I met a man named Jon a couple of days ago. He bought me a flat white and rolled himself a cigarette. The tobacco smelt like another lifetime, one that I suddenly missed. He didn’t offer me any, and I didn’t ask.
Now I’m standing in Bourke Street Mall asking Siri which cigarettes to buy. She is only marginally helpful, so I walk into the nearest 7eleven wearing a nervous face that flashes “NOT A SMOKER!” in neon.
The woman behind the counter has an accent that I don’t recognise and struggle to understand. When I tell her I want a pack of Winfields and a lighter, she looks like she doesn’t understand me either.
“Winfield. A 30 pack.”
I’m sweating now.
“Blue?” she prompts.
They come in different colours? “Yeah, yep. Please. Blue.”
The cigarettes and lighter come to fifty five dollars and forty seven cents. A group of pleather-clad teens is blocking the doorway. They wheeze. One blows smoke rings. They are real smokers. I say “Thank use me please” in my nervousness, and they smirk as a pack. My sweat patches and easy breathing flash not a smoker in neon.
I met a cat named Shadow last month. He lives in the unit next to mine, on the other side of a thin wall. The wall is so thin that I can hear his owner screaming profanities at the television. Kick the ball, you fucking pussies. Carlton isn’t winning many games this season.
The wall is thin enough that Shadow and his owner can probably hear me fighting myself in my kitchen in the early hours of the morning. It only happens occasionally. I am my own inflamed sense of rejection.
We’d been living almost together for five months by the first time we met. I was unlocking my car and he was by the letterbox, in the arms of his owner.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hi,” said his owner. His owner was tall and shy and bearded and swore at his television a few metres away from my kitchen.
“What’s your cat’s name?”
Kick the ball, you fucking pussies.
I met a man named Ash three weeks ago. His cardboard sign and his clothes both said that he needed money, so I bought his story for twenty five dollars and fifty cents. It was a pretty good story. I wrote it down in my notebook as soon as he left to buy himself some food.
I haven’t been to his corner since, because his sign and his clothes will tell me he still needs money. I don’t want him to recognise me and want to talk. I haven’t had any money to spare.
I meet a stunning old lady after I buy the smokes.
My sweat patches and I catch a couple of trams, but by the time I’ve trudged up the grassy hill in front of The Age building the sweat patches have evaporated, leaving me on my own with a packet of cigarettes and the latest Kinfolk magazine. I can tell it’s okay to sit on the little concrete wall and smoke, because cigarette butts of smokers past have been stomped onto the ground underneath. I sit, pull out my magazine, suck on a smoke and flick the lighter. The first drag is delicious, in the way a little self-destruction can only be to someone who has spent the last two years eating a lot of plants. I like the way people’s noses wrinkle, ever so slightly, as they walk past. I push each breath out as far as I can, trying to see how much space my smoke and I can occupy.
By the last drag I’m over it. I suck my teeth, lean over backwards and spit onto the road below. The saliva darkens the asphalt and glistens. I grind my butt into the ground with the heel of my shoe. It stands out from the others. Too orange. I kick a bit of dirt over it until it looks like a veteran butt. I cross Collins Street and walk over to the train station. The smell in my hair and in my shirt says I’m a smoker in neon.
I buy a brownie to wash the smoke off my teeth. It costs three ninety five. I let the girl who sells it to me keep the five cents change. She doesn’t return my smile.
While I’m sitting on a bench waiting for my train, I watch the back of a woman. She is standing on the platform with her hands in her coat pockets. Her hair is white and long, reaching halfway down her back. She’s wearing a bowler hat and a red coat. If she’s old enough for that hair to be natural, I think, I’m going to tell her how beautiful it is.
Eventually she turns her face and I can see that her hair has gone white with age. I stand up, walk over, touch her on the arm. “Your hair is beautiful,” I say.
She says “Thank you” with her words. With her tone she says, “Back off, please, your unsolicited physical contact has made me uncomfortable and I have no need for your compliments; besides, you reek of smoke.”
I retreat to the bench and wonder what had made me think that my new odour and her old hair had anything in common.
The train is ready for boarding. I make sure I don’t get into the same carriage as the woman and her hair. I slide into a window seat, rest my cheek on the glass and look out at the box of cigarettes that I’ve left sitting on the bench. It looks lonely and expensive. The train starts to move, leaving behind the cigarettes and heading towards my kitchen.