Closer

(by an4@anon.lelnet.com, 07 March 1998)


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Closer
an4@anon.lelnet.com

   Helen followed Janet towards the back of the restaurant. She was trying to
work on her anger even as she walked calmly to the table waiting for them.
This later half of the restaurant was filled with a variety of patrons, young
and old, all or most of them with one common bond. They were smokers.
   It was an interesting group of people, some of whom she recognised vaguely,
but none seemed especially familiar. They struck her as the same people she
saw at the coffee shop and the grocery store, people with whom she'd perhaps
shared the sidewalk on the highway, and maybe at the time they weren't in the
act of the smoking.
   But here- most of them were smokers. Oh, there were a few who had the look of
not being, but not many. Her attention was drawn to one particular table. It
was the stuff that smoking fetishers rushed home to drool about on the
internet. The mother was in her early forties, still attractive and quite
buxom. She was holding a just lit Virginia Slims 120 in her left hand, waving
it as she told what looked to be a joke of some sort.
   She had two teenage girls with her, one whom was clearly her daughter- the
same full head of wild red hair, the same large breasts, even the same winning
smile. She was in the act of placing a Marlboro Lights 100 in her mouth. The
long white cigarette was gently pinched between those fleshy lips and then she
lit it and pulled deeply without touching it with her hands.
   The other girl was a tall, striking blonde with a thin but pleasant face. She
had been smoking her cigarette for a while now- a Camel Lights 100 judging by
the pack sitting at her elbow- and it was shorter by far than the others, but
she still did a marvelous job of working it, drawing a considerable amount of
smoke into her lungs, given  the excited exhale which followed.
   "Are you going to sit down or were you planning on taking your meal standing
up ?" Janet teased.
   Helen refocussed. On why she was here, mostly. Still, even though she was
desperate to work things out with Janet she found herself drawn to the mother
and the teenagers. They were so relaxed and comfortable, so willing to smoke
publicly. And there was no question that Helen wasn't the only one drawn to
these women.
   "I'm sorry," Helen said to open the conversation. 
   "You should be. Imagine telling me that you're so busy writing that you don't
have time for me to come over. You must have forgotten that I've known you my
entire adult life."
   "What does that mean ?" Helen asked as she fished her cigarettes from her
purse, enjoying the way the hard box had become a familiar presence in her
hand. She had even developed a certain acuity finding her lighter without
looking- if nothing else, taking up smoking had finally given her a reason to
clean out the nightmare which had been her purse.
   Before answering Janet took a deep hit on her own cigarette, drawing
mentholated smoke far into her lungs. Smoke and the spoken word mingled as
one.
   "What that means is that if you didn't have three full-length, well-conceived
novels under that little belt of yours I'd swear that you have a classic case
of ADD. You start working about five minutes after you get out of the shower
and you're still writing when you're sitting on the toilet ten minutes before
you go to bed, but you never write for more than an hour at a stretch. You're
the only person I've ever met who bought a Powerbook so she could be more
productive at home."
   "So you didn't buy that ?" Helen asked, waiting until she'd asked the
question to draw on the cigarette. As she did she spared at glance at the
trio. The girl smoking the Camels had lit another and it was still full-
length. She lifted it up to her mouth and as her lips engulfed it Helen found
herself struck by the perfect nature of the image. In the blink of an eye
she'd word-painted every nuisance of it for later use.
   "You're mad at me. I assume that this has something to do with your decision
to start smoking but I can't for my life figure out what that would be."
   "Think hard," Helen said.
   "You couldn't just ask me to Think Different ?"
   "You already do that-"
   "Okay, I'll think hard if you stop staring at that woman and those two
girls."
   Helen blushed slightly and retreated into the comfort of her cigarette.
Strange, but she did find that it was starting to taste a little better. The
smoke she drew into her lungs was a bit more fulfilling. Maybe it was just
that even thinking about solving this situation with Janet was relaxing, and
then again maybe it was being in the company of so many other smokers.
   "I'm enjoying watching them. It's nice to see an adult woman who's not afraid
to be, I don't know-"
   "Pro-smoking. Yeah, I agree. It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to do
that, you know."
   "Exactly." 
   Janet was about to reveal the results of her hard thinking when the waitress
appeared at the table, looking bored and out of sorts.
   "Can I help you ?" she asked, her strange-sounding Long Island accent heavy
with malaise.
   "Tough day ?" Janet asked.
   "I've been here four hours without a break and I'm dying for a cigarette."
   "Then take a break- after you get our order- and have one."
   "Can't. I don't take breaks because if I did, I probably would smoke, and my
boyfriend would kill me."
   "That sounds a little extreme," Helen said, then reached into her purse and
handed the waitress Elisa's business card.
   "Call her. Trust me."
   "A psychiatrist. Isn't that a little forward ? This is our first waitress-
customer relationship, you know."
   Janet and Helen smiled. "She deals with smoking issues- and not how to quit.
It's more how to integrate the smoker and the non-smoker."
   "You don't know Brian," the waitress said. "He's got some kind of hard on
about the whole non-smoking thing. It's as though it gives his life meaning."
   Janet looked at the pert blonde and wondered how it was that she wasn't the
one giving Brian's life meaning.
   "Trust me, she's very good," Helen said. "There's more to life than obeying
another person orders not to smoke."
   "Thanks, I'll give her a call," the waitress said, looking a little less
harried.
   "If you're trying not to smoke, why are you working the smoking section ?"
Janet asked. Helen just shook her head. That was exactly the sort of question
Janet could never resist the urge to ask.
   "I like it. It makes me feel more comfortable. It's the closest I've been to
smoking in the last month. That probably sounds absurd, but-"
   "I think I understand," Helen said finally.	
   "We've got a special that's not on the menu and we aren't really supposed to
mention, but there's a food critic from the Herald here tonight- it's a
mustard crusted Salmon with capers and scallions- there's nothing quite like
it. I could get you a pair if you'd like- my way of saying thanks."
   "We haven't done anything yet," Helen said, but the waitress's smile told her
that wasn't true.
   "You've given me hope."

