by Jamila Jones
It's Saturday morning and I wish I had more money. I live on the bottom floor of a duplex. It's the underground floor and I can't tell what time of day it is, but it's light enough for me to know it is day. I hear the phone ring, and I'm surprised because no one ever seems to call me when I'm at home.
"Is that Nicola."
"There's a party tonight. You should come."
"I'm kinda tired. I think I'm going to stay home and study."
"Aw, Nicola, come on. There's a band and everything."
"Where is it?"
"Soho, in a loft on Broadway."
"I'll call you later. I'll see how I feel."
"All right. See ya."
She knows I won't be there. I won't feel comfortable. I don't even know why I'm friends with Sarah. She's always sick or taking a bath unless there's a party. What fun. I turn on the light and pick up a nearby magazine but I gotta get out of here. I throw on some jeans and a bra under the tee shirt I'm wearing and grab a jacket and my cigarettes.
The air is just cold enough to make me uncomfortable, but not cold enough to make me cold. If I leave my hands out of my pocket for more than two minutes they'll be numb. But that's inevitable because I have to smoke. Actually it's grey enough to be morning, but I think it's closer to mid-afternoon My vision is blurred and I can't see anything from a distance. I'm looking at the street signs and I can't read them unless I'm right underneath and somehow I know that it is not a permanent impairment. It is my mind just trying to keep me from looking out too far ahead of me.
SMOKING BY PREGNANT WOMEN MAY RESULT IN FETAL INJURY, PREMATURE BIRTH, AND LOW BIRTH RATE. sales to minors prohibited.
Crack. The match sounds like music, and it starts to burn. The cigarette is fresh, pristine. When the two collide, for one moment, it is bliss the sweet smell of tobacco, the first drag. I hold it for a long time. I can feel it traveling right through me. And, inevitably, I release the smoke. For me smoking is not definably an addiction, it is a belief, a way of life, it is eating, sleeping, and breathing all in one. Most of all it is comfort in a comfortless world, and it gives me something to do with my hands. Smoking curbs my drinking and my bingeing. The smoke is peace at $2.50 a pack.
In high school I would walk with my friend Melissa down Fillmore to find a place to sit and talk. She would smoke. I didn't smoke then. For me it was like the blues. I could listen, but I couldn't get anything from it. I had no experience at the time that could make me understand. Melissa lovely, troubled, brilliant had been turning up the lucky cigarette in the middle of her Camel Filters since age twelve. Before the end of high school she had run away to live on the beach, but came back because she ran out of cigarettes. Before she had college and therapy, she had cigarettes. I didn't get it at the time.
My mom and dad both smoked cigarettes at one time or another. My father smoked menthol before graduating to pipes filled with cherry tobacco. For him smoking was part sensuality and part an escape into his own personal dream. It appealed to his sense of artistic flare to light up while spinning the Temptations. Smoking made it all smoother. But he couldn't make it really smooth and he couldn't live in his fantasy. Sooner than later his particular soul, under specific pressures, left cigarettes behind and went for a more direct anesthetic. I have a picture of him, a moment in black and white, where he was crowned by a ring of smoke, closer to the angels than at any other moment.
For my mother smoking has been her steady and only vice. She started it to look cool the same way she dressed up as a Supreme for the college talent show. And now smoking has just become a part of her life. She can't manage to quit so she may smoke only one or two a day, but she can't miss a day. She never wanted me to start. Once, in the car, she gave me a cigarette to smoke, knowing that it would burn my throat and make me nauseous. She figured this would be a strong enough deterrent to last a lifetime. And it might have been if she could have also changed the world and made it easier to be in.
If I could have everything the way I did on my best day of childhood, I would never have thought about smoke. But it is hardship in life that leads us to fire. And where there is fire we smoke.
