Contest #39 winner 🏆

There’s never been a cigarette so impotent as the Yellow American Spirit, but I was twenty-five then, and I didn’t know any better. My roommate asked me to buy cigs at the gas station and the man behind the counter stared at me as if he didn’t believe that I was, in fact, twenty-five and not some eighteen-year-old with a fake I.D., so I panicked and pointed at the prettiest-looking package, not realizing that yellow is code for “mellow” which is code for “flavorless.” 

“It’s not even that pretty,” my roommate Stacy whined. “If you were going off aesthetics alone, you should’ve at least gotten light blue. Much nicer color, and they actually have a taste.” 

“My bad,” I said, and took a long, lung-expanding drag, searching for any remote semblance of a nicotine head rush. I passed the cigarette to her — in those days, we shared one at a time. It was more economical, and seemed healthier, like splitting a slice of cake instead of ordering one’s own. We also performed that bizarre act of defiance present in all youth, the absolute refusal to dress properly warm in the winter months. We paid the price, of course, shivering horribly in only our pajamas and unbuttoned puffy coats. But we were only on the porch and only for a minute, until the cigarette ran out and it would be time for bed. 

I loved those little nights we’d spend right outside our house. They lasted between fifteen and thirty minutes and always involved either two cans of spiked seltzer, a loose joint passed quickly back and forth, or, as was the case that night, a cigarette. We talked then, really talked, without verbal padding, no how’ve-you-been or how-was-your-day, cut straight to the chase, feeling the enormous weight of the naked cosmos above and the urgency of our short, frenzied monkey lives, with the stars and the moon as judgemental spectators, pressing us to say only what was most important. As was usual back then, we talked about love. 

“I just don’t really understand your point,” Stacy said. “Why would you marry somebody that you know is not your soulmate? Especially when you know who your soulmate is?”

“Historically, good things don’t last for me. As soon as I find brief fleeting happiness — boom, snatched away by fate. I used to get upset about it, but at this point, I see it more as a blessing. I never get a chance to get tired of the things I enjoy most. So I’m gonna meet my soulmate at some point, right, and fall in love, and have a fantastic time, and it’ll be deep and passionate and intense. But marriage means permanent, and quite frankly, kinda boring. You do your taxes together, and like, buy lasagna ingredients and fall asleep before 9:30 after some light missionary sex. That’s something you would do with a buddy, not a karmic twin flame or whatever. I’d much rather love and lose and let them go and move on and just marry someone un-annoying to co-sign a mortgage.”

I stuffed my raw red hands into my coat pockets, feeling a lump in one of them. A clementine — I had an odd habit back then of grabbing clementines for snacks then forgetting all about them 'til the evening. I unpeeled it and offered half to Stacy, and she passed me back the cigarette. 

“I still don’t buy it, but okay,” she said. “How would you know when you’ve met your soulmate? Since you’re not going off the ‘marriage material’ metric.” 

“I’ll just know. It’ll be like hearing a song you haven’t heard since you were a kid but suddenly remembering all the lyrics. I’ve imagined it so many times already, and the details are different each time, but the feeling is always the same, like seeing a piece of yourself reflected in someone else.”

“Mm. Good similes.”

“Oh, please. And I know it’ll happen when it’s meant to happen. I think I’m just meant to learn some big lesson, or make some big self-discovery before I get to meet him. The universe has perfect timing always, but I do wish she would hurry up. I’m getting impatient here.” 

I shook my fist up towards the stars. “Fuck you stars for keeping us apart.”

“Alright, now, let’s not curse the stars, they’re doing their best,” Stacy said. 

“You’re right. I love the stars.” I raised my head up to them. “I apologize for lashing out.” Then, to Stacy, “I feel like I could never love someone that doesn’t notice them.”

“Yeah,” she agreed, watching me stub the last of the cigarette onto the snow. “You can keep the rest of the box.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, putting the American Spirits box in my pocket, “I spent your money on these.”

“You wasted my money on these. But yeah, I’m sure. I never want those things in my mouth again, I feel like I’m inhaling straight oxygen.”

“Okay. You ready to go inside? I’m freezing my ass off.”

She linked her arm in mine, our jackets squeaking against each other, and we headed in for the yellow comfort of our home. 

