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“I’ve got to take this,” she said, digging through her jean pocket for her cell phone. Finally retrieving it, she continued, “It’s the parents. They’ll freak if I don’t answer. You know them.” And even though we didn’t, she rolled her eyes at us in a knowing way.
Taking the ringing phone with her, she skipped out onto my porch, a small balcony railed in by a small rod-iron fence, overlooking the yard and the unruffled pool reflecting the fading sunset. Michelle slammed the door behind her, the glass banging into the other. Sorry, she mouthed before she turned away into dusk. She flipped open her phone and pressed it to her ear. Within my mind, I could hear her saying the typical hello and watched silently as she jutted out one her hip, resting a hand upon it. Her tiny ponytail bounced as she nodded her head to something someone said on the other line.
Without Michelle in the room, I found Lorraine and I had nothing to say, for proclaiming to be friends we had nearly nothing in common. It was Michelle that kept us together in the long run, I guess. Lori munched on a few pretzels from a plastic bowl resting in her lap, her hand moving silently to her mouth, her eyes glazed and unfocused as she disappeared into her own thoughts again.
My room was dull and white, my parents’ idea, of course. I had a few books on a huge bookshelf behind me but I thought it would be rude to read any with Lori right there. She wouldn’t have cared, she was so far away, but it was the principle of the thing. I leaned back on the bookshelf, resting my head against the edge of another empty shelf. I returned to watching Michelle still talking on the phone.
She stalked across the length of the balcony, her steps measured and deliberate, yet I could see the restless tension in them, wanting to explode out of the regularity of it all. She paused now, looking out into the sunset, a drab beast in comparison to the one the night before. The clouds were too thick overhead so just flickers of color slipped through the gray. Where the gray mixed with the rosy light, it formed the unpleasant color of overcooked salmon.
So Michelle paused, rocking back and forth on her heels, her ponytail bouncing with each jarring whack of her bare feet against the concrete porch. Her voice bobbed with each rise and fall, like the crashing waves, swelling upward, then downward, never-ending, just forever ebbing and flowing. Then, Michelle stopped.
Her feet slammed back onto the concrete but did not rise. Her shoulders tensed and the cadence of her voice, so lilting and free, disappeared; her voice silenced as well. She pressed the phone harder against her ear, her elbows sharpening into jutting angles of her body instead of loose curves. Knees locked, she stood dead still.
I looked at Lorraine, her hand had paused mid-route to her mouth, a few pretzels still dangling from her fingers. She too listened for Michelle’s reply. Then, I heard the briefest snatches of Michelle’s voice, quiet and slow. “Okay,” she said. “I’m okay.”
She wasn’t; Michelle wasn’t okay.
“Bye,” she whispered a few moments later. The word barely carried through the glass door. Lori snacked on her pretzels, her lips smacking together. I wanted to glare at her for making so much noise. Michelle snapped the phone shut and held it in her hand for a few seconds. She stared at the phone, I could feel Michelle’s eyes barring into the phone, even from behind the glass.
“So?” Lori asked. “Should we go out?”
“Out?” I echoed, still not sure what had happened.
“To see if she is okay.”
I told Lori, “She said she was okay. You heard her.”
“But she’s not.”
I had nothing to say to that, for she was right.
I climbed slowly to my feet, pushing off the carpet with my palms. Lori dusted all of the loose crumbs off her typical black skirt. But before either of us could reach to door, Michelle burst in.
Her entire body was shaking in short bursts, the tremors moving through her limps. She was breathing too quickly, pushing the air in and out of her body with too much effort. Without saying a word to either of us, she grabbed a pack of cigarettes from my nightstand and walked back outside.
The door slammed behind her again, but this time there was no apologetic mouthing of sorry or at least recognition of the noise rocketing behind her. Michelle was already fishing into the package of cigarettes for one. Lori and I looked at each other.
“Those were mine,” Lori said.
“Get over it,” I retorted and dragged her out onto the porch after me. The door closed lightly behind us as we stepped onto the concrete. Cold seeped from the concrete into the soles of my heels, with chilling footsteps as it crawled up my spine, creeping down my limbs, steeling into my fingertips. I shivered.
I took a breath of warm Florida air, letting the small warmth sink into my bones. The sunset had faded on the horizon, the last glimmer of color fading from the sky. In the glassy water of my swimming pool below I could see the faintest pinprick of stars.
“Lighter,” Michelle croaked, her voice deep and unemotional, but cracking all the same. Wordlessly, Lori pulled a red lighter from her back pocket and handed it to her. In silence we watched as she lit her first cigarette. The flare of light from the lighter illuminated her dark blue eyes for a moment, sparkling and distant, the flame dancing on her listless pale face.