Secretly when I smoke I've got an ulterior motive. I think I'm a little sick in the head because I know that I'm doing it to end my life sooner, and it has become my motivation. I don't have the nerve to take myself out swiftly or bloodily, so I do it slowly, smokily, in a way that mimics breathing. Deep rhythmic breathing. It's like a twisted meditation that taints rather than purifies. I think if I could be happy I probably wouldn't smoke anymore. But there's a lot standing in the way of happiness and it's not going away. They tell me this is a typical depressed thought, but what the hell are they going to do about it but give me Prozac and try to help me talk my way out of it. I'm talked out and my trust is broken and I feel stuck here. Even if I'm not I feel stuck. So as I see it, smoking is not the worst thing I can think of doing. If I killed myself outright I'd be causing the same kind of pain that has me in a fairly constant depression. If I smoke, I can veil it and become a part of a social framework of smokers. If I could find something to hold on to, that would make me maybe feel better.
Smoking does make me feel better until the cigarette gets stale. Then it just stings my fingers and my nose. The cold morning air hangs from the trees and it creates the feeling of sanctuary in Tompkins Square Park as I approach it from the South side. The park almost seems magical and I feel exhilarated by the tangible greyness surrounding me. I make my way over to the bench. My cigarette has lost it's goodness, but I'll smoke it anyway, because at this point it is more about completion than anything else. I'm hanging on to something that I can predict. I'm upset by the fact that I'm on my own, and I know it. I almost don't even think about it anymore. I smoke instead.
Here's how it is. School is manageable but the job that I have to pay for it is taking up all my extra time and I'm just skimming the surface of my studies and not going in depth into anything. So right about now I am not really getting the tools to become my own woman. I am learning very well how to become someone else's worker. And with the latest antics of my roommate, I am learning that not only do I have crap judgment in picking my friends and associates, but I am dependent on them, and I live in a hole in the ground that is not allowing me to get enough light to the brain. Smoking is comfort.
"Spare a cigarette?"
As a smoker I have come into a new culture. If I walk down the street and I run into a kid sitting around begging for change and he asks me for a cigarette, I know I can oblige. I may not have an extra quarter, but if I part with a butt then we have a certain solidarity that we might not otherwise have. It could be seen as a solidarity built on self-destruction, but I don't get a lot of solidarity with people on any level. And if I need to have a package of cigarettes on my person to feel that I can give and receive and connect, then I will.
I sit on the bench and I pull out my book. Cyrano, I have to get through it for a survey course. I've already read it in high school. I'm sick and tired of survey courses. But just now, in the cold and the mood I'm in, I feel that the poetry of the words are pulling me in and at last I have some real refuge. For a moment I am suspended in time. Love, unexpressed, unrealized, searing, chaste, wasted. If I have to escape somewhere it seems fitting that it should be in a fiction where the love is like this. I've bitten the insides of my mouth raw from anxiety; from a type of hunger for love. I had a date the other night with Michael. And I know that there won't be any more because he had that look in his eye. He thinks I am a basket case. It took me a year to get to him. I wrote to him over the summer, letters, cards, I waited. And in the end he looked right through me. When I kissed him goodnight I think he tasted the blood in my kiss from the destroyed insides of my mouth. He walked away. Maybe he thinks I'm a vampire. Maybe it was the cigarettes. Maybe it's because I won't sleep with him. But why should I sleep with someone who can't even see me?
He thinks I'm on drugs. He thinks I'm lost. But the truth is that I am human. I am fully human and no one seems to be able to get it. It's like in their world of happy-go-lucky they have no idea of what it is to think about things for more than a nanosecond. He wants to think of himself as happy-go-lucky. But the truth is he isn't really so happy and not especially lucky. I don't know why I even bothered.
