The cigarettes were the last thing of his she had left.
It hadn’t been easy for her, this past week, getting rid of his stuff. She hadn’t realized there was so much of it. The clothes were the first to go – she piled them into cardboard boxes the very evening she came home and found his note, took them down to the Salvation Army counter on her way to work the next morning. There was something very attractive in the idea that if he did come back (not that she allowed herself to think about this, not even for a moment) he would find his wardrobe empty. As though he were that disposable, that easy to get rid off. She dwelt on this image as she shoved his sweaters, his shirts, his socks and underwear into their separate cartons, so that the act of giving away his clothes became, for her, an exorcism of his very shape from her life.
The toiletries were easy – she simply threw them away in the trash – and she gave his shoes (all seven pairs of them) to a grateful but bewildered bum she met on a street corner, telling him, cryptically, that he was the right man to fill her husband’s shoes. She kept the books of his that she wanted, carefully cutting out the title pages with his name on them, and gave all the others to the local library. The CDs were mostly ones they had bought together, so she let them be as they were and trained herself to think of them as her own.
The papers took a long time though. She sat up all of Saturday night going through them, finishing just a little before dawn. The love letters and other personal stuff she put aside without a second glance, but the financial papers had to be gone through carefully, and all the other official looking documents that he’d always be the one to keep track of. Women aren’t methodical enough, he used to say, you can't trust them with important papers. She put all the papers that she thought she might need in a single file, and tossed all the others into a big plastic garbage bag. By the time she finished she was exhausted, but when she woke up late in the afternoon on Sunday there was the bag waiting for her in the living room, and she drove with it out the nearest camping site and started a bonfire and cast all the papers onto it, feeling the warmth spread through her skin as she watched them burn, taking his handwriting with them. And that, she thought, was that.
Then, first thing the next morning, she found them. Three cigarettes. Three cartridges waiting to be fired. Laid out on the table in the shape of a fan, the last claw mark of a flown bird. She sat at the kitchen table in her nightdress and stared at them. Finding them had been a surprise. She had run out of coffee and had reached back into the kitchen cupboard and her hand had come away clutching a half-empty carton of cigarettes. She had had no idea that he kept cigarettes in her kitchen, even now she couldn't understand why. She had never even thought to look in the kitchen when she was trying to weed out his stuff – it was the one room in the house he had never shown any interest in. And yet there they were, the cigarettes. Undeniably his, of course; agents of a presence that she thought she had finally rid herself of, spies planted in the sanctity of her kitchen to betray her on this Monday morning. In a fit of rage she had taken them out of their packet and placed them, naked and exposed, on the dining table. The act was an accusation, and lying there before her, the three thin cylinders seemed to accept their guilt. But what was she to do with them now?
Trying to decide, she fingered them absently, picking one up and holding it between her fingers, testing the weight of it, its surprising lightness. Thinking to herself how thin, how hollow, a few moment’s pleasure could be. How slow a death.
On an impulse, she went over to the stove and brought back a box of matches. Clumsily she struck one, and bringing it gingerly up to the cigarette she held in her hand, she proceeded to light it. The tip of it winked at her at first, then glowed red, like a warning. She stared at the lighted cigarette in her hand, amazed at how easily it seemed to fit between her fingers, how naturally she held it, with a poise that felt remembered, almost practiced, but could not be because she’d never smoked in her life. She noticed that her hand was trembling slightly.
Why had she done this? Why had she lighted the hideous thing? Why was she still holding it? Surely she didn’t intend to smoke it. That was ridiculous. She’d always been against smoking – all her life – she didn’t even like the smell of cigarette smoke. It was one of the things they’d always argued about. And now here she was lighting a cigarette herself when he wasn’t even here. She was losing it. She had to stop.
Very cautiously, she brought the cigarette up to her lips and breathed in. Instantly the smoke suffocated her, stung her. It felt like she had swallowed a spoonful of ash. She had expected the burning sensation, but was unprepared for the thickness of it, the roughness of its texture – she had always thought of smoke as something ethereal, waif-like – yet here it was filling her mouth with a presence as grainy as sawdust. She felt her throat constricting with it, she was choking, she coughed and coughed until her eyes filled with tears, and still she could not get its presence out of her system. She gulped down great mouthfuls of air, hoping to drive the smell out, but breathing only seemed to drive the malice deeper into her, so that the burnt flavour of it became a part of her being, as though her lungs themselves had turned to smoke and floated inside her like a stagnant spume. She felt a queasiness take hold of her, float to the surface. She felt sick.
