20: It's cold out and my hands feel like lumpy, worn leather but I'm passing by my normal store so I duck in. The proprietor is behind the counter punching in lottery numbers for a fat doorman from around the corner " he has this way of saying each number twice, and he doesn't seem to notice that this is distracting the cashier more than anything. The owner sees me enter, slides over, retrieves a pack of the usual, and nods approvingly as he lifts my exact change off the counter. I covertly chuckle and nod in the direction of the doorman as if to bond the owner and I in some shared frustration but he doesn't seem to notice; and if he did, he chose not to return my gesture with one of his own. The wind is swirling but I turn around so that my back absorbs the blow for long enough to light a fresh cigarette.
19: As I turn back around I notice a homeless man has been staring longingly. He's temporarily hidden from the wind by the natural crevices formed between the walls of the entrance to the church but by the way he's huddled up he knows exactly how cold it is and that's just as bad. I calmly walk over.
"Want a smoke?"
"Need a light?"
"No, I've got one. Thank you."
18: The wind has died down as half an hour has passed. All bundled up it's really fine out when the wind is quiet; now there's just a calm blanket of cold ready to pounce on anything exposed. I'm walking through the park reading the faces of people as they walk by, frequently a brief moment too late, having gotten caught up in something else.
17: Outside a bar discussing the music playing on the speakers with Steve, and two girls we met inside. They show very little interest in Steve but the blonde one has been creeping closer to my side of the booth all night. I don't know her name " she told me, but I forgot; think I may have it confused with her friend, whom I believe is named Katie. The girls wander off slightly to discuss a private matter and Steve ambles over with a smile on his face.
16: Steve doesn't smoke frequently so he never has any. The first drag seems to send shivers throughout his entire body; once the smoke leaves his mouth I notice him subtly slump, before breathing deeply twice or three times, regaining his balance a bit after each one. He notices the girls walking over as he's straightening out and he's back to normal quickly. The rest of the cigarette is puffed but not entirely inhaled.
15: The blonde. She smokes like a pro, cradling the cigarette between her right fore-finger and middle finger for its entirety, smoking it evenly and as an afterthought, right down to the butt as though the entire process was her calling in life.
14: The blonde's friend. She was the first to put it out, about halfway through, once the effect of the allusion of her as a smoker had taken hold, but before she'd have to smoke the whole thing.
13: Snuck outside while a round of drinks are being ordered. The blonde and her friend left once some friends came and dragged them to a table in the back. He keeps talking about going after them again before we leave but I'm hoping he'll get drunk and distracted. I'm very drunk. My eyes are heavy and the lights on the cars and corners are not bright but squatty, blurry, utterly unhelpful. I want to sit down but decide to pace instead. I can smell smoke all around and it nearly ruins the taste of my own. People are walking by and making plans and talking on phones and I'm standing outside as my friends are making jokes and having drinks.
12: End of the evening, walking home. Steve gave up on the girls " though we did spend twenty minutes discussing sports with two wonderful girls who managed to wait two rounds of drinks before telling us about their boyfriends. The only people out are drunkenly wandering home like I am. Very few couples this late at night, mostly people accepting their fate for the evening slowly, physically tired from the alcohol consumed while waiting for something to take shape before them while mentally drained from the time spent plotting.
11: The next day, early afternoon, walking to the grocery store. The news said today's weather is a carbon copy of yesterday's but I disagree " the air is crisper, less overbearing. The first few drags go down smoothly and I'm tempted to pull out a second but I'm approaching the store and wouldn't have time to finish it.
10: Late that night, streets empty, head cluttered with sensation yet incredibly lucid in the slight spaces in between where there's the promise of light, done with a day of reading. The wind has died down except for these twenty-second intervals when it seems to blow directly into my face. When this happens the ashes fly about and I can feel my grip on the cigarette being challenged as it bends slightly in my hand. My left hand is nearly stinging and frozen so I have to shift what's left of the smoke to the more uncomfortable right hand while I unfurl the left until it's flat enough to be slid into warmth. The loose strings of fabric claw at the skin around my nails, which makes it feel raw, and the inside of my pocket is so non-existent that my thigh gets cold from my fingers.
9: Five minutes after the last one was finished. It may be hard to smoke them but it seems worthwhile. My nose is clear and the air is flowing directly though me; each drag feels robotic, like nothing, I'm merely a machine chugging along blowing smoke the way people do when it's cold in Central Park and from a distance everyone's a train blowing out smoke with each step so it looks more like a life-force than an annoyance or something so natural as the effect of invisible temperatures.
8: Next day leaving lunch with my sister. She's gotten a new job and is dating a new guy but he hasn't called in a few days and she's convinced he's lost interest. I lose most of my lunch hearing about this but see the frustration in her eyes so as we break our embrace at the departure I tell her not to worry, that he'll call.
