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Cigarettes and History of Lit
I walk into my History of Literature class on Monday, briefly chatting with a girl whose name I can’t recall – another of the brown-hair-brown-eyes-tank-topped group – and heading for my seat. It’s my third week of university and I’m starting to feel settled, getting comfortable. Then something – someone – stops me in my tracks.
Just like that game for little kids – “One of these things is not like the other…” What doesn’t belong in this picture? I’ll tell you what, it’s Harper Heller, and Harper Heller does not belong here, in my History of Lit class, in my university – why is he here? And why’s he in my seat?
He sees me now. He’s tipping his chair back like he always did in high school – God, that still annoys me. And he’s grinning; the stupid ingrate is grinning at me, like, Hey, look who it is, ain’t that super!
I consider marching up to him and pushing him coolly out of my spot. I could, I really could; he’s still the scrawny pale little worm he always was. I, on the other hand, am tanned and toned from soccer conditioning. So I pick the obvious choice.
I choose a different seat.
Now I’m next to another of the Tank Top Brigade, who frowns at me like I’m an amoeba that’s not reproducing like the others under the microscope. She smacks her gum and shows me a hard candy smile, the same one she gives to the teachers she hates.
I glare at my notebook and try not to notice that that idiot Heller is looking towards me. He looks disappointed, like he wanted me to come and shove him to the floor. This gives me some small satisfaction.
Having him right there, one row back and two seats to the left, is messing up my concentration. What is he doing here? Why this university? Did he know I was going here? Is he following me? How did he have the grades to get in? This last is such a phenomenon that I wouldn’t be surprised if the sun went supernova or the Earth’s poles switched polarities in reaction to Harper Heller.
Finally I raise my hand and ask to go to the bathroom. Maybe I can compose myself a little. I need to pay attention today; I need to straighten my head out.
I walk just outside the building and try to breathe. Having Heller here doesn’t mean anything, I lie to myself. Be professional, be polite. Pretend he’s another one of the crowd. But Heller was never just one in the crowd. Not to me. Never to me… With my eyes closed, sunlight glows ruby through the lids. Then it turns dark and cool.
Opening my eyes, I look into the eyes of Harper Heller, my own personal eclipse.
“What do you want?” I try to sound as disdainful as possible.
“Why, just to chat, Mila. It’s been a long time.” He speaks lightly, like we’re old friends. Is that what we were? Friends?
“Not long enough.” I’m not faking any of the bitterness there.
“Hey, hey. You were always the civil one. Let’s keep it chill, shall we?” He fishes in the pocket of his beaten, worn-out black hoodie, quite possibly the same one he wore all the time in high school. Has he changed at all? I wonder.
No, it turns out, as he pulls out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in the shape of a stripper.
“Want one?” he asks cordially. I decline icily. “You were always the good one, Mila. Straight ‘n’ narrow. Clean as a whistle.”
The good one? If I was good, why did I… “Whereas you’re about as clean as an Eminem album,” I can’t resist retorting.
Heller only chuckles. “But there’s that spark in you. That little rebel dying to get out. That’s why you hung out with me, isn’t it?” His grey eyes sharpen to pieces of flint.
I close mine, briefly. “I don’t want to talk about it, Heller.” He flinches at my harshness. Indeed, he looks like he’d flinch at anything. Skinny as a tree’s winter bones and looking about as breakable, but harder on the inside. Too hard for me.
“What are you up to now?” He can’t disguise his obvious curiosity. Why does he care? Does he want to replay that - what happened? Masochist, is he now?
“I’m building my life, my future. Things you never bothered about.” Silence as I feel my lung cells dying by the thousands from the secondhand smoke. I can’t help it – I breathe it in deep, the dusky smell whirling back pieces of other afternoons when I sat with Heller, other cigarettes I couldn’t suck down myself but just breathed in the scent, that smell… I guess I’m the masochist now. “Heller, why are you here?”
He appears to consider this question deeply for a moment. Pensive, he taps ashes from his cigarette. He gazes out into the late afternoon sun, and it flashes red off his hard slate eyes. It reminds me of another afternoon, in another life, when everything important was much smaller and the world was my toy box and I could be sure of at least one thing.
It occurs to me now that I’m not sure of anything.
“Well? Why are you here?”
He turns to me, cocks his head. I can tell his too-long hair is greasy; I wonder when he last showered, or if he even has a place to go.
“This is the smoking area.”
Heller points to a sign. “This is the smoking area. You’ve rubbed off on me, see, I’m following the rules.”
I shake my head. I want to laugh or cry or slap him. But I can see in his face that he’s serious.
“You wanna get a coffee later?” He’s putting out his cigarette now.
“Coffee?” When was the last time I went out with anyone for coffee? I wonder if my professor knows or cares where I am, or if any of my classmates do. No one, probably; it was like that in high school. No one cared, no one noticed, except… “Yeah, sure.”