Up in Smoke

By Erin Ollila

I used to sleep with a man who would wake me up in the morning to a lit cigarette and a cup of coffee. I thought that was so romantic – being woken up by kisses from a man I adored, taking a drag of his cigarette while I watched him light one of my Marlboro Menthol Lights with his monogram-engraved silver Zippo. The coffee was always too hot; I’d lean over his side of the bed to put the mug on the scratched hardwood. I’d lay back, pull the sage sheets around my more-than-likely-naked body and watch him get ready for work. I loved the way he put on his socks: Instead of leaning down to pull the sock over his foot like most people do, he lifted his foot off the floor and put on the sock midair. He’d then stand up, stuff his foot in his black Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers, grab his keys, and head toward the door. Inevitably, I’d have to stop him from kicking over my coffee. He had no nightstands.

Stephan’s cigarettes tasted different than mine. He smoked Marlboro Reds, but it was not the lack of menthol I noticed, it was the consistency. His were bent; mine were straight. He took long, hard drags, and the filter would arch to the crook of his lips. I liked to feel the curve of his cigarette between my lips.

He was one of the few men I dated who smoked. A hypocritical nicotine fiend, I was not attracted to other smokers. I thought the habit disgusting and hated to taste tobacco on a man’s mouth. But Stephan, in this and many other ways, was different. He was the modern James Dean—popular with many women, rarely tied to one, but dependent and obsessed when he did find someone unique. His hair was a perfectly shaped pompadour, his tattoos peeking out from under his plain white T-shirt.

When I lived in Virginia, the only time I ever lit my own cigarettes was when I was alone. Men, strangers even, would lean into me, light a match or flick their thumbs over the metal of their lighters, cup their other hand protectively around the shell of my Marlboro and wait as I inhaled against the flame. Stephan taught me how to open and light a Zippo by slapping it across my knee. It worked best with jeans; the rough material would pull against the metal and ignite the lighter.

It was during my time with Stephan that decided I wanted to marry a man who would make me coffee. A man who knew how I liked my drink – a few drops of skim milk and an occasional spoonful of Splenda. I wanted to marry a man who didn’t ask me if I wanted a coffee, but assumed the answer and brought me a drink without inquiring.

Even now, almost four years since the last time we slept together, Stephan still gets me coffee unprompted. I sleep at his house during a weekend trip to Virginia. He is getting ready for work, and I am lying in his bed, this time actually wearing clothing, my Rhode Island College sweatshirt and sweatpants, watching him prepare for his day.

“You thirsty, darling’?” he asks, and I nod my head “yes” as he leaves the room. He comes back later with a large white cup, steam rising over its ceramic lip. I put the mug on the floor. He still has no nightstands.

“I put just a tiny bit of sugar in there, but I don’t have any cream left. Sorry.” I don’t say anything because there really is no reason why he should remember how I take my drink.

“Wait, you don’t take cream.”

He smiles at me, laughs to himself and walks away to finish whatever he was doing in the other room.

I don’t really know him anymore. We aren’t the same people we once were. After I moved back home to Massachusetts from Virginia, we’d keep in contact all day by text messaging or calling each other. He was working at a bar at night, and I went back to work at drug rehab during the day again. He’d call me at 4am when he walked home after closing the bar. I’d listen, half-asleep and finally comfortable in my own bed after hearing his voice.

I know Steph better than many people. I know his hows, I know his whys, I know his whens. I know the way his body looks without clothes. After we were intimate for the first time, I was surprised at the size of his frame. It was smaller than I expected. I couldn’t tell if it was because I had built Stephan so far up in my mind that he seemed like a giant to me. Naked, he was vulnerable, but comfortable in his exposure. I shrunk into my skin, my insecurities bare beneath him. It wasn’t that he was small. Stephan’s body was defined, muscular, but I had slept with chubbier men before him. Maybe I enjoyed the way their size made me feel better about the large curves on my small body. Stephan’s size didn’t overshadow mine; all it did was make me more aware of my own.

For the man whose hows and whys and whens I know deep down, I can’t seem to figure out his whos. Who am I to him? I am sure it’s different than who I was. The role I played in his life seems either to be occupied by someone else or just diminished. So where do I fit now? I wonder if our relationship has been based on a sexual attraction that’s diminished since we’ve slept together.

Nothing in this house represents me, or includes me at least. I walk around, trying to find a piece of me, any small reminder that I exist in his life, and no signs are visible. Do I trick myself into thinking that our relationship, our friendship, is special? Am I the only one who still believes that?

To be fair, if Stephan walked through my apartment, there probably wouldn’t be any obvious signs of him in my life, but I know they are there. The framed black and whites of the pictures he took are lying on a desk, waiting for me to make the effort to hang them up. The stack of handwritten letters he wrote me after we stopped sleeping together is in the second drawer of my bedside table. My autographed Rylo poster all my friends signed the night of my going-away party is hanging on the wall as soon as you walk up the stairs.

I search his house for signs I am still alive and present in his life. It is filled with paintings unhung and decorations unorganized, though accumulated over time, filled with clothing unworn and couches and chairs and cooking utensils unused, covered in photographs from times long before, yet moments that still preceded me. The house is not a home but a storage container for a life he has yet to unpack. Finally, I give up, sit down at his desk in the hopes of finding a USB cord to charge my dead camera – and notice my handwriting. Buried under a few bills, an unused Q-tip, some other gadgets and gizmos, was a letter I had written him seven months prior.

It had been almost four years since I left Virginia under the pretense that I would come back home and apply to graduate school. Instead, I spent three years wading through life, consumed by equal parts fear and procrastination. When I sat down to write to him, in the very same queen bed he helped the movers take from my apartment, I wasn’t sure what to say. Robert had just died in Afghanistan; he was blown into pieces by a suicide bomber. When I heard the news, I saw Stephan’s face and remembered how my chest felt during the months following September 11th, when I was so sure my friends—Nicholas, Gene and Stephan’s Navy boat, the USS Enterprise, would never return.

I want to read the letter, but I feel like I am invading his privacy in some way, even though I was just searching through his belongings for signs I even existed. But how could I be invading his privacy if I am the one who wrote the letter? Doesn’t that make me privy to read it again?

It is nice, a brief history on my current life – getting into grad school, writing about warm Virginia nights I remember from when I lived here. Asking him about what’s been happening in his own life, telling him about Robert dying, writing about how that was always my biggest fear with him, Nicholas, and Gene. That I’d end up at their funeral, but instead I went to Robert’s. Writing about how grateful I am that that never happened.

The letter is dusty. He probably doesn’t even notice it there. It’s just another article about the house that becomes so familiar. You feel like it belongs there, but you don’t take the time to acknowledge it. But I saw it, my own handwriting, right there on Stephan’s desk. Was he going to respond to it? Did he plan on it and just never followed through? Or did he open his mail one day, sit down, read it and plan on never writing me back?

The last sentence says, “What do you think, how about we give this pen pal thing a try again? I love you. Love, Erin.” He didn’t think it was a good idea, I guess. I never heard from him.

Erin Ollila is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in Shoreline Literary Arts Magazine, The Fall River Spirit and has work forthcoming in Red Fez and (em): A Review of Text and Image. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Erin has served as the nonfiction editor of Mason’s Road Literary Journal, where she interviewed Kim Dana Kupperman on characterization in creative nonfiction. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life, and she can be found on Twitter @reinventingerin.

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