Dinner Date

(by Bickley, 08 December 2004)


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                    Dinner Date
                    by Bickley
                                    
I watched Marko on the monitor as he came down the hall; I
had the door open before he could knock.
     He grinned.  "Hello, Gerda."
     "Hi."
     "I take it you're ready?"
     I licked my lips -- a nervous habit.  "Yeah, I guess so."
     "Come along, then.  We're walking."
     I almost asked him, "Why?"  But I knew why.  Public
transportations keep a log of those who ride them, but a
pedestrian can move freely without being tracked.
     When you're breaking the law, you do not want your movements
recorded.
     From the front of the building, Marko turned right --
eastward.  He pressed urgently through the quiet evening crowds;
I hurried after him, trying to figure out where we were headed. 
He had said the den was connected to a restaurant, and I
remembered his telling me that he was debited the price of a
dinner special -- ten globals -- for each time in.
     Ten globals.  That made it a cheap restaurant.  And THAT put
it on Brown Street.
     Which was where we had arrived.  Marko led me to the end of
the street, a block of sandwich shops.  There were fewer people
here.  The streetlights blazed harshly against the darkening sky.
     The restaurant we entered seemed no different than any of
the others.  Marko whispered something to the man at the counter,
who gestured toward the pay-pad.
     Marko and I pressed our thumbs to the pad -- he to pay, and
I to identify myself as his guest.
     The counterman led us through a walk-in freezer, and we
waited by an inner door as he hand-keyed the lock.  After he had
touched the last key, the door beeped softly and fell ajar.
     Marko pulled the door fully open.  As I followed him through
it, I became aware of a faint acrid odor, and was suddenly struck
by the enormity of what I was about to do.  I'd heard the names
they gave it -- the Black Smoke, the Choking Death -- and I'd
heard the rumors, too.
     "It's true, isn't it," I whispered to Marko, "that you can't
die the first time?"
     "I've never heard of it happening," said Marko.  That should
not have comforted me as much as it did.
     Marko closed the door.  We were in a small, dim anteroom. 
Along one wall hung a row of shapeless grey garments; opposite
was a shelf covered with sealed pouches.  I looked at Marko
inquiringly.
     "For the smell," he said, and added in an undertone, "If
you're very worried you can take your clothes off and seal them
into the pouch, but most people just put the robe on over what
they're wearing."
     I wasn't worried enough to undress in front of Marko.
     Marko pushed up his sleeves.  I did the same.  We each took
down a robe.  They were seamless and heavy, made of some slippery
fiber, and long enough to sweep the floor.  The sleeves were
tight from shoulder to elbow, and flared over the forearm. 
Gliding fasteners allowed the garments to close tightly under our
chins.
     Marko took a pouch off the shelf, pulled it open, and
silently demonstrated its contents, slipping plastic booties over
his shoes, unpeeling a stickymask and pressing it to his face,
and putting on a plastic haircap and stretchy, elbow-length
gloves.
     When we were done attiring ourselves, Marko led me to the
end of the room, where there was another door.  He pushed it open
with one gloved hand and we slipped through.
     We had to descend a long flight of steps to get to the den
itself.  The stairwell was hot as a cloudless day, and dry.  The
harsh, bitter odor grew stronger as we descended.  So did the
heat.  My face sweated and itched under the mask.
     Finally we came to the bottom of the steps and passed
through a narrow doorway into a square room.  An old-fashioned
air purifier, set on a shelf bracketed to the ceiling, hummed
desperately, but the air was still thick with gritty smoke.  I
had to squint to make out the layout of the place.  Directly
across from us was yet another door.  There were triple rows of
backless benches on the other two sides of the room; they were
about half-filled with seated figures smoking the Death in
cylindrical rolls.
     One of the figures rose and approached us.  It spoke in a
soft, coarse female voice.  "Is that you, Mr. M?"
     "Yes," said Marko.
     "And this is Ms. G?"
     Marko shot me a glance.  I would have to speak for myself.
