Fortnights, Part 1

(by, 27 February 1999)

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Fortnights (Part 1 of 2)

   Marta watched Nick flirt with Regina and Vivian and her heart, as it
always did, snuck down into her stomach, where it felt as though it was being
slowly digested. They'd all been in the office for about an hour now.
   It was hard to be sure when the crush on Nick had developed. It hadn't been
the first day she started working at Millennium Global's office in Parkson,
but it was close. And there was no question that Nick liked her- he seemed to
like everyone. But he liked them more, and the reason was clear as they
grabbed their coats and headed for the door. Here they were, the whole
division in early to put the final wraps on a presentation to the board, who
was doing their annual visit of all the divisional offices.
   Really, Marta's part was done, for the most part. She'd designed the
presentation- and unless accounting decided numbers needed tweaking and graphs
rebuilt- which was inevitable, she imagined- she had nothing to do. But she'd
spent half of the short night- having left the office at midnight- thinking
about one thing.
   Four time a day, the three of them went outside for a fifteen minute smoking
break. That was an hour a day she could have been spending with him- with
them, but it was him she was concerned with- that she was losing. Five hours a
week, more than twenty a month. Twelve days a year, about.
   Who was the poet who'd said that you could live a life in a fortnight ?
   It didn't matter. Her daughter Comfort thought she was so clever. Her clothes
were smoky because her two best friends, Lisa and Lauri, smoked. The ride to
and from school-when she had to let them smoke, after all, was the reason her
own clothes were smoky. As if a stick of gum could hide the smell of it on her
breath. Marta had let it go because Comfort was a great girl, but she was
also, for reasons she'd never quite grasped, a smoker.
   Well, that was going to come in handy now.
   She picked up the phone and called home.
   Comfort was cold. It was frigid outside, numbingly cold. But she didn't care.
Mom had left the house at five this morning, offering her an opportunity to
smoke before school. 
   She cupped her free hand and lit the cigarette, enjoying the taste of the
cold smoke. There was something magical about smoking in wintertime.
   Exhaling, she downed a slug of blistering hot coffee, loving the taste of
sugared coffee and cigarette smoke as they mingled.
   The phone rang.
   She always brought the phone outside with her, in case mom, who was always
first forgetting and then remembering things, called.
   "Hi, Mom."
   "How'd you know ?"
   "It's a pretty short list of people who call at 6:30 in the a.m., Mom."
   "How would you like to have lunch ?"
   The right answer was yes, because mom was a lonely widow. The truth was no.
Lunch as a senior was the best time, Comfort had decided, that she would ever
have in her life. She had a study hall after lunch and seniors were allowed to
leave the campus, so that meant an hour and forty minutes hanging out with
Lauri and Lisa. Some days she was able to smoke half a pack of cigarettes
during lunch- except on Tuesday. Physics lab. She had to trade smoking for
watching metal balls roll down a plank. Yawn.
   Sensing her daughter's hesitation, and hearing wind against the phone, which
meant that she was on the back porch, smoking, she sweetened the pot.
   "I'll take you to Lenny's ?"
   "Can I get lobster ?"
   "It's a deal, then ?"
   "Yeah. Pick me up out front at 12:20."
   Comfort hung up the phone and sighed, pulling on the cigarette. The things
you did for parents.

