Tale of Two Closets, Part 1

(by an4@anon.lelent.com, 15 October 2001)


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Tale of Two Closets (part 1)
an4@anon.lelnet.com   

    Janice walked down the stairs into the basement of the condominium with a
mixture of excitement and dread. It was a little after six o'clock in the
morning and she knew she was alone for now.
  "I'm being silly," she said out loud, but there was no one to hear or see
her. She walked over to her side of the basement, where all of her excess
belongings were arranged. Everything was neatly arranged- it had been her
idea to buy the metal shelves so that she and Mo would have places to put
the things that didn't fit or belonging upstairs. She'd decide on the metal
shelves because they were only renting and when the time came for them to
move- or when one of them, most likely Mo, moved in with someone else- Mo
was the inverterate dater- it would be easy to disassemble things and move
on.
  She knew she was being silly. What she was planning to do was a little
ridiculous. If Mo only knew she would laugh at the anal-retentiveness and
secrecy of it. But Mo wasn't here. That was the whole point. Janice set her
coffee mug down on the shelf and opened a duffel bag in which she'd stuffed
a bunch of old clothes that would eventually find their way to the salvation
army. She dug down and found the rectangular box and the lighter. The new
pack of Marlboro Lights 100s, unopened, felt delicious in her hand. She
began thinking about how that first cigarette would taste and feel and found
it hard to tear the cellophane off the pack. But she succeeded, stowing the
wrapper back in the bag.
  The basement had a sliding door that opened on the area behind the condos.
There was a oval patch of grass holding back the forest around the four
units tucked into the corner of the complex- the reason Janice had picked
this unit over another one that was available in the centre of the complex.
She cracked back the top of the box, carefully folded out the silver foil,
and extracted a single cigarette.
  Picking up her coffee, she placed the cigarette between her lips. She
wasn't comfortable with a lit cigarette dangling from her mouth, but an
unlit one was fine. It left her hand free to carefully, slowly sliding the
door open. With condos on each side of hers, she wanted to be sure that no
one would hear the door open. It had been a cool night, so she didn't think
her neighbours- who, quite honestly, she didn't know well- would have their
windows open.
  Once she was on the deck, she flicked the lighter and brought it up to the
cigarette. She inhaled, pulled the cigarette from her mouth and dropped the
lighter into a pocket of her painter's shorts. She secretly called these
shorts and the black mock turtleneck her smoking clothes. They lived out
their existence stuffed in the bottom corner of her closet, where they would
escape detection.
  It was a cool, even cold morning, so the smoke felt and tasted wonderful.
It was a perfect smoking morning. Mo probably wouldn't have noticed that her
friend had been smoking in the condo, since Mo did that all the time, but
Janice liked it out here better anyway.
  She trimmed the ash from the cigarette, rounding the burning tip, and
inhaled again. Her cheeks were drawn in and the smoke was rushing into her
lungs when an head popped around the corner of the end condo on the left,
startling and embarrassing her.
  "Morning," the face, which was attached to her neighbour, said. He was
smiling.
  Janice moved the cigarette so that it was shielded behind her body and
Carl stepped out from around the small corner wall that separated the units.
  He continued to smile. "You're going to have to exhale sooner or later."
  Embarrassed, Janice allowed the cigarette to drift out in front of her leg
and did exhale.
  Carl smiled.
  "Closet smoker, eh?"
  "What?" Janice asked. She honestly didn't know what he meant because she
had never thought of it in those terms.
  "You're a closet smoker, aren't you?"
  Janice nervously inhaled. As she brought the cigarette between her lips it
nearly popped from her eager hand.
  "You mean, no one knows I smoke?" she asked.
  "Exactly," Carl said.
  "Well, you know," she said, trying not to make the remark acidic.
  "I'm being serious here."
  She looked at him. He was cute. Late twenties, big brown eyes set in a
pleasant face, the mouth surrounded by a well-trimmed goatee. Not tall, but
he had a firm, pleasant shape.