By the time she stopped coughing and her eyes finally cleared, the cigarette in her hand was more than half burned through, and a trail of ash lay on her tabletop, like the spoor of some malignant animal. She went over to the sink (careful not to drop any ashes on the floor) stubbed the cigarette out and flushed it away in the garbage disposal. Then she rummaged in the back of a drawer till she found the ashtray that she had shoved in there a week ago (figuring there would be no need for it anymore) and carefully dusted the ash from the table top into it. She fetched a damp cloth and wiped the table clean. Then she opened a new packet of coffee and set it to brew.
By the time she had done all this, she was starting to feel better. Well enough, in fact, to turn her attention to the two remaining cigarettes. Her jaw tightened as she looked at them. Sitting there on the table they seemed to leer at her, their presence condescending, almost macho. She pulled the ashtray towards her, took up the matchbox again, lit the second cigarette. There was no way she was going to let this beat her. Not after all that she’d been through.
The second cigarette proved easier than the first. It still tasted terrible, of course, and the choking sensation returned and she couldn’t keep from coughing. But there was something familiar about the flavour now, like an argument she had already had, and the fact that the vileness of it was no longer unexpected meant that she could recover more quickly. She managed to get about five puffs out of this one, the gaps between them growing smaller as her reaction to the smoke grew milder. The nausea was there again, but it felt more manageable. By the time she stubbed this one out (having smoked it all the way through) she had abandoned any thoughts of breakfast, but couldn’t keep herself from feeling a little proud.
It was only when she got up to fix herself a cup of coffee that she realized that the tears filling her eyes was no longer just a reaction to the smoke. She was crying. The realization appalled her. (It was Monday morning. She was due at work in two hours. She had sworn she would not do this). She tried to resist it at first, tried to blink her way out of it. Desperate for distraction, she searched the room for something to focus on. That's when it struck her. This was not just the smell of cigarette smoke, it was his smell, the smell of his clothes when she buried her face in his chest, the taste of his mouth when he kissed her, the very fragrance of his words as they whispered together in bed. A wave of nostalgia swept through her. It was useless to resist the burnt sweetness of this feeling, its lingering presence like a film of ash in her heart. She let herself cry.
When the worst of it was over, she consoled herself with slow sips of coffee, easing herself back into the clarity of this kitchen, to the rows of spoons, so neatly arranged, gleaming in the October sun. She went to the bathroom and washed her face, then stared at her eyes in the mirror. They were bloodshot, but steady. Good.
One cigarette left now. She lingered over it for a while, not because she was afraid she would not be able to handle it (she was feeling better now, it felt as though the tears had washed the evil out of her body) but because it was, after all, the last one, and it looked so forlorn lying there., After this, there would be nothing left. She sat for five minutes just staring at it, then remembered what time it was, and lit it and put it to her mouth.
Again the familiar evil flooding her, again her gorge rising to fight it. This time she did not give in, though. She forced herself not to cough, forced herself to go on breathing as if the smoke did not exist. She felt a thin trickle of water in her eyes and she blinked it back. For a second she thought she would not be able to hold out, that she would simply have to cough, but then the worst was over and a strange emptiness settled into her lungs, a sense of comfort sinking into her, the relief like an aftertaste. She smiled. It would be okay now.
She took another puff, a longer one this time, testing herself to see if she could keep this up. Yes, there it was again, that sense of crossing the top and coming down on the other side, the feeling as the constriction in her throat slowly unknotted, the strings of the smoke pulled open by some invisible hand. She took one last puff to savour this triumph of hers, then, with precise determination, stubbed the last cigarette out. It was over.
She emptied the contents of the ashtray into the garbage, rinsed it clean in the kitchen sink and left it on the slab to dry. She put the matchbox back in its place, tore the cigarette carton into two and threw that into the trash as well. Then, satisfied that everything was back in its proper place, she ran to the bathroom to get ready, reminding herself to use extra mouthwash.
On her way out to work she left the kitchen window open. By the time she got back in the evening, she hoped, the smell of smoke would be gone.
Note: Remember the Oxford Book Store contest I was writing for. Well, this was one of the three stories I wrote for it, and since I only needed to send two, this is the one I left out (can't share the other ones yet - sorry - will put them on the blog once the Oxford guys reject them).