I gaze at his stubby fingers clutching the packet, each nail shorter than the last. The warning label pokes out from between them, informing the consumer of the cautionary tale of Fiona, who'd succumbed to lung cancer at thirty-three after being a serial smoker most of her life. “Someone's rich.”
“Only the best for her majesty,” He jokes, holding out the last stick for me. I graciously accept it, fishing out a lighter from my pocket as I grasp the cigarette between cracked lips. He throws the empty square a few metres away from the curb, barely missing the bins nearby. I light the cigarette and take a long puff, letting the sweet nicotine calm the migraine that’s been pushing against my skull and threatening to break through it like Styrofoam.
The air smells vividly of piss and blueberry Slurpee. A few metres away from us, a heavy-set man sits in his Volvo, devouring a pepperoni slice and an energy drink that looks like it could be used to power a small village for a day. A blast of cold air hits my back as a patron exits the 7-Eleven we’re currently seated outside of. I take one more extensive puff before I pass the cigarette to Zac.
Before me, Zac often said, he’d never even dream of putting a cancer stick in his mouth. His grandpa habitually smoked, and he’d been repulsed by the smell ever since he was a little boy. Plus, all the pictures of disfigured throats and oral herpes he’d seen on the boxes didn’t exactly make the activity all that appealing to him. But when you were dating someone who’d had to have a smoke every thirty minutes or she’d spontaneously combust (ironically enough), you were bound to pick the habit up sooner or later.
“Do you wanna go to Rog’s party on Friday?” Zac asks, flicking off ash onto the ground before bringing the cigarette in for another swig. I let out a sigh.
“Can’t believe you still hang out with that dickhead. It’s been years since high school, y’know, you don’t have to pretend to like him anymore.” I cross my legs, eyes trying to ignore the way the neon-green emanating from the “OPEN 24 HOURS” sign accentuates the cellulite covering my thighs. I hate that my mind goes there amidst an unrelated conversation.
“He’s evolved.” Zac argues, a hesitant tone underlining his voice. “He doesn’t even make those kinda jokes anymore. You’d know if you ever went with me.”
“Mhmm.” I reach to take the cigarette back from Zac, who frowns at me before loosening his grip.
“You don’t want to stay in touch with people from school. And you haven’t made friends at uni either. Do you just, I don’t know, want to be alone forever?” Zac speaks with a stern voice, but I know he is concerned for me in a way no one else ever is.
“I’m not alone, Zac.” I take a short puff, blowing smoke away from us, watching it disappear into the night sky like it never even existed. I look at him and smile, his brown eyes fixated on mine like white on rice. “I have you.”
He doesn’t smile back.
Zac leaves me about a month after, funnily enough as we are out having a smoke break after dinner at his parent’s house. We’re star gazing; this time smoking our own individual cigarettes - his Dunhill and mine whatever I could buy for the cheapest price that week. Zac tells me that things haven’t been the same for a while, that he’s tried very hard, but he doesn’t think he can go on anymore.
I realise when he tells me this that I do not feel devastated, or angry or even confused. I am suddenly tired, like the sky has decided to rest itself on my shoulders and stay there forever.
“Are you going to say something?” He asks cautiously, and I realise he’s been waiting for me to talk for about a minute now. I cough, throwing my cigarette on the ground before crushing it with the heel of my boot. I tell myself I ought to limit my intake, that this can’t go on if I don’t want to die of cancer like Fiona, who was only nine years older than I am now.
“Can you give me a ride home?” I turn to Zac, who too has discarded his cigarette somewhere and sits there with a forlorn expression on his face. I do not beg him to reconsider because this isn't something he’s done on a whim, I know. He’s thought about it thoroughly and stressed over it for days and is still riddled with guilt over his decision because that’s just the kind of guy he is. That’s who he’s always been.
We return to the house and Zac runs off to get his keys. His parents are clearing the table and washing up the dishes we’d eaten his mother’s gulasz off. Katya was a headstrong Polish woman who’d never liked me for corrupting her son, introducing him to the same vice she’d seen her father indulge in all her childhood. She ignores me as I wait for Zac to come back. I wonder if she was ecstatic when he told her he was going to break up with me, or relieved, like she’d expected it and was glad the time had finally come.
Zac’s father is more sympathetic, giving me a half-smile as I leave the house. I want to tell him I’m going to miss the stories about his childhood in Japan, about how I was grateful for the times he alleviated the mood with jokes whenever it got too tense between me and Zac’s mom. But it seems inappropriate now, like our relationship ceased to exist the moment his son dumped me.
Zac drives me home in silence, only speaking to bid me good night as I leave his car. Before I exit, I empty my pockets and place my box of cigarettes on his dashboard, along with a novelty revolver shaped lighter I’d borrowed from him ages ago but never returned.
“I’m quitting. Don’t want them to go to waste.”
Zac nods and pockets the items without a word.
I see Zac again nine months later, buying cigarettes at that same 7-Eleven. He pays for my iced cappuccino, even though I tell him I’ve got it. We take our purchases and sit outside, on the same curb we’d spent so many of our evenings on together.
He’s gotten leaner since the last time I saw him, but in a good way –like he’s been working out. I am suddenly conscious of the weight I’ve gained, my appetite now twice as large thanks to the life-altering decision I made months ago to quit the cancer sticks.
“How’ve you been?” Zac asks, taking out a cigarette from the pack. He offers me one and I look at him and grin. “Oh right, sorry. I forgot.”
“You’re fine. I’m surprised I actually stuck with it.”
“Nah,” he says, putting the cigarette he’d taken out back into his pocket. I know that even if I tell him it’s okay, he won’t smoke in front of me. That’s just the kind of guy he is. “You always stuck with things, no matter what. Resolute in your ways. It was one of the coolest things about you.”
“And one of the most annoying.” I say, laughing. He laughs too.
“Hey, you said it.”
“I did, I did.” I hold up my hands in defeat. “I’ve been okay, I think. You?”
“Me too.” He looks at me and smiles, and I realise that I probably stopped seeing that smile months before we even broke up. “Job’s great, family’s great, and I’ve been seeing this girl for a while now and that’s going pretty great too.”
“That’s good. I’m happy for you, Zac.” I say, and I know that I truly do mean it.
We talk some more, and he tells me about graduation, the songs he’s been working on, and how him and the girl he’s been seeing are planning to move in together soon. He’s happy, and not the kind of faux happy you pretend to be when you run into an ex and must act like you have it all together. He’s the kind of happy that permeates from every pore, the kind of happy you must feel in every fibre of your being to express. He’s content.
I realise in that moment, though, that I am too. And maybe my happiness isn’t as grand or as large-scale as his is and perhaps it’ll never be. But as we sit talking in the parking lot of that 7-Eleven, where the air still smells of piss and frozen drink, I realise it does not matter. Because I won’t die of cancer at thirty-three anymore. And perhaps that’s a good enough reason to be happy.