   Mom was sure acting weird. She kept looking over at Comfort, or, and Comfort
was sure that this was just her imagination, staring at her purse. The fact
that there was a pack of cigarettes and a lighter in said purse made her
faintly uneasy. She smoked so much, in so many places, that sooner or later,
it was bound to get back to Mom. But it had been six months now and so far so
good. The logical knowledge that she would get caught did not really jell with
the long string of good luck that she'd had thus far.
   Maybe she should just bite the bullet and tell her.
   No, that was pure paranoia. Tell her and risk being forbidden to smoke ? If
that was honesty, it was too steep a price to pay.
   "Mom," Comfort started, feeling a bit like Hamlet with sword in motion, about
to stab Polonius with no way to stop.
   "Did I mention that the presentation went perfectly ?" Marta asked,
intentionally cutting Comfort off. She'd been staring at her daughter's purse,
making her nervous. Of course she was nervous. She was hiding cigarettes.
   "No, but that's great. Are we celebrating ?"
   "Yes and no. I'm allowed to happy about it until this afternoon, and then of
course we have to start working again. But I have something serious I want to
discuss with you."
   "Yeah," Comfort said, sure now that she'd been caught out. "Look, Mom-"
   "After we get settled in at Lenny's. Right now I just want to enjoy success
for a few minutes. Tell me, how are your friends Lauri and Lisa doing ?"
   Inside, Comfort groaned. This had to be about smoking.
   "They're doing fine. All three of us landed parts in the school play."
   "Really. What are you doing ?"
   "It's this weird play called Nirvanoff. I'll bring it home and let you read
   "Great. Would you look at this traffic ? I mean, it's Tuesday afternoon. Who
are all these people ? Doesn't anybody work anymore ?"
   "I guess not," Comfort said without enthusiasm. It was just like mom to not
want to talk in the car. She was one of the last people on earth who took
driving seriously. When she was driving, forget having a real conversation.
No, she'd want to settle in at Lenny's, and once she had Comfort trapped,
launch into the obligatory parent spiel about why kids shouldn't smoke.
   Fortunately, the rest of the ride took only about five minutes, during which
Comfort's fear level never quite got to the point where she was dreading