 

***

 

Stacy and I made great roommates because we were just roommates. Her social circle and mine were a Venn diagram with only us in the overlap. She had her own little friend group who came to the house for wine and cheese night, and sometimes I joined them but usually, I didn’t. I had a wide net of casual acquaintances that I sorta-kinda liked and visited in their apartments on occasion. My favorite was Belinda, who was always very nervous and usually high and for some reason took a great and cautious liking to me. She commented on my drawings whenever I showed her some, saying grand and lovely things about my prospects as an artist. My approval seemed very important to her, and I gave it willingly because she was a truly sweet, kind, and generous woman, just deeply self-conscious and unsure of herself. It never made sense to me — Belinda was and still is the most popular person I know. Every Friday her apartment would be crammed with new characters complimenting her shoes and her curtains and her appetizers. She would nod and smile nervously at all of them, then look over to me, and I’d give her a reassuring nod and she’d nod back, tense and satisfied like a seventeen-year-old successfully completing their driver’s test. Sometimes I’d mingle with those people, make a bit of small talk, widen my acquaintance net, follow a few new Instagram profiles, make hazy plans for brunches that would never happen. But that night was a night when I didn’t feel much like talking. I wanted to be in the presence of people, bask in the light of human connection, but only as a lazy observer, not a participant. Belinda always understood, and let me just sit there cross-legged on her nice fat armchairs in silence, occasionally checking up on me with a seltzer or a beer. 

The vibe was off that night, the people too loud, too boring, too raucous. They appeared as an entirely different species and it made me very sad. I couldn’t join in on a conversation then if I wanted to. To make matters worse, the vile apes ate all of the appetizers. I never ate before a Belinda get-together; she always had the best snacks. My stomach yowled like an orphaned kitten. I didn’t want to leave though, that would feel like giving up. I decided on a smoke break to clear my head. 

It’s hard to clear your head with so little nicotine though, I soon remembered, cursing my poor decision-making and the yellow color of the box. But the cigarette was already lit, and I hated wasting tobacco, and so I settled in, leaned on the brick wall, folded into myself for warmth, bouncing from leg to leg and crunching snow. I felt quite sorry for myself, suddenly so alone in January dark. A fire truck zoomed along on a faraway street — seemed like everyone had somewhere far more exciting to be. 

Footsteps behind me, and a voice, “Hey, can I bum a cig real quick?” 

He looked like one of my drawings. I have a peculiar way of drawing noses: a long inverted triangle with a rounded tip, two little triangles sprouting off the side. The eyes are two sideways rhombuses with lazy eyelids and two thick eyebrows hanging above in indelicate arcs. His face had all these elements, rendered in flesh.

“Yeah, sure.” I took the pack out of my pocket. “I know they’re yellow, but don’t judge. I got ‘em on accident and I don’t want them to go to waste.”

He scrunched his nose. “Definitely makes me question your taste, but I respect the economic frugality.” 

I passed him my lighter. 

“You here for Belinda’s thing?” he asked. 

“Yeah. I try to go every Friday.”

“Hm. Weird. I do too but I’ve never seen you before.”

“Yeah, that is weird. Are you headed there right now?”

He passed the lighter back and sighed out a plume of smoke. “Not really. I was just out walking and I think my feet took me here by inertia. I’m trying to get away from my roommate. I love the guy but he’s driving me crazy. He set our fire alarm off again.

“No way, mine did that too just last week. Was he burning sage?”

“Close, palo santo.”

“‘Cause of the full moon?”

“Yeah, he wanted to get the energy right” he laughed, and it was a wonderful, hearty laugh, a cowboy laugh. The cigarette dangled in his mouth, bouncing between his teeth like mallets on a xylophone. He leaned on the wall beside me, searching through his pockets. He pulled out a clementine. 

“Want half?” he asked. 

 

***

 

“Woww, that’s crazy,” Stacy said between bites of ravioli. “You really did meet your soulmate.”

“I know!” I hadn’t touched my own bowl of pasta, far too consumed with my recounting of the previous evening and the ball of pure static electricity tangled in my bowels. “I even asked about the olive thing. He doesn’t like them.”

“That’s cute. You guys planned a date? Y’all been texting?”

“Uh, no.”

“What the fuck are you waiting for?”

“I didn’t get his phone number.”

“Oh my God,” Stacy sputtered air from between her lips like a disappointed horse. 

“He said he’d see me next Friday at Belinda’s, and that’s exactly where I’ll be.”

“What if he’s not there?”

“Obviously he’ll be there if he’s my soulmate. Come on, Stacy, you know how this works.”

