Contest #158 shortlist ⭐️

Cigarettes, Chianti, and Karaoke

Submitted into Contest #158 in response to: Start your story with a couple sharing a cigarette in a parking lot.... view prompt

9 comments

Fiction Romance Suspense

The hot ember of her Kool Extra Long cigarette mesmerized him each time she waved her hand in conversation. He had long since lost focus on her words and even her smoldering green eyes. All he thought of was that familiar smoky scent invading his nostrils, his neurons.

They had just finished devouring linguine and clams, paired with Chianti, at Mama Rossina's Ristorante on Elm Street. It was, in fact, a date—their first date. They met at a party hosted by mutual friends and hit it off immediately. He asked her out toward the end of the night, and she said yes.

After their Italian dinner, they lingered in the busy restaurant parking lot.

"Can I get a drag?"

Without hesitation, she handed him her lipstick-stained cigarette, grazing his forearm with her long, clear, manicured nails.

He held the cigarette between his fore and middle fingers, drew it up to his lips, and urgently took a quick inhale. He felt the pull of his lips and cheeks—right down to his jaw— as the smoke filled his mouth and lungs. But there was something else. Mint?!

"It's a menthol?" he complained, raking his fingers through his prematurely greying, almost salt and pepper hair.

"Hey, beggars can't be choosers."

He shrugged his toned shoulders and took another haul of the cigarette before passing it back to her. This time, he took the smoke in slowly, reveling in the sharpness, the headiness, and the coolness of the menthol that caressed his throat and chest. He felt his muscles and mind relax as his heart beat slightly faster.

"Ah," he sighed, "Thanks for the butt."

Her smile nearly knocked him over as she said, "It's all good, man."

He cocked his head to the left, taking in the raven locks that cascaded down her back, her sexy summer dress that matched her bejeweled eyes, and oh, that smile…

Should I? His thoughts interrupted before he could continue checking her out, which was probably good.

No, I really shouldn't. I can't! he thought.

"Where'd you just go?"

"Huh?"

"Hello?"

"Hi!"

"Man, you just blanked. And… you're staring."

Much to his surprise, his face flushed as he cast his eyes to the side.

"Oh, sorry. . . I, ah, I didn't mean to…."

"I didn't say I minded. I was just pointing out the obvious."

She flashed a wide, toothy grin while she flicked her lighter playfully, and his heart fluttered.

"Wanna go for a walk with me?"

"Okay. Lead the way."

She was by his side in an instant. They walked in tandem, enjoying the slight New England breeze of late night in August.

"It's such a lovely night," she mused, breaking the comfortable silence.

"Yes, finally. Tonight's a welcomed change from all the humidity. Maybe we'll get lucky, and it'll rain soon."

"Right?! I step out of my condo, and it sounds like I'm stepping on leaves in October when I reach the yellow grass. And all my plants are dead. It's so sad."

Her eyes reflected her emotion and his heart tugged at the sight. What was with him? He barely knew her, and he was feeling all these…all these—things!

"Want a cigarette?" she offered, plucking two out of her pack.

"Sure, thanks," he responded, not missing a beat. "But mind if we share again?"

"What? Can't handle the menthol," she mocked and put one back.

He chortled as they stopped in a well-lit bar parking lot. He watched her produce a Bic lighter, decorated in mint, yellow, and white flowers, from the compact black handbag hanging from her shoulder.

"The taste of lipstick offsets it well enough."

"You like the taste of my lipstick?" she provoked, staring directly into his deep brown eyes as she wrapped her lips around the filter and puckered slowly before removing the unlit cigarette from her mouth.

He whispered, "Yeah, I do," as he closed the space between them.

She tilted her chin upward, and he bent toward her, his mouth hovering just over hers.

"I'd like another taste," he breathed.

She sighed into him.

He touched his lips to hers as he tenderly cupped both sides of her face in his hands. At some point, she opened her mouth slightly, enflaming their first kiss. Then, after they thoroughly explored each other's mouths, they hesitantly broke away.

