The smoke curls from your lips, beckoning me forward, but it is the gleam in your eyes that is more potent than any drug.
“Want one?” It could easily be mistaken for frost, your breath condensing in the air. It’s chilly at this time of year, and the people shouldering by are too focused on their cell phones, too occupied with meetings and agendas and quotas and whatever else plagues the working man to glance up.
“Thanks.” It feels foreign, almost heavy. It hangs, suspended between my index and middle fingers, limp, the fish out of water. The battery before the charge.
You produce a lighter, hold it to the tip. For a moment I forget what I am supposed to be doing with it. For a moment I am transfixed by the tiny glow. You cough and a hack a glob of spit into the gutter. The sound reminds me. I hold it to my lips, inhale.
It’s as if I’ve attempted to swallow a live cat whole and it is clawing at my throat and lungs on the way down. I double over, wheezing, shocked that no blood drips from my gaping mouth to stain the concrete. My head spins. A steady pounding starts up behind my eyes.
You thump me on the back and I manage to straighten up, gasping for air. “It’s been awhile since I’ve had one.” Technically not a lie. Never is just a bit longer than awhile.
My phone buzzes. It’s Mandy. “I have to pick my sister up from dance.” I drop it, grind it into the concrete with the toe of my sneaker. I turn away and head inside.
“Ewww.” Mandy wrinkles her nose. “What’s that smell?”
I insert the key into the ignition, crank up the heat. “What smell?”
“You smell like Uncle Travis.” Her hair is pulled back into a bun so tight that her eyes bulge slightly. She looks like a frog. An accusatory frog.
“Some hobo was smoking on the street. If you don’t want me to smell, then you should get your butt out of dance quicker.” The car sputters before rumbling to life. “Put your seatbelt on. I’m not trying to get pulled over.”
“TJ Winter was giving you the eyeball earlier,” Sandra says over our lunch of pizza that is at the level of grease that only school cafeterias seem to be able to produce.
“The eyeball?” I snort.
She wiggles her brows at me. “You know, Julia. Don’t play dumb.”
I shrug. “Athletes aren’t my type.” Type; as if people are items of clothing, tried on and discarded without care. As if I’ve decided that athletes don’t suit me, I’m better off with a pair a bit tighter.
“Athletes would become my type if the athlete was TJ,” Sandra says. “But he smokes. And I’m not into that.”
“Neither am I.”
My breath frosts in the air as I turn. You’re leaning out the driver’s side window of a beat up 2007 Corolla. “You want a ride? It’s f***ing freezing.”
Athletes aren’t my type. “Sure, thanks.” I deposit my backpack in the backseat and climb in to the passenger seat. As I rub my wind-chapped hands together, savoring the warmth of the blasting heater, you rummage in your pocket.
“Light me up, will you?” You pull away from the curb. It hangs out of your mouth and in that moment you remind me of an old-timey movie star, like James Dean. Your profile is sharp, and stubble shadows your jaw and the top of your neck. You look older, as if you’re one of those actors that play high schoolers but are really in their twenties.
“Lighter’s in the glove compartment.”
My fingers are clumsy, shaky, but finally I manage to conjure a flame. I hold it to the tip. You inhale, your eyes half-closed in ecstasy. “Grab yourself one.”
I manage not to cough this time.
It’s a ritual now; instead of walking to the bus, you pick me up and we drive. We go different places, but most of the time we go the gym. The very place that we first spoke, after years of silently passing each other in the school hallways and avoiding eye contact because you weren’t my type.
I sit in the empty bleachers, your cracked iPhone in hand, filming you while you make jump shot after jump shot, crossover and leave imaginary defenders sprawled on the floor as you drive to the basket. Afterwards, while your chest still heaves and sweat beads on your upper lip, you inspect the videos like a master inspecting the work of his prodigy. “You didn’t get the finish!” You snap. Or, “it’s too shaky!” These careless, thankless words, they sting.
After one practice during which you berate my videography particularly savagely, we sit in your car in silence. You seem to sense the hurt that radiates from me in thick, palpable waves.
“I need these videos for recruiters,” you explain, smoke swirling from your mouth alongside the words. “I need them to be perfect. You don’t understand the competition I’m up against. These could be my ticket to college. You know goddamn well my old man can’t pay for college. You know I’m trying to make it to the league. The coach from Kentucky already contacted me. He’s interested. I have a reputation, Jules.”
I take a long drag. It has become a tool for me, a secret weapon to help me avoid answering.
“You’ve got to understand.” You toss yours out the window and start up the car. “If you want to be my girlfriend, you have to.”