   They walked into the restaurant, glad to be out of the cold. The door to the
place was in the middle. To the left was the bar and the smoking section. Non-
smoking, the only place they'd ever sat was to the right. There was a `Please
wait to be Seated' sign, so they waited. A young woman sitting at the bar
sipping on a soda and smoking a VS 120 saw them after about thirty seconds.
She put her cigarette in the ashtray carefully and bounced over to them, her
breasts jiggling pleasantly.
   "Can I help you ?" she asked, the last faint wisps of smoke escaping from her
mouth as she spoke. Right now, Comfort would have kissed her if it had meant
getting a taste of it.
   "Two for lunch."
   "Smoking ?"
   "Yes, please," Marta said, and Comfort nearly died. This was going to be
punishment by torture.
   She didn't even have the heart to look at her mother.
   The waitress, whose rear quarter was as pleasant as her front, practically
skipped to their table.
   "I'll be right back," she said. Comfort knew that she was going to go finish
her cigarette. She hated her for that.
   "Take your time," Marta said pleasantly. She scanned the table, saw something
was missing. "Bring back a pitcher of beer and an ashtray."
   "One glass or two ?"
   Marta wanted to say two, but she hesitated.
   "Don't worry. I'm not going to card your sister."
   Comfort groaned at the obvious tip grovel.
   "Two it is."
   They sat down.
   Comfort decided to play out the string.
   "Mom, why are we sitting in the smoking section ?"
   "Because you're a smoker, honey."
   "I was-" Comfort stammered.
   "I know. In the car. Look, I want you to know that I approve."
   "You mean you don't disapprove ?" Comfort asked, confused by this strange
foray into reverse psychology.
   "No, I approve. Look, I know you've been studying at Lauri and Lisa's because
they're allowed to smoke at home. And since you've been doing that, your
grades have been going up, you seem to be more popular- and your mood is
certainly better."
   Mom had a point there. Comfort knew that she had gone through a long stretch
of bitterness after dad died. They'd both lost their religion, and they'd both
let a few friends drop by the wayside, but Mom had come out of it first. For
Comfort, smoking had been a sort of release. It was the one thing she did
which didn't bring back memories of Dad.
   That relaxation had made the rest of it easier.
   "You're right. I've been hanging out at Lisa's and at Lauri's because all of
us can smoke there. Their parents are cool about."
   The waitress brought the beer and they both ordered lobster.
   "And you assumed I wouldn't be, right ?"
   "Mom, they live with parents who smoke. Both Lisa's sisters smoke. It's
expected. I never thought you would understand, much less approve. I mean,
you've never smoked a cigarette in your life-"
   "Well, I do approve. My daughter is a smoker and that makes me happy."
   "So can I ?"
   "Smoke ? Yes. Whenever and wherever you like. But that's not the real
question. The real question is whether I can smoke."
   "Mom ?" Comfort asked, taking her cigarettes and lighter from her purse. She
lit one while her mother watched, intrigued. She drew on the cigarette as
casually as she could, trying hard not to be nervous.
   "What ? Your not going to be an hypocrite and tell me I shouldn't smoke, are
you ?"
   "No, mom, but you are 38. It's an odd time to start smoking, isn't it ?"
   "Not really. I have a good reason."
   Comfort drew deeply on her cigarette and exhaled.
   "And it's not some last ditch effort to be cool with the teenage crowd. That
isn't why you started, is it ? I'm really interested in what did make you
decide to start- actually, I want you to tell me everything you can about
   Laughing, Comfort trimmed her cigarette and took another pull. The tip of the
cigarette flared orange and a thicker trail of smoke drifted off it. Marta
hoped that was something she would be able to do soon.
   "No, it wasn't peer pressure. Lauri and Lisa are funny. Lauri would never try
to get anyone else to smoke, while Lisa really gets off on it. But what made
me want to try it was that I found myself looking forward to driving them to
school in the morning. I liked the smell of it. I liked the way it made me
smell. But I couldn't quite put my finger on. Until the last day of school
last year. I got up and I was so depressed-"
   "You always get depressed when school is closing for the summer-"
   Comfort exhaled.
   "This was different, though. I was getting dressed for school, looking at
myself in the mirror, and suddenly I was holding one of those Papermate pens,
pretending it was a cigarette. I knew what I had to do. I stopped at that
store on Columbus, bought a pack of cigarettes and sat in the car for a few
minutes. Then I lit it with the cigarette lighter, and wow ! It was great. I
lit my second one sitting in Lisa's driveway. You should have seen the look on
her face when she came out the door. And I've been smoking ever since. I'm
just sorry that I didn't tell you."
   She took a long gulp of beer and then pulled on the cigarette, enjoying the
double buzz.
   "Don't be. If you'd told me a month ago- even though I pretty much knew- I
wouldn't have been so receptive."
   "What changed ?" Comfort asked, holding the cigarette up high by her head,
perched sexily between her fingers. She looked like Regina. Same slightly
teased red hair, same cheek bones. Regina had what Marta would have described
as a `smoky look.' Her daughter shared that.
   "You know that guy at work ?"
   "Nick. The gorgeous- I mean, for his age-"
   "Thanks," Marta said, slightly sour.
   "You still have a crush on him ? You stopped talking about him ages ago."
   "Because he hangs out with Regina and Vivian. They all smoke together."
   "But you and he- I've seen you together. I think there's some real chemistry
   "Well, I want to add another chemical to the equation."
   "Do you want a cigarette now ?" Comfort asked. The truth was she was excited
at the prospect of teaching her mother how to smoke. It was going to be fun.
   "No. Lunch will be here shortly. I was thinking I'd just watch you and give
it a try when you get home from school."
   Without thinking, Comfort said "I was going over to Lisa's to study-"
   "Your friends could come over and study at our house- since you can smoke
there now."
   "That's right," Comfort said, smoke drifting out of her mouth as she spoke.	
   "I'll even make dinner." She saw the look on Comfort's face. "Or we could
order in."
   "I'll tell them," Comfort said. How fucking cool would they thinking this was