He felt the ground go topsy-turvy beneath his feet. He'd shared some Top 10 kisses in his 28 years, but this was THE #1! He saw fireworks, got butterflies in his stomach, and felt the Earth spin on its axis—the whole nine yards!

What a woman! She was intelligent, funny, independent, and successful—all traits they shared, and that made their first date so enjoyable. She was a natural beauty, to boot. And they definitely had red-hot chemistry together—it had been building all evening, but that kiss was proof-positive.

 On the other hand, she was a smoker!

"WOW!" she exclaimed, involuntarily licking her lips, "Ready to split that cigarette now?"  

He watched her light up.

He had never wanted one more.

"Ab-so-lute-ly!"

They passed the cigarette back and forth, in between knowing glances and intimate smiles. As they smoked together, she wordlessly told him she felt the same about the powerful kiss they had just shared.

Once he stamped the cigarette out into the ashtray post provided by the bar for just that, they decided to go inside to check out the place and have a drink.

Inside, she turned to him at the bar, amused, and said, "It's Karaoke night!"

"Even better," he responded, matching her elated tone.

After both ordering Alabama Slammers, they teased each other over who copied whom.

She clinked his glass with her own when their punch-looking drinks arrived. He smiled like a Cheshire cat into her gleaming eyes as she took a generous sip and began moving to the music. They laughed good-naturedly and sang aloud as amateur singers took to the stage to have fun with their favorite cover songs.

She leaped off her barstool at one point, grooving and shouting lyrics to a song he barely knew. She flashed him a smirk when the number ended and said,

"I'll be back."

While he waited for her to return from the Ladies' Room, he began taking in his surroundings for the first time—the crowd of faces, the neon lights, the long bar with only scattered empty stools available. This place was some kind of popular. The people were as diverse as the songs the Karaokers chose to sing. He was glad they happened upon the spot. He went back to sipping his Slammer, wondering what was keeping her.

Before long, he spotted her—not exiting the restroom but mounting the stage! Some kinda woman, alright! Eager for her song choice, to hear her singing voice, and to see her perform (stone sober even), he stood for a better view. Clapping and hooting loudly, their eyes met just as she began the song that he knew so well. He cheered exuberantly, astonished at her musical repertoire and sweet voice, clearly too on-point for Karaoke.

He belted out the chorus, which was ingrained in his brain, along with her.

"Heads, Carolina Tails, California.

Somewhere greener, somewhere warmer.

Up in the mountains, down by the ocean.

Where? It don't matter, as long as we're goin;

Somewhere together. I've got a quarter

Heads, Carolina Tails, California."[i]  

She ended the song with a flare, hugged the mic close, and said to the room,

"Thanks for indulging the old-school Country Bumpkin in me, Y'all!"

He had to chuckle at her' accent,' which he knew was a fabrication. She was a New England lifer.

He welcomed her back to the bar, holding his glass up in cheers. Then, he hugged her, spinning her around while exuding,

"Wow, you were on fire up there! You certainly are full of surprises!"

"Yeah, well, just figured I'd mix it up a bit. I like Pop and Rock as much as the next guy, but I also need my Country in the mix."

"Me too!" he exclaimed. "I'm a huge fan. But how do you know JoDee Messina? You're 26. What were you like nine when that song was big?"

"I was ten, actually," she corrected. "And my parents were huge '90s Country fans. My mother loved that song! She played it constantly, and we'd sing along, dancing in the kitchen together, while it was a hit and long after. It's one of my favorites—it's so upbeat and catchy.

"Oh wow! I grew up with Country fans as parents too. They introduced me to Classic Country—Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Charlie Pride, and Waylon Jennings. They were also big on the '80s and '90s Country. Go figure!"

He couldn't help himself. She had emboldened him—and given him the best idea.

"Check this out," he said mischievously as he downed the rest of his drink and headed to the stage.

She cheered him on, clapping and smiling while wondering what he had in mind.

When it was his turn, she heard the opening of the cued music and doubled over with laughter, giving him points for being so clever.