  She inhaled again and for the first time in her life, spoke while
exhaling.
  "I think you're teasing me."
  "Let's look at the evidence then. You've been living here about two weeks,
and in that time I have seen your- housemate?"
  "Yes. Maureen and I are splitting costs-"
  Carl watched as she trimmed ash from the cigarette. She knew how to smoke,
but she looked a little bit tentative doing it.
  "In that period of time I have seen Maureen smoking every day- going out,
coming in. I know she must smoke in the condo, so you could as well, but
you're not-"
  "I might just like smoking outside."
  "True, but I have never once seen you smoking until now, and you seemed
pretty embarrassed."
  Exhaling, Janice smiled. "You have experience with closet smokers?"
  "My wife was a closet smoker."
  "Was?" Janice wondered. She had no idea that he was married- she hadn't
seen anyone else at his place the last two weeks.
  "Was my wife- actually, she was a closet smoker, too."
  "Oh, I'm sorry," Janice said, embarrassed again.
  "Don't be. We got a divorce, that's all."
  "Because she smoked?" Janice asked.
  His response was a wry laugh. "No. In fact, if she had wanted to smoke I
wouldn't have minded in the least. It was what she was doing right before I
caught her smoking that caused the problem."
  Janice finished the cigarette, stubbing it out in a flowerpot on her deck.
  "Go ahead and have another. I don't mind."
  Janice took the pack of cigarettes from her pant pocket. He reached out,
took the pack, drew out a cigarette and handed it to her. He then took her
lighter and lit her up.
  "Do you want one?" she asked after she'd exhaled.
  "Maybe later," he said, handing back the cigarettes and the lighter.
  "I came home at lunch one day- we'd had a power outage at work. Someone
cut a line out in the street and since I do all my work on a computer, my
day was done. As I drove in, her ex-boyfriend was driving out of the condos.
I mean, it wasn't the biggest surprise. We both married quickly off
rebounds. It was a mistake, I know that, I can live with it. Anyway, I
walked into the house. She didn't even hear me. I couldn't find her, and
then I thought I'd check basement. I mean, she wasn't supposed to be home. I
thought maybe her car was in the garage, maybe Deke had just been doing some
plumbing work in one of the other units. But she was out back, right here,
enjoying a little post-fuck smoke, you know."
  Janice shook her head. "I've never had the pleasure."
  "You should try it. Anyway, I confronted her. There was no teary denials,
no embarrassment. We spent a month trying to work it out' and then it was
just I want a divorce.' That was it for the whole marriage thing."
  "That's so sad," Janice said sympathetically.
  "Nah. We started dating off twin rebounds, got engaged too quickly, got
married too quickly. A series of little mistakes. But we had some good times
and I learned a lot about people, maybe even something about myself."
  Janice was at a loss. He'd reduced what she was sure had been a traumatic
experience to a few words.
  "So I suppose you're wondering why I'm out here at six in the morning
doing this?"
  "It is a lot odd," Carl agreed.
  "Well, what brings you down here so early in the morning, Carl?"
  "I was in the basement starting a wash and I heard your sliding door open.
I'd thought I'd say hi- I don't think we've talked since the day you moved
in. Then I heard you flick your lighter and I was curious- I'm still
curious."
  "Well, I have my reasons. Maureen and I go way back. I've known her since
high school. She transferred in as a freshman and we were in the same
classes and, well, I don't know, we hit it off really well. Then she started
smoking the next summer. Her parents and her older sister are smokers, so I
wasn't surprised when she took up the habit."
  "But you didn't."
  "No. My parents are smokers too, but I just never saw myself as a smoker.
That never stopped Maureen from seeing me as a smoker, though."
  "She tried to get you to start?" Carl asked, interested.
  "Every day. She snuck cigarettes into my purse at school, joked with my
parents that I was smoking, came after me when I'd get drunk at parties. You
name it, she tried it. And I never gave in. We ended up going to the same
college and rooming together all four years. She finally gave up after
junior year when I told her I was going to get a different roommate if she
didn't lay off."
