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Cigarettes and Stars
The park was exceptionally dark that night. All the street lamps had burnt out over the course of the past three weeks and now we were forced to walk through the tangles of jungle gyms and monkey bars in a vast void. Our hands swung freely by our sides, our left hands with cigarettes bobbing from them.
It was my first. And the taste was horrible. But it made my lungs ache in a good way, like I had just ran for a few miles. I watched the smoke on each exhale, the shape it made as it drifted into the night. He stood there next to me, close, and flicked the cigarette more than he actually smoked it.
The two Camel lights had come from the pack I’d bought on my 18th just because I could. I didn’t know anyone who smoked, and I didn’t plan on starting. But apparently the cold and the companionship of him changed things.
He’d been the one to ask. As we were walking out onto Winter street, our hands sometimes brushing:
“Do you have a cigarette, by chance?” He looked sad and nervous. The bandages on his wrists agreed with the look on his face. I nodded and dove my hand into my bag, grabbing the full pack of Camels. I hated the little camel on the front. I felt like horrible people had distorted the animal and that somewhere someone was sticking cigarettes into the mouth of one of these weird lumpy animals. But I tapped the pack and one little cigarette slipped out, I handed it to him, grabbed the zippo lighter I had inherited.
He took it and we paused on the street long enough for him to light it and suck in a deep breath. He coughed a little- “I didn’t know you smoked.”
“I don’t.” it was quiet as I said it, only the sound of far-off traffic to back me up.
“Me either.” And I believed him. Even as he expertly puffed on the weird thing, I believed he didn’t smoke. He wasn’t that type, in any context. “Only when I’m nervous. And they’re usually Marlboros.” He coughed again, it was a quick and raspy cough, his white bandages gleaming.
He was nervous. As we stood on the corner, waiting for the little glowing pedestrian to lure us across the walk. I reached out for his hand. “Please don’t be nervous.”
And then I felt stupid for the whole action. His hand, fitting in mine like watermelon fruit fits into the rind- like it had always been there. It had grown this way, our hands must have been the same thing at some point in the cosmic history of things. He looked at me, scared and wide-eyed. It made me want to cry, his face, too much like a teenage boy, too much like a reject, too much like a broken soul. I wanted to take off all the gauze and kiss the stitches and the bloodied skin that had been broken there. But instead I felt his pulse and he tightened his grip on my hand as we walked. My cigarette had burnt out, half of the white bit was still there, intact. He had finished his, and had put it out on a brick wall.
“Why are you nervous?” I asked, so softly I thought I’d get lucky and he wouldn’t hear.
But he looked at me and shyly said, “Only because I’m with you. Because we can be out and we can do this now. We can walk on the streets and smoke our cigarettes and talk or not talk. We can look at the stars now and walk through dark swing sets. You don’t have to go home. I don’t have to go home. We can hold hands. I could kiss you. We can do anything now. I’m nervous because we can. I’m trembling with this vast opportunity, and I’m afraid that now, because it’s here, you won’t like me anymore. And I won’t be able to kiss you and tell you how to find Orion’s Belt.”
We’d stopped walking as he told me this, and he started crying. It was subtle, soft and shy, as he’d been lately. After the accident he had shifted, and sometimes I couldn’t figure out where he was. But here he was, all of him in front of me, crying on the sidewalk at two in the morning on a Tuesday in July. The entire situation seemed bizarre.
But he was slowly crumpling in on himself, leaning further into the brick wall of a bank until I thought he would disappear into it. I held his hands and began to cry. His wrists made me so sad. These skinny things, which I’d seen bleed so much over the bathtub. I reached out and rubbed at his wet face with the sleeve of my sweater. He made a sniffling sound and coughed, he was shaking and pale.
I handed him another cigarette and helped him light it. He shivered and his face glistened with salt water. We sat down along the wall and he looked up. “There.” The word fell limp from his dry lips. “Orion’s Belt, look… isn’t it beautiful up there?” He took my hand and showed me where the constellation lie. I leaned against his shoulder and told him it was really the most beautiful night I’d ever seen.