     "Yes, that's me."
     The old woman leaned toward me and said, "Mr. M bought you
the full treatment, he did."
     "Shut up, Jordan," said Marko, smiling.
     The woman reached into a fold of her robe and brought out a
box about two decimeters square.  She swiveled her head toward
the nearest bench; and Marko and I sat.
     Jordan opened the box and handed Marko a cylindrical roll
such as the others had; it seemed to be wrapped in a large brown
leaf.  Then the drew out another roll.  It was longer than
Marko's and wrapped in a sheet of brittle, yellowish material
covered in black markings that vaguely resembled text.
     "Do you want to light hers?" asked Jordan.  Marko nodded and
moved to kneel before me.  Jordan handed him a small object whose
outlines I could not clearly make out.  Marko pressed a part of
the object; flame erupted from it.
     I had only seen flame once before, in newscasts of the
Joshua Preserve fire when I was a child.  This new fire was not
as terrible as those pictures and reports had caused me to
expect:  it did not suck the air from my lungs, or leap up to
burn my face.  It shone brightly and steadily, like any other
light, and it if was hot, I could not differentiate its heat from
that of the surrounding air.
     Still, when Marko raised the flame closer to my face, my
neck stiffened and my jaw tightened from fear.
     I licked my lips, inhaled deeply of the foul air, and
consciously suppressed my rising panic.
     Marko laughed -- rather harshly, I thought -- and let the
flame go out.  He grasped the hand in which I held the roll and
raised it before my face.
     "What you are about to smoke is a present reminder of the
glories of the past."  His voice assumed a hypnotic rhythm. 
"Imagine, if you will, the decadent dying days of the pre-unified
world, when extraordinary pleasures could be legally sold: 
bananadine to calm; tobacco to uplift; absinthe to untether the
mind.
     "The bananas and the wormwood are gone, but tobacco is still
being grown, and it provides us with a tangible link to the past.
     "But that is not all.  No, there is one further connection. 
The roll you are holding is not just tobacco:  it's tobacco
wrapped in PAPER!"
     His final word shocked me out of my near-trance; I almost
dropped the roll.  "Paper?!"
     "Yes."  He smiled.  "But you needn't mourn the tree:  this
was taken from a book more than a century old."
     "I didn't think there was any paper left in the world."
     "Well, it is extremely rare."
     I stupidly spoke the next words that came into my head. 
"How much did this cost you?"
     "It doesn't matter.  It'll go on the bill as drinks and
dessert."  He averted his eyes.  "You're special to me, and I
wanted to make this first time special for you.  Here, why don't
we get started?
     "Put it in your mouth -- not the whole thing, just the very
end.  That's right.  Go on and keep your hand on it if you'd
like.
     "Now -- suck, but don't inhale just yet.  Not until I tell
you to."  The inside of my mouth grew hot as the tip of the roll
began to glow.
     Marko took the flame away, quickly lighted his own roll, and
drew deeply.  He extinguished the flame-device and handed it back
to Jordan.
     He fixed his eyes on me.  "Now, Gerda, inhale."
     I squeezed my eyes shut as the acrid smell overcame me.  My
tongue dried and soured; a horrible pain gripped the back of my
throat.  I couldn't breathe!  I was becoming dizzy and
disoriented.
     I heard a squeaking sound and realized I was swallowing air. 
The realization revived me.  I coughed until my windpipe was
clear, and gasped desperately at the smoky atmosphere of the
room.
     "That's all right, Ms. G," said Jordan from behind me. 
"That happens to everyone.  Try it again -- take a smaller breath
this time."
     I did, reluctantly, and to my surprise the pain did not come
again.  Oh, my throat stung -- and I had not yet learned to like
the smell -- but there was none of the horrible burning that had
accompanied my first try, and none of the humiliating fear of
suffocation.  
     In fact, I was curiously stimulated.  My hands shook as I
raised the roll to my mouth again.  The stinging smoke brought
fresh, clean tears to my eyes.  I inhaled;  it was getting easier
every time.  I felt warm and bright, full of compressed energy. 