You can get used to the idea that you want someone, and the process of getting them becomes all, and you don't care if they can't see you, or if they are shallow. I light another cigarette and return to the play. But before I can fully concentrate I am interrupted by the sound of a human voice crying out unintelligibly in my direction. I look up. A couple of yards away from me stands a man, with a large band of metal around his body and over his shoulder like a tuba. He looks to me like a marching band musician who got lost in a war. He is bloated and his face is red. He is trying to speak to me in his own language. He is making the effort with his mind and soul to communicate with me but his body won't cooperate. And it makes me think that the spirit is willing and the flesh, contrary to popular belief, is strong enough to shout for what it wants sometimes. From out of his stupor he is reaching out to me. He is just talking, talking , talking in gibberish, loudly, as if he knows me and is trying to explain something to me that I have gotten wrong. And I want to understand, but I can't. "Please go away." My voice is patient and calm. I know that he will hear me and understand. "Please leave me alone." He hears. He pauses. He turns to go and begins his soulful complaint to the universe at large. And I am hurt that I cannot understand. I didn't get the message and I wish I had because somewhere inside of me I feel that he had a message for me. And I feel like I could cry from the barrier that keeps us from connecting.
My cigarette burns down. I squash it out before it is even half way finished. I am disgusted by it. It seems like this one is one too many. I have been smoking way too much lately. And it's making me ill. Maybe I'll get my wish sooner than later. They'll put me in a hospital and for once in my life, someone will take care of me. Maybe I'll go to extra lights for a week or two. I look after the man who tried to break through and he is gone. I try to read again. The concentration comes and goes, I drift in and out of comprehension and I turn the pages as my brain plows through the letters, numbers, spaces without grasping any meaning. But this time I'm focusing more on keeping the cold out than really reading. I look up again to find that another park dweller is looking at me as he passes by. He stops and asks me for a cigarette. In return he offers me a poem he has composed in the moment. It is like jazz, like scat, like beat. I'm hip and he leaves with one parting shot.
"You are a beautiful woman. Beeeyuteeful."
He bows and he is gone. For a moment I am caught. For a second it happened; connection, redemption. I am relieved but I am still tired and blind. This moment is only a moment and in another day it might seem more like a daydream. If I could hold that moment and keep it from going bad, if I could stop myself from rationalizing all of this into my own insanity, if I could maintain my feeling of humanity right now I could really do something, really have a life and find something new. It's time to leave. I get up. My pants have soaked in the dew from the bench and the back of my legs are cold.
I walk out of the park and straight for Leshkov's for some borscht and potato dumplings. This is my Saturday thing. It's cheap. The coffee is good. And I can smoke while I read the paper. The waitresses are nice. They are calm and strong and they make it a generally easy place to be. This is the part of the Lower East Side that I love. There's nothing fancy about it at all. There's no hype and no imminent danger. There's not much, but there's something here that makes you feel alright. Another cigarette with coffee and I'm on my way to the liquor store. I'm going to get a bottle of wine to go with me. I don't know what the hell I'm going to do with it, but I want it.
I head back to the house. Hopefully my roommates have left and I can listen to some music in the quiet of my dark corner alone. Billie Holliday, Sex Pistols, Maria Callas bring them all on. I want them all right now, right in my ear, then I'll feel something. I'm tired of temperance and restraint. I'm just gonna get wasted on my wine. Andy the upstairs roommate and his friends will probably show up and laugh at me, with me. On the one hand they understand, and on the other they don't take me seriously. It is funny. My search for release is comical, buffoon-like. And if they are around me lighting lamps and warming me with their company, I don't mind playing the fool.
Inside the liquor store the man peeks out from behind layers of bullet-proof plexiglass. I see the cheap red, the cheaper white, vodka, whiskey, schnapps. I go for a cheap table red. I hope it's strong, but after enough of it, it won't matter much. I am going to drink it all. If anyone wants to share they better have their own thimble because it's mine. I put the money down. I take the bag. He doesn't card me, and I am glad it's a Saturday. I walk past the fresh fruit sitting out in front of the bodegas. It is fresh and good. The music blasts from the neighborhood windows, Quita me la pena corazon, the singer is crooning, the drum consoling, the guitar caressing. The children are running, walking, squealing, looking with bright and curious eyes. They walk back and forth to friends' houses. The Spanish restaurant on the corner is busy serving good, hot food. And I follow the thread I've woven back to my web. No mail, no messages, no roommates. The party must begin. I'm ready for the music and the madness, I can hold it all.
