You were the first woman I ever loved, and the last one I was thinking of as I sat lifeless on the sidewalk, empty bottle in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I didn’t want to wake up. I still don’t. But something told me to open my eyes and look up right as you walked by. You didn’t recognize me. Of course not. Why would you? My lifeless eyes glasses over, stubble on my cheeks covered up any recognizable features. But you looked down at me with the same passing glance you always had. A look of pity, regret, and wonder. Pity because of the state I was in. Regret because of the things you could’ve done. And wonder because you still wanted to know how to crush me.
As you strutted away, I found a second wind and stumbled to my feet. Falling. Bracing. Stumbling again. Finally I found my footing, my back against the wall and hand on a ledge. Couldn’t drop the cigarette, no. It was bent, burnt, and crushed past the point of recognition, but it was my last one. I looked down at it the same way you had me, with pity, regret, and wonder, and tried to salvage what I could. Over the course of three minutes I stood there spinning in place looking for a light, a drunken ballet of reaching into pockets, stammering, stumbling, a bumbling fool.
When I finally found the lighter, it was hardly a difficult task to fulfill my new goal. Muscle memory is a hell of a thing. Like I had two hundred thousand times before, I lifted the burnt orange filter to my lips and sparked the butane torch in front of it. I took a long inhale, one filled with dirt and dust, the last one available before I began smoking cotton, and threw the burnt end on the floor.
Now was a good time to start walking. At least a good time to try. If I went to the left, I risked running into you. If I went to the right, I’d eventually end up at home and have to face the mess I’d left in the first place. Instead I decided to cross the street. I crossed without event, as I’d woken up a little more by now. In between the two yellow lines I looked around at the discarded trinkets and trash that lined the gutter in front of me. It was hard not to find the similarities. I made it through the river and hopped up onto the sidewalk. ‘I need another cigarette,’ I mumbled to no one in particular.
Being on the other side of the street didn’t help my predicament. I still only had two options, risk facing you or my mess. Neither one was optimal, but one was definitely more desirable. I turned to my left and followed you, just like I had six years ago. This time would end differently, of course. No movies. No late-night coffees. No musings on our lives and our futures. Just me chasing after something I could never have. Hm. Not so different after all.
It started to rain. Not enough for droplets to fall from the sky. Just enough to get your hair wet and drip down into your eyes if you were unlucky enough to be caught without a hat. I was unlucky.
I copped a cigarette from a man standing in front of an apartment building. I don’t think he was there just for the cigarettes, but I wasn’t buying. At least not yet. I still had a job to do before I cashed my check. I grabbed my pocket and felt the slight crinkle of the note that was left on my front door a few days before. I wasn’t looking forward to the job, but a paycheck is a paycheck, no matter how you get it. Roughing a couple people up, getting a bloody knuckle out of it or two, was part of the job…in a loose sense of the job description. There’s not always enough work for a PI in this town. Sometimes you had to take jobs that were just a little outside the frame, personally and professionally. So when I saw that shadow behind the door stick a note on the glass and disappear a second later, I was intrigued. The second I started reading it, I regretted my decision.