My senses seemed sharper -- all but the sense of smell, which was
mercifully dulled.  I could feel every crease of the gloves
against my arms, every dot of adhesive on the stickymask.  I
could easily see through the gritty smoke that filled the room. 
I turned my head -- how smoothly it swiveled upon my neck! -- to
look at the other smokers.  The protective clothing hid details
of face and figure.  But I could see their souls, enlightened
souls experiencing a paradoxical pleasure.  
     And sitting to the right of me, close enough to touch, was
Marko.  His eyes were closed.  A flat sheet of smoke emerged from
between his slightly parted lips, and the tip of his tongue
became momentarily visible as the last of the smoke escaped.  
     His eyes opened; he stared blankly ahead for a moment before
turning slowly toward me.  
     I felt my cheeks burn, sweat beading and dragging at the
adhesive of my mask, when I realized he had caught me watching
him.  My embarrassment must have shown in my face, for Marko
smiled reassuringly and laid a hand gently -- gently, but ever so
heavily! -- on my arm.
     "How do my like it?"
     I stared at him, only half-comprehending the question.  The
heat of his hand, even more intense and immediate than the warmth
of the room, distracted me.
     I turned my head away and drew in some more smoke.  My roll
was shorter than before, and a flaky, grey residue had collected
at the tip.  As I lowered the roll from my mouth, some of the
residue dropped; it hit the pale grey material of my robe and
slid off without leaving a mark.  I was suddenly glad for all the
protective gear -- I could only imagine the humiliation if I were
caught outside with the smell or stain of burnt tobacco on my
person.
     When our rolls became to short to hold, Marko took them to
Jordan, who was holding a whispered conversation with a tall
person on the bench in front of us.  She extinguished them using
a device that vaguely resembled a forceps, and dropped the ends
into a pouch.
     "Thank you," said Marko.
     "Yes, thank you."
     "You're welcome," said Jordan.
     Marko and I exited through the second door; it opened to a
chamber much like the anteroom where we had got our robes.  We
removed our masks and so forth, and dropped them into a small
covered container.  The robes went into a larger receptacle; I
assumed they would be laundered and used again.  There was a
little fountain at which we rinsed our mouths and hands.
     Marko opened the door, and we found ourselves at the end of
a quiet alley.  The broad city streets, white-lit and genteelly
bustling, were not far off.  The air was cold and sweet.
     "I should explain," said Marko as we exited the alley.
     "Don't."
     "I'm afraid that bringing you to" -- he merely inclined his
head, for we were in public now -- "was in part a -- a test."
     "Did I pass?" I asked, perhaps more sarcastically than I
meant to.  He was being awfully cryptic, and it was starting to
get on my nerves.
     Marko stopped walking and turned toward me.  "Gerda . . ." 
He sighed.  "Gerda, I love you."
     "What?!"
     "I love you.  I've loved you for a long time.  But a woman
who could not share my other passion could not share my life.  So
I had to take you here, had to show you what the Smoke meant to
me, before I could ask you . . ."  He swallowed audibly and took
a deep breath.  "Gerda, will you be my partner?"
     All the air seemed to rush out of my lungs.  My jaw
trembled, and several moments passed before I could choke out a
reply.  "This is awfully sudden."
     His lips parted and he turned his eyes away from me.  I
realized my response had come across as colder than I had
intended, and I hastily added:  "It's not that I don't have
feelings for you.  How could I not, after" -- I hesitated,
mindful of the people passing around us -- "after what you've
given me?  But it's been so short a time; we've only been seeing
each other -- outside work, I mean -- for two weeks!  Maybe if we
went out a few more times . . ."
     Marko cocked his head.  "Out where?"
     "I don't know, dinner or something."
     He smiled and gestured toward the alley from which we had
just emerged.  "Same place?"
     I laughed -- I don't know why.  "That would be nice."


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