In Smoke

Emma Papworth

They sit opposite each other atop the apartment roof. The sun screams across the cement giants, clawing at the sky, evading the horizon. He passes her a cigarette with calloused hands, lingering to brush a thumb against her wrist, which he turns into a clambering check of her watch. But he knows the time.

Eve licks her lower lip, drawing the cigarette to her mouth as she watches apartment lights slowly switch on. Portals to the lives of others. She’s been watching one in particular from this vantage point, looking down past a sweeping drop and into another complex below. A family, too large to exist within the confines of a two-bedroom apartment, but happy nonetheless. She’d watched them the night prior, and the night before that. Always in the company of Hugo, but never with. She glances back to him, focusing on the sounds around them. She loves listening to the city in the evening – cars heaving under their owners’ weights and bells of restaurant doors.  His mouth moves on and on in murmurs of French. She loves the texture of his hair. Visibly thinning, yet individually, each strand is so coarse, her hand loses momentum at the nape where it thickens. In-between barber trips, hairs would birth upwards from around his neck, always sharp at first. She would yearn to grab her tweezers, yank them out at the root, but she never dared to voice the urge. He always batted her hand away by the time she’d reach the nape of his neck, usually keen to move on. Waiting for her to straddle him tighter or respond to his hands travelling down her back.

She looks at the family. Illuminated in the kitchen, the father stands at the stove, one hand on his hip and the other stirring a steaming pot. The steam travels beyond their apartment, easing through the open window, waltzing over to where she sits, cross-legged in the smoke and the dark. She breathes in - homemade meatballs in a rich red sauce. The scent encases her too tightly to be simply drawn from a recipe book. A family recipe, definitely, handled carefully and passed deftly down the generations. She wonders how far. She can see it in her mind’s eye, a plump grandmother, long passed now, often found making cannoli for dessert. She slathers in the filling of ricotta, crushed pistachios and shards of milk chocolate with slithers of roasted almonds. Her famous meatballs for the main. Fresh ingredients, all from the local markets around the corner. She teaches the recipes to her daughter, who will pass it down when she ages to her three children, and theirs onto their own. At least four generations experiencing the heaviness of the meat and sweetness of the tomato.  
She breathes out.  

She realises how long she’s had the cigarette, the smoke tightening a grip on her hand as she extends it outward. He shakes his head, not needing one yet. She studies his face. He has these beautiful pink, soft lips, and she’d eyed them long before the first moves were made, impressed with their smoothness. Less pleasant to kiss, however, which was a surprise. Soft, but too thin, and he’d press them far too hard onto hers. She hands the cigarette back. It’s almost gone now. Two young children linger around the father in the kitchen. Not nagging, but engaging. A girl, light brown hair collected in a lime green scrunchie, asks him to reach into the cupboard. He pauses at the stove, steam fogging his glasses, and reaches up for five bowls. On the other side of him, a young boy gazes out the window. He has darker hair, and the length of it tickles his eyebrows. He turns toward Eve’s direction, and in the haze, she swears he catches her eye.

Hugo starts to stir, moving amidst the smoke. She can tell he wants her, wants to head. His eyes dart back and forth, between her and the endless nothingness behind her. She wants him too, but in a different way. She looks at the city beyond him, then reigns her gaze to his.  

“One more?” she asks, motioning to the pack that lies abandoned between them. He nods, fingering his pocket for a lighter, as he passes her the exhausted cigarette. She forces the head into the ground. It’d been her first smoke in a long time when he’d stumbled into her room late that first night, during the witching hour. She loved being awake in those early hours when she was little, desperate for fragments of silence. In Winter, she’d blow gently into the air, watching her breath form small clouds that rose lazily above her. Now older, head lolling slightly off the mattress, she’d spend this time gazing out the floor-to-ceiling window to her right. She would watch thick coatings of fog devour building after building. Minutes after his arrival and he’d made her bedroom air as thick as the air outside.

He flicks the nubbin in the dark, and it erupts into their space. She loves to play with the sputtering flame; she reaches out to take it from him. She’d burnt her fingers the first time, but now she moves with more caution, watching the flame sway. Light dances around the pair, climbing up her bare forearms and up her black tank, into a mess of brown hair, dancing along swinging gold earrings. She looks at her watch: seven p.m.