   Marta was sitting in the car at the same store where her daughter had smoked
her first cigarette. She had a baseball cap and rose hued sunglasses on. It
was almost a disguise. She wanted to smoke, but this first step of the
experiment- well, she wanted some anonymity. She'd left the office about an
hour after lunch and drove around, making sure this was what she really
   It was.
   A carton of Marlboro Lights 100s. Box, please.
   She rehearsed the line one more time, then got out of the car.
   Walked into the store. There was no one else in the whole place, except for
the clerk, a teenage girl with big breasts and a pleasant smile.
   Relieved, Marta saw that she had a pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket of
her smock.
   "Carton of Marlboro Lights 100s. Box, please."
   "Can I see some ID ?"
   Marta started. ID ?
   "ID ?"
   "Yeah. My boss told me that an inspector was going to be in today, making
sure that we were carding."
   "How do you know I'm not the inspector ?" Marta asked.
   "He showed me her picture. You're way too pretty."
   Marta smiled and produced her license. The girl looked at quizzically.
   "There's no way you're 38."
   "I am," Marta said proudly. "Almost thirty-nine. How much do I owe you ?"
   "Thirty sixty-six."
   Marta handed over two twenties and received change and a carton. She liked
the feel of the carton in her hand. It was weighty without being heavy.
   "Thank you." She walked out of the store with her purchase, very pleased with
herself. This was definitely progress. She had her cigarettes. It was just a
question of starting to smoke now, and she was mulling over whether or not to
wait until Comfort came home to give it a try.
   As she sat down in the car, she decided against waiting. This was where her
daughter had smoked her first cigarette. It was going to be the same for her.
The car was already smoky. She'd not only let her daughter drive the BMW, but
she'd let her smoke, wanting to see how a smoker handled the car. It was only
the third time any one had smoked in the car, and the first time she'd not
resented it. Her sister-in-law Fran smoked, and on the last visit she'd let
her smoke to and from the airport.
   Boy, was Fran in for a surprise.
   Comfort had a system. She held the cigarette in her left hand, near the open
window. She steered with her right hand and used her left hand only when she
needed to shift. There was something very cool about the way Comfort looked
holding the steering wheel with her hand, cigarette between the first two
fingers. She had a real skill for it that was impressive.
   Marta tore the flap off one end of the carton. She could see two of the packs
clearly. Tapping the other end of the carton, she was able to dislodge one of
the packs, which she then tore the cellophane off of. She opened the ashtray
but decided against putting the cellophane inside it. Instead, she balled it
up and stuffed it into her purse.
   Next she cracked back the flip top on the box and drew out a single
cigarette. This was not an easy task. They certainly didn't waste any space
inside the pack. Once she had it out, she put the pack up on the dashboard,
where people would be able to see it, as Comfort had. She put the unlit
cigarette to her nose and smelled the tobacco, which was sweet.
   Very pleasant.
   Then it hit her. She hadn't bought a lighter. Oh, she had one at home- it had
been her grandmother's. She'd never been sure why she'd taken it when she
died, but no one else seemed to want it, so she had. But it would do her no
good now, when she needed a light. 
   "Damn it."
   She thought about going back into the store to buy one, but she'd spent
several minutes in the car and there was no doubt that would seem strange.
   Then she saw it and she had no idea how it had always escaped her attention.
The cigarette lighter. Perfect.
   She started the car, rolled the window down enough to be able to easily stick
her hand outside the car- Comfort kept her ash trimmed that way and even,
although Marta didn't really approve of it, dropped the cigarette out the
window when she was done. That was very unlike her daughter, but she saw other
smokers do the same thing. 	
   When she pressed the lighter in, she put the car in reverse but kept her foot
on the clutch. It popped out quickly.
   This was it.
   Place the lighter around the cigarette and it would be over.
   A transformation.
   I can learn to coexist with anything but fate.
   Marta found a smile as she lit the cigarette. It caught easily.
   I can learn to resist anything but temptation.
   She drew on the cigarette, ignoring her daughter's advice to avoid inhaling
at first. The smoke hit her untrained lungs and she almost understood why.
   Then the high hit her and she knew her daughter had been wrong about this one
   You can win without a fight.
   She drank the smoke in and then exhaled, angling the smoke out the window. It
was, as they said in one advertisement, pure enjoyment.
   The smile grew as she pulled the car out of the parking spot and added it to
the flow of traffic, smoking as she drove. The nervousness that she had
expected was not to be felt. No, there was just the pleasure of this new thing
and she found herself not caring if she caught Nick's attention.
   Well, not caring as much as she had before.

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