  "And now here you are-"
  Drawing deeply on the cigarette, Janice exhaled.
  "It's her grandmother's watch that finally got me." Janice took another
pull on the cigarette, executed a nose exhale that made Carl glad he was
standing there, and smiled. "She has this beautiful silver watch that her
grandmother gave her. One of those old windup types. She was sitting in the
kitchen one day about a month before we moved, thinking she had about
fifteen minutes before she had to leave for work. Only the watch had just
wound down. She had just lit up a cigarette when she realised she was
actually five minutes late. She went running out of the house, and she left
the cigarette in an ashtray. I picked it up to stub it out and- I just
trimmed the ash instead and thought What the hell?' I took a drag and-"
  "You got the surprise of your life, right?"
  "Yes and no. Once or twice I'd taken a puff or two on a cigarette, hanging
out with other friends- I'd never have given Mo the satisfaction, but- But
I'd never liked it. Until that morning. I just- maybe I'd just been around
smokers so long. I don't know. Next thing I knew, I was buying a pack a week
and smoking them when she wasn't around and now-"
  "You enjoy it, right?" Carl asked, seeing the look of guilt on her face.
  "Well, yes, I do." Janice drew again and nose exhaled, then smiled. "You
know, you haven't told me why you're down here at 6 in the morning."
  "I think I can answer that." He disappeared around the corner and come
back half a minute later holding his own cup of coffee and a lit cigarette."
  "So you're a closet smoker too."
  "Guilty as charged."
  "How'd that happen?"
  "Well, after I caught my wife cheating on me, we did what most rational
couples do. We agreed to try and work it out- she said she'd stop seeing the
guy- which I foolishly believed, we signed up for counselling- a complete
waste of our time. And she told me that she absolutely insisted that I let
her smoke- which I really had no problem with. She's gorgeous to begin with
and she's one of those women- and I hope you don't think I'm being forward-
like you- who is an attractive smoker. When I found her out here smoking,
even though I knew she was screwing someone else, I was turned on. So for
six weeks, I lived with a smoker. I guess she'd been smoking every chance
she got- she's a waitress, so she kind of works what the rest of us consider
weird hours. She was smoking in the morning after I left, in the afternoon
before I got home, at the restaurant. I kept coming home and she'd be just
getting out of the shower but I never knew why. Or she'd come home after
work all smoky and I'd just figure she was waiting tables in the smoking
section."
  "So you were curious?"
  "It wasn't until after she moved out- I, this is silly but- I missed it. I
couldn't put my finger on it," he paused to smoke while Janice lit another
cigarette. "Finally I realised what I was missing was her smoking. So I
decided to try it."
  "But why are you in the closet. You look like you enjoy it-"
  "I do. But only one person I know smokes- a woman at work who likes to-
this is going to sound egotistical- a woman who likes to flirt with me."
  "Are you- well- I'll hold that question. You know, I think that it's kind
of silly, the two of us out here hiding our smoking from everyone. I mean,
you've got a friend at work you could tell that you smoke- I live with a
smoker. We're acting like scared teenagers."
  "Then let's change that. I'll make a deal with you. I'll come out of the
closet with my friend and you come out of the closet with your roommate."
  "I don't know," Janice said, exhaling. You were hesitant to even tell me
that you smoked. You didn't exactly jump at the chance to smoke with me."
  "I wanted to get to know you a little, that's all."
  "Maybe I like being a closet smoker."
  Carl trimmed, drew on his own cigarette. He exhaled at the same time as
she did and their smoke co-mingled.
  "Okay, maybe. Maybe you like sneaking around at six in the morning so that
you can get your smoking in. But answer two questions. When she leaves in
the morning, are you sad to see your friend go or do you fell a mixture of
excitement and impatience?"
  "Well-" Instead of saying yes, she smoked.