 

***

 

And of course, he was at Stacy’s, spread like a lazy cat over her couch, slow trickles of e-cigarette smoke dripping from his mouth. I nodded at him, he nodded at me, and gathered his legs closer to his torso so I could sit beside him. He passed the e-cigarette to me, and I accepted. Mint flavor — a classic. A man of taste. 

We talked. We didn’t discuss anything that important; the monumental significance was in the mere fact that we were speaking to each other at all. I did get his phone number this time around. 

 

***

 

He was a wildlife photographer, and playfully envied my drawing abilities. He appreciated art with quiet delight, my preferred method. He drank his coffee black and we sometimes got our mugs confused. Everything was good, natural, easy, pleasant. My body felt tingly in his presence. 

Of course, he took me to my favorite gallery on our first date, and of course by mere coincidence that also was his favorite. I didn’t say much that day. I didn’t feel like I needed to. We just stared at the canvasses side by side, two pairs of eyes looking at the same landscapes, thinking what I assume were pretty similar thoughts. 

I enjoyed driving, and he enjoyed riding in the passenger seat and playing DJ, picking the best of the cheesiest pop hits from the past three decades. He sang along to every lyric, horribly off-key but with much gusto. Unlike me, he was coordinated enough to smoke a cigarette in a moving vehicle, able to ash it out the window at just the right intervals. He always griped that I only kept the one yellow pack in my car, but soon enough we both got used to the taste. 

 

***

 

There were certain things I didn’t tell him. The main, of course, being that we were an impermanent pairing. No one wants to hear that their girlfriend is quite ready for their eventual breakup. I also never said “I love you” out loud. I figured that part was implied. 

 

***

 

“He offered to let me move in with him,” I told Stacy. 

“Well, I’ll miss ya, roomie.”

“I said no.”

“Oh my God. I feel like you’re purposefully not giving your one hundred percent to this relationship because you’re so convinced that it’ll be over soon. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

 

***

 

I hated to admit it, but it felt like Stacy made a good point. He, of course, had been perfectly graceful about my turning down his offer. We hung out in his apartment as usual, and I analyzed myself the whole time, checking myself for signs of emotional detachment, of half-assed relationship performance. 

“You’re acting weird,” he said. Fuck, of course, he knew something was up. 

“No, I’m not.”

“Yeah, you are. Please bring me the salt lamp from my room.” 

“Are you serious?”

“Yes. I’m gonna plug it in right here and dispel whatever negative shit you got going on.”

He kept the salt lamp atop his dresser drawers. The clothes inside were rolled neat-ish, nice enough to keep them from crumpling but not perfect enough to be psychopathic. The top drawer was the underwear drawer, and it poked out half-opened. As I was reaching to grab the lamp, something caught my eye inside — a small box in velvet trim. I didn’t dare touch it. 

 

***

 

I’d never seen Stacy so smug before.  “So you really think he’s gonna propose? Damn, that kind of puts a big stinking hole in the middle of your entire theory, doesn’t it?” 

“I guess so.”

“Look at you, with your husband-soulmate-all-in-one.”

 

***

 

But of course, it was not a ring inside of that box, but rather a tasteful necklace, a delicate silver chain. He put it around my neck, a dinnertime surprise, and sat down with his hands folded, cleared his throat. He always used gifts as preemptive apologies. 

“What is it?” I prompted. 

“I got offered a job in Japan.”

“That’s awesome!”

“Yeah, but it’s a two-year-long project, like up in the mountains with hardly any cell service.”

“Oh.” 

“I want you to come with me.”

“I can’t. My job… And you know the gallery is just picking up my work, and I’m getting that connect from the city—”

“Yeah, of course, I’d never ask you to jeopardize your career for mine. I just would really like you to come, but I understand.”

I wanted to cry, but I held stoic. I knew this was the long-awaited rift, the thing that tore us apart. It hurt like hell, but at least I was expecting it. 

 

***

 

“This definitely seems self-inflicted. You definitely did not have to break up with him. Y’all could still be together after he gets back.”

“No, Stacy. You know it doesn’t work like that.”

“It seems like you’re throwing away something really good because of some random-ass conclusion you arrived at by yourself.” 

I had nothing to say back. Fate had already taken things out of my hands and into her own. 

We were almost in winter, dragging through the last dreary days of November. Dead leaves, slick with old rainwater had piled up on the porch and they were horrifying to step on at night. 

 Stacy patted her pockets. 

“You got a cig on you?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah. The last American Spirit out the yellow box.”

“You have got to be fucking kidding me. It’s like a curse.”

She grumbled, but still inserted it between her lips. 

