The empty cigarette boxes piled three high on the cafe table. He’d given a few of them away to other people at the cafe, but the rest he smoked himself. With each puff he heard his wife’s voice, “If you widow me with all these kids, I’ll kill you.” That’s why he smoked them, because they conjured her, and, maybe, if he smoked enough of them fast enough he could be with her again, and the kids. But it had been ten years and he was still fit as a fiddle. His body was surviving to spite him.
When he first left America and came here, everyone in this city smoked. The bus driver would open the doors and smoke poured onto the street. It was less common now. Something or another about the worst lung cancer rates in Europe. Fewer younger people smoked outside of cafes and discotheques than when he first arrived, but he could still sit at this cafe all day, if he wanted, and smoke like it was an office building in the Sixties.
The girl bringing him his coffees approached his table, he shook his head, puffing the cigarette. He didn’t need another coffee. In an hour or so, he would leave this cafe and go to another for lunch, where he’d eat a sandwich and soup and smoke a few more cigarettes. Then, after lunch, he’d come back here and have another three coffees. He’d tell himself that he can’t smoke anymore today, but it would just be a farce.
At lunch, he ate some kind of bean soup with tomato, smoked paprika and sour cream, the general flavor profile of this city. It took a while to get used to the food here, so much of it picked and peppered and saucy, but now he appreciated it. He could spot individual ingredients and understood how they worked together. He was motioning the waiter for another piece of bread when a young couple sat behind him. They looked American; something about their clothes and hair and posture. When he first got here, everyone asked him “American?” And he never understood how they knew. Why not Canadian or Australian? He understood now, though. They have a way of walking and taking up the room and dressing. They stare the waiters in the eyes and smile at them and thank them profusely for simple things like a napkin. It drained the life out of the waiters, having to respond to those smiles, eager and fake at the same time, and answer their personal questions. This was a place where people didn’t ask too many personal questions; where smiles were rarely thrown at strangers.
“They.” When had he stopped thinking of himself as American? He wondered how others would see him, did they still see him as one? Surely they must. But what was it to be from somewhere, to be American? Was it indelible like the priesthood? Is where you were raised always where you are from? He had been more than just raised in America, of course. He was born there, lived there his whole life, and even raised his own children there until, well. He took a drag on the cigarette and this time he saw his son, Peter. “You know mommy says those will kill you.” He had replied, smirking, “We’re all dying from the minute we’re born, Pete.” He hadn’t really believed it, though. He didn’t think Peter was dying, or his wife, but they were. He just didn’t know it yet.
The couple were chatting about their plans for the rest of the day. The man wanted to go see some Roman ruins on the edge of the city, and his wife wanted to go to a museum. They were from North Carolina. He could still pinpoint American accents so precisely. When he first came to this city and the place was full of American ex-pats, he would make money in bars guessing “East Texas” or “Southern Michigan” when someone talked. Most of the ex-pats had cleared out now. Gone off to other locales or even back home.
The American woman was saying something to him and only with effort did he realize she was trying to speak the local language. She didn’t guess he was American then.
“I speak English,” he said, surprised at the harsh note in his voice. She seemed not to notice.
“Oh, perfect! So many people speak English here. How long are you here for?”
“I live here.”
She made an uneasy face. “Are you from here.”
“No. I’m from New York.”
He saw the color drain ever so slightly from her cheeks.
“Oh,” was all she managed. Then she followed with, “Well, I hope you like it here.”
He looked her in her eyes, but said nothing. She understood why he was here, that it wasn’t by choice. What side of the rebellion had she been on, he wondered? Probably wasn’t on a side. That’s how all rebellions were; two sides then everyone caught in the middle.
She seemed unable to let the silence fall between them, so she asked, “Do you have a lot of family back home.”
“It’s not my home anymore.”
“I see, well. Thanks,” she added brightly. What exactly was she thanking him for?
Most days, he stayed out until 7 or 8 o’clock, but the run-in with the American couple made him tired, so he went back to his flat after lunch to nap. He patted his left pocket to feel for his pack of cigarettes and then wrestled with himself the rest of the walk home about whether or not to smoke one. He didn’t want to hear his wife just now, not after the couple. But, as soon as he keyed into his flat, he pulled the pack out of his pocket and lit up, kicking his shoes behind the door and collapsing into his armchair, inhaling deeply and letting the smoke drift out of his wide open mouth. He didn’t have the energy to go to his bed, so he fell asleep in the chair and dreamed of his children who would all be adults now, had they survived. They were here with him in the flat, in the dream, pulling things off of the tables and bumping into one another as they ran around. In his dream, the woman downstairs hit the ceiling with a broom to get them to stop running around. Mia, the youngest, went back into her room and called for him. “Daddy?” Her voice was curious. He followed it into the kids’ room where she sat on the edge of her bed, holding her tattered pink bear and she held her side which was pooling with blood, and said, “Why did they do it, daddy?”
