iván BRAVE

Writer

(Excerpt from “I Am Ana”) Short: “Cigarette”

5 May 2019
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Later that night, Ana walked to the bar to prove to Lindsey that the lighter still worked. She had called the lighter broken. “Fill it up then,” Lindsey replied, with her usual big smile, “and bring it tonight.” The gravity of these words did not escape Ana, who muttered, “T-tonight, t-to UFO?”

 

“Yes, to UFO. You’re free, I hope?”

 

Ah, Lindsey Oppenheimer, see you soon, you gobbling hoe. No, thought Ana, no—as she ambled north of campus, reminding herself to use a better word. Not gobbling. Garrulous. Como garganta. To Ana, and to a score of others in her place, Lindsey meant the difference between joining the perfect sorority or not. It was October in Austin, Texas. Anything was possible, with the right sacrifice.

 

Ana had an Astronomy midterm the next day. But she wouldn’t study. Ana had a few pages left of a chapter in the book she was reading for Literature class. But she wouldn’t finish yet. School stuff only crossed Ana’s mind on accident, as she focused on tonight’s monumental opportunity: to get out of her own head, to feel American. Before tonight, Ana had never been invited to a bar. Much less the local draught emporium, UFO: a sleek, franchised hideaway, where Lindsey’s Kappa Nu Theta clique hung out for iced teas every thirsty Thursday.

 

Pelotudos are a dime a dozen: the bouncer didn’t even read the fake ID Ana handed him.

 

“You’re hot,” he said. And she walked in, past more pelotudos.

 

Inside, seated at a semicircular booth under jade-colored light, were the girls: each of whom Ana wanted to impress, but no one more than the young lady seated in the middle. If Ana could show a little confidence, shed a little skin, then this first meetup might lead to another, then another, lead to that initiation rite, both sacred and mysterious: Rush.

 

Was it chance that one stool was open at the table, opposite of Lindsey, the raconteur, who soon felt interrupted, when Ana sat down?

 

“Who invited this pledge?” Lindsey cracked. It felt like everyone who mattered at the bar suddenly noticed Ana.

 

You did, Ana wished to say. She drew the lighter from her jean pocket. The rest of the bar faded away.

 

Seeing the lighter, Lindsey sparkled. “Girls, this is Anabelle Zena Martes.”

 

“Hi, Anabelle. Nice to meet you!”

 

“Anabelle? Is that French?”

 

“Yes, French, but I’m—”

 

Someone interrupted: “I love your shoulders, so lovely.”

 

“Look at her eyes!”

 

“I’ve always wanted to do my eye liner like that, but, girls, you know me.”

 

Ana felt she was under one of those lizard heat lamps.

 

“It’s simple,” Ana explained. “You trace a horizontal line from here to here, go up in a straight line, then fill in.”

 

None of the girls responded to Ana. Instead they went from looking, to examining her.

 

“Woah. Are those your real eyes?” one girls asked. “Purple?”

 

“Must be contacts.”

 

“Not purple, brown.”

 

“Are you blind? They’re definitely purple.”

 

“Violet, maybe?”

 

Lindsey put her iced tea down. When she did, the whole table turned away from Ana.

 

“Not violet,” Lindsey spoke. “Lavender. And she’s from South America. Right, Anabelle?”

 

Ana nodded, proud that Lindsey remembered their conversation. The whole table went o-oh.

 

As the girls introduced themselves, Ana rubbed her thumb over the lighter’s engraved four-letter logo, its red v-shaped vector over a blue round shape with stars: a gift from her father. Meanwhile there were Christmas lights along the walls of UFO that marched to a steady timer, and a sort of disco music, loud enough to hear outside.

 

Lindsey had her arms folded over the table. “Is it working now?”

 

Attention befell Ana again. She felt bloated. Ahora sí, she thought. She put the lighter to her lovely shoulder. She snapped the top open, and ripped the wheel. The lighter glowed before the crowd of gawks and wows, an offering that illuminated the ice water at the bottom of everyone’s mason jar.

 

Lindsey pinched a cigarette out of her burnt-orange bag.

 

The more nervous ones sipped ice water as they snickered. “You’re so crazy, Lo. People know us here.”

 

Lindsey released a pillow of smoke into the jade light. She got goosebumps. She pulled at the thing again, and again, with her whole tongue and both her lips, the entire table at ceremonious attention. Before long, she had the whole thing turned inside out.

 

“Girls,” she spoke, trembling as she put her hand inside her bag again. “You know what I always say.” Some of the girls giggled, even the ones who didn’t smoke knew the answer, they would all chime in, and Lindsey lock eyes with Ana. “There’s only one thing better than a cigarette—”

 

“Another cigarette.”

 

. . .

 

Ana had barely closed the lighter, when the server approached. He had waited on the ladies since they were freshmen.

