So much for his last refuge. The bartender hadn't bothered, but the older couple in back flinched as she walked in; tobacco smoke tail swishing behind her through dive bar door. Happily married ten years and surviving another forty, they recognized the pressure change. Poor Elliot turned to see the start of another bad night.
Not that he hadn't already been in the shit since he woke up. He laid in a bed of it every night since Shanon left, again. Every time she came back, he'd remake the sheets for her to piss on again. She wafted through like a drunk cigarette, ash in her wake. Nothing new.
She sat three stools from the next relapse as Elliot's face contorted. The sight of her was revolting and enthralling. He'd let her fuck him silly in a sip, but vomit gallons wiping dew from the lily. It's probably what she preferred.
He jabbed the thumb of his cigarette hand into the space between his brows. Ice clinked in the glass of his other. He should've got his usual. He wasn't equipped for Heaven of Hell, least of all, his ex.
“Still smoking with my kidney?” Smooth, Elliot.
“Still drinking with my liver?” The cigarette danced from her lips as she dug for her pack. Ash fell like tears. Yet again, the bar lamented another episode of their amateur reality show.
“Your liver regrows,” he said. The drink was a mistake. “But I'm still out one kidney.” He raised his glass with a talon grip from above. “It's just ginger ale anyways.” He gulped a hefty swig. The Jameson burn wasn't there to herald escapism anymore.
“Still smoking though.” She sparked another gas station Bic, setting words ablaze again. He'd never suffered the taste of Newports before her. He raised his Marlborough torch between his knuckles.
“Just four a day,” he said.
“Four?” Her cigarette dangled in her mouth. The slithering tongue teased it from behind, smoke writhing like a snake.
“Yup.” His long drag replaced whisky she'd ordered since he couldn't. Her ashes were already beginning to wilt. She cocked an eyebrow leaning into her drink; leer locked on him.
“And how'd you manage that?” She took a long sip.
“Willpower,” he said. “Ya know, that thing adults use when they know they've got to do the things they don't like.”
“Oh, I'm sure.” Her eyes bulged before savoring another loud sip. His face flushed red. It's how she always was. Dismissive. Passive aggressive. Nonchalant. Non-committal.
“It's not so hard with a little fucking effort.” He slugged down more of his virgin-Highball. “It's all timing. How long can you suffer before you'll break?” He centered himself with a long drag.
The quiet couple in back leaned close to one another, taking best on who'd blow a gasket first. Shanon had only just arrived, but was smoking like a chimney. Never a good sign. Elliot wasn't drinking, but he'd never needed to anyways. The bartender, for his part, positioned himself to polish the bartop between them and the shelves of innocent bottles he preferred not become collateral damage.
“Morning is the first,” he began. “Which is reasonable. You gasp awake from paradise behind clenched eyelids and take a deep breath to scream, “Fuck, again!?” So you make a cup of coffee and have the first smoke to get your blood moving. Mostly against your will, but you're still alive and that's as good a reason as any to bother doing something.”
Elliot didn't have to push his glass forward before the bartender had the soda gun out. The muscle memory swirl of a fresh glass steadied his hand. But Shanon looked like she couldn't make heads or tails of him. Ice relented to her diluting drink.
“So you go to that job you hate, because we're adults with fucking bills, right? You slog through bullshit, listening to Ann's happy morning-person jibbering about whatever-the-fuck. By the time lunch comes around, you're so ready to suck a gun you'd jump out the window to get to the tiny smoking-area hut oasis. And you need that fucker to have the drive to walk back in after.” Elliot took a sip. “Especially without a gas can.”
His cigarette dwindled close to callused knuckles. He sighed, having wasted precious ether on air rather than lungs. He reached into the pack of remainders saved up from the week. The zippo flicked in his fingers before holding the flame to his face for a second. Anyone tracking Shanon had probably stopped counting, herself included as the ashtray filled.
“You warp back home afterwards because you've only got two smokes left and you're about to bite your own hand off to get the next drag past your lips.” He took a heavy drag as Shanon's lips carried a branch of ash. “Some guys suck one down once they're on the road, but I wait for the moment just after I walk in the door. Really appreciate being home, ya know? Maybe save one for an after-dinner breather. Some days deserve one.
“I try to save one for the worst moments. When I wake up in the middle of the night hours before the alarm. Shaking. Wondering where I am. It's pitch black and all I hear is the streets outside. Random car passing. Someone yelling blocks away. Wind.
“That stillness is the worst. You have conscious room to think. Considering life choices, ask questions. 'Why do I live like this? Why am I still here? Why keep going?' Gunmetal starts sounding appetizing.
“I grab the pack before I get that far. It's like handling bees. Smoke kills the buzz and drone of memories. Gets the heart going. Gets the anxiety going. Nicotine's a stimulant and all. Anxiety is a baseline that keeps us distracted from sitting still. If we can sit and focus, we'll self-reflect. We'll find Hell.” Elliot doused his lips, never looking at Shanon. Not that anyone could see her though tobacco smog. She fumbled with her lighter. One smoke closer to the end.
He turned his head. For the first time, he took in her presence. Acknowledged her existence. Accepted reality. A deep breath begot a billowy circle of smoke wafting her way. It's the only ring either offered the other.
Three days later, Elliot had three smokes left sitting three stools down from a candle on the bar. He hadn't bothered calling out from work. It didn't matter. He wasn't planning on going back.
Shanon left their last meeting to indulge as many pills as cigarettes in her fresh carton. It's hard to say how surprised the regulars were, but Elliot only saw smoke. She'd rather die than live with him? How did that make sense? But three drinks in, the Jameson whispered truth. He ran his thumb over the hammer of the thirty-eight special in his pocket. Of course she couldn't handle living with him. Neither could he.