Kaylee’s house always smells of musty, cigarette smoke, sometimes blending with the nostalgic aroma of sweet, gently spiced incense. To my disappointment, I find that the only vapors swirling ephemeral cobwebs through the room tonight, rise from a few lit cigs. Dirty white fumes cling to the roof like shredded pieces of moldy, cotton fuzz. Although, I love the scent of cookout smoke, and even fresh, unadulterated tobacco- clean and earthy, with a subtle undercurrent of sweetness- cigarette smoke is something else, entirely. To me, the smell of it, is to cookout smoke, what unpleasant body odor is to clean, baby skin.
There is so much smoke hovering in the room tonight, that one might suspect we were in a Buddhist temple, surrounded by offerings of incense, giving way to a ceiling of mist. It is enough to make one listen for chanting in the background, but unless the rhythmic hum of Kaylee’s fish tank counts, I hear nothing. Her octagon shaped dinner table juts out from the back wall, largely separating the living room and dining area. Rising through the acrid fog, a carved, wooden Buddha blesses the back of the table. His bald head crowns an unabashed display of large, dropping, man-breasts and a full, protruding belly. I joke with the girls that Buddha’s happy acceptance of his own naked form-un-idealistic, as it might be- makes me feel better about my own figure. We all know it’s a lie, but I do appreciate Buddha’s body acceptance. They all smile. Buddha’s stretched earlobes quickly catch the eye, but it takes a bit of meditation to notice that each one of his feet, has an extra toe. As a genealogist, I wonder about Buddha’s family tree. Being royalty, they might have been inbred, which would explain the polydactyl feet. A glossy sticker has been adhered directly above Buddha’s striated loin cloth, depicting a red and orange burst of fire over his root chakra. Large links forming a gaudy, golden chain, adorn his neck, and end in a sizeable, plastic dollar sign, while a miniature glitter lamp keychain hangs from one of his upturned palms, as they rise high above his delirious, Cheshire grin, appearing to urge, “Raise the Roof.” Kaylee’s Buddha looks like he’s here to party.
My eyes lazily scan the figure for what might be the millionth time, as I say offhandedly to Lucy, “It’s a good thing for us that there’s no such thing as [unforgivable] blasphemy in the Buddhist religion.”
Lucy laughs in a short, but cheery burst. “Yeah, we’re all probably gonna’ end up getting some serious karmic hell.” I was thinking to myself, I’m already there, when she added that while our Buddha might seem sacrilegious to serious adherents of Buddhism, to us, the trinkets decorating Buddha were our way of honoring him. While none of us were really Buddhists, I could see that in some way, these were like offerings, in lieu of incense, but they were more akin to gifts of friendship as opposed to reverence.
“Some,” I mused, inwardly, “might see desecration, but I suppose one might be as likely to see liberation in our little statue.” I raised a cold, dewy can of Pepsi- a personal vice- in a toast to Buddha, telepathically advising him- or perhaps myself- “Forget detachment, Buddha. Suck as much enjoyment out of life as you can. It doesn’t always give up much, willingly- and it sure as hell won’t if you fight it.” I realize, I need this advice as much as Buddha. I’ve probably never fought so frantically against anything else in my life- not even against my own mortality. I don’t want to be attached. Attachment is pain, as Buddha said. Attachment is scary. But detachment is death. Perhaps that is why Buddha thought it would grant Nirvana, and escape from the cycle of life.
Kaylee’s boyfriend, Mike, practically a savant when it comes to music and movies, is sitting hunched over the kitchen table next to me, working feverishly on a script for a Terminator sequel, and savoring his last Marlboro. His head is a foamy, swirling sea of shiny, black, and his coke bottom glasses are so thick that they have a strange shrinking effect on his stormy blue-green eyes. His naked belly protrudes over his pants like our shirtless Buddha’s. A concentrated line of smoke gracefully twists itself out of the Marlboro and through an invisible labyrinth, aimed for my face. I spend a few moments staring at the dusty, corkscrew trail, debating whether to move myself out of harm’s way. Eventually, my nose cringes, trying to burrow back into my face, in response to a grayish strand that is brushing across my nostrils. I feel almost assaulted by the smelly, little, air snakes that have coiled towards me, but I know it’s pointless to say anything. Everyone already knows how I feel about smoke, but they always remind me that I, too, have my vices, and besides, it’s unreasonably cold for them to be smoking outside tonight. So, I just swatted the writhing, charcoal serpent away and moved myself to a chair on the opposite side of the table. Luckily, I quickly become accustomed to the scent once immersed in it. Since the upper half of the house is often as white as the air above a swamp, that’s never a problem. It’s just those rogue strands of concentrated odor that continue to annoy me.
