Volume XIII | 2023 Lacroute Prize Finalist
So you're a college student. There's this girl you've been talking to. Or she says she's a girl. You don't know whether or not to believe it. You don't know if she believes it. She says she does, but she doesn't seem to flinch when people say that she's a 'he' or a 'they' or anything. You don't really care much what people say they are, especially when they look nice. When she invites you out to smoke, you jump at the chance. Then she says she means cigarettes, and not weed. But you want this girl; she makes you laugh, so you're willing to look past that fact. Fuck it, you decide. It's worth the nasty smell, you'll bring a couple of joints. She's not the first smoker you've known. She's not the worst.
The two of you meet up on a corner at the edge of campus. You wave at each other, exchange all of the careful cordialities common to a relationship that's still unsure in its own footing... And you start walking down the sidewalk, heading the opposite direction of the college grounds. You're smoking underage; you're both scared of being caught for it. It feels right to keep moving, to not linger. You don't want to give anyone an excuse to look too hard.
In spite of that anxiety, the two of you start in on the usual small-talk. She's wearing a dude's clothes, and they don't fit too well. Her hair's messy. Did she fuck a dude, is she a dude? It's an enigma. But you talk. It goes like this, boring as ever along cracked sidewalks in the late summer's heat.
"So... How was your summer?" She asks.
You feel sweat prick under your arms, in your shoes, underneath your pants. "I mean... I lived, dude. I worked. Shit was tough."
"I can imagine," She says. After a few flicks on a Bic lighter, she manages to start the end of her cigarette, the tip curling inwards from the heat. She raises it to her lips, takes a quick puff, and exhales. "Yeah. I took the summer off. I wanted to work on myself, get some rest."
You two pass under an unlit street-lamp, a pair of blue and gray garbage cans on your right. She almost twists her ankle walking in the curb strip to pass by a mailbox. She stumbles, catches herself, pushes her hair back out of her face and laughs in a carefree way. It's a good laugh, it's a giggle.
"You good?" You ask.
She nods. "Yeah."
"Yeah," You say back. "Uh. How 'bout you? Your..."
She said that she'd not been working this summer already. You cringe. You forge on. You cannot afford to embarrass yourself right now.
"How was your summer?" You ask.
"Eh, man... Could've been better."
A truck runs past down the road. It stinks of diesel. The sour smell makes you wrinkle your nose. The girl curses beside you. Her cigarette had gone out. She scowls at the truck and lights it up again. Burnt half-down, she taps off a sprig of ash sticking off of the end. The flakes of it spiral like helicopter maple seeds; they stick to the concrete. Your gazes avoid one another. You'll meet eyes here and there and then you'll look away, like you're scared of it.
It's that kind of moody afternoon in town. The sun's low, haze is up in the air around you. The sky's a crispy orange like a cheese pizza in the process of turning too burnt to eat. It's sticky in your crotch; you're sweaty as shit. You ask her to hold your joint so you can take off your jacket. She carries it between two fingers like it's an earthworm as you tie your sleeves into a pretty bow on your hips. When she hands it back to you, you decide that she has nice hands. Behind the houses there are trees swaying in the wind. Big, big trees swing a little in the background, they brush their hands together and make that whispering noise trees do- it sounds like the vinyl material on a waterproof jacket rubbing when you run with it. You don't know what species the trees are. They're tall. The girl speaks up, pulls you back from the scenery.
"So I, uh—I started smoking cigs last spring, right?" She says.
You nod, you agree. She did. You were around, just barely. You remember her bragging about it like it was crazy or unique, like an achievement.
"Yeah," She says. "I smoked at my parents' house a few times, on the back steps. It was alright. Weed, too, I smoked weed. One time my dad looked at me and was like 'Girl, that's all you're smoking? Like it was pussy shit. It was half of a joint I had leftover. It was fucked up." She smiles at the thought, a smug little half-grin as you laugh at it.
"Man..." You say. "Fucked up. You're just not hardcore enough, I guess."
"That's the thing! He doesn't smoke said it doesn't do anything to him. And I can outdrink him. Yeah, I smoked cigs a lot there. Asked my parents if it was okay, and all, and for a month I smoked a couple times a week. Nothing crazy. I mean, I'm not an addict. I just do it because it's nice. I do it to make me feel a little bit more alive."
That's fair, you think. You inhale on the joint, hard. Cough once, three times. The finish on a joint is rough. She says that cigarettes are more smooth. She says she hates them for that
There's a muscle car parked on the street. You both look into the windows as you pass. It's an old Dodge Charger. You grin appreciatively. It's a nice fucking car, nice enough to merit the word 'fuck' as an adjective.
You pass underneath some trees here. They're shorter than those in the background, but they make those same noises as the big ones. The rubbing of those leaves, they sing to you in the canopy a few feet above your head. They're a choral background to her voice as she continues.
"My dad was on my ass this summer, dude," She says. "I think he was pissed that I didn't want to work all year, like—fuck, my bad, I guess! I want to have some free time before I get drowned by classes and jobs and shit."
