“Is this it?” Mark thought. “This is what it’s come to? Wasting the day, waiting for my five minute fix at 2 a.m.”
He clipped the end of his cigar and fell into the brown leather chair. The cushion embraced him, urging him never to stand again. He struck a match, touched it to the end of the long stick, and sucked in. The warm smoke filled his mouth. He held it for a moment before releasing it into the light.
He marveled at the dance of his exhale. The smoke played games in the beams of sunlight coming through the cracked back door. Excluding those small rays, the backroom of the cigar shop was dark and empty. In the center of the room were four, large leather couches in a circle. Scattered against the walls were pairs of recliners separated by end tables with ash trays.
Mark looked at his watch. 3:17 p.m.
“You’re a pathetic douche,” he said to himself, angry he had looked at his watch again. “A PATHETIC DOUCHE!” he screamed into the air.
A young-looking college student ran into the room, “Is everything all right, sir?” His employee name tag read, “Hello! My Name is Philip.”
“Does it look like everything’s all right?” Mark snapped back. “Do I look all right to you?”
“Um. No sir? I mean… I heard you scream, and I just wanted to check and make sure you were all right.”
“No. I’m not all right. I’m fucked up, kid. Does a grown man come into place like this to smoke alone in the middle of the afternoon on a Tuesday if he is all right?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir. I just work here.” Philip stood in silence for a second, uncomfortable and unsure what to say next. “If there is anything I can get you, please let me know.” Philip left the doorway and returned to his counter.
“Pathetic douche,” Mark said again, unclear if he was speaking about himself or Philip.
He stood, walked to the cooler on the floor across the room, and retrieved one of the complementary Diet Cokes. Returning to his seat, he took another long puff on the cigar and blew the smoke into the daylight. It swirled. The waves weaved in and out of themselves.
Tonight would be the magic tile’s forty-first show in the bathroom. He had seen it all now: joy, tears, laughter, fighting, flirting, and simply sharing space. He had considered stopping, letting the show go on without him; but he couldn’t. A few nights he even tried to go to sleep at a decent hour, but instead he lay in his bed staring at the ceiling until the clock turned 1:58 a.m. He needed to watch. He needed it all to play out. He needed to see their love blossom and wither.
Mark took another drag of the cigar and exhaled into the light again. He watched the smoke turn and flip, twist, and bend. Then, shockingly, there she was. For a moment, only a brief second, he glimpsed Mary’s profile in the turning waves of cloudy air.
He blew again. This time slowly, allowing for a longer stream to hover in the light. There she was again. Her profile smiled at him as if she were looking over her shoulder. Then, as the smoke dispersed, the image dissipated.
He blew again and leaned forward for a closer look. The smoke swirled in meaningless waves, until… There she was, looking at him. This time she faced him and bit her lip as if in deep thought. He reached forward with his thumb to caress her cheek, but the smoke gave way to his hand and she was gone.
He blew again. She was mid-laugh. He imagined something he said was the cause of her joy. He closed his eyes and tried to picture her happy.
He blew again. Her eyes were closed. She was asleep. Her face turned to the side, peaceful. Her mouth was serene. Mark shut his eyes and leaned back in the chair. He imagined lying next to her.
He blew again. She was crying. Her eyes spoke pain. Mark didn’t want to see it. He waved his hand furiously through the smoke dispersing the image. It vanished at his touch.
He blew again, and again, and again. Each image of her was different. The happy ones he let linger. The sad ones he erased. Over and over, he blew. She was eating. She was speaking. She grinned. She yawned. She smirked. Over and over, he saw her.
The cigar burned down to a nub. It singed his fingers. He took another drag. The smoky Mary cocked her head to the right and gazed back at him with curiosity. Mark slowly drew near. He cocked his head to match her’s and came as close as he could without interrupting the smoke. They lingered there, in the daylight, together for a moment. Then she was gone.
He tried to draw more from the cigar, but it refused. It was exhausted. Mark tossed the nub into the ash tray and took another from his black carrying case. He clipped the end, struck a match, and lit the fresh stick. He leaned back again in his chair and blew into the sun, but there was nothing. Waves of faceless smoke danced in the light.
