"Manchester Blues" by Juliette Salom
I told him I’d grow to like the smell of smoke. Like the taste of wine, the burn of green pepper, like rolling over in the morning without him beside me, I knew it would be something that I could get used to. Not with enthusiasm but always by choice, I’d grow to tolerate what I’d thought of at some point as the intolerable.
He blew smoke from the puckered corner of his mouth, the asymmetrical twist of his face exciting in its newness. That’s what everything was like at the time, exciting and new, hope outweighing fear. There was always only a sliver of unbridled optimism in the beginning of those kinds of things, the smallest gap in time where the clock stops and the world beyond us freezes. When, just for a moment, I allow myself to believe that whatever this is we’ve found ourselves stuck in, this joy and hope and sheer girlish frazzle, I allow myself to believe that it can last for a moment; I always forgot that it won’t last forever.
“You’ll have to learn to roll,” he told me, offering his cigarette like a secret. It was all a secret: our feet tangled under the table, hiding in the corner at the back of the smokers’, none of my friends knowing what I’d bailed on their plans to do instead. To be with him instead, was to hide in a space hidden from the rest of my life. From my peers and my colleagues and my mates and my family; to be with him was to text them all sorry, can’t tonight, not feeling too well with my left hand, while crossing the fingers of my right.
I crossed my fingers to lie and crossed my toes to hope, the jinx tricks of my girlhood feeling like methods as reliant as any dose of healthy trust in that he would text me back. What I sent around – ignoring the messages of my loved ones and cancelling plans last minute – he sent me back around. As many times as I’d seen him, for a drink, for a date, for a fuck, there were an equal amount of times he’d bailed on me. Karma, they call it.
“No, I won’t,” I said, on this night in which he came through. Came through on our plans, came through with the goods. The way the orange glow of the bar’s mosquito light danced the tips of his strawberry blonde curls was a punch straight to the guts. “I’ll smoke pre-rolled,” I told him, and took the offer of his cigarette. As I inhaled, my lips pursed a little too consciously, I dared myself to not look away. His baby blues caught my emerald greens as I swallowed the charcoal air. I could feel it fold itself into my lungs, and I worried for a moment if he could feel it too. It often felt like he could see right through me, the intensity of my emotions and thoughts so thick that it clumped on my skin like cheap foundation. Together with the tobacco in my tummy was a desperation so shameful I knew it’d almost be impossible for him to not see it if I held is gaze any longer. I was never much good at keeping dares.
I broke my gaze away and expelled every fibre of my being into the effort of holding the cough tickling its way up through my throat. But, of course, I spluttered a little; nothing came easily to me when it came to him. “Are you ok?” But his baby blues bore judgement. No matter how hard I tried to be the girl I was not, I always had a way to ruin it. “It’s fine,” I said. “I’m fine.” And it was true. I was just happy to be there.
I bought my first packet of Manchester Blues the next day. When the petrol station attendant asked for my I.D., I almost blushed at the innocence that I must so obviously repel. I’m not yet at the age in which I take the suggestion of looking like a minor as a compliment. Every cell in my body, every thought in my brain, still feels like that of which belongs to an angsty girl of seventeen. I don’t need strangers to confirm it.
Before I smoked even one of my Manchester Blues, I was already addicted to the idea of it. Tucked behind my ear, loose in my tote bag, as an offering to a stranger; the casual cigarette smoker was a performative personality I was excited to try on. That’s what it was like, being twenty-three and a little lost. I was hyper-consciously aware that the train in which I was a passenger on was one taking me from the confusion of identity that proliferated teenagedom to the security of banality that was waiting for me in adulthood. That’s how I thought of it at the time, anyway. All the stations I was watching wiz past were alternative versions of myself available to try, and I wanted to try them all. The writer, filmmaker, the architect; the girlfriend, the lover, the mate; the yogi, the hustler, the smoker. Each new identity would always fit a little awkward at first, like I was seventeen again, trying on my mother’s things. The lipstick a little too bold, the heels a little too high, the dresses a little too big. Whether or not I chose to tolerate the discomfort in the hope of it all one-day fitting right was a decision I put little thought toward. Barely had the train even slowed at each station did I decide I wasn’t going to be getting off.
I took three drags of that first cigarette before I realised how disgusting they are. Dead sober and all alone, it was the first time I was smoking without the taste of wine or of him to distract from the disgust. I stubbed the butt, two-thirds of tobacco still intact, and decided that I would be a smoker in the same way a tree would fall in a forest: only true if there were somewhere there to witness.