   After waitress went away, a better stride in her step, Janet looked at her
friend with the sort of long, slow smile which had broken any number of men's
hearts.
   "That was a very nice piece of pro-smoking advocacy."
   "Well, I feel this odd responsibility to help others suddenly."
   "Help them discover their true selves- as smokers ?"
   "Exactly."
   "Which," Janet said, pausing to inhale deeply on her Salem Lights 100, "is
why you are pissed off at me. When all I was trying to do was be a good
friend."
   "I know. But I'm still mad. I feel like you cheated me out of something."
   "I never went to anyone and begged them not to sell you cigarettes, you know
?"
   Helen did know, and by the end of the night, the cigarette she smoked over
coffee tasted almost as  good as the ones she had at home.

   That night Helen went home with a considerably lighter heart. There was
brief, somewhat ironic message from Robyn which briefly explained that there
had been a sort of upturn in her life and the writer found herself looking
forward more than usual to the car ride in the morning.
   She sat down on the couch, picked up the remote and fired up the cd player,
then opened her Powerbook and waited impatiently for it to come to life,
although she barely had time to light a cigarette before a script opened her
most recent work in progress. She found her free hand racing over the keyboard
and she was hardly thinking about how each cigarette was still slightly better
than the ones she'd had earlier.
   The fact was, she was pleased with the way that smoking seemed to improve her
capacity for writing. She'd never been a touch typist, using her left hand
mostly for only the keys at the far end of the board- a,e,d,s and w. The ideas
seemed to flow more clearly from her head- until she heard the noise upstairs.
   There was no mistaking it. Not a branch swiping against the house- the night
was perfectly still, after all. Not an animal- she'd been wanting a cat but
holding off until she was adjusted to her living space.
   She listened carefully for repetition.
   There was little fear, as this was a quite neighbourhood, but a noise was a
noise. She lit another cigarette, the last from the pack she'd opened just
this morning, and noise or no noise, her heart leapt a bit. She'd smoked an
entire pack of cigarettes in a single day, and chances were she'd be opening
another one before she turned in. 
   For the first time, she felt entirely a smoker. Smoking a whole pack in one
day- that was what smokers did, not people who, as she almost felt she'd been
doing at first, did when they were pretending or trying to be a smoker.
   Her inhale was deep, satin smoke which slid past her throat and down into
eager, waiting lungs. 
   The noise did not repeat during the space of time in which she held it. 
   It did not repeat before she exhaled.
   Or after. Eventually, she went back to work.