I lit it for her, and said, “Isn’t it funny how my relationship with my soulmate lasted less than this pack of cigs?”

“To be fair, it was of the most flavorless kind of cigs. Whole empires would crumble before I finished a pack myself.” She tilted her head up, blowing the smoke up to the heavens. “Damn, look at those stars! I think that’s the Big Dipper. Sexy mama.” 

We didn’t know it at the time, but we soon would move out of that little house, she to the city and I to the suburbs. We’d meet our future husbands a year apart from each other. While we stood there shivering in the American night, Japan blinked under harsh midday light, and he was mere months away from meeting his future wife. She was the opposite of me in most ways — she rode motorcycles. 

What I did have the foresight to realize even then was how much I would miss our nights on the porch under that peculiar glow of a very specific set of stars. I smiled at the back of Stacy’s head and felt some cheesy, wet, and melodramatic emotion bubble away in my skull, nostalgia for a moment that had yet to pass. It would have been far too disgusting if put into words and said out loud. I stuffed my hands into my pockets, rooted around for that familiar citrus form, unpeeling the clementine as I breathed on my hands for warmth. 

Stacy wordlessly accepted her half, and I was glad. This was one good that would stay in my life for a long time. Even for me, some joys are permanent. 

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118 likes 131 comments

13:22 May 08, 2020

I can't believe how invested in the characters I got by the end of the story. I love how it seems every little word is meaningful and builds up to the end. You portray the relationship struggles of a tough person very well. Deserved win!

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you! that means so much!

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16:05 May 08, 2020

I'll carry the energy of this story with me for a long time to come. well done!

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07:48 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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15:05 May 08, 2020

Wooooooooooooow!! It's such an amazing read! I love the way you write your story—it's actually like on John Green level already. And I love how you didn't stick to the stereotypical cheesy soulmate-finding approach to the story. I love how the main character was like a badass but still believes in having a soulmate. Gosh, you're an incredible writer. Congratulations, and you truly deserved it!

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Totally at a John Green level. :)

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18:06 May 08, 2020

Ya! It's amazing!

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07:48 May 15, 2020

thank so much, i really appreciate it!

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17:41 May 08, 2020

I loved this! Very smooth, effortless writing. Concise, eloquent characterizations. Believable world-building. I wanted more, but didn't need it. Well deserving of the win!

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you so much!

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17:00 May 08, 2020

I loved this story, especially how the narrator’s take on fate and soul mates is presented as pragmatic without being cynical. What I loved most was the friendship at the heart of the story and the description of the nostalgia she felt for the precious moment she was living. Really resonates.

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thanks for your insight! i really appreciate it :)

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17:11 May 08, 2020

A lovely story! Congratulations

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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15:03 May 08, 2020

Wow Masha, I seriously loved your story. The symbols with the cigarettes and clementines made it flow really nicely, and it was so wholesome without being cheesy!

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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17:20 May 08, 2020

Wow! This was incredibly fascinating. I love the whole craziness of youth and the theme of the cigarettes that comes all the way through. You did a great job.

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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17:18 May 08, 2020

I absolutely love this. God, this is so good. The fact that all your characters were relatable in different ways was so refreshing. It was also super humorous the whole way through and permanently kept a smile on my face. Your writing style is literally impeccable. You deserved the win 100℅ ❤

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thank you! thats so sweet of you to say!

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14:34 May 08, 2020

Congrats on your win! Your story was amazing! Keep on writing:)

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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11:02 May 09, 2020

Awesome? Definitely awesome. Congrats on the win.

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07:49 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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Congratulations on your win! You really deserved it. :)

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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17:16 May 08, 2020

Wow! I thoroughly enjoyed this story. It was beautiful and insanely well-written. Well done!

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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16:42 May 08, 2020

The characters felt so real, so believable, I didn't once question their actions throughout the story. Awesome stuff.

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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16:08 May 08, 2020

Wow, amazing. I love the way you write. So unique and intriguing. Excellent story. Well deserved.

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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13:31 May 08, 2020

I especially love the paragraph where she describes how she'll know her soulmate. Congratulations on your win.

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07:50 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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13:27 May 08, 2020

This was cool!

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07:51 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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13:12 May 08, 2020

Congrats

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07:51 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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13:05 May 08, 2020

Congratulations on the win!

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07:51 May 15, 2020

thank you!

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05:19 May 19, 2020

I like the line 'He drank his coffee black and we sometimes got our mugs confused.'

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