Wondering if the crowd could handle another Country song, albeit a contemporary one, she slid off the barstool once again and started dancing and yee-hawing with gusto.

He met her eyes and sang,

 "Yeah, she knew every word by heart, didn't need no screen, no

I was raisin' my glass up for her, I saw her smilin' at me, yeah

She had me down in the front by the end of verse two

Like there wasn't no-one else in the room, we were singin'

Heads Carolina, tails California"

Maybe she'd fall for a boy from South Georgia

She's got the bar in the palm of her hand

And she's a '90s country fan like I am

Hey, I got a Chevy, she can flip a quarter

I'd drive her anywhere from here to California

When this song is over, I gotta find her

'Cause she had me at 'Heads Carolina.'"[ii] 

She was clapping her hands wildly as he hurried back, breathless, to join her at the bar. He was grateful to see that she had ordered them each another drink. Tempted by the sweat beads dripping down the glass, he couldn't resist bringing it to his face to cool down before taking in the chilled liquid.

Then he focused his attention back on her.

"That was for you, 'Lil Lady, 'cause you had me at 'Heads Carolina!'"

"Well, thank you kindly, Dear Sir," she drawled, taking a deep curtsey. "I do believe 'You Had Me at Hello!"

They both laughed at the reference, both to the old movie and the throwback Country song, although he wondered whether she was entirely joking or not. When their hands found each other on the bar top and intertwined, he thought he might have found his answer. She liked him—she really liked him.

They finished their second round together, engaging in easy conversation. As he paid the tab, that nagging question returned. Should I, or shouldn't I? He was annoyed by the sudden intrusion. We were having a perfectly good time; why now?

Oh, damn it! Might as well admit it, he thought. It hasn't been much of a choice since the restaurant parking lot. His urge was too strong to fight. He hated to but knew he would, despite his misgivings.

Outside the bar, they shared another cigarette. The smile on his face as he hurried them out of the lot was crooked, looking as if it belonged to another. She felt her muscles tense when he put his hand on her elbow to lead her to the right. The microscopic hairs on the back of her neck felt like they had grown an inch, standing on alert.

With a new sense of determination, he laid their route, barely speaking to her on the way. When he did, an unfamiliar voice emanated from him. She stopped moving abruptly, despite his physical guidance, and demanded,

"What is up with you?!"

He wasn't sure how to answer that question, so he simply responded,

"There's just something I have to do now. C'mon, it's not much further."

She had seen enough Dateline True Crime specials to know when something was off. She was in trouble, and her car was far away. Still, she discreetly dropped her hand into her purse to find her keys. She fingered the largest one, holding it to fashion a makeshift weapon.

At the next intersection, he surprised her by saying,

"I'll be right back" as he slipped into a 24-hour convenience store.

Momentarily relieved that he hadn't led her down some darkened back alley, she then realized with a shudder that all the makings of a murderer's tool kit—plastic gloves, duct tape, even knives, could be purchased in there.

She was shocked when he materialized without any of those items a few moments later. Instead, he was unwrapping one of two packs of Winston box cigarettes as he cradled a shiny black ashtray and a dual pack of Bic lighters—plain, one red and one deep blue—in the crook of his arm.

"Why a new ashtray?" she queried, unable to stifle her curiosity, "Yours break or something?"

"No, I uh… I quit smoking four years ago and just started back up again. I can't help myself."

"Is that why you have been acting so weird since we left the bar?" she asked, loosening her grip on her keys.

"You noticed, huh? Sorry about that! I was angry with myself once I decided I was definitely going to give in to it."

He ripped open the lighters and, choosing the red one, lit his very own cigarette. He inhaled deeply with a look of pure bliss, then offered the cigarette to her.

"No, thanks," she said, her head hung low, giving the excuse that she couldn't smoke non-menthols. But really, she couldn't help feeling guilty that she had led him here.

They casually walked back to Mama Rossina's, where their cars were parked, as he smoked. She did not feel like indulging the whole way back.

They arrived at the restaurant parking lot, and she thought about how far they had come since they had last been there. She was glad he wasn't a murderer—she liked his eyes too much to gouge them! It would have been a shame.

