Living in Cigarette Time

(published in FlashQuake, a defunct on-line lit journal, in Spring 2004)

When you told me you wanted to take me to Europe, I had no idea time would be measured different there.  At home, we measured our time together by weekends, by the hours after work.  But as soon as we arrived at the airport in Rome, you lit a cigarette, something I’d never seen you do before.  “I only smoke when I travel,” you said.  “Everyone smokes here, you’ll see.”  So we waited to pick up our luggage until you smoked your cigarette to the nub.

We walked around Rome, stopping at the Trevi Fountain for you to have a cigarette.  I watched the Italian boys in pale jeans caress their tight-skirted girlfriends and threw a golden 200 lire coin into the water.  When you told me, “I’ll catch up, let me just finish this cigarette,” I descended into the Capuchin monks’ cemetery alone.  I shivered under the eyeless stares of hundreds of skulls.  You didn’t catch up with me until the exit.  You kissed me so I’d forgive you; your hair reeked of smoke and I pulled back.

On the train to Florence, you squeezed outside our compartment to smoke in the aisle, wispy swirls trailing out the window.  I heard you practicing Italian to a girl whose scarlet lips held a slender cigarette, whose hands moved quickly in a blur of gold rings and jangley bracelets.  That night, we drank Nastro Azzruro from the bottle in a dark airless bar near the Ponte Vecchio; everywhere I looked, men stubbed their cigarettes in ashtrays, woman pursed their lips to inhale acrid smoke.  A cloud hung near the ceiling, and I felt as if I couldn’t breathe, so I left you there, laughing with a group of Australians, while the ashtray filled with butts.  In our pensione, I crawled into bed, wrapping the thin sheets around me.

At breakfast, over espresso and brioche, I said, “I don’t like you smoking.”  You said, “Don’t worry, I’ll stop when we get home.  Let’s go shopping – after I finish this cigarette.”  Rings floated from your mouth.  I watched them dissipate into floaty ovals, then to smoky tufts buffeted by the breeze.  I wondered how long I’d be waiting.