7: That night walking to meet the usual guys at a bar. I'm the last one to arrive, so they've all had a couple of drinks to lay the base. On the walk over I pass a beautiful girl sitting on her stoop smoking a cigarette of her own. I know intuitively that our mutual appreciation for cigarettes is by no means the basis for any introduction I might have planned but I walk slowly as I pass to notice her hair drawn up haphazardly and her red, cold-stricken fingers sticking out because of how pale the rest of her is.
6: Outside the bar with Mike, and two girls, Stacey and Michelle, that we met inside. They came with a larger group of uninteresting friends and we left two guys inside to run interference for us. They're both from the immediate outskirts of the city but moved to a small apartment downtown after they graduated college. Stacey wants to work in public relations while Michelle has been teaching third grade at a school for disadvantaged youths since September. Mike has a thing for Michelle - she's got a slight wild streak to combine with the kindness inherent in teaching.
5: Stacey demurely asks for one from me and not Mike because I've sold her on the "Light" brand being more practical than the strong stuff. She doesn't smoke very often, she admits, but makes an exception for this evening. She's drunk and almost surprised that she got to the point, smiling after each time she laughs as though she's not used to either. She's very calming; when she looks at me to see what I'll say next it's with curiosity not expectation. We spend most of our time outside whispering to one another the jokes we come up with while watching the people around us. Later on, back in the bar, she'll put my arm around the bottom of her back when some guy asks to buy her a drink. When it comes time to leave the bar she'll pull me by the collar.
4: "Can I come back to your place?"
I ask her if she wants another cigarette and she said she'd prefer just a drag or two of mine. I light it up and place it in my left hand while she instinctively changes sides and grabs my right. Between drags I say things that make her laugh. We're swaying to both sides of the pavement and my stomach starts to move around on me as we cross a street. I offer the cigarette to her and she makes a pouting face so that I hold it up to her mouth. She laughs when I try because I accidentally stick the butt against her top lip, and since I released my hold a little the cigarette falls to the ground and a bit of the ember pops out and burns itself through inches from my fingers as I bend down to retrieve what's left. After inspection I give it a cursory blow and have four more drags before my stomach is acting up too strongly and I must flip the cigarette into the air.
3: The next morning I walk Stacey out and put her in a cab. I light up a cigarette and walk around to take in the cold morning air. I haven't eaten yet so the cigarette is really hitting me and something about the way the sun is hanging in the sky makes it feel weird to smoke at this hour. I feel the very strong urge to ditch the cigarette, go home, and get back in bed, so that's what I do.
2: Waiting for Stacey outside a movie theatre that night " I don't know how she convinced me to see a movie with her but she did. People are flying by as I'm leaning against an alcove not entirely sure what the person I'm looking for even looks like. On 86th street there are lights everywhere so the crosswalks are visible but there's a minor mist in the air so I'm looking down mostly. I do catch a family shuffling past me, trying to stay near the walls and beneath awnings, and I move my cigarette to my palm and hide it because for some reason as kids walk by I feel like a bad example or something.
"Hey there." I hear a voice that must have been there for a while, it's measured and not out of breath, and I follow the sound. She's standing there in black boots, jeans, and a green top that's just the right amount of suggestive beneath her black coat. Her hair is a very light brown and when she genuinely smiles her head tilts back slightly to the right.
1: Dropped Stacey off and walking home. The mist has died, the streets are empty, it's Sunday night and everyone is nervously wasting hours, wanting to put off the inevitability of going to bed with nothing but Monday morning to look forward to.
But without such concerns I'm left to mull about with nobody watching. I light up the last smoke and see that this box, like so many others before it, died bent entirely out of shape, cardboard protruding from spots where it used to be glued and tucked away. The last cigarette is a bit bent but nothing I can't handle.
I have nothing to do tonight but walk around and think about my weekend " I can relive the funny things Stacey said tonight, at least the few I can remember, and I can imagine what it would be like to walk her around this part of the city and relay to her jubilantly the memories I have everywhere. In my imagination she's enthralled.
Hearing the singular footsteps as they hit the ground I see if I can hear the slow burning of the cigarette paper as I've done on so many nights like this. There's a minor pop and I watch as the flame seems to get raked over the sturdy paper until the whole thing becomes nothing at all. It's still cold out but I'm used to it.
I'm reluctant to throw away the last cigarette, as it's the last. Unfortunately, it's down to half a drag, at best, and that inhale is not fun so I pinch the end of the butt that's closest to the tobacco so the remaining ember will fall out. I have to twist it around a few times but it pops loose quickly and it falls, visibly in two, unused tobacco tightly wound beneath a gray smoke " I get to hear the fire go out instantly as the ember accidentally lands on top of a minor accumulation of water. I wonder what Stacey would've thought of that; I imagine she would've loved it. I've planned properly " I'm two blocks from my store again.