Cigarettes and Scarves

Maclain Scott

 

It was Saturday night.  And this Saturday night was struggling to flirt with the lackluster expectations he had formed the night before when Jenna had reminded him of a retirement party for one of her co-workers. Sitting on a barstool with his back to the party, the air around him was shared between the aggregate hum of similar conversations, and the conflict between the jukebox and the television.
The condensation off Ethan’s glass had gradually accumulated to a symmetrical moat guarding his drink from whatever the top of the bar had to offer.  The closest adversary was the unused Bud Light coaster a few inches away that the bartender had poignantly tossed down a couple minutes earlier when the drink first bled upon the black, grainy surface.  Ethan sat with both elbows on the padded edge of the bar, one hand twisting the glass in place as he partially listened to the man talking beside him. 

 

“Honestly, the spring career fairs are a tough sell.  Nobody wants to think they can’t find a job on their own.  It’s like their ego won’t let them think that, or some bullshit.  Or they all think their dad’s friends will all come through. But, now that it’s the fall, I’ll have the most contact information out of any booth at any given college because of all the returning alumni, AND the few kids from the spring with a little bit of foresight and were smart enough to take my card, have been emailing me crazy since, I don’t know, July,” said Aaron Guthrie, the stocky and boisterous head-hunter that worked with Jenna at Hendrix Helping Hand Career Placement Agency.

 

“Yeah, people aren’t finding much out there,” Ethan said. Ignoring his conscience’s reminder to politely glance at Aaron every now and again, he focused his glaze at his glass, rubbing it in the wet runoff.

 

“Not on their own they’re not,” Aaron replied. Aaron had a habit of throwing his head back in the air as he’d say something definitive, exposing his freshly shaven, puffy throat and precisely groomed beard riding high on his jawline.  “I could probably find you something. Jenna said you’re not looking, but still.”
Ethan again noticed Aaron’s beard, and was somewhat impressed with his devotion to the crisp hair line, except for a little section just below his right ear that lifted up onto his cheek when he spoke.
Aaron took a big gulp out of his cranberry vodka to accentuate the finality of his statement, nearly spilling on his light-blue button down shirt stretched tight across his belly.

 

Ethan now stood the coaster up on one of its points, occasionally flicking it with a free finger.  He took a look at the football game on the TV hanging at the far corner of the bar. Needing a place of refuge for his lost eyes, he didn’t so much as watch the football game as stare at the screen.

 

Following suit, Aaron turned to the television.  “New Orleans is going to get fucking killed tonight,” he said.
Ethan switched his attention back to his coaster, nodding slightly.

 

“They need 7 or more to cover.  If they clear, I’ll be up 5-3 on the week. Who do you like?”

 

“I don’t really know.”

 

“Are you fucking kidding me? Dude, the Saints haven’t done a damn thing since Westbrook went down.”

 

“I really don’t follow it enough.”

 

“You’re probably like me. The pro stuff can get so fucking boring sometimes. I’d rather watch college.  I put money down on the NFL just to make the games more interesting. You should try that. It really makes it more fun to watch.”

 

“I’d be throwing my money away.”

 

“Yeah, and you don’t want to take any of those assholes’ advice.” He nodded at the screen, exposing his naked throat to a panel of sports commentators sitting around a half-circled desk. “I’m serious; whoever gives them a hard-on ends up having the shitty games. They talk them up all week and then they fucking suck.”

 

Ethan took a sip from his vodka on the rocks.  “Imagine if that level of analysis went to important stuff.”

 

“Like what?” Aaron said.

 

Ethan shrugged and took another sip before returning his glass to the bar.  He spun around in the high-backed stool to face the horde of people swimming in merriment.  “I’ll be back,” he told Aaron.

 

He drifted in and out of the crowd, always stopping to allow others to move before him. In his travels, he saw Jenna talking with a group of people but he decided not to walk over to her, instead he ducked out of the backroom and into the main bar.  He only stood in the public area for a moment before finding a side door and ducking out into the street, stepping away from the smooth floors and primal static onto the rough concrete framing the hollowed brightness of the second-act city. 

 

Exhaling into brisk fall night, he felt the urge for a cigarette. His swore to himself when he remembered that he didn’t have cigarettes. Jenna had some in her purse, but he quickly put that out of his mind. He instead opted to open up his cellphone and stare at nothing in particular. When someone would pass by in the street - someone walking their dog, a couple hand in hand, or a self-conscious stranger - his thumbs would type at his home screen until the moment passed.  This disgusted him, but he did it anyway.
He sat down on the concrete with his back against the side of the building.  A moment later, the side door swung open and Jenna stuck her head out, her eyes leading the way.

 

“What are you doing?” she asked, spotting him.

 

“I just needed to get out for a bit.”

 

“What’s going on? Aren’t you cold?”

 

He offered up a shrug, hoping it would suffice for both questions.  The night wasn’t as cold as those of the previous week; in fact the coolness of the air was welcome in his lungs.  She closed the door to the bar and quickly checked to make sure it hadn’t latched – it hadn’t.  She took a few steps over to him.  “Are you going to come back in?”