"You have a job now?" You ask. You're skeptical.
"That's besides the point, but yes. The point is my dad."
"Right." But God, you don't want to talk about her dad. "Go ahead."
"Him, my mom and I are having a chat in the living room. I don't remember what it was about. Out of basically nowhere—I think I cracked a joke about smoking cigs-he goes "There are better ways to kill yourself!" And... I mean, how do you respond to that?" She laughs a little bit.
"You don't," You say. "That's wild." But it's not wild. Her dad's right, there are better ways to kill yourself.
"I know, I know," She says, mirroring your thoughts. "If I really wanted to kill myself, I should just put a gun in my mouth like a real man. Lung cancer bones."
Her cigarette's smoked down to the filter. She crouches and puts it out on the sidewalk. While she's not looking, you take a moment to rub some of the sweat from your armpits. She steps on the cigarette after that, makes sure that it's out for real and gets tobacco all over the bottom of her shoes. You're still not done with that first joint. A dog barks through a glass door on your left.
"But, I mean... Sometimes I think that's why I smoke. You know, I've been mentally ill for a long time," She says, "And this way, it doesn't feel like anybody can blame themselves but me."
You don't like the sound of that. Somebody grabs that dog from the door, tells it to shut up or hits it; whatever people do to their dogs. You're not watching. You don't have a dog. She lights up another cigarette. The two of you start walking again.
"Uh, yeah. And my mom comes up to me later, and she says 'Your dad really doesn't like cigarettes. Really doesn't. Your grandma, the one you never knew because she died before you were born? She died from cigarettes.' And I knew that. There's a lot of cancer in the family. My older brother; the one in the Air Force, he smokes cigs. My uncle died of diabetes or cancer. They took his leg off. My aunt got cancer twice. You feel me?" She asks.
You don't, but you say yes anyways. Interrupting at this point feels cruel. You think that she needs to talk; if she really does, you'll let her.
"My parents are health freaks, health nuts. They made me drink fruit smoothies for breakfast when I was a kid. Didn't want me to watch cable TV because it would rot my brain. Now look at me!" She takes a puff. Offers the cigarette to you. She shrugs when you say no. "Yeah, man. I guess they didn't wanna pass all of that nasty shit onto me. I appreciate it. I mean, as much as anybody can appreciate drinking smoothies every morning till you turned fourteen. Anyways, I'm telling a story, aren't I? Let me get on with that."
The two of you turn a corner, deep in the shade. Sunlight meanders down between the leaves. A squirrel runs off down the sidewalk. You call him a 'little man' as he leaves. She laughs at that. It makes you feel good in your stomach, and it's a pleasant distraction from the story she's telling, which just seems to go on...
"I wanted to figure some more stuff out about my grandma. I didn't even know her name at that point!" She says. "I mean, I've already forgotten her name. I know my great-grandma's name, and I never knew her, but nobody talked about my grandma growing up."
You're done with your joint now. You decide not to start on the second one. The high's started to settle into you. There's the dry in your throat and your eyes. The way that your senses all seem to tingle a little... It's comfortable. You're mostly willing to let her do her talking, while you give the errant vocalizations needed to hold up your end of the conversation.
"So I get into the car with my dad for some reason or another. I think I bothered him into running to town with me to get some ice cream, maybe. Maybe we were getting pizza. We live out in the country, and I'm the family fatass. The family disappointment."
She's skinny as she says 'fatass', wearing too-tight jeans in some small size. You don't know how girls size their clothes. It feels wrong for her to say it, though. You let it go. It's not worth starting a fight over, or maybe you don't care enough.
"I'm in the car with my dad, right? And so I tell him; 'Hey, dad. I'm sorry about that whole shit about cigarettes. I'll stop smoking around the house if you want.' And he's chill about it! Really chill, on the surface. He says that same line about killing yourself again. Which again; fair. So I go 'I didn't want to bring up anything about grandma, though. I know that it was rough on you. Mom said it was rough on you.' He says that it's alright, and I go I just never knew anything about her. She smoked a bunch, she was a really shitty person, and she had a Dalmatian. That's all I remember.' I want to know about her. I want to get it, you know?"
You say that you know. You turn into a park, the road winding through it. This should take you around and deposit the two of you on the other side of your campus, and it's pretty enough here to warrant the walk through, you think. The background of the minutes before becomes the surround of the moment; those tall trees drop needles and roll out a carpet for you two. You're celebrities, and all the while the wind's soundtrack continues. She looks like she's famous, like she's avoiding the paparazzi. For a moment you imagine yourself shielding her from a camera flash. She brings you back to reality again.
She taps her cigarette, knocks ash off of the tip. "And he starts talking. 'When your grandma got cancer,' he says, and he says her name, but I forgot again. I always forget her name-I don't think I'm supposed to know it. He goes 'When she got cancer I was the only one of her kids that cared enough to drive her to her treatment all of the way across the state. It was a three hour drive. I paid the bill.' She had five kids. My dad, my two uncles, and the two step-brothers who introduced my dad to Dungeons and Dragons in the eighties. My dad was the only one that gave a fuck. He was with my mom at that time after divorcing my half-siblings' mom, I think. See, I know the ex-wife's name. Is it weird that I remember everyone's name but my grandma's?"
