“Hey, come have a smoke with me,” she said.
I’m not a smoker. But I didn’t say no right away. I looked out at the deep blue night and imagined catching a firefly for the first time, sticky and glowing in my hands. I looked at Laura and wondered what she thought about while she smoked on nights like this.
“Sure, I’ll come out.” It was that easy.
My flip-flops squished their way to the backyard bench and rested next to Laura’s bare feet on the splintering deck. Our feet made a funny picture–glowing white skin and fading traces of nail polish.
She pulled out two cigarettes and I took one while she started telling me that she never smokes. Only on occasions where she feels a need to sit outside with someone.
“Of course, then I smoke the whole pack,” she said, sounding a bit like Katharine Hepburn.
Laura always colored her conversation with character voices, no matter what the topic. She didn’t do direct impressions of anyone; she created her own characters. They were so vivid that they never annoyed me.
“And the next time I see that person I’m like a fiend–Do you have any more cigarettes?! Let’s go buy cigarettes! You want a cigarette don’t you?! It’s quite traaaagic.” Laura’s voice often dropped an octave at the end of her stories. She arched one of her red eyebrows and lit the stick in her mouth.
I held my cigarette to her lighter. “Would you light this? I’m terrible with flame. Lighters, matches, camp stoves, all of it. I’m an idiot with fire. I’ve often told people that’s the only reason I don’t smoke.”
Laura laughed as she set my stick aglow. “Yeah, it’s not like theres anything nasty about the smell or the taste or the headache or the cancer that you get with smoking.” She took a long drag.
I giggled and took my first puff. “Yep, if it weren’t for them flames, I’d be a smoker.” The taste in my mouth was like singed cookies. I took another puff, trying not to inhale.
“I don’t know how smokers keep up with it,” I said. “It’s hard enough for me to find time and money to eat enough. Sometimes I feel like I dont even have time to pee! How do they all make time to smoke?”
“How do they do it,” Laura drawled. For such a high-energy person, she never seemed to be in a hurry.
We let the crickets talk for a while, and I tried to soak in the Kentucky night. Living in the Northwest all my life, this was the furthest I’d been into the Southern states. The warm air had weight to it, and felt like a summer blanket.
I took a drag, and allowed myself to enjoy its comfort. It added an ease to the conversation.
“So, how far do you live from here?” I asked.
“Asheville–it’s a couple hours from Louisville. It’s really small, and kind of strange. I still hardly know anyone.”
“Sounds familiar,” I said, thinking of the Idaho town I would return to in a couple days. I blew smoke into the air and used it as an excuse to gaze into the night. “Are those fireflies?”
“Yeah, they–oops, now they’re gone.” Laura turned and saw me searching for more lightpoints in the night. “There’ll be more.”
I took a deeper drag. A firefly zooming by would have seen a cloud of smoke sheltering us, as if we were magical Indian grandmothers in a ceremony. Except we were skinny white girls killing time.
I finished one cigarette and started another. Laura was on her third. Stories tumbled out of us like marbles from a jar, dropping with uncertainty, rolling quietly and at last clinking together to send us in new directions. She told me about her mom, and all the ways they avoided conversation; about her sister, the lesbian Universalist priest who ended up with the perfect daughter role. I told her about my brothers and all of my silent relatives, the ones who taught me how to listen. We talked about the simultaneous comfort and unease that come with living in a small town. We discussed love, or near-love, and the ways a woman’s view of herself can get in the way of it. We discovered that we had both briefly considered being nuns.
“You too?!” I laughed and sucked the irony out of my cigarette.
“I even stayed at a convent for a few days,” Laura said. No character voices were surfacing. “I was kind of serious about it. I mean, there was something that felt so good about all that quiet. It was kind of hard to decide that it wasn’t for me.”
“Yeah, all that quiet. It could feel like a prison if you weren’t peaceful.”
A dull ache was spreading through my forehead. My nose, throat and tongue were drying out. The taste of cigarettes was becoming more like an ashtray.
“And there’s the celibacy thing.” Laura giggled and snorted lightly. That got me laughing, too, as I put out my cigarette.
We went inside and I called my boyfriend before falling asleep.
“What have you been up to?” Garrett asked.
“Oh, I was just outside smoking with Laura.” I spoke casually. Garrett had been a smoker since high school. He was probably smoking while he was on the phone with me.
“You were what?!”
“I just had a couple cigarettes. Not a big deal. It was a nice night for it.”
“Are you serious?” Garrett almost sounded upset. “Tell me you’re not going to do it again.”
“Why? It wasn’t that bad.”
“You’ll get addicted, and do you know how much that sucks?!”
I laughed and moved the conversation on. I didn’t plan on smoking again. There was still too much of a near-nun in me. But I thought of the warm night moving into me through the cigarette. I remembered the burnt cookies taste, and it reminded me of my grandma, a lifelong smoker. The windows of her car were yellow with smoke, but I still loved the way she smelled.
I thought of the haze that surrounded Laura and I, that told us, “It’s okay if this conversation is slow and stumbling.” I had only known Laura a week–we met through mutual friends in Kentucky–and the smoke session had begun to show me her layers. The silver screen jokester was peeled back to reveal a new girl in a small town, a younger sibling who couldn’t keep up, a solace seeker testing out a convent.
I left Louisville two days afterward, and haven’t had contact with Laura since. But her voice is still clear to me–the way it shifted from bell-like tones to geriatric warbles, the many ways it painted our conversation, the layers of pain and peace that came through at last, surfacing in the smoke.
Garrett is still a smoker and I habitually empty his ashtray. Sometimes I have to leave a bar early because my sinuses can’t take the smoke. I am not a smoker. But I am enchanted by the idea of cigarettes, of the night’s casual invitation: “Hey, step outside with me.”