Never has she smoked before but I watched as she took the glowing cigarette between two thin fingers and took a deep drag on it, sucking the smoke into her lungs like she wanted to become the smoke itself and dissolve into the night air. She choked mid-exhale and began to cough, spitting all the smoke back into the night air.
Still clutching the cigarette gingerly between her fingertips, she collapsed onto the concrete, leaning against the iron fence behind her. Her body seemed to fold inward, her lean frame crumpling into a tiny hunched ball. Michelle’s legs, thin and powerful, stuck out at awkward angles around her, useless for once. Her eyes were dark in the night, only visible when she took a drag of her cigarette, the glowing stub of ruby washing her entire face in a sickly light, lengthening the shadows of her face, making her deep blue eyes glow like burnished black stones. She would let the smoke spill from her lips and seep into the muggy Florida air.
I’ve never seen anyone smoke like that, not even Lori. She took drag after drag, cigarette after cigarette, the discarded stubs falling like glowing petals around her hunched form, glittering specks of ash strewn across the concrete. The smoke, trickling steadily from her lips, settled as a cloud around her head, before dissolving into the steadily colder night. Her face, pallid and still, crafted a perfect mask, her eyes were the only thing alive, flickering like shadows themselves in the cherry light from the cigarette.
I wished Michelle would cry. The quiet desperation in which she drew the smoke deep into her lungs and would exhale the smoke with a soft sigh made my heart break. I could have handled tears, even aching sobs mixing with the cicadas hum would have been better than this. Her face as lifeless mask, the emotion swept away and dissolved into the Florida air. I wished to see the mask fall away and crumple into ash around her, to see her tears, hot and fresh, spilling over her cheeks and clinging to her eyelashes, because that, all of that, would have been better than the blank face with two dark roving eyes.
Her muscles stiff with the cold still slipping from the concrete into her body, Lorraine knelt down beside her. She wrapped her arms around Michelle, who leaned into her grasp, resting her head on her broad shoulder. Lori’s thick dark legs brushed in contrast against the thin pale twigs of Michelle’s. Lori motioned gently to me to sit next to her as Michelle took another drag of her fading cigarette.
I looked at Michelle, unmoving and vulnerable, curled against Lori. She looked like a lost balloon, set free by a child, wafting amid the cigarette smoke, lost and innocent in her release. She tethered herself to Lori to keep from floating away and clung to her arms. I saw something in Michelle I’d never seen before: weakness. She was always strong, with long athletic legs and a bouncy ponytail, a bright smile, forever laughing even when nothing funny was said, confidence glowing around her. But now, smoking cigarettes and curled into a hunched mound, she seemed so small and afraid.
And I was afraid, afraid that if I touched her in this fragile state she would crack and crumble, deflate, and like a red balloon, the life would fly right out of her and dissolved like smoke into the night. She would drift away amid the stars, leaving behind two midnight eyes, two shifting eyes. I was afraid.
The cigarette carton lay empty beside Lori, who had lit up the final cigarette. As she leaned against the fence, still holding Michelle, she blew smoke rings into the night sky. Shoving my hands in my pockets, I watched as the small loops of silvery smoke sailed upward like small boats until they faded into the stars, invisible pinpricks of light million of light years away. I’d like to imagine that the smoke traveled the million miles away to the stars up there and they’d watch Lori’s smoke rings drift by them, just like I did.
Clutching the flickering butt of her last cigarette, Michelle took a deep drag, sucking all of the smoke into her lungs, dragging every last remnant of nicotine into her bloodstream. Her eyes lost all meaning, glazed and glassy, and I can tell right then, that she wants to just disappear.
But mid-drag, she began to choke, her chest heaving with convulsions as she gagged on cigarette smoke. Her body was racked by gasps for air, gulping for the sweetness of Florida air. The cigarette slipped from her fingers, falling to the cold concrete, sputtering and dying, releasing the last smoke spiraling into the air. Michelle’s body shook with coughing and Lori hung on helplessly. Her shoulders quaked, rising in unending swells of coughs that ebbed slowly into sobs.
She glanced upward toward the stars and I could see the tears dribbling from the edge of her eyes, two streaming crystal pools of tears. Snot smeared across her left cheek. Her voice rose in a dry keening, a raspy sob, echoing in my ears. I couldn’t breathe as I watched her cry. When I wished for her to cry I hadn’t imagined…I just hadn’t imagined.
Between her sobs, I heard Michelle try to speak, her mouth trying to form words.
“What’s wrong, Michelle?” Lori asks, an hour late.
She shook her head, tears dripping down her cheeks. “He’s…”she started, nearly collapsing into tears again. I knelt beside her, resting my cold fingers against her bare arm. Michelle whispered, “He’s gone.”