 

“I’m sorry, Lolo,” he stammered. “You can’t smoke inside, I’m sorry.”

 

The others cawed at how gross the patio was, how cold it was outside. The waiter explained that heaters were being ignited as they spoke, but the group would have none of it. He stood there, trying to pacify everyone, as his bowtie rubbed against his neck beard.

 

Lindsey pulled one last drag. Then crushed the tip of her cigarette on the table. “Hm?” she said, holding in her breath.

 

“Thank you, Lolo.” The wait boy puppied off.

 

Lindsey frowned as she blew out smoke from her nose.

 

“Finish your story!” one friend said, recognizing Lindsey’s look.

 

“Right,” Lindsey began, “Right. So I wake up on my back. I don’t remember where I am. But when I turn over and see Josh naked next to me, hulking and warm, I remember everything.”

 

Josh with Lindsey? Ana’s chest grew heavy.

 

“His bedsheets are still sticky from a few hours before,” Lindsey continued. “But, I figure, maybe I can wake him up for another go.”

 

“You slept with Josh?” snapped Ana, catching herself in time to chuckle.

 

“Shut the fuck up,” spat one of the girls. Another repeated the message.

 

Ana broke from the group like ash.

 

“Anyways,” continued Lindsey, who nursed their devotion with every word. “I put my hand near Josh’s face, to see if his smell would stir him up.”

 

The whole table erupted in unsavory comments.

 

“And, and!? Did he wake up?”

 

Lindsey smirked, looking at Ana. “Almost.” Ana turned down to Lindsey’s chest.

 

“And then, and then!? Tell us!!”

 

“Nothing.”

 

Little could compare to the group’s delightful disappointment. One girl asked: “No kiss goodbye, no text, just nothing?”

 

“He might text me out of the blue,” Lindsey confessed, sighing, “but no, nothing since, just meh. Plus . . .” Lindsey paused, waiting for Ana to look up again. “We are not a good match.” Ana’s gaze dropped yet again, this time at the menu. Her jaw ached. He’s just a basketball player, she repeated, just a basketball player.

 

“Wow, that sucks,” a friend interjected. “I thought if anyone would be able to keep up with you it would be Black Hercules, of all the people we know, it would be him.”

 

“Getting a man up isn’t the same as waking him up,” Lindsey proclaimed, laying the full weight of her chest on the table. Some girls clicked their gums.

 

“You’re too much,” said one of the girls who had snarled at Ana earlier. “That part about the bathroom!”

 

“I’m a nymph, what can I say?” Lindsey lifted a finger to get the waiter’s attention. He came.

 

Everyone ordered, but Ana. “Fish, what are you having?” Lindsey asked.

 

The cocktails had weird names. Ana couldn’t tell if the names confused her because she had never ordered a drink before, or because the drinks were obscure on purpose.

 

“I’ll have the Eagle Dream,” she mumbled.

 

The waiter raised an eyebrow.

 

“Ew,” said a girl who Ana didn’t dare look at. “Doesn’t that have egg in it?”

 

“It sure does,” said the waiter. He clasped his hands behind his back. “That’s five teas, and one Eagle Dream. Anything else?”

 

Lindsey shook her head at Ana, then turned to the waiter. “Bring some queyso.” Ana noticed how Lindsey, and everyone else in Austin, pronounced queso wrong, with the long English “ey” sound, tucked between “que” and “so”, so unwittingly, so garrulously. Yet, so distracted was Ana by Lindsey’s queyso faux pas that she didn’t even realize her own mistake: having ordered something different from everyone else. A few girls exhibited class, the rest went “ugh.”

 

Clearly the night was doomed. Only doubt and duda burned the air. Ana entered the bar fearing they wouldn’t accept her for any number of reasons: she spoke differently, she was shy, they wouldn’t understand her. But the truth was worse than that. There was no reason. You can’t give what you don’t have. They had everything. She had nothing.

 

“Ladies,” spoke Lindsey, “you’ll excuse me. I’m stepping out for a smoke.” She threw on a vintage-pink cardigan, and applied rouge to both her lips in a single stroke. “Anabelle,” she said, patting her lips together. “Mind coming?”

 

Ana felt drained, stiff. The music was too loud.

 

But Lindsey, already out of the booth, gestured with a thumbs-up and repeated clicks. “Share with me.”

 

Ana got up.

 

“Want me to come too?” a friend inquired.

 

Lindsey said not to worry, why not come get them when the drinks were ready. “And oh, and Stacy, don’t eat all the queyso.”

 

. . .

 

A terrible breeze was rolling through. The patio had warmed up a little from the saucer-shaped heaters made of chrome. Men in polo shirts and wire-thin shoulders kept looking at the two girls. There was no moon out, and yet you couldn’t see a single star, because of how strongly the light from inside the draught emporium kicked everything around, including the ashtrays on tables, some forgotten, some overflowing.

