Did I ever tell you about the time I did mushrooms at Disney World? It was actually pretty boring. Alex is examining his nail beds under a curl of cigarette smoke. It’s easy to playact maturity out here as the day seeps beneath the dogwoods that hem the yard. The only bright things are the embers of our cigarettes and the white of the plastic chairs. A frog sings from somewhere impossibly close and cockroaches scavenge at our feet. The Florida evening is fat with an emphatic watchfulness, too many small eyes together.
I say that yeah, he has told me that one. He mistook a wax figure of Goofy for the real thing and carried on a half-hour conversation with it before his friend noticed and pulled him away. It seems a weird thing to be proud of but I’ve already realized that youth makes pageantry of the stupidest drug stories. I am proud of myself for knowing this. He blinks twice like I’ve smacked him on the nose.
I ask him what he talked about with Goofy. Oh, just life stuff. My dad. Alex looks to the top of a dogwood. He’s embarrassed. He knows his dad is a catch-all conversation ender because I can’t possibly understand what it’s like to have a dead dad. Smoking gives us something to do while his dead dad hangs between us.
Did I tell you my dad’s sick? I want to ask, but don’t. A sick dad is still beneath a dead dad in the hierarchy of serious things. Instead I say, do you miss him ever? It’s the first time I’ve asked him about it head-on. I looked up ‘how to talk about dead people’ on the internet, which says that sorries are empty and it’s best to just let the bereaved know you are there for them. I do that by walking two houses down every evening for our smoke breaks.
Alex doesn’t answer, but reaches across the plastic lawn table and strokes the middle knuckle of my middle finger. He has never touched me before and even though I thought I wanted him to my hand feels detached, like it belongs to someone else. I don’t move or say anything. Eventually, Alex stops and clears his throat as his roommate, Max, walks out into the yard and asks us what is up. I say nothing and ask if he wants a smoke. He does, and sits with his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. He has delicate ankles that look almost like wrists.
We know smoking is dangerous so we are getting it in while we’re young, while the spongy tissue of our lungs has time to grow back. I looked that up, also. According to this one site, for every year you don’t smoke after quitting twenty percent of your lung tissue rejuvenates. I’m scared of getting cancer but it feels like something that will happen to a distant version of myself, another person entirely. She’s smarter and better prepared, has a house and money for chemo. Maybe the research is so good by then that she just takes a pill and boom! the sickness is gone. She doesn’t lose her hair, doesn’t have to wear one of those wigs that are too shiny to be real. She won’t have to have a spaghetti fundraiser at the church.
Alex and Max are deep in a discussion about online gaming. Max has uncrossed his legs and there is a red spot on his right ankle where his left ankle has pressed into it, a sand-dollar sized place that is starved of oxygen. I think about how the tumors in Alex’s dad’s pancreas stole the blood from his vital organs, spread to his spine. I let my hand fall from the table. It still feels alien. Two doors down my father prepares for bed by swallowing three pills at once with a glass of room temperature water. In the morning he will start full treatment and his prognosis is good. He isn’t worried. I am not worried either.
Across from me, Alex’s face is diffusing into night. His eyes are smudges. He’s gesturing wildly and his cigarette makes lightning in the dark. If I didn’t know him and had just come upon him in the yard I would think he was a grotesque old man, the way he slouches and stabs the air. He pauses to wedge his cigarette into the notch of an ashtray, brushes a bug from his shoulder, lights another before the first has even gone out.
Nikki Ervice is a writer and professional dancer from Alaska who has been published in New Limestone Review, Freshwater Review, and Allegory Ridge among others.