  "That's a yes. And when she calls to say that she's going to be late at
work or that she's going out with some friends do you mope around or do you
immediately bolt down the stairs, take your cigarettes from their hiding
place, and light up."
  "Well-" she repeated, and smoked some more.
  Carl ignored the stiffening.
  "And do you think that sometimes the reason she doesn't invite you to go
meet her and her friends is because they're smokers too. And you don't mind
because it's a chance for you to smoke."
  "That's three questions."
  "Don't you see the delicious smoky irony of it all. Your smoking is
keeping the two of you apart. All those years where she smoked and you
didn't was no big deal, but now you look forward to it so you can smoke-
when you could be smoking with her."
  "What's your excuse with the flirter? Is she unattractive?"
  "God no. She's very pretty, she's got a great personality. I just-"
  Janice gave in. "What's your plan?"
  "Well, the beauty is all you have to do is smoke. I do all the hard work.
Call Maureen and tell her I've invited the two of you over for dinner."
  "Tonight?" Janice asked. "I mean-"
  "Tonight. Don't waste another day."
  "And you'll reveal that you're a smoker to this woman?"
  "Today. Before I come home."
  Janice extended her hand and she shook it.
  "Deal."

  Beth was walking down the hall. He could see her coming though the glass
wall and decided now was the time. He felt a sudden twinge of guilt and as a
number of things came back to him. How he and Beth had been pretty friendly
until after he'd gotten married. They'd shared a few lunches, even- maybe it
was his imagination, but- there'd seemed to be some chemistry between them.
But ironically, that had stopped on his wedding day. He'd never said
anything to her about his wife's jealous remarks that day, but things had
never been the same and now the thought almost made him laugh.
  The he realised that if he didn't say something, she'd be gone. At least
for now.
  "Beth !"
  "Carl? What's up?"
  She walked into his office and he could smell her faintly. Some vague
scent of perfume and smoke, the same combination that he'd gotten used to
from his wife that last month together. The same fucking perfume. What were
the chances of that?
  "I was wondering if you wanted to get some lunch today," he said, speaking
in an off-handed.
  "I had planned on a midday meal," she said with a smile.
  "I meant with me."
  Has he missed the fact that I'd basically given up on him?' she thought
to herself. Or was he acknowledging that fact?
  She smiled. It was a pleasant smile, wide and open. She tossed her head
slightly to reposition her pony tail, scrunched her nose to settle her wire
frame glasses, pretended to ponder the question with some gravity.
  "I suppose I could do that. Where were you thinking about?"
  He had an idea, a wicked one, but he wanted to be cool about it, because
otherwise he'd just fuck this up.
  "Hmm, I'm not sure."
  "Did you think I'd say no?" Beth teased.
  "Give me a few minutes to come up with something."
  "Okay. I'll stop in on my way back from my break."
  "Going outside to have a cigarette?"
  "Yes," Beth said, trying not to be a little embarrassed by the admission.
  "I'll come with you."
  Beth looked at him and smiled. But that seemed strange. Even when they-
well, she understood well enough that at some point his wife must have said
something because-
  She arrested that train of thought. He'd never once joined her for a
smoking break, that was all. But she didn't let the thought travel.
  "Okay," she said, off-handed herself now.
  They walked down the stairs and out a little used side entrance. This
wasn't where the building's smokers gathered- they went out back where there
were picnic tables with umbrellas. This was her private spot, but she didn't
mind sharing it this time.
  The wind was blowing hard. She pulled a single cigarette from a pack of
Virginia Slims 120s and then tried to light it, but the gusting air thwarted
her. She started to put the cigarette away.
  "Beth, I'll help you with that."
  "It's no big deal," she said, ignoring the desperate desire for a
cigarette.
  He took the lighter from her hands. "Cup your hands around the cigarette."
  He got her lit the first try.
  "You know your way around a lighter," she said, exhaling. Their hands met
as he pressed her lighter into it.
  "I got practise lighting a woman's cigarette with my wife," he said
matter-of-factly.