I uncork the bottle and rinse out the glass. The rush of the wine out of the bottle and into the glass almost sounds like an ocean swell. Hush now .Don't Explain. I'm glad you came. The first sip passes over my tongue and burns a path through me, making room for more. Billie sings to me from the other side. I turn the lights on and continue to drink. There's no hurry. I light a cigarette, I open the window. I drink in everything. Old letters, photographs, magazines go well with my drink. Today the glass will never be empty. It's just one big drink. Mummy I'm not an animal. John and Sid are screaming when Andy shows up with his out-of-town friends. So I'm not alone. Now it's an event. They are not unhappy to see me and they do not want any wine. This is a good thing.
"I'm getting drunk."
I spill the wine. I am losing muscle control and I am not afraid. They laugh because I am not asking them to help me. This is my experiment, my feelings, my expression. I go down to my room. I am happy to listen and to drink. I have smoked up all of my cigarettes. I will get more when I can think about it. I have never been this drunk before. But for me it doesn't take much. I am starting to spin. The bottle is nearly empty. Balance is no longer an option. I see that it is getting darker outside. I lay down to sleep it off. I could sleep forever. There is no thought in my mind. Everything seems right. And just as I am crawling down into my bed to hibernate like a little raccoon, my friend Alice calls me up. She's got a crisis.
"Can you come with me. I'm supposed to be in this student film and I have to be in my underwear and sit on a bed with this guy."
"I'm really drunk. But I'll be there because I don't want you to be afraid. Just give me some time to get some cigarettes and I'll be there as soon as I can get there. It might take me a little while but I'll be there."
Now I'm worried. It was cool when I thought that I could do my thing in the safety of my own place, but now I've got to go out and be a hero. I've got to face the world. I have to try to walk somewhere to help a friend, and I'll be damned if I'm not going to try to do it. It takes me a while to collect myself, but the idea that I have in my mind is that if I can just get to the store and get some cigarettes then I can revive myself with them. I can get rid of the drunkenness. I can smoke my way back to being sober. Gravity is playing games with me as I get out to the street. I keep walking but I can't go very fast without weaving back and forth. So I slow it down to a snails pace and I probably look like an addict. But I gave my word so I am going to try to get to the place. I can hardly see straight and it is hard for me to keep my eyes open as I ask for a pack of Benson and Hedges, he doesn't have Camel Ultra Lights. I'm feeling a little sick. As soon as I get outside of the deli I lean against a wall and try to light one up and for a second I feel like it is sobering me up. The cigarette makes it easier for me to walk through the streets when I know I look like a fool. I know that I am almost running into people because I have no motor skills. They seem to move very carefully, but they really can't be bothered enough to yell at me. I'm hoping the smoke will clear my head and help me to walk.
I come to the building finally where Alice told me to come and I am so relieved because now I can maybe get a little sober before going out into the street again. Alice is there and when I arrive I see her sitting while they set up the shot. She is glad to see me. She seems calm. There really doesn't seem to be anything to worry about so I sit in the common area of the dorm room that we are in and I proceed to smoke. But I'm still dizzy and as I try to get a grip on consciousness I lean against the table in the center of the room. But instead of holding me up, the table crashes towards me and ashes go everywhere. Either the table has a bum leg or I have put too much weight on it. Now I just feel embarrassed, but no one seems to notice that I have careened to the floor in a heap of ashes. I scramble to pull myself together even in the haze I'm in. And somehow I manage to put the table right and clear up most of the mess. The ashes I can't pick up I try to stomp into the carpet. And I sit again away from the table, closing my eyes and taking an occasional puff to try to wake myself up.
