “but I don’t think we’ll be eating anything tonight.”

“As for drinks, those I think will be very necessary,” I added. “Can I trouble you for an old fashioned and ask you to tell Eddie to pour the son of a bitch as deep as the glass will go. What about you, Jo? Can I interest you in a negroni with Boodles extra dry gin, no fruit, for old time’s sake?”

“No,” she replied cooly, “Water’s fine.”

The tension made me want to squirm. It wasn’t the good kind of tension, either, the kind we used to feel when we would’ve wanted to abscond away to the bathroom and rip each other’s clothes off. If anything, she was looking at me like she wanted to rip my skin off and then tear my limbs off one by one. Having now been on the receiving end of both those stares with Manolo next to me, I could say with complete assurance that this one had made him feel far more uncomfortable to be around. Uncomfortable doesn’t begin to describe how it made me feel.

“Of course,” he stammered. I thought he would have taken opportunity to leave the table, but Manolo had always been far too polite for his own good and certainly too polite for this particular establishment. Virgil’s had its charm to be sure, scrawled in gouges on the mahogany tabletops and scored to the sounds of sensual titters and belligerent screams pouring in from the sidewalk, but it wasn’t what you’d call ‘a nice place.’ All the same, it felt like a home away from home, or at least it had for a time.

“It’s been too long since we’ve seen you two,” regaining his cheery disposition, consummate professional that he was. “How are you?”

“Well,” I began, looking first at her and then up at Manny, repaying his smile with my own, which did not come as easily to me as his had, “everything’s great except that the life we’ve built is in shambles and at the moment, I’m pretty sure she hates me. Otherwise, no complaints.”

She was shaking her head slowly and staring at me with eyes that looked like black marbles made of malevolence, like all the violence in the world could be summed up in those lovely dark irises. Manolo let out a noise that sounded like the nervous laugh of a kid watching his parents fight a little too close to the drawers with all the kitchen knives. Then he disappeared. I smiled at her warmly, which only seemed to make things worse judging by the vehemence that swelled in her eyes.

What was it she wanted from me then, I wondered? How did she want me to return that glare? Was I supposed to match it with the same brand of spite and disgust? If that was the case it was a problem because I didn’t feel any of that, no matter how much I might have wanted to. And maybe that was exactly the problem – maybe she needed me to feel that to make her more at ease feeling it herself. The thought made me feel a sudden sense of guilt. It was mild and misplaced, but it was enough to make me wipe the grin from my face.

“What the hell are we doing here, Rene?” She asked.

“Look,” I sighed, “I’m sorry about that. I didn’t mean to embarrass you. I’ll apologize to Manny when he comes back and we can go some place else. You were right about this not being the place to –“

“No,” she said, cutting me off brusquely, “that isn’t what I was talking about.” I knew it wasn’t.

Her frustration had taken on a sharper edge now, one devoid of humor or affection or even good will. She didn’t sound like she was talking to a person she cared about anymore, she sounded like she was talking to a problem.

“What are we doing, Rene?” She pressed. “You and I? What’s the point?”

That question had been ringing in my mind for months and I’d done everything I could to ignore it. Not because I didn’t know the answer, but because I did.

We’d been broken up now for three months now, or maybe it was closer to four. The split had been civil enough. Nobody shouted and nobody cried. There was no exchanging of platitudes, of ‘it’s not you, it me’ and so forth. In fact, it had been remarkably, almost comically direct. 

“You’re not committed to this, Jo,” I’d said haltingly in the living room of her old apartment back when it was still our apartment.

“That depends on your definition of commitment,” she responded matter of factly.

“Fair enough,” I conceded, nodding. “What’s your definition then?”

“Hmm,” she thought about it for a moment. “To me, it’s a matter of caring about someone and owning that. Letting yourself care about that person completely. I care about you that way. Would you agree with that definition?”

“I think that’s part of it. And I care about you that way, too. But I think there’s more to commitment than that.”

“Of course you do. To you it probably involves keeping every reservation and remembering every birthday and anniversary and whatever else you might get your panties in a twist about.”

“It’s about showing up – not necessarily about showing up on time, just showing up for each other. It’s about caring enough to make the effort.”

“Why isn’t caring enough in and of itself?”

“That’s not how it works,” I said somberly, “not the way I see it at least.”

