Bart puts what he promises is his last cigarette into his mouth, flicking alight his little zippo with practiced flourish. He got it when he was sixteen; a “Cheech and Chong” lighter that he thought was cool, even though no one—including himself—really ever watched any of the movies, nor really smoked. He just liked the idea of zippo lighters, the regiment of them—the sound of the hinge and the flick of the wheel. He probably learnt to love them from movies and TV, like people do most things. Life’s a string of mimicked behavior, he thinks, everyone tied up like marionettes. But if everyone is just copying, then there needs to be an originator, right? There has to be a bedrock—someone genuinely, authentically cool. Otherwise, it’s just turtles all the way down.
He shakes the thought from his head. Leave the theorizing to the philosophers; it’s their bloody lot to agonize over. The rest of us have no time for it—no space for it. We need our little illusions—once you start dispelling them, you’ll be swallowed up in no time.
“Just like you to be out here brooding while everyone else is inside having a good time.”
Her name’s Mindy, a mutual friend from the program. Bart reckons he’s only talked to her a handful of times, but he’s looked at her plenty. She always sat in the front of class, and he liked to look at her curly hair instead of paying attention. Probably explains his utterly unexceptional performance.
“Is that the reputation I’ve garnered?” he smirks.
He wouldn’t consider himself an outgoing person, but he’s never had a problem carrying a conversation. You probably know the type: a terminal flirt paired with a fatal fear of intimacy—born to live just on the verge of connection, but never able to cross the threshold. Pretty common across men who are taught how to be attractive, but not how to be a whole person.
“Can I have one of those?” she asks.
Bart pulls the pack from his back pocket and holds it out for her. She picks one and slots it between her lips, signaling for a light with her eyes.
“Any plans after graduation?” he asks after she takes her first drag and expels it into the breeze. The venue is overlooking a conservation park; nothing but trees in a row until the ocean cuts them off.
“I think I’ve answered that question about a hundred times tonight,” she replies with a tired grin, the cigarette held loosely between her fingers. He’s tracking it with his eyes, watching if it’ll fall right through her hold. But she’s got it; it’s not going anywhere.
They both look out over the balcony, watching the way the wind travels through the treetops like a wave. The sky is a moody grey, like it’s just waiting for the most inopportune time to rain on a couple of fresh grads and put out their cigarettes.
“You know, my dad would fucking kill me if he knew I was smoking right now. He was a doctor.”
They share a chuckle, but her smile is a little slight, her eyes a little distant. Memory can be a dagger. He doesn’t dig into it, it’s not his place.
She promptly changes course. “How come we never hung out?”
Bart smiles through a drag, a length of ash dropping over the balcony to be at the mercy of the wind. “I was thinking the same thing myself. I think…” he takes a second to articulate his thoughts. His grandmother always told him that if people would just take a second, they would waste less time in the long run saying what they had to say. “I think my life has been a series of waiting until things are too late.”
Mindy gives him a knowing smile. “There’s no possibility of things starting if they’re always ending.”
He nods. “Take today for example,” he bats a thumb at the crowd inside. “This is the first one of these things I’ve gone to in four years. And I’m finally here, at the very last one.” He shakes his head derisively and shows some love to his cig so it doesn’t feel ignored.
“I get you.” She leans her side against the railing, crossing her legs. “I’ve been to every single one. And every colloquium. But…the closer I get to these people…to this world, the farther I get from myself. I don’t even know if I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing anymore. I think I’m just pretending.”
“Everyone’s pretending,” Bart affirms.
“No, I know. I just…”
She doesn’t finish, just inhales deeply and lets it out slowly. Bart gets the sense she’s trying to convey something to him, but her mind won’t allow it, won’t let it break through. Language is a barrier just as much as it is a conduit, and words are feared and revered in equal measure.
Bart ashes the butt of his cigarette out on the railing and flicks it into the garbage can near his foot. “Sometimes, we just need someone to tell us it’ll all work out, even if it’s a lie.” He smirks, beckoning a smile from her in return.
It works. She looks up at him, a bit of playfulness returning to chase away the gloom. “Can you be that person for me tonight? Can you lie to me?”
He holds out his arm for her.
“As long as you hold me to it.”
Cole Martin is a twenty-something writer from Atlantic Canada. He has words in Canadian Stories Magazine, healthline zine, Fahmidan Journal, Rejection Letters, and Bulb Culture Collective. He can be found on twitter @maritimemagnate, and on Substack (asilaytrying.substack.com)