 

Lindsey’s voice sounded raspy in the cold. “You probably think I’m a hoe.” She rummaged in her burnt-orange bag. “But I’m not.”

 

When Lindsey tapped out another coffin nail, Ana responded accordingly.

 

Lindsey exhaled. “I just haven’t found the right guy yet.” After another drag: “By the way, I know you like Josh.”

 

Ana shivered, but didn’t zip her jacket up, to act like Lindsey.

 

“I said, I know you like Josh,” Lindsey repeated, with a smirk, reaching in her bag. “And he likes you. He has the book you gave him on his nightstand.”

 

Ana folded her arms and swayed side to side. How did she know? And which book, The Golden Ass, or Unleash the Power Within? Wait how the hell did Lindsey know Ana had given him the book? Ana stopped thinking so much and noticed Lindsey was offering her a cigarette. “I missed your story,” Ana mumbled.

 

“Hm?”

 

“What happened with you and Josh?”

 

Lindsey wrinkled her dark eyes.

 

“Please,” said Ana.

 

“One sec.” Lindsey coughed, making sure Ana saw a group of guys behind her watching her. Ana blushed. However sadistic Lindsey was for telling Ana the following story, about a boy she knew Ana liked, she could make Ana feel they were on par: by making her feel they were both wanted equally, which was in a way a sort of being equal. She was always nicer after a smoke.

 

“Last week, at a mixer, which by the way I invited you to, Josh comes up behind me and whispers something a little too loudly: ‘I bet you have never been with a black guy before.’ I burst out laughing. He goes for a kiss, but I turn, and yell at him. He brushes it off. ‘Coach always says you miss one hundred percent of the shots you don’t take.’

 

“I yawn. He tries to kiss me a second time. I put my cup to his face and tell him to cut it out. But he won’t. ‘Coach always says if at first you don’t succeed, then try and try again.’ I tell him to shut the hell up with all this coach says stuff. He takes it bad though, so I feel bad. I squeeze his wrist, like this, and ask, ‘What else does coach say?’

 

“The dude looks at me stone cold. I only see his lips before he comes at me with his tongue.”

 

“You let him . . .”

 

“Yes.” Lindsey flicked her cigarette. “I let him. And then, get this, he tells me, ‘Coach always says third time’s the charm.’ We go around to the back of the house, where the extra kegs are, to finish our conversation.”

 

“Is he a good kisser?” Ana asked, already knowing the answer.

 

“Slow,” Lindsey added, recalling the night. “Slow.”

 

Ana recalled her own night. She finished her cigarette. Then asked, “Isn’t it against the rules?”

 

“To hook up at the house? Yes. That’s what I told him. So we go back to his place. We do it two or three times, before I tell him, ‘By the way, just so you know, I have been with a black guy before.’ He’s on his back, laughing. ‘Yeah I have,’ I tell him. ‘But I bet you have never had a white girl do this to you.’ ”

 

Lindsey waited for Ana to look up at her again. All Ana could imagine was the two of them over and under one another like constellations of joints, of lips, of flesh, thoughts of homework, of her midterm the next day, but also her breasts, her throat, those eyes.

 

“Before you what?” asked Ana, trapped by Lindsey’s dark gaze.

 

Lindsey smirked with her mouth open, and tickled the cold air with her finger. The one she could get Josh up with, but not wake him up with.

 

. . .

 

Back inside UFO. It was late for a weeknight. The music turned out to be this genre called Space Disco, according to the waiter, who looked excited to talk about it. The drinks were tasty, strong. Ana could feel her liver ache with how strong it was. But the queyso—as she would soon start to call it just like everyone else—smoothed things over. When a group of boys appeared, and Ana was introduced, and not one detail about her forgotten, they joked that Ana might as well be in Kappa Nu already. So tonight’s sacrifice was worth it, then.

 

“You know what I just remembered about that time with Josh?” Lindsey told the group, putting her phone down, which made the others put theirs down too. “That was the last time I forgot to take my birth control.”

 

The others shared their last time. As Ana listened, nodded, smiled widely, played the exotic girl these girls needed her to be, everyone a jade hue, as Ana retreated inwardly, away from their eyes, floating like a mote of dust in the evening sky, on her way back home, but not to study for her Astronomy midterm, but to finish the pages of that chapter for Lit class, muttering the words as she read them, slipping while tipsy, too stimulated to focus, thinking of cigarettes: of stars: of the precession of equinoxes: of Orion with belt and sextuple sun theta and nebula in which 100 of our solar systems could be contained: of moribund and of nascent new stars such as Nova in 1901: of our system plunging towards the constellation of Hercules: of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving wanderers from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity.

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