  "Your wife smoked?" Beth asked, surprised, not sure if she had said that
right.
  "Not smoked. Smokes. "
  "I wasn't sure exactly how to put that."
  "My ex-wife is a smoker. No was about it."
  "I never would have guessed. I guess I only saw her at office parties. I
always had the impression that she shied away from me because I smoked."
  "That had nothing to do with it. But I didn't know she was a smoker until
the last month or six weeks we were married."
  "I guess if you were willing to light her cigarettes, you didn't mind."
  "Actually, it was kind of appealing."
  "Really?" Beth said, smiling, her interest reawakening. "Were you ever
curious about what she liked about it?"
  "As a matter of fact, yes."
  "Want to try one?" she asked.
  "Actually, I have my own."
  Here was his half of the deal.
  "No way !"
  Beth exhaled, watched him pull a pack of Marlboro Lights 100s from his
pants pocket.
  She helped him light his cigarette with a broad smile on her face. "I'm
going to have company from now on."
  "Well, I smoke the occasional cigarette, that's all."
  She stepped close to him as she drew on her cigarette. As she exhaled
through her nose she reached out with the hand holding the cigarette and
stroked his shoulder. "You'll do more than that before I'm through with you.
I love a man who's not afraid to smoke with me."
  "I did have an idea about lunch. I was thinking we could go to
Mitchell's-"
  "Isn't that where Charlene works?" Beth asked, withdrawing the cigarette
to between her pale lips and drawing deeply. Sensuously.
  "Yes. But it's been six months. I don't even know her schedule anymore."
  That was a lie, but a little one.
  "Well, they are smoker-friendly, so it's a good choice for a pair of
smokers."
  "Exactly."
  Beth's nose exhale reminded him of a prettier version of Charlene.
  "Is this is a date?"
  "Do you want it to be?"
  "Tell me what happened. You've never talked about it and- well, I usually
don't date married guys. Or ex-married guys."
  "Guess."
  "I just assumed that you didn't have much in common. Up and coming
executive with a master's degree marries struggling waitress writer. Sorry.
That must sound snobbish-"
  "I know we were a lot closer before I got married, but I don't really
think I ever really did Charlene's writing skills justice. She wouldn't be
waitressing now if she'd been willing to take a job covering square dances
and craft fairs for the local newspaper. She's probably- no check that, she
is the best writer I know. But breaking in when you don't have any
publishing connections is hard- and she makes twice as much waitressing as
she would working at the paper. I have no question she get published and be
famous one day."
  "Well, I guess that leaves that she cheated on you," Beth said.
  Carl considered joking about it, asking how she couldn't be sure it wasn't
him who had cheated, but he lacked the desire. The truth was- the reason he
was out here was because now was a time to put all that behind him.
  So instead, he just nodded.
  "Well then, a date it is."

  Janice picked up the phone, dialed Maureen's number, and waited. It rang
three times and then she picked up.
  "Maureen."
  "Hey, it's me."
  "What's up?
  "You have any plans tonight?"
  Maureen smiled to herself. "Well, some of the girls are going out after
work-"
  "Really?" Janice asked, and for the first time in a month, there was real
disappointment in her voice.
  "Why, did you have something in mind?"
  "Our next-door neighbour invited us over for dinner tonight."
  "Really?" Maureen asked, feigning surprise. "Did you talk to him this
morning?"
  "Yeah, we, uh, ran into each other when we were leaving for work."
  "What's he like?"
  "Oh, he's seems like a nice guy."
  "So was he just hitting on you or what?"
  "Maureen !"
  "Well, I haven't hardly spoken to him yet. How would I know."
  "He's just being a good neighbour."
  "Well, I can go out with the girls any time. When does he want us to come
over?"
  "Six-thirty."
  "I can do that. I'll probably just stay here until six- I have to finish
my budget for 02 by Monday anyway, so leaving at four like everyone else is
a bad idea. See you then."
  Maureen hung up the phone and let her smile widen. This was going to be
fun.


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