Right on cue, the mother erupts inward. A flurry of bright colours, she embraces the incoming children with open arms. The father looks up from the stove, smiling. The type of smile that seeps through your skin and softens your heart. The table is almost set, glasses and cutlery placed. The boy pauses to remember his water duty, obliging. He takes a jug of cool water from the fridge and fills up one glass after another. From the rooftop, Eve watches the mother as she motions toward her – it’s dinner time, she says.

She tells Hugo she’ll be back, just a second, but he has taken up shop amidst the smoke that suffocates the air, and he could not care less. She stands, dusting off the ash that had pattered her jeans. She walks over to the ledge, looking up, eager to lock eyes with the mother, but she’s already left the kitchen. She sees the father, setting a flourishing pot of parsley back onto the windowsill. The green smell reaches out to her, pulling along with it the nuttiness of the parmigiano cheese, the garlic too. They intertwine, dipping over the window and wait just beyond her roof.  

She reaches the edge, stepping out to momentarily free fall, before being cocooned safely in the aroma, transported over.  The father pauses at the stove, reaching out to pull down the window. She’s suspended in mid-air, attention captured not by the drop that lies beneath her, but rather the unfolding welcome into the glowing home. With a rattle, the window is pulled fully upward and the father takes her hand, helping her through the frame. She avoids a foot in the sink, stepping quickly instead onto the bare bench top and jumping lightly onto the carpeted floor. She takes her shoes off, placing them at the kitchen doorway.

“Go sit down,” he says to her. “It’s almost ready.”
The young boy pulls out the chair at the head of the table, grinning, motioning for her to sit. She walks over, sitting down onto the wooden seat, feeling underdressed. She attempts to tidy her hair and scratches at the blue pen smudges on her hands until the mother enters the room. The mother encases her in a sudden embrace, a warm rush of flowery materials and perfume. Eve holds her tight, head resting against her exhaling chest as she breathes in. A mother’s embrace, searched for too long in all the wrong places. She holds on, just a little longer. The warmth lingers upon release. The mother looks at her, sweeping a curl behind her ear.   The children greet her too, a squeeze of the hand or a kiss on the cheek. The motions of a family. The mother sits to her right, both the children to her left, as the father relocates the pot of parsley from atop the windowsill onto the table. The mother leans in, inhaling deeply, twirling the leaves between her fingers. He returns, one hand placing down a cork heat mat in the centre of the table, the other setting down the steaming meatballs swimming in thick red sauce, sprinkled with parsley. Always served out generously, head of the table first, and then everyone else. The light above beams down. Say grace before the meal, it reminds. Say what this means, say you feel it too, say please and thank you and take it in. She closes her eyes with theirs. And then they eat.

Salt and pepper are passed around, fingertips brushed. The mother squeezes her hand as she tells them of her day, catching Eve off guard. For a moment she forgets to eat, and she’s the last to finish. Keep me here, she wants to say, but she knows she’ll be back. As Eve stands, the mother draws her in again, deftly tucking something into her front pocket. But she hardly allows it to take her attention – she’s hugging her now, and she wants to be here, to live in this embrace. Please? She wants to ask. Hold her here and she will do anything. She’ll learn to cook, to actually cook, these meals that unite lives. She’ll help with homework and fold warm laundry. She’ll give up the smoke that calls her name, this life of hers with people that do too much or too little, the life that she struggles to piece together. All fragments that do not make a complete puzzle. But she cannot open her mouth. The mother leans back, squeezing her hand. Wrinkles crease together in her smile.  

They help her, the father on one hand and the mother holding the other, as she clambers over the sink, through the window. They watch as she’s carried upward toward her rooftop, before turning away.

She steps back up onto the ledge, the green of the parsley lingering, snaking around her leg. Behind her, the father closes the window. She looks forward, making out Hugo’s shadow. He looks up, fiddles with the front of his hair.  

“Let’s go?” he says.   She nods.
He stands up, stamping out the cigarette in one purposeful movement. He reaches down for the pack and lighter, grasping both in his hand as he moves toward the door.

She pauses for a moment, remembering something in her pocket, letting him go ahead. She reaches in, and takes out a crumpled sprig of parsley. She flattens it between her hands, letting the smell encase her, just for a moment longer. To live in that embrace, that home, for just a moment longer.