“Well,” she replied, “that’s because you’re an obsessive compulsive control freak who needs to catch every flight and make sure all the trains run on time.”

“Did you just compare me to Mussolini?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.


“That’s not very nice.”

“I’m not a very nice person.”

“That’s also true.”

As far as I could tell, none of this had signaled any grand shift from the people we’d been when we first met. She’d been a jerk from the start, sort of self-centered and harsh and woefully unreliable the way a cat was. As for me, I’d had a type-A personality since I started to have a personality. But somewhere in between something had changed. We stopped liking each other. The problem was that we still loved one another.

She came over to my new place a week after I’d moved out of her apartment and into my own. There were things she wanted to drop off, a few books, a couple t-shirts I thought I’d lost, a solitary sock without a mate. She brought them in a large brown paper bag from the grocery store. I wondered if it was one of the plethora of bags she hoarded from our trips to the grocery store when she forgot to bring one of her dozens of canvas bags that littered the back of her car. A paper bag seemed like a silly thing to get sentimental over. Nevertheless, I had trouble reconciling the notion of this object that had probably been part of a picnic she’d planned or a dinner I’d cooked, this object that had been part of a shared experience being used to rid her of last traces of me, of us. She put the bag on the floor next to my nightstand. I didn’t want to look at it.

I didn’t want to look at her either. I’d missed her from the moment I left her apartment a few nights earlier. It’s funny how that part of memory works or rather how it doesn’t. The minute you walk away from someone who’s bad for you is usually the minute you start to forget why they’re bad for you. By the time I’d reached my car, all the withering insults and biting remarks, all the mean lies and meaner truths that she’d flung at me like daggers had all but disappeared from my recollection.

Driving away, all the daggers and all the discontent between us faded away. All that was left were the good bits. I could hear the thick, rich timbre of her voice when she would swim up from the depths of a nap and look up at me, dazed and delicious and bleary eyed. I could smell the delicate scent of her hair, tan and frayed and a little wild, like dried out palm fronds in the height of a drought. I could feel the gentle give of her skin when I placed kisses on her and brushed my lips atop the peach fuzz that grew along the backs of her thighs and where the curvature of her jawline met her ear. All those lovely little details I’d come to appreciate, the ones I’d come to take for granted as being part of my life suddenly weren’t. As I wheeled the car away from our apartment without any sense of where it was I was heading, I found myself aching with regret and uncertainty and pangs of longing that throbbed more intensely with every passing street.

That longing was ringing in my head as she walked towards my bed and sat next to me, as deafening and as painful as a bell tolling inside my skull. We sat together in silence in the middle of all that noise. I wanted to know if she felt it too, the same need that I felt for her, the need I had to fight every muscle fiber in my body not to act on. I wanted to know if she’d been plagued with doubt and wracked with what ifs that hounded her constantly. I wanted to know if she’d missed me, if she’d been haunted by the good bits as she lay awake in a bed that felt too big and too empty. I wanted to know if this was as hard for her as it was for me. And cruel as it may have been, I wanted so badly for the answers to be yes.

Before I had a chance to ask, I felt her fingers, first grazing my pinky, then clasping my whole hand and holding it in her lap. We didn’t speak. We just let each ourselves give in to what it was we wanted, even if it wasn’t entirely clear to either of us what that was for the other. Afterwards, I laid awake next to her as she dozed sweatily, snoring lightly here and there as the night unfurled around her, and asked myself, ‘What are we doing?’

The question had a vague undertone of hope about it back then. She could be vicious when she wanted to and she had a way of making me feel so small that it sometimes seemed I could hardly be said to exist at all. There were days when she decided to be cruel and days when she decided to be kind and days when she decided to be both. It was tricky trying to decipher what to expect of her from one moment to the next, but when she was kind it felt like things were going to be ok, like it was all going to work out. I’d spent a lot of years looking for that feeling and had nearly given up on finding it. Maybe I needed to learn to love her cruelty like I loved her kindness. Maybe this was the beginning of our second act, I thought there in the darkness, looking over this complete person in my bed and appreciating her. Or maybe these saccharine ideas were little more than illusions in the hazy afterglow of intimacy, rose tinted fantasies and distortions.