 

“Yeah. Just not right now.”

 

She didn’t say anything, but she raised her head slowly and her eyes climbed the top of the building before sweeping the upper echelons of those neighboring the bar.

 

“Hey, you wanna take a walk?” he said finally.

 

“A walk?”

 

“Yeah. A walk.”

 

“Where?” she said incredulously, now looking at Ethan.

 

“I don’t know. Somewhere, just around the block.”

 

She sighed. “Ethan, no,” she said, noticeably tired. “I want to go back inside.”

 

Halfway down the street two women walked arm in arm.  They were both bundled up from head to toe, unnecessary preparations, Ethan thought.  They both wore dark, indiscernible colors, except for a long light blue scarf that hung around one of their necks.  As they walked, he saw as the woman with the scarf continually looked down at a cellphone in her gloved palm as the other patiently took in the buildings and streets around them.

 

“I know. I’ll be in soon,” Ethan said, watching the women approach. 

 

Jenna re-entered the bar wordlessly as Ethan sat on the ground, arms resting on bent knees.  As the two women passed, seemingly oblivious of him, the one carrying the phone clung tightly with her free arm to her companion.  Bearing a warm smile, she pushed the cellphone into the other woman’s face, who after looking at the screen soon draped her arm round the other.  In response, she unwound the scarf partly from her neck and tried unsuccessfully to loop it around the both of them.  

 

Upon hearing their communal laughter, Ethan sent his eyes to his shoes, and listened.

 

Later than night, he sat on the couch in their apartment, still wearing his light-weight pea coat when he heard the jingle of keys on the other side of her door.  He sat upright on the couch and waited.  On the end table beside the couch lay Jenna’s black wayfarer sunglasses.  The light coming off the lamp beside him was bright and he did not want to turn it off, instead he put on the sunglasses, and waited. 
The door opened and Jenna came into the apartment, her heels clanging on the hardwood.  She mindlessly tossed her purse onto the kitchen table and rummaged through the refrigerator.  When he was certain she couldn’t see her, Ethan ran his hand over his head, tousling his hair to disarray.

 

She casually entered the living room, eating a bag of chips.  Ethan looked at her through the dimness of the sunglasses and tried appreciating her the way a stranger would.  He thought of the body he knew so well that lay in wait under her white and black checkered wool overcoat.  Her long, dark, and wavy hair carelessly framed her face, cheeks flushed from the cool night.  He knew she was cold.  The things on her were cold: her hair, her coat, her cheeks and nose.  At one time they would have curled up under a blanket and warmed each other, and for however long they were hidden, the world would have hung suspended in void waiting to be renamed and remembered. 

 

“Your cell phone charger is in the room, under the desk,” she said.

 

Ethan gave a steady nod, as if that information completed a long pondered puzzle. “I just figured your phone must be dead since you didn’t answer my calls or texts.”

 

Silence reigned for a moment, before she added, “I’ve never seen you wear sunglasses.” She started up again, eating her chips like perfection.

 

“Yeah?” he said finally.

 

“Yeah. And it’s indoors. I’ve certainly never seen you wear them indoors.”

 

“So?” he said.

 

“It seems just a little obvious.” She curled up the top of the bag, the abrasive noise attacking the apartment, and she tossed it onto the kitchen table near her purse, where it uncoiled upon impact.
She turned back around and watched Ethan. 

 

After a moment, he said, “You know, I’ve never really felt comfortable wearing sunglasses. Never think I look good. Like a phony.” He hoped she’d take the bait, and egg him on, allowing him a little reprieve. He was not quite ready for a monologue, although he sensed the opportunity rapidly approaching.

 

“Yet…”

 

“Yet, I replayed the scene in my head, thought about it over and over so many times it didn’t feel like I was here – someone else sitting on this couch – And, in my head, the next scene involved him,” Ethan held his index finger in the air for emphasis, “wearing sunglasses, hair perfectly unkempt, drunk, sitting on a couch, feet up on the table, shoes on, over my shoulder a dimly lit lamp offering the only light in the room.” He paused with the words on his lips.  He rubbed the back of his head even though it didn’t itch, and looked around the room. And then, like a subtle epiphany, he motioned with his hand towards the bright lamp resting on the table beside him.  “But the lamp next to this couch is way too bright for the…desired effect.” He cocked the head to the side and looked at her through the lenses. “But what are you going to do?”

 

“You’re drunk? God, you couldn’t have stayed for more than a drink or two.” What she said seemed to amuse her and she placed her hands on her hips.

 

“Your friend Aaron was very insistent on shots. I think he told me not to be a pussy. I could only oblige a friend of yours.”

 

“Too bad you didn’t listen to him.” She sighed and looked around the room. “You don’t look drunk,” Her eyes wandered for nothing in particular, but her voice sought her next words. “You look pathetic.”

 

Putting his elbow on the arm rest of the couch, and resting his chin on his now open palm, Ethan stared off towards the wall.  He thought long and hard and hoped to make it look that way.  “Jenna.”

