Nikki Ervice ~ Smoke Break

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.