   The ride in on Thursday was nice, but ride in Friday was even nicer.
   That was when Helen found out that she'd be giving her young charge rides to
school until she graduated. Talk of public school had been shelved
permanently.
   "I'm a little nervous about today, you know ?"
   "Well, I'm sorry I won't be picking you up after school. I enjoy this. Can
you light me another cigarette ?"
   Robyn was more than happy to comply. She placed one of Helen's cigarettes in
her mouth and lit it with that same casualness which Helen was finally
developing. As soon as she'd taken a pull on it to get it burning, she handed
it left to right to Helen, who immediately brought it to her mouth. There was
a faint wetness to the filter and Helen wondered how sensuous the act might be
were the right man handing her this cigarette.
   As soon as Helen had taken her cigarette Robyn lit another, her own inhale
deep and pleasuring without being rushed.
   "There's nothing to be nervous about. Elisa is very good. I'm sure she can
help your mother with two things- her grief issues, and your smoking."
   "I can't believe of all the psychiatrists in the world Mom picked the one who
will try to talk her into letting me smoke. But what if it takes a long time ?
Mom is still opposed to my smoking."
   "Well, my understanding," Helen said, pausing to inhale, "is that you just
can't smoke in the house."
   "I spend nine hours of waking time in that house and that's an awful lot of
`I can't smoke.' Try going nine hours without a cigarette."
   "Why ?" Helen asked honestly.
   "Exactly. My feeling is that between the ride to and from school and the rest
of the day, I could be a pack a day smoker."
   "I just smoked my first whole pack yesterday."
   "I know that this is going to sound strange, but I bet that you felt a
feeling of accomplishment."
   "Actually, I did. I know that must seem strange. I don't mean to flash an
ego, but here I am, a three-time published novelist, and I felt- really good
about myself."
   "I smoked a whole pack once. It was about a month ago. Mom went to stay with
her sister overnight and I knew I could just sit home smoking and there'd be
no way- you know how the house is always smoky anyway-"
   "I know now."
   "Exactly. She didn't seem to notice. But I remember lighting that last
cigarette at about five to midnight and all I could think about was how cool
it was, you know ?" 
   Helen slowed to a stop at the light and lifted her cigarette to her mouth,
inhaling as Robyn exhaled. Her smoke drifted out of the car's open cabin into
the unseasonably warm air. Helen arched her head back, caught a view of
herself in the rear view, and exhaled, watching the way the smoke disengaged
itself from her lips. It was a nice look.
   Elisa had been right. There was still something undeniable about the house
itself, but having made her peace with Janet made this all easier.
   And more enjoyable.
   "I know just what you mean, and now both of us can rest easy knowing that's
perfectly natural. So, you see yourself as a pack a day smoker ?"
   "You did it in your first week. That's amasing."
   "I plan to go right on doing it. And who knows- by the time you get out of
today's session, you could be started down the same path. Just promise me
you'll let me know how it goes, okay ?"
   Robyn made the promise, but she wasn't sure that she would keep it.