And it was. It was the most beautiful, but the saddest. Because I had sworn he’d been put back together. But it was not the case.
He began to unwind the bandages.
“Juniper, stop. Please stop.” My words never really came out, I just tried to put the bandages back on. He was still crying, but he looked at me and was so gentle.
“I have to see how close I was.”
The last pad of gauze came off and I wanted to scream because this was how he wanted it to end. These angry, unclean slashes, so precise I knew he had planned the exact lines. He nodded, slow. The lines were deep, took so many tiny stitches to close. There would be scars.
We sat in a trembling silence- the air around us so still we had to move it ourselves.
I reached for another cigarette and finally understood his strangely occasional smoking habits. I lit the thing and inhaled so deep, wishing it was weed. Wishing I could get off the ground and fly and make myself a constellation. I wanted to take him too, I knew he wanted to be up there. The smoke reached up into the sky and I cried soft and slow because this was not my life.
“I wish I hadn’t f***** this up.” His voice was raspy and sleepy and cold. He leaned back and laid down on the empty sidewalk. I laid next to him, curling into him and hoping I could keep him here.
“You didn’t… you didn’t f*** this up.” I stuttered and wiped at my eyes. I grabbed the corner of my sweater and dried his face too, again. It was an oddly intimate gesture I liked more than holding onto him. It was such a solid movement. Gentle but all encompassing in its simplicity.
“I’m still here.”
“You don’t want to be out there. It’s cold.” So feeble was my answer. How to tell him I was selfish and had called 911 just to keep him here with me? Of course, the flashes of his blood against the white porcelain blossomed in my mind, his ragdoll body next to the shower curtain was an image tattooed inside of me. It was an ugly, poorly drawn one- but tattoos are forever.
“I love you. Can we take the bus to my house?”
He turned to me, on the sidewalk, our hips all awkwardly angling into the concrete- trying so hard to disappear. “You’re still here. And I’m still here. It’s scary because now we’re free to do whatever calls to us. But there’s a starting over. I can feel it, when my wrists throb I know it’s healing. I’m still sewing back together all of my insides, but I’ll do it.”
I cried and finished the cigarette, smashing the lit end of it into the cement. He was still here. I did not have to label him as a shape in the stars, because he wasn’t there yet. He was going to get up and get on the bus with me. We’d go back to his house and probably watch old Saturday Night Live reruns. Sometimes we watched Seinfeld. He still laughed, I didn’t know how, the way he looked to be hurting.
“We can have more time. It won’t move if we just lay here, we can’t see it, it isn’t moving. I feel like we could just lay on this sidewalk for the rest of whatever our lives are. I feel like I want to kiss you, still. I’m glad I get to. I’m glad I’m not gone and I’m glad we’re where we are.” He didn’t look at me, only looked up. Forever starbound were his eyes. I squeezed his hand.
“Please kiss me.” Maybe I’d kept him alive for this reason. Maybe I had cradled his head in the crook my arm as he had lost consciousness for this reason. He had lost too much blood and then he was asleep in my arms, bleeding into the linoleum. I cried over this, over his scrawny limp body and over what I swore was lost. Maybe all of that blood was still living in my mind because we were working for this.
I’d waited all night in the ER for him. I was supposedly over at Maggie’s, but I really just sat on the floor of the ER waiting room and cried. My parents never found out I’d lied.
Nobody knew what had happened.
I had found him. I had called them to save him. We didn’t tell anyone. Nobody knew I was there. Nobody knew he had tried to die.
His eyes glistened like stars, his whole body burned like it was meant to be cosmic.
And so he did lean in and there was a moment of eyes closed, teeth hitting as we curled up on the sidewalk.
We smoked another cigarette, a shared one, and then we got up, walked to the bus stop.
The roll of fluorescence came down the street and we climbed aboard like sailors, or astronauts, or something important. Sitting in the back we stared at the street as it passed away from us.
“I would have missed you too much.” He whispered, touching his wrists.