I have begun writing a short story series that will become a novella. This is part 1.
I have to tell her she can’t smoke on the fifth floor. Although- I don’t think it would make much of a difference for she is already breaking quite a few fifth floor rules:
She didn’t check in.
Her phone is plugged into the wall.
And a coffee is balanced on her knee.
Usually, when a patient is breaking a fifth floor, they feed me guilty glances, hesitant hands, and a, “ Is it okay if I-” gesture. With her, I am met with indifference, with an ease of experience and elegance one would only find in a dancer or thief.
Ashes from her nearly finished cigarette float down like burnt flower petals onto the middle aged carpet – I think of Henry, our janitor, and how this would finally give him something to clean. Every minute I glimpse at her over my computer screen, hoping to see her reconsider her actions so I don’t have to reprimand her. Whenever she brings the cigarette to her lips, she wavers , as if she doesn’t want the tobacco.
Momentarily, the thought of formaldehyde moving through her body, keeping her together, engulfs my imagination: the hydrogen cyanide warming her cells; the nicotine blocking the receptors in her brain just to make her feel a little better. It’s all she really wants, I think, what we all want: to just feel a little better.
So, I don’t stop her, not even when she reveals a second cigarette- not even when she pulls out a third. Mama pushes through the depths of my memories, shrouded in foul fog and lung cancer-
“Are you going to say something?” Her words take form in the wispy smoke, gray, muffled and travel through the distances between us; I can feel them wrapping around my tongue as I breath them in-
Cigarette poised between her lips, petals falling onto her pleated, persimmon skirt resemble stained storm clouds in sunset skies,“You keep glancing up from your computer. You keep glancing up at me.”
My cheeks, already coloured with rouge, blossom darker- no longer able to contain my suppressed frustrations with her defiance, I open my mouth, releasing the pollution filling my lungs,
“No outside food or drink no phone usage and you need to check in with me before you sit.”
She blinks back in response, sucking on her cigarette, emitting another exhale of smoke.
“And no smoking.” A sense of finality conquers the room while smoke disperses against the walls and behind furniture. I see in her eyes the impulse to drop it on the ground and grind it with her flat heel, although, realizing this is not be an option; she plucks the cigarette from her mouth and drops it in her coffee- depositing both in the garbage bin beside her seat.
Taken aback by the echo of her walk, blouse billowing with every sequenced clack, I try to avoid looking at her, embarrassed, I keep my eyes on my screen. The same cigarette fingers extend towards me, ID in between them.
A “thank you” slips out my mouth for I am now conscious of the confrontational aura of the room combined with a sense of shame from the both of us. I accept her license but contain a grimace for I’ve always hated how important articles of identification are printed on thin, cheap, sheets of plastic so easy to mold, lose, snap in half- identify should never be so fragile.
I scan through her license, attempting to avert my gaze from her personal information- only briefly focusing on the number 30. Instead, I fixate on her photo. Her hair is longer in this picture, copper with accented aspen. She looks infinitely younger than she does now, despite the license photo having been taken a month prior. Her teeth pulls her face back as her smile extends into me and turns up my lips in replication- you’re not supposed to smile in your driver’s license.
She wasn’t smiling now.
“Pretty bad, huh?” Without the distortion of smoke, her voice sounds velvety, slow and viscous like honey streaming from a spoon- contrary to her swift, trimmed appearance.
“Oh no, I wasn’t- I didn’t mean-”
“ It’s fine. May I have my license back?”
When I reach across my desk, my elbow collides with the cup of pens I have near my computer and, as expected, it topples over, releasing handfuls of blues reds greens blacks. Already, she is kneeling, gathering the vagabond pens as I try to move around my desk to help.From the corner of my eye, another receptionist enters, gaze glued on a clipboard pressing into her chest.
She lifts her head, acknowledging my co-worker while placing a few pens back into the flimsy cup. Subtly nodding at me, with no particular emotion attached to it other than courtesy, she follows my co-worker into a separate hallway.
Although our interactions had been perfectly formal- almost mundane, I feel bewildered. Her presence lingers- the scent of tobacco and chemicals mixed with something else, something fragrant- autumn leaves. The smoke from earlier seems to seep back into the space, creating wisps of memories of her sitting, legs crossed, coffee balanced on her knee.
I watch the scene play out in front of me: her comment, my passivity, her disposal, my requests, her approach, her picture, my clumsiness, her nod. Another woman, whom I didn’t notice entering, advances towards my desk- infiltrating my reflections. I remain unsettled as I proceed to register the woman’s name onto the clinic’s database. While she searches her purse for her wallet, I catch the gleam plastic produces when it connects with light.
Angela’s license; when I knocked over the pens I set down her ID and there it remained:
Realizing she will check out after her appointment, assuming she will adhere to fifth floor rules, I steady my heart, tasting relief.
“You have to excuse me, I believe I left my wallet in my car. I’m just going to run and grab it, okay?”
Forgetful, flimsy, fragile. A door clicks shut and I am left in the company of the abiding smoke and the resonance of the woman’s descending high heels striking against cement stairs.
I match each step of hers with a click of my keyboard: Angela Ber-
A pen rolls from in front of my desk to the toe of my shoe:
(end of part 1)
feature image: gif of monica bellucci from https://expectante.tumblr.com/post/172028573794
hallway picture from: https://www.ottawainnercityministries.ca/2014/05/no-compassion-or-care-for-the-mentally-ill-at-the-ottawa-hospital/
smokey room: https://www.google.ca/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwjRle2MrpjeAhWtHTQIHYTdDxoQjhx6BAgBEAM&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.tumblr.com%2Ftagged%2Fgo%2Bup%2Bin%2Bsmoke&psig=AOvVaw20NWvs3iWuquqZi56cNyxQ&ust=1540239488600283