Mike excused himself to go use the computer, with little more than a grunt.
After he left, I caught Rose, apparently in the upsurge of a full on nic-fit, staring at Bob’s cig like a starving child stares at a feasting man.
“You look like a dog beggin’ for scraps,” I observed.
“Fuck you, Cari. How would you feel if you didn’t have no pop?!,” Rose snapped.
“Calm the fuck down. I never said I didn’t understand.”
Rose had started to get bristly with her sister, Kaylee, who had taken the seat I abandoned beside of Mike. Rose had been begging Kaylee, unsuccessfully, for the last several minutes, to disclose the location of their cigarettes. Kaylee kept reminding her that the two of them had quit smoking. It occurred to me that if Kaylee had merely hidden the cigarettes instead of tossing them in the garbage, they weren‘t out of commission, yet. At best, she was storing them away for hard times when the symptoms of withdraw became intolerable, like a chipmunk hoarding nuts to stave off winter hunger pangs.
“If you’re desperate,” Bob piped up next to me, “you can always smoke these butts.” He motioned with his index finger to several short cigarette stubs littering a black, plastic ashtray. The white, crinkled wrapping of the dwarfed cigarettes reminded me a little of maggots, squirming across the dark, plastic landscape, looking for a lung to crawl into. I shivered a little at the thought, but no one seemed to notice.
Rose was quick to point out that their was little more than filter left on each of the spent smokes. Lucy’s response was so quick, she practically blurted it out. “When I was smokin, I remember the filter was the best part…..it gets all strong…,” she reminisced.
I laughed. “That’s hardcore.” I parroted back Lucy’s comment. A few more laughs rose and fell.
The conversation turned to Mary’s baby. Mary was a local girl that I didn’t really know, beyond the running commentaries on her and her life, overheard from mismatched conversations where she slipped in, a phantom given form by the voices of others. Mary, I had learned, like many locals, had quite the affinity for cocaine, pills, and alcohol, among other things.
“That baby’s liable to have been born addicted,” Rose prophesized.
“That’s awful,” Lucy said with a look of disgust percolating on her face.
“I tell you what,” Rose preached, “that baby’ll be lucky if there ain’t nothin’ wrong with it.”
“I thought it was okay,” Bob countered.
“Well, it is as far as they know now, but it could still have somethin’ wrong with it, that they don’t know about. It could be autistic. They can’t tell about that right off,” Rose went on.
“Man,” Lucy said with a light surprise in her tone, “I didn’t know that could cause stuff like that. I just thought they could end up addicted.”
“Oh, yeah,” I broke in, “it can cause a lot of problems. Like alcohol- if you have even a little alcohol when you’re pregnant, it can cause the baby to have fetal alcohol syndrome. It causes all sorts of physical problems and it can cause mental handicaps, too.”
“Yep,” Rose explained, “it’s could have cirrhosis, too. And it’s even worse on the babies because they’re so much smaller.”
“So….” Lucy thought out loud, in a tone denoting all seriousness, “the baby’s kinda like the worm in the tequila?”
I laughed, despite the seriousness of the conversation. There was a perverse sort of poetry in what she had said. “That’s really creative, Lucy.”
Then, I tried to talk as hill as I’d ever spoken, and elevated the pitch of my voice, wavering it like a local granny woman, “Babies is like tuh-quila werms, they sop up all the pie-zen (poison).”
Lucy laughed raucously.
A few minutes later, Kaylee, supposedly off of the stuff, left the room to return, slightly hunched over and shaking- intentionally, for comic affect- like a volcano in its beginning tremors before the eruption, as she snickered breathily, a white ashtray full of partially smoked cigs cupped in her hand. The butts in this tray had substantially more tobacco left than the ones in the black ashtray, and Kaylee seemed all too happy to be breaking them out. I didn’t bother to mention that earlier that very night, she’d said she’d quit smoking. It would have been pointless and redundant. I’d already said it many times before.
Kaylee has always been very conscientious of the fact that she can’t afford to throw money around like a Monopoly bank teller, so when she gets low on smoking supplies, rather than rush right out to buy another pack, she returns to her ash trays and forages out the most sizeable butts to make the most of what‘s left. Rose is the exact opposite. When she has a full cig, she takes a pair of scissors and snips an obscene portion of the smooth cylinders off into an ashtray. Rose explains to me, “I can’t stand em’ long.” In truth, I wonder if she does it because she enjoys the simple ritual of cutting through the thin paper tubes and the tightly packed marrow of tobacco.