I think watching someone do something they love is the most pure form of affection. After all, you're accepting that you are not the most important thing in the world to them. You’re accepting that something else matters just as much, or more, than you.
"What?" Your annoyance thickens the air like smoke.
"I'm . . . not sure that I'm ready."
My hand is braced against your chest, my fingers splayed across your bare skin. Tufts of hair tickle my palm. The only time I've ever felt someone this hot is when Mandy had the flu and contracted a 105 degree fever.
You grab my wrist, pin my arm to the seat. "Don't you trust me?"
Mom has tired eyes, hollow eyes that betray her soft, unwrinkled skin and glossy hair, and a melancholy gel manicure that is a pathetic attempt at put-togetherness. “You’re late getting home, Jules. Where were you?”
“Sandra needed a ride.” The lie is already at my lips, anticipating the moment it will be set free. It shimmers, fragile and airborne, like a bubble. One more probing question and it could pop.
Mom is already turning away, surveying the assortment of vegetables laid out on the counter. “I wonder if I could whip up a stew?”
The lie floats through the ceiling, still intact.
“Awww, for your boyfriend?” The cashier is an older woman. By default, she is interested in these kinds of things.
I survey the box of chocolates, the card. Lame, but cheap. You’re not any type of sentimental, but six months is a long time.
“Yeah.” I hand over a wad of cash and take the plastic shopping bag. “Keep the change.”
You’ve gone back inside the gym to grab your sneakers. My heartbeat quickens in anticipation. I can feel the edge of the heart shaped box digging into my ribs from where it is concealed under my puffy winter jacket.
On the seat next to me, your phone buzzes. Curiosity gets the best of me, and I look over. For a moment I stare at the cracked screen, uncomprehending. A string of hearts. A kissy face emoji. The words, Luv u baby!!!!!! Exactly six exclamation points. The contact name: Kate ;). Kate Winky-face.
I slide the bag out from under my coat, shove it into my backpack. Cardboard crunches as I sandwich it between my English and Physics textbooks. No doubt a few chocolates got squished. It doesn’t matter. No one will be eating them.
You keep them in the glove compartment, and my muscles relax with each inhalation. The air is thick with smoke by the time you climb back in, sneakers in hand. “You good?” You’re confused. I never do it without you.
I smile, nod. “I’m good.”
My lungs grew black and rough from the smoke, and my body unwillingly played host to a travelling circus of carcinogens, but I was too far gone to care. It wasn't the nicotine I was addicted to: it was you.
Looking back, I realize that you weren't so special at all. You, TJ Winter, meant nothing to me, but the boy who tugged my hair and looked into my eyes when I talked and kissed me so hard my lips were left raw and swollen . . . He was everything. The person who listened, who acknowledged that the space I took up in the world was occupied by a living, breathing being . . . that person was precious. Irreplaceable.
I return from the restroom and rejoin the group like an antelope venturing into crocodile-infested waters. Even though you are obscured by a gaggle of girls drunkenly grinding on each other in rhythm to the Ignition remix, my eyes are immediately drawn to you. More specifically, the girl you are talking to. She is short, shorter than me, with black hair teased up saucily. Her eyes are layered with eyeliner. Too much. She looks like an intoxicated mime. And her breasts are way too small, did she really think that tank top would show off any cleavage? Suddenly I feel sick. When did I start analyzing other girls like pieces of meat?
This particular piece of meat leans into you and laughs as if the story you're telling is really that funny. She looks up at you through her lashes, and you rest an arm against the counter behind her.
Something stabs at my chest, something that compels me to tug on the shirt of a guy that's shouldering by me. He turns, eyes rolling for a second before they focus. He reeks of beer, the kind my dad drinks while watching Patriots games on Sundays.
"Excuse me, is my lipstick smudged?" I lean close to him, still gripping the bottom of his shirt.
He scrunches his brows. His eyes drift down to my chest. "Uhh . . . no." He makes a move to touch me, but I jerk away, suddenly.
He's already losing interest. "I, uh, got to . . ." He melts into the crowd.
I wander back to the bathroom, but it's occupied so I lean against the wall outside. I hear someone faintly throwing up, followed by a few gulping sobs that sound disturbingly like the cries of a small child, and I move away.
Someone taps my shoulder. "No luck?"
I turn. A girl with close-cropped blond hair stands before me. She appears older, but heavy makeup can do that.
"What do you mean?"
