I saw her standing in the checkout line the other day. She was wearing a black leather jacket, and the pair of Vuarnet’s I’d given her for her 35th birthday. Her dark hair was messy, and there was an air of do-not-care about her as she waited her turn with a container of yogurt, a couple of apples, and two packs of Winston cigarettes.
The do-not-care was, at one time, intriguing. The shock of worldly disengagement, the thrill of social laziness, the nothing matters except me, us, and this moment of it, left me feeling displaced but somehow lucky –- as if I’d accidentally stumbled upon the cure for a lifetime of raw nerves and anxiety. Do not care. Nothing matters. Have a cigarette.
The Winston Woman loved her cigarettes. I remember how she’d tap the box swiftly several times against the palm of her hand, deftly remove the cellophane, and then tenderly slide one of the tender white bodies out of its shiny red dress. With a one-handed flick of an antique silver lighter, she’d set her nicotine love on fire, caressing it between curled fingertips as she slowly inhaled a smoky kiss. Sometimes there would be rings in the exhale, perfect o’s that dispersed, one right after another, into stratus-like clouds.
The smoke seemed to bring about an air of confession, but being guiltless left the Winston Woman with little of importance to confess. Instead, she’d speak of inconsequential things with a sweeping, heady charm. The meeting she forgot, the ninety shades of white she found at the paint store, the employee who made a show out of cleaning her desk and phone every afternoon. The most hollow trivialities were fattened with dramatic gestures and laughter. There was something tough-but-vulnerable about the Winston Woman that left me wanting to take her side in any argument. Of course she missed the meeting – it was scheduled too early. Ninety shades of white were 88 too many. Her employee was an obsessive, anal-retentive prig.
And nothing really mattered during these storied times except her, us, our sequestered moments, and our silent partner — the ever-present, collusive cigarette.
There came a night, though, when the last of the nicotine lovers lay used and finished, tamped out in the dirt in front of a remote Montana cabin, where we had gone to escape from asphalt and traffic. A check of coat pockets, luggage, and the car came up empty. Unfortunately, it was after 11 p.m. and the nearest store, 35 miles away, was three hours past closed.
“We have to go,” she said.
“There’s no place to go. Nothing will be open until the morning.”
“Something is open somewhere, we’ll just keep driving.”
“Just go to sleep. We’ll leave as soon as we wake up.”
Her voice started rising and within minutes the carefully constructed Winston Woman began falling apart at the seams. She began to panic, her voice edged with fear and anger. She’d never be able to fall asleep. Who chose this place? It was hell. How could there not be one 24-hour market anywhere around? Her brown eyes narrowed at me as if I’d somehow conspired to make her miserable.
We drove a choppy 22 miles on dirt roads in the black of night until we reached the highway, and then 53 miles until we spied the yellow lights of a sleepy all-night truck stop with an ancient cigarette vending machine in its lobby. I scavenged my car for change, finding just enough for a pack. On the drive back, after smoking one cigarette, the Winston Woman slept with her face pressed peacefully against the glass. Her do-not-care look was back, her features smooth and relaxed, her mouth slightly open as if anticipating her next fiery kiss.
The Winston Woman paid the cashier and my eyes followed her outside, where she slid into the passenger side of a waiting car. I saw her shoulder move in a familiar way as she tapped her cigarettes against her hand, and I realized that I did not miss her or her daily rituals. I picked up a bag of tangerines, a loaf of bread, and a pack of Marlboro Lights, and then fed my change to some worthier cause on the way out.