   Elisa was pacing her office. To be honest- and she could be honest with
herself- she was nervous about this next appointment. Grief issues weren't her
specialty. She'd dealt with them in clinic way back in the early days, and
grief, like all life experiences, sometimes played a part in the decision to
smoke- or worse, not smoke.
   But she knew more about Robyn and Darla than Darla could expect her to, and
the plain truth was that Elisa was by nature a selfish person. While she
certainly would want to do everything necessary to help Darla, she would also
be working to ensure that Robyn would be allowed to smoke. What was the point
of being a therapist, after all, if one couldn't promote the things that were
important ?
   For a therapy point of view, the simple fact that Darla had voluntarily made
the appointment to come in was a major hurdle cleared. No small thing, that
initial commitment. But it didn't meant that Elisa would know where to go from
there- there could be no knowing ahead of time.
   Rather than drive herself into a frenzy over what she couldn't control, Elisa
did the wise thing. She lit a cigarette and buzzed her assistant to send them
in. Better to face it.
   Darla was smoking as she walked into the room, and the long, slim VS looked
good in her hand. She was exhaling as she moved forward, and she looked
remarkably comfortable doing it. Considering that her smoking was a result of
the loss of both husband and fetus, Elisa expected a certain tinge of guilt
from the woman, but there was none.
   That was good.
   Robyn followed, her wan smile and quick head bob clearly saying `Nice to see
you again, our little secret.'
   "Please, both of you, have a seat and we'll get started. I'd like to begin by
asking each of you what it is that would like to accomplish with these
sessions."
   Some of Darla's initial confidence faded and she took on a bit of a sheepish
look. The hand holding the cigarette hung forgotten down by her side, although
was still doing a nice job of keeping her wrist properly angled. It was, in
short, forgotten without being neglected.
   "What I'd like is for Robyn and I to start getting along better, and that
just wasn't something that was going to happen on my individual efforts."
   "Mom !"
   "What, Robyn ?" While Darla was trying to keep her voice level, Elisa could
here the tension in it as her daughter questioned her statement.
   "You make it sound like I have no interest in getting along."
   As Darla drew on her cigarette, Elisa trimmed the ash from her own.
   "We've already come to a very good point here. I'll need you both to do
something for me. First, don't make any assumptions about what the other
person is saying." Elisa paused to inhale, waiting patiently until the smoke
in her lungs worked its magic. She spoke through the exhale. "In other words,
Robyn, even though you might think your mother is saying she's the only one
interested in getting along, don't read into it. At the same, Darla, try not
to phrase your points in such a way as to lead Robyn to make that assumption."
   She looked at both women, who nodded their agreements silently. Darla drew on
her Virginia Slims again, watching her daughter as if perhaps baiting her.
Elisa caught the look.
   Elisa wasn't going to waste any time. She put her personal feelings aside and
examined the variables and decided that it was still best to push this issue
now.
   "I'd like both of you to be as comfortable as possible. Do you smoke, Robyn
?"
   "Yes. Well, I'm a smoker. But I'm not smoking right now, am I ?"
   "Would you be more comfortable if you were smoking ?"
   "Yes."
   "How do you feel about that, Darla ?"
   The question caught the mother with her cigarette in her mouth, just
preparing to inhale. She completed the gesture and thought about it.
   "I'm not willing to let her smoke at home, but I also know that she does
smoke and it would be a waste of my time to try and tell her not to."
   "Have you ever actually seen your daughter smoke ?"
   "No, but I've heard about it. In fact, I was told that it very nice I was
being so liberal about it by a casual friend."
   "How did that make you feel ?"
   "Not good," Darla said, spreading her hands as Elisa drew again on her
cigarette. She filled the office with her smoke and she could see Robyn's
anticipation intensify, no doubt hoping that this conversation would prove
fruitful. "It's as though I'm not her parent anymore."
   "And was this the sort of thing you expected ?"
   "Well, you know that it's going to slip away gradually, not all at once, but
the first time it happens in a major way- and smoking is not a small issue, it
hurts. And there's nothing you can say which is going to make me ready to
completely give that over."
   "Fine. But if Robyn would be more comfortable smoking in this particular
setting do you think you could see your way clear to allow  it ?"
   "I don't know."
   "Are you upset that she's made a decision to start smoking ?"
   "Yes and no. I mean, in a way, it's flattering. Not as flattering as her
deciding that she wanted to be a multimedia artist, but still-"
   "So you have conflicting feelings about that. Fine. As patients you are both
welcome to attend our group sessions, and starting Monday, they'll be held
right next door to your house. We can deal with that then. But I think all
three of us would profit from your ban on Robyn's smoking not extending to
this office, okay ?"
   "Admit it, mom. You're curious, aren't you ? About my smoking. Don't you want
to at least see it ?"
   "I suppose a part of me does." She took a long draw on her cigarette. "Do you
want one of mine, or do you have your own ?"
   Robyn answered by pulling her pack from her purse.
   Still, she waited.
   "Go ahead. Let's see how adult my little baby girl is."
   Robyn's disdaining look said clearly enough that wasn't how she wanted to be
known.
   She pulled a single cigarette from the half empty pack and placed it in her
mouth.
   The look of anticipation was exciting for all three women. Robyn had wanted
to do this for a long time, wanted her mother to see her smoke because she
felt it would bridge a certain gap between them and make them something akin
to compatriots. It was how she'd always felt smoking with Pam, as well as
Helen the last few days. It might just be the bond they needed to get past the
problems they'd been having.
   Then again, Robyn knew it was more complicated than that.
   Much more complicated.
   But there was time for all that, and in a way, resolving grief issues seemed
less urgent than resolving the smoking issue. After all, by nine most nights
she was craving a cigarette in the worst way- she'd begin to feel detached,
unfocused, irritable. Maybe, in a strange way, the thing which provided so
much relaxation when she was doing it was the same thing which was hindering
their relationship at other times.
   She lit the cigarette with a certain amount of satisfaction- this was, after
all, at the very least, a small victory.
   Her mother watched the way she inhaled as soon as the cigarette had caught
and she knew immediately that her daughter was not smoking to be cool or fit
in with her friends but rather because she enjoyed it, the same way she
herself had been at that age.
   "There," Elisa said. "Now, let's get down to business."