As the morning light started seeping between the cracks in my blinds, I was no closer to knowing one way or another. I wanted to ask her, but I couldn’t get myself to say the words. Neither of us did, not at first. We just went on like that, her showing up unannounced, wanting what I was glad to give her and nothing more. The rest of the time, it was as if I was a secret she had to keep from herself, locked away and hidden out of sight. Once in a while she’d surprise me with a sidelong glance that was almost adoring. But that adoration had a tendency to evaporate from one look to the next, replaced with an air of total detachment as she put her shoes on and left, taking all the air out of the room with her. It was vexing and unpredictable and stressful and yet, we didn’t do very much talking, least of all about what we were doing to each other. I wasn’t sure what this was, but I was afraid to lose it all the same. I’d take what I could get.

And that was enough for me – until it wasn’t. The truth of the matter was that it hadn’t been enough, but it had seemed kinder not to admit that to myself. It would’ve hurt to admit that and so we didn’t. Instead, we let the hurt come slow, telling ourselves a lie that we believed less and less, pretending we couldn’t see the water inching its way up the walls as the ship went steadily, undeniably downward.

But as the weeks had turned into months, it had gotten harder to breathe.

Manolo appeared with my drink and brought me back to the table with the clink of the chunky ice cube in the rocks glass. He was gone before I had a chance to apologize. I couldn’t blame him. Josephine was looking at her watch, looking at the other patrons, looking at the street scene outside the plate glass windows at my back. She was looking at anything but me now. I could tell she was running out of patience. She didn’t look angry anymore, not exactly. She just looked like she was through. Part of me wanted to get away from the table as quickly as I could, too. Part of me didn’t know what I wanted.

“It occurred to me when you called yesterday,” I began slowly, causing her head to swivel back in my direction, “that we hadn’t gone out in a very long time.”

“And?” She demanded. She grew curt when her guard was all the way up.

“And I thought we should remedy that at least once more before whatever it is that happens next with you and me happens. A little nostalgia never hurt anybody.”

“Nostalgia always hurts somebody.”

“Could be,” I agreed. “Could be it hurts everybody. Could be that’s just what looking back costs.”

“Is that what we’re doing here?” The question sounded more than a little sardonic, which seemed like an improvement.

“Isn’t that all we’ve been doing?” I asked, a bit more pointedly than I’d intended. It rattled me a bit. Josephine, for her part, looked unfazed. Her posture was relaxed: elbows on the table, chin resting in the palm of her hand. Her half-lidded eyes gave the impression that she was just as ready to listen as she was to lunge at my throat. I decided to unrattle myself and aim for the former.

“We must’ve had 100, 200 drinks in this place,” I continued. “You with your chintzy negronis, holding court and bumming cigarettes off of strangers and never letting me buy you a pack. I’ve wanted to go back there and have a look around and have a drink, even if it’s not to stay. Hang the cost.”

The two of us sat with that for a moment, considering just what the cost was. Her brow furrowed slightly and her face became worryingly inscrutable. It looked as if she was trying to make up her mind about something, though it wasn’t clear what. I waited for her, which felt like all I could do.

“I quit smoking,” she said, leaning back in her chair and smirking for the first time since we’d sat down. “If I’d let you buy me a pack, I wouldn’t have been able to say that I’d stopped, now would I?”

“That’s not how it works,” I said from behind my glass and took a sip of the old fashioned. It was much stronger than I’d anticipated and I was grateful for it.

She nodded thoughtfully, looking back at me before twisting in her seat and calling out to Manolo for a drink over her shoulder. When her attention returned to me, I noticed the faintest softening in her eyes. I felt my heart buoy and knew full well that soon it would be time for it to sink again. Soon we would have to talk about stopping, about quitting whatever it was we were doing. That would come later though.

Her drink arrived and she raised it wordlessly. I touched her glass with my own and we drank and told the lies we still wanted to hear just a little while longer.

Travis Cohen

Travis Cohen studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami. His work has been featured in Litbreak Magazine, The Vanderbilt Review and (In) Parenthesis Magazine and he has previously written for the Miami New Times. He lives in a bright blue house on a street corner in Little Haiti with his wife and their dog where he grows avocados, mangos and star fruit.

Travis Cohen studied creative writing at Vanderbilt University and is currently enrolled in the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami. His work has been featured in Litbreak Magazine, The Vanderbilt Review and (In) Parenthesis Magazine and he has previously written for the Miami New Times. He lives in a bright blue house on a street corner in Little Haiti with his wife and their dog where he grows avocados, mangos and star fruit.

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