His eyes shot open, full of tears. He panted until he dry heaved and at some point realized someone was ringing the bell to his flat. It had been years since he’d had a dream about them like that. Then it was another few years where he just heard them screaming for him and he couldn’t get to them, but he hadn’t had a dream about them in many months. That goddamn American woman. The buzzing continued.
“Ok, ok!” He yelled as he pulled himself to his feet, grabbing on to the wall to steady himself. He wiped his forehead, full of sweat, and splashed his face in the kitchen sink before he went to the dusty old intercom.
His heart stopped. It couldn’t be, after all this time, someone, finally, coming for him. They had surely taken enough by now. He didn’t respond.
“Phil, it’s me. Let me up.”
Me? Who was me? This had to be some kind of tactic to get him talk, to get him to answer the door.
He responded in the local language, “Wrong house.”
“It’s not, Phil. I’ve been following you for weeks. Open up before someone sees me.”
The voice tickled something in his brain, who was it? He had pushed out so much of back home from his mind, especially from the rebellion. Most of what he remembered was his family and air conditioning. But something about the way the voice said, “Phil.” It couldn’t be, could it?
“Brendan?” He asked, in spite of himself.
“Jesus, do you want everyone hearing you? Let me up.”
Phil buzzed the door and then heard Brendan’s footsteps as he climbed the wrought iron staircase. He was still a big guy, judging by the noise his boots were making. When Phil opened the door, Brendan smiled broadly and brought him into a huge bear hug.
“Phil, my god, I never thought I’d see you again.”
Phil looked up into Brendan’s face, he had hardly aged. He had lost much less.
“Damn, Phil. I’ve been looking for you for two years.”
Phil gestured him toward the living room where Brendan plopped himself onto a chintz ottoman, large legs splayed out in front of him.
“I found almost everyone else. The guys who are alive, I mean. But you, man. I couldn’t find you. What the hell are you doing here of all places? I thought everyone cleared out of here years ago.”
Phil couldn’t respond. What was there to say? That he had this insane idea that if he left this country his wife wouldn’t be able to come visit his thoughts. That he hoped if he stayed here they’d come find him, even though they were lined shoulder to shoulder in the dirt somewhere, nothing now but bones.
“I made my way to Singapore myself. Nice place, but hot and expensive. Couldn’t wipe my ass without getting a sunburn. Hung out in Iceland for a while, but if you can believe it, it became a huge tourist destination for Americans and I felt like it was probably time to pack up.”
Brendan was speaking so loudly and fast, Phil struggled to process what he was even saying. He was talking to him like they’d been separated for a few weeks, not a decade.
“Hey listen, man,” Brendan said, straightening himself and leaning toward Phil. “I found out what happened to Lana and the kids. Horrible, man. Damn the Imperialists to hell.”
Phil’s pulse was quickening. For a moment, he didn’t understand why and then he realized he was getting angry. He balled his first, ready to punch something, or Brendan if he could. How dare he show up like this, bouncing in his boots and chatting like they hadn’t lost everything.
“Phil? You there man?”
Phil looked at Brendan coldly. “Yeah, I’m here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to not think about my wife and kids who were executed by an Imperial hit squad right now. But it is an absolute delight to see you, and I wish only that you’d come around sooner.” Phil’s voice was raw and sarcastic.
Brendan held his hands up in surrender. “Ok, ok. I get it. You might not be thrilled to see me right now. You’ve gone through a lot, more than any of us.”
“I don’t ever want to see you or anyone else from the crew again. Get out of my apartment, now.”
Phil was on his feet before he realized, ready to lunge at Brendan. Brendan stood up just as swiftly and caught Phil’s arm before he landed a punch. Phil tried against with the other arm and then to kick, Brendan overpowering him every time.
“Jesus, Phil, stop.”
Phil pulled back and spotted the thick, glass ash tray that was here when he came into the apartment. He lifted it to hit Brendan in the head, and everything went black.
When he woke up, Brendan was waiting with a glass of water and an aspirin.
“You’re gonna need this. Idiot.”
Phil sat up, brushing the hair from his eyes, wincing as he did. It must have been a right hook. He took the aspirin and drank the whole glass in two gulps.
“What are you doing here, Brendan? What do you want with me?”
Brendan’s eyes were almost pleading. “We have another chance, Phil. I can’t do this without you.”