I saw him a little while after that, met up with him at a bar in a suburb almost too far from my house. I walked laps of the place before I found him, sitting alone, glued to his phone, reliably in the farthest corner of the smokers’. I should’ve known better.
A week had passed, maybe it was two, and I hadn’t yet perfected the performance of the identity I was trying on. It still reeked with amateurship, still stunk of innocence, but my tired eyes and worried lines from his lack of texting me back were surely contributing to the aesthetic of the casually apathetic persona it seemed I so desired. When I pulled the first dart from the pack, he almost laughed. “I didn’t think you were serious,” he said, as I lifted two-thirds of a ciggie to my lips. And as he clocked the charcoaled end to the cigarette between my teeth, as he saw through my performance to the girl trying too hard to hide underneath it, he allowed himself a cackle. “That one’s already been lit,” he said, his baby blues doing that thing they often did, bearing judgement. I had no choice but to lean into the absurdity I’d created for myself, the silliness of the caricature I’d invented. And so I lit the cigarette with a clumsiness I hoped he didn’t notice, and I took a drag so deep I was sure to burn the bottom of my stomach. “I wanna finish it,” I said.
Sitting there in that smokers’ was like a tree falling in the forest. It wasn’t the smoking, though, because all the strangers that surrounded us bore witness to that. It was the being amongst strangers, being backed into a corner, being in a suburb in which I’d sit on a train for so long to get to that I’d do for no one else. My friends knew only his name, my family only that I was seeing someone. He was a ghost that came and went as he pleased, and I was the only one to verify his existence within mine. Like gravity, like the tree falling to the forest floor, his pull over me was definite. It was factual, scientific, it was true, but I wasn’t sure if any of it was real.
We stubbed out our last cigarettes and only then did I notice we were the last ones left. Edging closer to winter, the crispness of the night outside in that smokers’ held a trepidation I associate with the colder months. Maybe I was mistaken though, as I slung my tote bag over my shoulder and followed him out to the street. The trepidation was thicker than the weather.
As I watched my breath fog with a cloudiness in front of me as grey as the one seen all night, I wondered how long we’d do this dance until he asked me back to his. But there was a cold politeness in his small talk as we stood too far apart on the footpath, a hesitant fluffiness to the conversation he was forcing upon us. He asked about my week ahead, about what I was to have on the next day. Logistics, really, stuff we could work out later after our bodies were done tangling and one of us was falling asleep. But then a silence filled the space between us as thick as the fog of our breath and I suddenly felt stupid for being there, felt stupid for staying so long, felt stupid for only now clocking on to what was going on.
He threw his thumb over his shoulder and mumbled something about him being that way. His shoulders were already half turned away, his whole body almost, his whole being, and I fumbled for a response to his lack of invitation but all I could manage was, “ok.” And so he turned, and he left, and I stayed standing there on the footpath while the bar staff laughed and shouted inside. A tree fell, and it fell again and again and again, but no one was my witness.
The train home was as intolerable as it was long. Like the length of space between us when I’d often roll over in the middle of the night to find him cradling the opposite side of the mattress, the distance felt personal, offensive, unnecessary. And like owning a car, which I didn’t, or paying for a taxi, which I couldn’t, the distance between us could so easily of been covered by a way of talking. I knew of the rules of this game only through playing it and losing, but what I did know was that talking was never an option, explanation was off the table. To make apparent in words what we were witness to in person, to ask for something more than the movement of bodies and the filling of space, was to signal to the players that the heat could not be handled.
The next day was lined with a greyness the colour of hangxiety. The sheer volume of wine and cigarettes I’d inhaled, together with the stinging of a rejection so coded I was still unsure if it was a rejection at all, compounded into the perfect destruction of a hangover. From three drags to three darts, the assault I’d forced my body to happily endure felt pointless to be then waking up alone.
I picked another from the packet, found matches in my bedside drawer, and pulled a puff into my lungs with the arrogance of the kind of seasoned expertise of a first draft pick. No one was around to bear witness, to see the cloud formulating above my bed, to see the thoughts tangling in my head, but maybe, now, I liked it that way. Not with enthusiasm, but by choice, the intolerable was becoming less so.
Juliette Salom (she/her) is a writer from Naarm/Melbourne currently studying Creative Writing at RMIT University. Her writing has been published in Ramona, good.film, Catalyst and Metro Magazine.