It doesn't take long for Alice to be finished or at least it doesn't seem like a long time in my drunken state. We leave and go for something to eat. I'm sure that coffee and food and cigarettes will sober me up. And even though I am a little better the night has become a disaster. Now instead of getting myself free, I got a bunch of obstacles and acted like a clown. The funny thing is that there hasn't been one person to comment on my condition, not even Alice. Maybe no one can tell even though I am staggering around and falling and moving slowly. Maybe nobody cares. I think that's it. And it makes me want to do it all over again except harder and worse. As I eat a burrito and drink coffee and smoke these formaldehyde-laced cigarettes, I not only feel like shit because of the drink, but because of the total lack of support I feel.
I always thought that when you got older things got better and people were decent to one another and paid attention to one another. But that isn't how it seems to be turning out. It seems to me that everyone is on their own and people can barely see themselves not to mention anyone else. In this moment I'm just so tired that I don't really care. I start telling Alice about Michael and she tells me that she thinks he is seeing someone else in his dorm. Alice's boyfriend shows up. It seems like everything is just happening quickly and no time is passing. I put some money in the jukebox and pick some songs, and try not to feel like Alice just stuck a knife in my head with her well meaning admission. Alice's boyfriend says I look like Billie Holliday and I think it's time to go home. I'm taking a cab this time around. I'm too tired to try to weave my way home. It is night time and my roommate will be out club-hopping with her man. Maybe Andy will be out with his friends. I will have the place to myself. I'm glad.
"Do you mind if I smoke?" The cabby says no. I light up again. I 'm not trying to think about how many I've had today. Inside the cab I feel like we are in an underwater world of lights and black water. As we pass the lights stretch out like eels. My head feels weightless and I close my eyes and I feel like I am swimming home. I open the door. It takes me forever to get down the stairs, but when I do I finally feel relief. I have no messages. No Michael. I just don't have the stamina to care anymore, so I decide to call him up. I'm going to confront him. I'm going to ask him why he couldn't just be honest.
I dial. The phone rings. He answers. When he hears it is me he gets tense, but I am determined to ruin his night.
"Why didn't you tell me that you were seeing other people. At least you could have let me know that's what you wanted to do."
"I just couldn't. There's things about you that I just can't deal with."
"I don't know how to describe them. I don't know how to say it."
"Lots of things."
"Oh, and that's what kept you from being honest."
"No, I mean we can get together and talk about it."
"No I don't think so. I mean I know we weren't going out, but you could just let a person know where they stand. Goodbye, Mike."
He pauses, he is not satisfied that I won't fight him.
Click. It's over. Now comes the pain, what's left of the wine can't numb it. It's a dull ache of acceptance and suppressed rage.
I have no idea where my life is going so I just start talking. I am talking in the dark. Talking, not to myself but not to anyone in particular. It is a prayer in prose. I cannot kneel. I won't use antiquated language or ceremony. All I can do is talk. All the things I am thinking, all the things that are hurting, all the disappointments I can think of I list in my own voice. And I figure if there is a God, it can handle it even though I am not good and I do not particularly want to be. And if the things I have to say cannot be handled, then I'll know I'm on my own, but only time will tell. I talk about the cigarettes and the men in the park and my music collection. Finally when I have nothing else to say, when I am all talked out in the silence, I reach for the lamp and find my cigarettes. I remove the matches from the plastic wrapper where I stuck them. I light up and turn off the lamp. In the dark I am satisfied to see the brightening of the tip with each inhale. I feel at ease and a peaceful net of sleep is billowing towards me. My tears roll sideways down my face and are absorbed by the pillow. I hear the key in the door and close my eyes so that I appear to be in a deep sleep. It is Andy upstairs. He bumps around, the light goes out and I hear the door slam again. He's going dancing. Alone again, my mind is a blank and I surrender to the swimming feeling in my head and I have no other thought than that I have given up figuring anything out and I leave it up to the thoughts and feelings hanging in the darkness around me to find their way to the place of solutions.
Copyright © 1997 by Jamila Jones
Jamila Jones, a native of the San Francisco Bay area, is finishing a collection of short stories.
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