"Snagging a hottie?" She laughs. "I saw you talking to that boy. You were trembling like a baby deer. Alcohol helps with confidence." She seizes my wrist, drags me away from the bathroom and over to the drinks table. I watch, numb, as she scoops a solo cup into a bowl of brightly colored punch. I sip from it when she hands it to me, and immediately? double over, choking. My throat burns like I just swallowed a cigarette.
She laughs again, thumping me on the back. "What did you think it was, Kool Aid?"
Alcohol does improve confidence. At least it keeps me from pulling away when the next boy reaches for my waist.
You’re steering with one hand while you light one up with the other.
I slice through the silence without warning. "I saw you talking to a girl."
You raise it to your mouth and take a long drag, leisurely letting the smoke seep from between your lips. A good minute passes before you speak, your voice hoarse. "I saw you grinding on that guy."
"Who is she? Have you talked to her before?" My own audacity shocks me. I have never questioned you before. It was not my place. It is not my place.
"A girl. We were a lot less physical than you and your new friend."
"I'm tired of you cheating on me. I'm tired of all your hoes." Hoes. I sound like a middle schooler forced to say it during a drama audition.
"What the f***, Jules?" Another drag. Another hacking cough, another glob of spit sails through the open window.
"I'm tired of being your little pet! I'm tired of feeding your ego!" My voice rises and it's unbearably shrill even to my own ears. I'm blinded by rage, or tears, or hatred, whatever it is it fills my vision with red and my heart feels like it is about to burst out of my chest and why is it so hot and I reach over to roll down the window and you're screaming at me and saying horrible awful things or is that me that's saying them and there's a high-pitched screech and I think it's us yelling at each other until suddenly we're flying and there's a horrifying crunch and I've never hurt so badly in my life and is this what dying feels like?
I’m floating, a bubble like one of my carefully crafted lies. So fragile. So delicate.
It’s warm. So warm. I think my insides are burning up. I think I accidentally swallowed a cigarette and my internal organs, my heart and my lungs and my liver, they all have burst into flame.
Shouts, far off in the distance. Louder now. Arms, scooping, pulling at me. I thrash, I scream. I don’t want to be moved. I want to be warm. I want to stay here forever until my guts burn up and all I am is a pile of ash.
In my dream, I am in the pool. I am underwater. I am drowning.
I struggle to the surface. You stand at the edge of the pool, looking down at my. Smoke trails from your lips, except there is no cigarette. It is coming from inside you. You’re breathing fire, like a dragon.
“Help!” I can feel myself sinking again. “Help, I need help!”
You are silent.
“Help, TJ, I need you!” Under again, the water pouring into me, filling me to the top.
When my head next breaks the surface, you are gone.
Someone is prodding at my arm. I try to pull away, but they are grasping me tightly and I have never been more weak in my life.
“She’s doing okay, a few lacerations but she’ll be fine. The boy, his arm is pretty badly mangled . . .” For a second I think I’m still in the dream and I’m hearing the voices from underwater. They are muffled, distant. I can only make out fragments of the conversation.
“Her mother says she had no idea.” More poking. More prodding.
“The cops found cigarettes in the car.”
“Sad. They’re both so young . . .”
“Congratulations, Julia!” Sharon hands me the green certificate. My name is printed in Sharpie, big and bold. “I know your future is bright.”
JULIA ARONSON has successfully completed the Glenville County Hospital Drug & Alcohol Rehabilitation Program, the certificate proclaims.
I suppose I have; I haven’t had one in more than six months. It wasn’t hard to quit smoking. After the excruciating pain and the sirens and the nurses and doctors and IVs, after my hysterical mother showed me pictures of what the Corolla looked like after the wreck, after I was informed that with my blood alcohol content combined with the severity of the crash I was lucky to be alive, I was forced to admit that I was addicted. I was forced to quit you once and for all.
My grandmother likes to pick out flowers at the garden center. Since I’ve gotten my license back, Mom has given me the task of driving her around to do her errands. I think Mom hopes that Gran is a calming influence on me.
Mom doesn’t know that you work at the garden center. We never make eye contact, but when you’re not paying attention, when you’re busy helping another customer, I stare at you. At your arm, the way it sits twisted in the socket, the elbow wrenched grotesquely. I wonder if the other customers know I was there when the tree smashed into you. I wonder if the customers know that the coach from Kentucky called to say that he was no longer interested. I wonder if the customers know that after the accident, your dreams were crushed as badly as the bones in your arm.
We haven’t spoken since the crash, and we certainly never speak at the center, but after I see you, everything seems a bit different. It’s as if the lense through which I view the world has been altered in some slight, almost imperceptible way. After, the tulips always seem a little less bright.