She made the first move, embracing him to say goodbye. He didn't waste a second drawing her as close as possible into his arms and kissing her passionately. She responded immediately. The misunderstanding had not extinguished the fireworks, thankfully, she thought.

As they pulled away, reluctantly, she said,

"You know, I've been thinking about quitting this bad habit of ours. Maybe we could work on it together."

He kissed her in response.

"Goodnight, Josh," she sighed before pulling away.

"Goodnight, Darcy," he answered softly.

Watching her drive away, he thought about their plans to meet for lunch during the week. What a woman!

 And with that, he smiled and tossed his entire purchase into a nearby trash barrel.

[i] Song Lyrics from “Heads Carolina, Tails California” by JoDee Messina (1996)

[ii] Song Lyrics from “She Had Me at Heads Carolina” by Cole Swindell (2022)

August 13, 2022 03:33

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9 comments

Sophia Gardenia
02:03 Oct 19, 2022

The tender/sweet romance in this story really made me smile. You definitely develop the chemistry between the two characters well. I also like how you don't reveal the characters' names until the end; it makes the story more universal. The details also make this story pop, like the menthol cigarette, the country songs, the woman's lipstick, and the drinks. In terms of constructive feedback, I did notice some instances of telling instead of showing, like "What a woman! She was intelligent, funny, independent, and successful—all traits they sh...

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Bryan Thompson
15:25 Sep 08, 2022

Hi Mary Jo! This was a beautiful beginning to a romantic love story. I was a little on edge wondering where it was going during their walk. But it was sweet and hopeful. Great work, and I love the New England setting as well, mixed in with some Country music.

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Mary Jo Fortes
20:13 Sep 08, 2022

Hi Bryan! Thank you so much for taking the time to read my story and leave a comment. It is much appreciated! I hope you were on edge reading about their walk in a good way. I am really glad that you appreciated the setting and the music--both are near and dear to my heart, as these characters became.

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Bryan Thompson
23:14 Sep 08, 2022

It was definitely in a good way! I also was wondering if this was headed into serial killer territory. But that was kind of the red herring! 🙂

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Amanda Lieser
17:53 Sep 04, 2022

Hi Mary Jo! Congratulations on the shortlist! I absolutely gobbled this song and found myself smiling real big because I had just come home and heard Cole Swindell’s song on the radio during the drive. This was such a beautiful start to a love story. And I deeply enjoyed how you wove both individual’s perspectives in. I also love how you chose to make this story set in the New England area. I’ve never been, but stories like yours make it seem so romantic. Nice job!

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Mary Jo Fortes
18:32 Sep 04, 2022

Hi Amanda! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and comment on my story-- it means a lot! This made me a first-time on the short list... I appreciate it! I love Cole Swindell's song, as well as the original by JoDee Messina-- this story begged for them to be included! I am from New England so I take advantage of my surroundings at times to set my stories. This couple just had to be in New England for me! And, yes, it can be such a romantic area in all seasons.

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Kelsey H
04:43 Aug 18, 2022

I love his disappointment at the menthol cigarette, nice touch! I thought the narrative style you used really worked well dipping in and out of each characters thoughts and describing everything from an observer pov, it gave the feel of watching the relationship build between them. The little details you add help bring everything to life, such as the mention of what they eat, and the lipstick on the cigarette. Also I loved the moment when she starts feeling nervous of him, its a very realistic feeling for a woman with a man she doesn't re...

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Mary Jo Fortes
19:30 Aug 18, 2022

Hi Kelsey! Thank you for taking the time to read my story and share your comments. I had fun writing this one, especially as it changed on me a couple of times. I especially appreciate your detailed comments and learning what you liked about my story. Looking forward to checking out your page.

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Mary Jo Fortes
19:39 Aug 18, 2022

Oh, Kelsey, I just went to your page and realized I have read your "Living Things" story--very impressive! I have every intention of commenting but I was organizing my thoughts, In the meantime, I was thoroughly engaged with and touched by your writing. More to come on your comments.

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