[It’s been nearly two years since I smoked my last cigarette, but I found this bit tucked away in a pocket just now and it made me smile.]
The kid is maybe sixteen, slouched on a stone bench outside the bus station. His hair is unkempt and hangs in his face. He wears perpetual boredom like a heavy mask. There’s a pencil poking out of his back pocket, visible only when he leans forward to tie the too-long laces of his left sneaker. She recognizes him right off, knows he rides the 69West into town and up to the High School every morning. Occasionally early, usually late.
They don’t take much interest in one another, the woman and the boy, until she withdraws a pack of Winstons from her pocket and lights that first, morning cigarette. Slowly, shyly, he comes to life.
She pretends not to notice, as he stands up, hooks his thumbs in his belt-loops and shuffles across the space between his bench and hers. “Do you have another cigarette?” He asks, not quite looking at her, his eyes mostly obscured by a mop of dark hair.
She laughs, right off, one of those you-are-so-foolish-to-even-think-it laughs, and then says, “Dude, I SO can’t give you a cigarette.” It’s the laugh she’ll regret moments later, as he stares at his shoes and rubs the toe of the left one over a pebble on the pavement and then shuffles back to his bench.
For the woman, the seven minutes, which pass, between her laugh and the arrival of their bus, are thick with internal mumblings. Of course you did the right thing. First off, it’s illegal; contributing to the delinquency of minors and such, and secondly, you’d kick the ass of anyone who handed your own kid a cigarette. Hell, you should march right over there and let him have it for even asking, tell him how bad cigarettes are, how stupid you were to pick that first one up and how gutless you feel about not putting them down. You should ask him if he’s ever sat with someone who’s dying of cancer or even worse, ‘cause you know full well that it’s worse, sucking on a breathing tube for the last eight years of their life; having fucked up their lungs to the point of emphysema. You should call the school, tell his mother, shake your finger; smack him silly so he has half a chance of not ending up like you.
Still, she regrets the laugh, the way he hung his head and slunk back to his bench. I’m not trying to be an asshole, kid. I’m just doing the right thing.
As she stands to board the bus, as she waits for the kid and an old woman on crutches to board first, she realizes that she’s rolling the smoke she didn’t give him between her fingers and thumb. Dude, I SO can’t give you a cigarette. If, however, one falls from my pack, into your lap as I jostle past, headed for the seat nearest the back exit, well it’s your luck, not mine.
And the thing she’ll remember, years later, is how that mask of perpetual boredom dissipated, how he nearly lept up out of his seat, twisting to make eye contact in that instant after the cigarette rolled from her fingers into his lap. Like Christmas morning, like puppies and shiny new bikes, like Disneyland and pizza; caught off-guard the kid’s mask evaporated completely.
As she slipped into her seat, four rows back, the boy still staring over his shoulder, waiting to make eye contact, waiting to mouth an exaggerated “thank you”, she was amazed at how good the wrong thing felt.