 

She didn’t respond. 

 

He continued, speaking slowly, “You are such a bitch.”

 

She twisted her head around in one deliberate and fluid motion. Her eyes once again led the way, bright and wide, interrogating the words as they floated inside her ears.

 

“Fuck you,” she said, visibly fighting off any urge to scream or yell that may betray her sense of control. Instead of appearing over the top, everything she was feeling seemed to channel itself through her eyes and tightening upper lip.  “How dare you.”

 

Though the voice level didn’t hit any absurd decibel, Ethan felt her eyes introduce contempt to the world.  Up until that point, the mixture of anger and disgust had run around as an amateur, waiting to be utilized. That night, they heard their master’s call. 

 

“Hold on,” he said, so far past the point of no return that he felt a bizarre yet serene tranquility.  “In our entire relationship, I have hardly ever raised my voice to you.  I know I’ve hurt you. Really, I know that.  But you’re always saying I do it in subtle ways.  Well, here and now, I take a full on swipe at you and all you can do is see red.”

 

“I’m so sorry, how would you have me react?”

 

“Are you even hurt? Are your feelings remotely hurt? You’re so eager to challenge me, you act like I’m some stranger that slighted you in a bar, knocking your drink out of your hand or something.”

 

You are a bitch,” she said.


Ethan sat quite for a while as Jenna took off her coat and hung it over the back of a chair at the kitchen table. Ethan watched her, all the while under the protection of the sunglasses, until she walked back in the kitchen and out of view.  He heard the water running and the cupboards open up. He knew he looked ridiculous but he feared taking off his tinted armor. She emerged from the kitchen and made for the bedroom.


“Jenna.” He said, causing her to slow her walk down.  She put one hand on the doorframe leading into the bathroom but she did not turn around. “Maybe I’m not so drunk.”


“I wish you had been. Then you’d have something to blame for leaving me at the fucking bar.”  Ethan put his hand to the sunglasses but when he heard the shower kick on, he slipped into reverie. He would walk to the bathroom, undress, and slide into the shower with her.  At first they would simply hold each other, letting the warm water wash over their bodies.  Then, they would kiss lightly, still in embrace, before sliding down to the floor of the bathtub and sit, her in his lap.  This quiet would last for a long time, as long as it needed to, before they broke it with another, lighter kiss and an absolving smile.  Effortlessly, he ran through the conversation that could be, as they were both practiced in the art of late night apologies.


The shower came to a halting stop, ejecting Ethan from his assuaging fantasy that existed in a parallel universe not far from this one. He took his glasses off and put them on the table next to the conquering brightness of the lamp.

 

*************************************************

 

Later that night, long after Jenna had gone off alone to bed, Ethan stood up from the couch. He figured he may have dozed off a bit, but certainly hadn’t slept long.  Without any thoughts of substance in his head, he walked into the room and crawled into her bed. Still in his jeans and t-shirt, he curled up to her, throwing a leg over hers as she lay on her back.  Either she’d heard him come in or she hadn’t slept yet because her eyes were open and after momentarily glancing at him, she returned her fixed gaze to the ceiling.
Nestling up best he could, Ethan slung his arm over her body and felt for her hand. Grabbing it and holding it in his, he squeezed it reassuringly.  He felt nothing in return, no recognition, not even of rejection. She lay there silently, staring at the slowly rotating ceiling fan.  Ethan laid his head onto the pillow next to hers and watched as her eyes hesitantly at first and then unmistakably filled with tears.  Her tanned face soon had a thin steak running down onto her pillow, highlighting her soft cheeks against the dark stripe.  Jenna lay there, stoic, her glowing cheek the only sign of movement.

 

After seeing her tears, Ethan pulled himself off her and onto his back, and lay still.  An unsettling wave washed over him carrying the realization that he now saw foreign tears with an exposed purpose. The deluge expelled all the horded armor that had accumulated, at first unknowingly, then begrudgingly, before becoming necessary, to accommodate the terms of a suddenly virulent relationship.  Flowing down her cheek, her tears escaped to the pillow beside which he now lay in a world alone, as the person beside him seemed distant, lightened with the jettisoned load. 

 

With his hand, he felt for the damp pillow case beside her cheeks, and what he felt there no longer belonged to her, but given back to him wholeheartedly. He listened to quietness so dense it couldn’t be ignored, so undeniable that anxiety itself didn’t attempt to infiltrate the scene.  From the immense stillness and loneliness of the room, Ethan envied those tears beside him and lamented in a gulp the inaccessibility of his own, hidden arsenal.

 

They lay silently together in the half-light gifted by the light blue clock on the iPod dock.  As the approaching dawn heralded the long ago desensitized day, Ethan rose to use the bathroom.  Afterwards, he left the apartment, locking the door from the outside with his key. He put the key back in the pocket of his jeans and exited the apartment complex.

 

Euphemism Campus Box 5555 Illinois State University Normal, IL 61790