By this point, you're barely listening to what she's saying. There's the way that her face moves, though, the crease in her brow when she speaks. She talks with her hands as the two of you walk, cigarette clenched between her index and middle finger and giving off that thin tendril of smoke which is the only thing enticing about nicotine. Focusing on her, you trip over a crack in the sidewalk. Stumble, come dangerously close to running your hands full of pine needles. That would be embarrassing.
"Oh, shit, dude!" And she laughs at you, puts a hand out to steady you. "You good?"
"I'm good." You nod, but her touch sets off alarms in your head. "What were you saying, again?"
"My dad's ex-wife. Anyways, this was the nineties. My dad goes 'One time, on the way back from the big city, I'm sitting in the minivan, that shitty gold minivan we still had when we were living on the farm when you were a baby. I get this weird smell. I look over, and your grandma had lit up a cigarette in my car, on the turnpike, on the way home from her cancer treatment.' And I'm like 'What the fuck! Because it sounds crazy. It is crazy, it's horrible. My dad says 'I stopped taking her to her treatments. She obviously didn't want to keep living, and I had to watch her die slowly after that. So I don't like cigarettes.' It's that kind of bullshit. And I get it. I do."
The two of you walk in silence for some time after that. She's nodding, because she really does get it. You don't know what to say. You don't know what will help, if she wants help or needs it. You don't want to make her mad. Angry sticker bushes poke up from the cracks between the concrete panels of the sidewalk. The grass on the curb strips are dry and brittle and dead, flammable as she throws the butt of her cigarette into the road. A sedan runs it over. A little Ford Taurus in red. The streetlights turn on. It's not dark yet.
"People are fucking shitty," She says.
"You can say that again," You reply.
"They are! I mean—my grandma really just didn't want to live, did she? A quick buzz was more important than my dad. It's fucked up. I told him that I'm not like that, and I never smoked a cigarette at their house again. Like—people fucking abandon you. They do." She looks you in the eyes as she says it, like she's staring straight into a camera. "And, you know... That's why I didn't ever kill myself before. I mean, I wanted to, but I was scared of dying. And... I kept seeing my parents and my brother crying at my funeral in my head. I don't wanna leave people behind like she did. I don't wanna be like her, I don't want to see my brother cry. So I only smoke a little. Just when I need the boost to kick some depression, you know?"
She smiles at you like the two of you have some inside joke. You sigh. It's a deep sigh, as if it precedes a thought you've been sitting on. You say nothing, though, and she gives you a questioning look. There's a flash of worry there.
"Sorry," You say. "It's nothing."
She nods in response, and the two of you break the trees into the open air. You're back on campus. You're not sure whether to feel relieved or nothing at all. You're not sure about anything. Did you just waste your time? You consider that for a few moments before you realize that the girl isn't walking beside you anymore. She's standing there, hands in her pockets, looking at you in some weird way you don't quite understand.
"No... I'm sorry. I'm the sorry one," She says. "You went on this walk with me and probably wanted to talk about things that are nice, and..."
She's right, of course, but you decide to be the bigger person and interrupt. "Nah—you obviously needed to get that off of your chest. I'm just glad I could be the person to do that for you."
"Really?" She frowns at you, and the two of you look at each other in silence. "Thank you, I guess. Not I guess—thank you."
The two of you break contact. One of her hands comes from her pocket to scratch her neck embarrassedly. You shift from foot to foot.
She speaks again. "I appreciate you. I appreciate people like you."
"Hey, it's no problem," You say. "Anytime."
Another moment of silence.
"Do you wanna kiss?" She asks. She's looking down at her feet.
To your credit, you are shocked into silence by the question. You stare at her-this is not what you expected after that rant of hers. Your mouth hangs open, about to speak. You close it and you frown in thought.
"You know what?" You say. "Yeah. Fuck it."
So she comes in close and the two of you kiss. It's something that's held for a moment. It's something thoroughly unromantic all you can taste and smell is cigarette smoke, and you imagine that you smell like weed.
She pulls away first. She wears this solemn neutral expression on her face, something more grim than when she was discussing killing herself.
She speaks haltingly. "I gotta go. I've got... Homework, and stuff. It's busy. We should talk more, though. I'll text you?"
By the time you nod, she's already begun walking away, giving you a double thumbs-up and spinning on her heel, leaving you in the dust. You stand there for a while, sweaty, high, and thoroughly confused.
What a day.
The days pass, though, and she doesn't text you. The two of you don't talk more. You never speak again, as a matter of fact. She ghosts you, but sometimes you see her around on campus and she pretends that you don't exist. You think about her nameless grandma sometimes.
People really are fucking shitty, aren't they?