   It was after midnight, Helen's favourite time, because it was when the dark
aspect of her soul found comfort. That part of her, so difficult to capture in
the light of day, was essential to her writing.
   There were times in any project- especially the sort of novels she wrote-
when that darker part needed to be captured, allowed to ruminate so that it
could be trapped within the electronic confines of one of her computers.
   She was sitting in front of her desktop- this was the sort of work which
needed the structure of her little de facto office- thinking those dark
thoughts when she heard the noise again.
   Twice in two nights, and much louder this time than before.
   From downstairs, one could have ignored it- as Helen eventually did. But this
close to it- it had come from up here somewhere, after all, the luxury of
denying everything was hardly available. Besides, she knew now where that
noise had come from- the guest bedroom across the hall. Starting tomorrow
night, her younger sister Eileen would be sleeping in there for a week, so she
had to determine what was going on and do it now.
   Strangely, she found herself with a suspicion. Yes, a very fine suspicion it
was, too.
   There was something about this house all right, something which had twisted
itself around her as soon as she'd moved in, something which was, if not
sinister, at the very least extraordinary.
   When Eileen had called earlier today to confirm that she was indeed coming,
Helen had finally told her that she'd started smoking. She'd expected that
Eileen would be disappointed at the very least, but all she'd expressed was a
mix of mild surprise and off-handed curiosity. Her response had been so
positive, in fact, that Helen had slipped an ashtray into the room by the
night table. She knew why she did it, but she hadn't actually thought it out,
not even in the private confines of her imagination.
   Still, she knew exactly what she was planning to do.
   Right now, however, those plans, nebulous and undirected as they were, took a
back seat to finding out what was living in this house with her. Although she
didn't know the intuitive nature of the logical leap she'd made about what was
happening, she did understand the ideas behind it, and she knew there was only
one way to be absolutely sure.
   She crossed the threshold into the room without any fear, because this thing
was not meaning to hurt her. But she did notice that the room had an almost
intense cold, disturbing without being frightening. Helen knew very well what
that kinetic abnormality would mean to someone who believed in the paranormal,
which was a luxury she'd never allowed herself.
   Until now, perhaps.
   She didn't linger. Instead she placed her freshly-lit cigarette in the
ashtray and walked back outside the room. Strangely, she found herself smiling
slightly. This was as close as she got to science, after all. Observational
method. Of course, she had a theory, so it wasn't pure science, unless that
theory proved wrong.
   Standing outside in the hall her vision narrowed down to the nightstand,
became her tightly focused world.
   At first, nothing happened. That was to be expected. There would be a waiting
period and Helen was ready for it. She willed herself to pure motionlessness.
   Only twenty seconds went by, not even long enough for Helen to start
regretting wasting the cigarette, when it happened.
   Suddenly, the cigarette was moving. In the background Trent Reznor was
singing over and over again `Nothing can stop me now.' A drum beat tripped
along to this pithy little declaration. `Nothing can stop me now.'
   Up and up it went, held straight out. It came to a stop, still parallel to
the floor, before indenting slightly. Smoke curled off the end, twisting madly
in the cold air.
   Then the truly amasing thing happened.
   There was an exhale. It was the sort of exhale one would expect from a long
denied smoker, deep, rich, backlit by the full moon, still low on the horizon
and big as a beach ball. The smoke drifted angrily in the air, and then things
became even more amasing. There was a disturbance in the smoke as she moved
forward.
   It was definitely a young woman. The smoke trailed around her, like a drawing
penned in fog. Helen could see it clearly- a teenager girl with long hair and
a face so sweet it made the girls on Dawson's Creek look like they'd been
pulled from the bottom of reject bin. A beautiful young thing, a gossamer-
based sketch of Athena from her high school days.
   Helen thought about the fact that her classics instructor would have had a
projectile experience hearing that descriptive voiced aloud. 
   Stiff bastard. As if only the ancient Greeks saw life for what it was.
   The urge to smoke- and it was clear now from whence that had sprung- was so
overwhelming that Helen found herself torn away from the scene. She walked
into her room, pulled a cigarette from the pack, and lit it with nervous
hands, wanting to get back to the spectacle.
   The girl was still there. What had been a shimmering reflection of smoke had
formed into near tangibility as she entered the room.
   Her face- it was unbelievable, but she looked very much like Robyn. They
would have been mistaken for sisters- if you could imagine a ghost woman of
insolute features to be human. The smile on her face was so complete, white,
half-realised teeth, perfectly straight in the sort of demure mouth which
would have had revolutionary age suitors writing long poetic nonsense.
   "Hello, Helen," she said, her voice as indistinct as her flesh. She brought
the cigarette to her lips again, a short beauty with long hair who had been
sculpted by some cruel deity to look perfect only when smoking. The inhale was
so deep, so luxuriating, and immediately her substance hardened until she was
almost entirely whole.
   "My name is Darcy. I never thought-" She held the cigarette in front of her
between the first two fingers of her left hand, curled back on the palm. There
was a look like love in her stark pale blue eyes. "-I would enjoy one of these
again. Thank you."
   "I-"
   The writer found herself without words.  
   Darcy held the cigarette up again, close to her face, the ove in her eyes
unavoidable.
   "This is who we are..."


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