Kaylee sifted through the ciggerettes with her fingertips, trying to procure the best one. “These hateful butts,” she sighed in a tone that was so reminiscent of a dramatic line in a play, I had to laugh at her. A smile overtook her face for a moment, but dissolved in the concentrated effort of finding the perfect specimen. Finally, she fished out a rather lengthy stub of a cig, and a section of one of Rose’s dismembered smokes. She began to piece the two together, forming what I like to call a franken-cig, as the rest of us made small talk.
My eyes had glossed over the kitchen and stuttered across the message on Kaylee’s icebox, spelled out in the wonderfully child-like medium of bright, primary colored, block letter magnets- “GARBAGE”. I repeated it over and over again to myself, like a mantra.
Kaylee was looking at me from across the small table, her long, thick, hair lifted into a casual bun of shiny, black keratin. Her small frames rested on a tiny, pug nose, and eclipsed her hazel eyes, that turned an eerie, unnatural yellow in just the right lighting. She was holding her cigarette the same way she always does- between her index and middle fingers, with a large gap falling between her middle and ring fingers. She once explained to me, “It looks sort of like you’re tryin’ to do a Vulcan hand signal [for ‘Live Long and Prosper’].” It suddenly occurred to me how ironic her smoking posture was. She took a slow, casual drag from the salvaged franken-cig, exhaling a leisurely plume of cataract white smoke, before confiding, “I feel like fuck.”
I glanced back at the letters on the icebox. “GARBAGE.”
“I feel kind of depressed myself.” Then I said as much to the air, as I did to Kaylee, “I’ve ruined my life.”
The air said nothing, but Kaylee answered back. “I’ve destroyed myself. She raised her hands to her face.
“Why’s that? What’s wrong?”
“I’m dating an idiot,” she moaned into a veil of palms.
I laughed. “I thought you guys were doin’ good.”
“Naw, man. He’s pissed off over my tattoo- that he told me to get!”
“What the fuck?! Why would he tell you to get it, if he had a problem with it? That is HIS problem. If he can’t be honest about what he wants, then he can deal with not getting what he wants. This is the second time he’s pulled this bullshit.”
“I know. He’s crazy. I’ve told you. He’s crazy. You know, he told me, that he swore, he believed if someone told me, I could set myself on fire and see hell, I’d do it.”
I burst out laughing, my nostrils turning into two burning faucets of Pepsi. “I just totally spewed Pepsi through my nose,” I cackled. I was laughing so hard that my stomach was cramping with tight convulsions. “What the fuck,” I wheezed, “was he talking about?!” The comment seemed so out of place that I found it rather comical.
“Who knows,” Kaylee answered for him, “He’s crazy! I‘ve told you, ‘He‘s crazy!’”
“Did he say that in relation to your tattoo?”
“Yeeees! I don’t know what the fuck he’s talkin’ about.”
“Man, if I knew I wouldn’t actually go to hell, I might set myself on fire for a temporary peek at it, from the outside,” I squealed.
Lucy laughed. “I think I would, too.”
“Then everyone would talk about that old, crazy lady down the street who swore she’d seen hell once. And little children would dare each other to go to our houses on Halloween.”
“Yeah, and then some old man would find our scars beautiful and we’d fall in love,” Lucy concluded. It sounded like a fucked up Lifetime movie- or perhaps, it would be more suitable for the sci-fi channel, I thought. “The Lady Who Saw Hell.”
“Yeah, maybe you. I don’t do love.”
“Fuck love!,” Rose seconded.
“Awwww…..,” Lucy said with a sympathetic glance in my direction.
Kaylee excused herself to talk to Mike and the two returned about a half hour later, with Mike seemingly placated. He sat next to Kaylee on the couch and leaned into her face until his broad, pug nose was lined up with Kaylee’s small, upturned one. I suppose Kaylee’s eyes must have seemed to blur into one at that close range, because Mike cooed, “You are a beautiful Cyclops.”
Kaylee smiled. I smiled a little, too. Despite my cynical view on love, they were sweet in that moment.
Mike ended up ushering Kaylee off to the other room for some alone time. Rose was now engrossed in some book about, “….this woman who’s afraid of herself”- which oddly enough struck a cord with me- and Lucy was cooking Spanish rice on the stove top. The room smelled of sweet spices again. Bob, who had been passing the time doodling on a piece of paper, handed the sketch to me with a simple, “Here,” as he looked up from under the stiff, black rim of the cap he always wears. I take the sheet of paper from his hands, but temporarily loose myself in the white stitching on his cap. I have no idea what the symbol on his cap actually is, but it almost looks like it says “Tool”- possibly a hat supporting the band, but I doubt it- or “Fool.” I decided that it’s probably a symbol, and not a word at all. His voice invades my trance as he reminds me that he, “…can’t draw,” but the simple black ink scribble of a man shooting himself in the head has an interesting feature that catches my eye. There is a chaotic splatter of ink behind his 2-D skull and in that ink, a peace sign jumped out at me, partially obscured in surrounding angry blotches and scratches. I ask him if he did it on purpose and he assures me he didn’t. I point the occult symbol out to him, and ask if he can see it, too. He can, but he’s adamant that it was completely unintentional and I believe him.