He blew again. The waves twirled, but she did not come.
“No, no, no,” he said, panicking.
He blew again and again. The waves twist and turned, but his hopes were denied.
“Come on, goddamn it!”
He blew again and leaned forwarded, searching for something, anything in the exhale. He was again denied.
“NO! DAMN IT! DAMN IT! DAMN IT!” he screamed. He threw the cigar across the room, grabbed a third from his case, and cut the end.
“Excuse me, sir,” Philip the employee interrupted. “I need to warn you, we will be closing in two minutes. You should pack up.”
“What the fuck, man?” Mark snapped. “You just opened!”
“You’ve been here for three hours, sir. We closed at six. It’s six-fifteen. I’m sorry. You can have another few minutes while I lock up the humidor, but then you are going to have to leave.”
“Yeah, whatever, man!” Mark yelled at Philip’s back as the young man left him alone again.
Forcing himself back into reality, Mark rubbed his forehead and wiped his eyes. They stung from the smoke and forty nights of no sleep. He tossed his cigar case in his backpack and forced himself to stand. He was stiff all over. Walking to the front door was difficult.
The bright sunlight outside the store hurt. It forced Mark to squint. He looked left and then right for his car. He couldn’t remember where he’d parked. He rubbed his neck and then bent his head to the right stretching the muscles. He looked down the street again.
There she was.
“Oh, shit,” he whispered. Were his delusions following him in public now?
He stared at her. She walked toward him in an amazing, white sundress which clung to her in all the right places. He noticed the perfect, athletic sway of her hips. Her short brown hair bounced slightly with each step. Her face was as he had seen it in the smoke, but better. He lost himself gazing at her beauty. This vision was the best yet. She wasn’t a fantasy. She was tangible. Her hair fell around her face as she laughed and playfully leaned into the person next to her.
“Who the fuck is that guy?” Mark said angrily, realizing that in this vision of Mary there was a stranger walking next to her. It was new. Mark’s visions had all been memories, things from their past. This stranger was an unwelcome intruder.
The man next to her was tall and muscular, with broad shoulders. His hair was cut tight. He wore cargo shorts and a green t-shirt. Their fingers were intertwined. He spoke and she laughed. He looked like the kind of man she deserved.
Mark pinched his eyes closed tight and stretched his neck again, hoping the image would vanish, but it did not. In fact, they were closer.
“Mark?” Mary called. She smiled and waved. “Mark! Mark, it’s me! It’s Mary!” She let go of the big man’s hand and jogged toward him.
“You’re really here?” Mark said, confused. He reached out and grabbed her arm. “This isn’t a dream?”
She took his hand and squeezed it. “I can’t believe I’m just running into you like this. What’s it been? Like a year?”
“Fifty-one days,” Mark said, still confused. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
“I know. I never come to this part of town, but I heard about this new restaurant up the street and thought I would give it a shot.”
“You look incredible.”
Mary laughed, slightly embarrassed. “I’ve missed you. How are you? You look thin. Have you been eating?”
“Oh yeah,” Mark said coming into reality. “Um. I’ve been working out,” he lied. “You know, just trying to get fit and all.” He didn’t want to tell her he hadn’t eaten in a decent meal since their break up.
“That’s great,” Mary replied. “I was worried about you.”
“Thanks. Um… I’ve missed you a lot.”
“How’s work been going? Have you had any article published lately?”
“Yeah. A few. Works been fine,” Mark lied.
“That’s so great to hear,” Mary said, smiling. Mark lost himself in her blue eyes for a moment.
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. Yeah. I’m fine,” Mark said. “How’s your job going?”
Mary grinned. Mark never asked about her job when they were together. “You know, the shop is the shop. Nothing much changes.” She cocked her head to the right and said, “You seem different. Has something changed?”
“Hey Mary, who’s this?” the muscular man said, arriving at her side. He took her hand and laced his fingers with hers. Mark’s heart pounded with rage. His blood turned hot. He could feel the new Mark slipping away and the angry Mark returning.