Phil leaned his head back. “No, no, no, no. First of all, you don’t have another chance. Second, under no circumstances do you need me. Do yourself a favor. You’re still a good looking guy. Get some legitimate papers somewhere, find someone nice, and settle down and forget America even existed.”
“Do you know what they’re doing to us over there? Camps, executions. It’s all still going on. It’s never on the news, it’s only in whispers.”
“Come on, Brendan. You don’t know if any of it’s true. You’re hearing about stuff third hand. Just let it go.”
“I can’t!” Brendan was standing again. “We lost too much. Too many people died. We can’t just walk away.”
“If you try to do this again, more people will die, don’t you see that? We brought nothing but misery. The shot my kids, Brendan. Mia. Three years old. Holding her bear.” Brendan winced; he was Mia’s godfather. How different things were then, when Mia was baptized. Phil remembered going behind the bar where they held the baptism reception and meeting with a weapons dealer; no fear then, so full of promise. How many people who were at that party had lived?
“So, we just let them go again? We almost won, Phil. We were almost there, so close. You almost had them.” Tears pooled in the corners of Brendan’s eyes. “I can’t give up. And I can’t do it without you.”
“Pretend I’m dead.”
“But you’re not. And why not? A guy loses his entire family, he’s exiled, and he spends all day chain smoking in cafes, staring at the mountains. What are you waiting for? Either die or live or already. What are you waiting for?”
“FOR THEM!” Phil screamed. “I’m waiting for them. For them to come through the door. That’s home to me, Bren. Not New York. Not America. Them. And maybe if I stay here for the rest of my life visiting the same three cafes, they’ll walk through he door like nothing ever happened.” He fell into the chair, hand in front of his eyes, shaking with sobs.
A short noise between a bark and a groan escaped Brendan’s throat as he held in his own sobs. After a few moments, he reached into his jacket pocket. He pulled out a folded piece of thin, yellowed paper and handed it to Phil.
Phil carefully opened it and handful of pressed lilacs fell out of the pouch. He looked at Brendan in confusion.
“Lauren is still there. She survived, living under another name. She got a group together. They found out where people were buried, planted lilacs. These are from your family’s grave.”
Phil brought the lilacs to his face and inhaled deeply. It took him right to the summers in the Catskills with the kids, sunscreen and bug spray and flecks of potato chips. He gently ran his fingers over the edges of the dried flower. After a few minutes he said, hoarsely, “Thank you.”
For a long time, Brendan didn’t respond. Then, he inched in closer to Phil and grabbed both of his forearms. “There’s a lot of people there who need us to try again.”
“How? We can’t even get into the country? We’re exiled. There’s a kill on sight order for us, Bren.”
Brendan tried to hide his smile. If Phil was talking logistics, he could be persuaded.
“I know a guy who can get us Canadian papers. Good ones.”
Phil shook his head. “It’ll never work, Bren. They have cameras that can detect disguises, even plastic surgery.”
Brendan straightened his jacket as he stood. “We don’t need to go into all of the details now. But, I waited a long time to find you and I need your help. Come find me tonight at the hostel by your lunch cafe. We can talk more.”
Phil spent the rest of the day pacing his apartment furiously, until he old lady downstairs actually did hit the ceiling with a broom. He wouldn’t go see Brendan, of course, but should he leave town? The country? Was he safe now that Brendan had found him and would Brendan follow him all over the globe chasing this pipe dream? He drained a pack of cigarettes, but it didn’t bring Lana or the kids, just a satisfying burn in his lungs and a hit of dopamine. A short walk couldn’t hurt, so Phil threw a light jacket on and walked out onto the cobblestone street. Yellow lights illuminated the cafes along the walkway and the smell of smoke drifted from the sidewalk tables. He pulled out his own and took a drag, walking aimlessly for what felt like hours until he found himself at the lunch cafe, drawn inexorably there by Brendan, who was always able to convince him to do things he shouldn’t.
Brendan’s hulking body framed a doorway, hands in his pockets, foot tapping nervously. His whole body relaxed when he saw Phil.
“I knew you’d come,” Brendan said, holding his fist out to Phil for a bump.
“Then why do you look so relieved?” Phil asked, smiling.
Brendan pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his pocket and handed one to Phil.
“I haven’t seen one of these in…”
“Ten years?” Brendan asked. “I’ve got a friend who smuggles American stuff to me, ever since the exports slowed.”
Phil took a long drag. The Reds seemed so much less harsh compared to the stuff he’d been smoking here, it burned his throat without the hit of dopamine. He threw the cigarette to the ground and put it out. He didn't light himself another.
“Ok,” Phil said. “How are we getting home?”
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Hmmm...it doesn't resolve right for me. Maybe this is a novel.
Hey there :) could I read one of your stories on my new youtube channel? You will be credited