After pondering the possible unintended message in such a piece, Bob tries to engage me in some more serious conversation. “For some reason, lately, I’ll just be standing there at work, or at home, or something…..and I just start thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?” There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by that it hasn’t happened- and I don‘t know why.”
“How long has this been going on?,” I asked.
“For about 2 months now- and it’s usually several times a day.”
“Do you mean, ‘What [are you] doing [there], specifically,’ or do you mean, ‘What [are you] doing here in general’- as in, ‘what [are you] doing on Earth’?”
“Both, I guess.”
“What do you think you’re doing here?”
“I don’t know. I just party.”
“You feel empty. You need more than partying.”
“Yeah. It just fucks you up.”
“What does?” The answer was obvious, but I had to ask him to be specific, since I had never once heard him admit that his lifestyle was unhealthy or detrimental to himself. In fact, given the glittery way that he normally spoke of his vices, I wasn’t sure that he was aware of their real affects.
“Partying,” came the obvious conclusion. “If you’re not getting messed up now, you don’t need to. Of course, I just drink….but hell, that‘s bad enough.”
“It’s as bad as anything. Not that I‘m judging you. I just mean, it can fuck you up as much as anything else.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“I can understand what you‘re talking about….with the question, though. I told my sister the other night, that it seems like every day, is just trying to get through the day. I mean, I know I’m not in the worst situation, and it’s not like I’m struggling to survive every day and just hoping I can make it through to tomorrow. No one is raping me or beating me, and I’m not trying to find out where my next meal is coming from. And I know that there are people who feel a lot more depressed than I do- I’ve felt more depressed than this before, myself- but it just seems like every day, is just trying to get through the day. It’s not a survival issue- it’s just a matter of the day having no purpose, but to usher in its own conclusion. Every day just consists of me trying to find some distraction- so that I can pass the time until I get sleepy and then I can go to bed. That’s the whole point. I just want to fill my day with distractions, so I can get through the day, and be done with the day. I want to know, ‘What is a day?’ Surely, there should be something more to life than getting through the day, but my sister says that is what mortal life is. ‘We’re just waiting for Heaven,’ she says.”
“Yeah. I know whatcha mean.”
“I had a dream recently….and you know that song that goes, ‘The sun will come up tomorrow?’”
“Well, I was sitting next to Kristen in a car, and we were singing it- except we were singing, ‘The sun will set tomorrow.’”
“What do you think that means?”
“It makes me think of death. That would actually make some good lyrics. I’m going to put that in the next song I write.”
“Cool…..Anyway, I think I was sitting beside Kristen, but she turned into Cami. You know Cami’s two years younger than me? Well, we were singing this song, and Cami ended up singing, ‘The sun will set tomorrow- on my 25th birthday,’ and I was singing, ‘The sun will set tomorrow- on my 27th birthday.’ That’s about 2 yrs. from now. Our birthdays are only about a month apart. I was wondering if it meant something good was going to happen then…..and everything would finally come together and start going well for us…or if it meant we would die.”
Despite my tendency to elaborate, I never told Bob that we had finished the lyrics angrily. Our tones had changed to rage full grunts as we began to sing, “…on my 25th (and 27th, respectively) birthday.” Because of that change in musical tone, I had decided that it didn’t mean anything good was going to happen to us at all, but I suppose I wanted to pretend that it COULD mean something positive. In truth, I thought that it either meant our birthdays would pass with us being two years older, and still feeling like our lives were wasted and worthless…..or that we would die. Somehow, I doubted the death theory, despite the symbolic completion of the sun setting. I figured it just meant that another day, another two years would end…..with nothing gained….and more losses possibly coming our way.
“I just take it to mean death.”
“I can see that. We went on singing though….and we said, ‘The sun will keep going on and we’ll just keep wandering on.’ Do you think it means anything or do you think it was just a dream?”
“Nah. My dreams don’t come true.”
“Yeah, well, a few of mine have, too, but….,” Bob was starting, but the song lyrics that were playing over his voice distracted me. Elvis Presley’s deep, smooth voice flowed out of the speakers, “Oh, why, can’t my dreams come true?” I smiled up at Bob, as if to say, “See- even the radio thinks I’m right,” but Bob hadn’t noticed the lyrics and subsequently, their ironic synchronicity was lost on him. Perhaps he was too busy wondering what the hell he was doing there.