“I’m Mark,” he said forcefully extending his hand for a shake.
“Oh,” the man said as his grip crushed Mark’s. “You’re Mark. I’ve heard a lot about you.” Mark was shocked at how powerful the man was. He was lean, athletic, and a good foot taller than Mark.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Mark, this is Mike. He’s Susan’s little brother,” Mary explained, as she hugged Mike’s arm.
“I always knew Susan was a back-stabbing bitch,” Mark mumbled.
“Excuse me?” Mike said.
“Aren’t you a little tall to be a little brother?” Mark snapped.
Mike smiled in reply.
“I mean, come on Mary! How old is this kid?”
“I’m twenty-seven,” Mike said. Mark wanted to beat that smile off of his face.
“Mary! He’s…what…like six years younger than you. Come on! When you were a senior in high school he was just coming into junior high.”
“Same old Mark,” she said squeezing his arm again. “It was great to see you. I’m glad you are doing so well.”
Mark was overcome with regret. He had blown it. He was given one more chance and he had wasted it. “Great to see you too. You do look fantastic,” Mark said.
“Nice to meet you Mark,” Mike said.
“Yeah, yeah,” Mark grumbled. He jammed his hands into his pockets and crossed the street. He could hear them whispering behind him.
He reached the opposite curb and froze. “You’re a pathetic douche,” he whispered. Then he turned and yelled, “Hey! Mary! Wait a second!”
She looked back. Mark ran across the street to meet her. Mike stepped forward to intercept him.
“Give us a minute Gigantor!” Mark snapped.
“It’s okay, Mike” Mary said. “Why don’t you go and get us a table. I’ll catch up with you in a minute.”
“All right,” Mike said, eyeing Mark. “If you’re sure?”
“It’ll be fine,” Mary replied.
“Yeah, go get a table Gorilla Boy,” Old Mark shot as Mike walked away.
“What is it, Mark?” Mary asked.
“Listen, Mary. I just wanted to say… I mean, what do you see in that guy? It isn’t serious is it?”
“It’s early, but things are going in the right direction. ” Mary replied. “Not that it’s any of your business.”
“You’re right. You’re right. You look fantastic by the way. Did I say that already? You look amazing.”
“You did. Thanks.”
“I fixed that cabinet. You remember? The one with the lose hinge that use to drive you nuts? I finally fixed it.”
“That’s great, Mark. Is that what you wanted to say?”
“No. I mean, I just thought you’d want to know. Oh! And I stopped drinking.”
“Wow. That’s great.”
“Yeah. I’ve got twenty-nine days sober. I’m going to meetings and everything. It’s been great. I feel like a new man.”
“That’s awesome. I’m happy for you. Listen, it was good bumping into you, but I really need to…”
“No. Wait. I just wanted to say… I mean… I’ve been thinking a lot about you. About us. I’ve been playing it over and over in my head. We had some good times right? We were happy…in the beginning at least. Right? You liked being with me…until I ruined it.”
“I loved you, Mark. I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“You know Mark, it was a different life. I’m trying to move on.”
“I know. But that’s what I needed to say. That’s it. That’s why I’ve been thinking about you so much. I just need to tell you, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for how I treated you. I was an asshole, a self-absorbed asshole. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry I never saw how beautiful you are. I’m sorry I spoke to you like I did. I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate you. I’m sorry I never asked about your job. I sorry I did care. I’m sorry for all of it. If I could go back, and fix it, I would. But I know I can’t. So, I’m sorry. I’m sorry is all I’ve got to give.”
Mary reached up and held Mark’s cheek in her palm. She gazed into his eyes and said, “I forgive you.”
A wave of release washed over him. He could feel his sorrow and obsession disperse like smoke in the cigar bar. Anxiety blew from his body. He breathed deep. “Thank you,” he said. He took her hands in his. “It was good to see you. You’re amazing. Mike seems like a nice guy. I hope he knows what he’s found.”
“Thanks,” Mary said.
Mark turned to cross the street.