by Angela VS
She had posted a status thirty minutes ago on Facebook asking something like ‘is anyone else awake and bored at 1 AM on a Tuesday night?’ It was only a minute after he’d responded automatically with a very simple ‘yes’ that a soft buzzing, followed by a default ringtone began to go off from under the pile of sketchbooks and textbooks beneath Jeff’s desk. He rolled back his desk chair from the computer and knelt on the holes in his jeans as he foraged in the shadowy paper pile, vaguely illuminated by the blue-white glow from his computer monitor. “Hello?” Jeff asked quickly, without checking the caller ID, as he pulled himself back up. The shoddy plastic arms of his black pleather computer chair creaked as he shifted his weight. The voice coming from the other end was feminine and timid.
“H-hey. What are you up to tonight?”
He pulled the phone away from his ear to look at the name on the tiny screen. The letters ‘Vic’ glowed back at him. “Hello?” Vic’s voice sounded tinier than usual.
“Oh, hey. I’m not up to much. What’s up?” He leaned back in his chair, looking back at his computer to tab back to Facebook. The last time he had seen her in person was at a mutual friend’s Fourth of July party. A faint smile crept across his features as he looked at that picture of her where she had fallen asleep on the couch, drunk on whiskey sours, cozy with red plush pillows, while everyone else had kept pacing themselves on PBR. She didn’t seem like the type to have a lot of lonely nights.
“It’s a lovely night, isn’t it?”
“I guess so.” He stood up from his desk and pulled his old black hoodie off the back of the chair. He nestled the phone between his cheek and his shoulder as he looped one arm in its sleeve, then the other. He reached forward on his desk to the pack of Camel Menthols by his keyboard, the only item not obscured by old cans of Amp or scraps of paper, and slipped it into the pocket of his hoodie. He walked across his dim bedroom, between piles of discarded clothing and sheets, to the glass door to the backyard, and slid it open and shut behind him. He lit his cigarette and began to smoke. It was a nice night for October, he thought to himself.
“It’s a lovely night,” She sighed over the phone, her voice getting breathier and softer as she spoke, “He’s not here anymore, I’ve got this apartment all to myself.”
Hot smoke scratched abruptly at the back of his throat, flooding back up his mouth coarsely.
“What? Sorry, asthma,” he coughed out in surprise. ‘A girl like Vic pulling that line on me,’ Jeff thought to himself, ‘I wish. I doubt it.’ It wasn’t that he wouldn’t want her to be calling him over for a late night booty call, but that he knew it couldn’t be that simple with her. He recalled her boyfriend, Mike. They knew the same people, but Mike’s only attendance at that Fourth of July party had been when he showed up the next morning to give Vic a ride home. She was sweet and laughing as she threw her arms around Mike’s waist as he walked her back to his car. Mike himself was stony in contrast. Jeff had gone to the same middle school as Mike, but only in passing. “He’s — what?” Jeff repeated, clearing his throat.
“He really didn’t say anything about it, did he?” Her voice returned to a more quiet, trembling, less seductive tone. “My god.” A soft sniffling, or maybe a chuckle laid beneath her breath as she spoke. It was never simple with Vic, he thought, as he shook his head, and willed away the hopeful warmth that had rushed to his head from her voice.
“What’s going on?” Jeff felt the cool glass of the door back to his bedroom on the skin exposed between the end of his scraggly blonde hair and the nape of his hoodie. He took another slow, shallow drag off his cigarette. The grass in the yard was golden under the yellow security lights, and the sky was a familiar black emptiness, all but for the moon and a far off airplane heading for Sky Harbor. Vic was never simple, but for the few times they’d gotten to hang out together, she was always colorful.
“So you wanna go out for a drive or somethin’ tonight, Jeff? I’m antsy and I don’t know who else to call,” said Vic, breaking his reverie. He noticed more of her usual tone returning to her voice. His shoulders slunk down against the wall as he exhaled another breath of smoke.
“Sure.” He took another short drag off his cigarette under the soft roar of the distant airliner as it passed overhead. A breeze rolled through the yard and through the holes in his jeans and cooly against his neck. Jeff pressed the tip of his cigarette against the brick wall of the house, flicked the butt into the yard, and went back inside.
“I’ll text you my address. See you soon!”
The traffic itself was quiet. She lived twenty minutes away in Central Phoenix. The freeway was mostly empty with the occasional bright green cab drifting off an exit beside him. The thoughts buzzing through Jeff’s head were impossible to drown out even as he blasted Muse out his speakers. He recalled when he’d met her a year and a half ago at the beginning of fall semester, skimming cigarette butts out of ashtrays on campus. She had a bob back then, and wore a lot of black and white stripes and breezy skirts. That late afternoon, she’d looked up at him with doe-wide eyes of embarrassment when she saw him take a seat at the bench beside the ashtray she was digging out half a Parliament from.
“Hey. Need a light?” He turned toward her with his Bic extended as she tapped the sand off the end of her newly acquired cigarette. She flinched at being addressed doing this, but bent forward into his lighter. He flicked the flame on, and she took a long time with her inhale, making eye contact the entire time. Her eyes were very brown. She turned her gaze down from him to cough, her bangs cast over her brown eyes.
“Oh god, what is this?” She said, as she pulled the cigarette out of her mouth and stared at the filter. “Parlies,” she sighed with indignation, “this is worse than Pall Mall.”
Jeff smirked as he casually lit his own cigarette. She looked like a cloves type with all the black and eye make up. “Not your regular?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t have one,” said the doe-eyed girl. She stepped back hesitantly for a moment, rocking back on the heels of her boots, “but I figured this would be a more economical way to figure out what to pick up.” She sat down, finally, at the far end of the bench he was at. She took another drag. He could tell that she was holding in another cough like a resilient 14-year old. Jeff himself was holding in his snickering.
“Sounds reasonable. It’s like a free buffet of flavorful ways to get cancer,” said Jeff. She finally let out a tiny cough into the back of her fist.
“This is awful! Forget it.” The girl threw the cigarette butt onto the gravel behind her. She sighed.
“I had a Marlboro menthol earlier; it actually tasted like something.”
Jeff shrugged and reached into the front pocket of the beat up black Jansport backpack beside him. He opened up a teal-green cardboard box and pulled out two cigarettes. He held his own between his lips as he offered a fresh one to the girl beside him. “Try this. It’s a menthol. Camels are nice.”
She had already reached out her fingertips and moved it toward her mouth as she’d started to speak her protests. “Oh, I couldn’t, we’ve just met,” she paused perfunctorily, “thank you.” She smiled as she leaned forward for his lighter.
“No problem.” He lit her cigarette up. She seemed like a cartoon to him, which was better company for now than the hobos and teenagers sitting at the bus stop at 3 PM to go home.
“My name’s Vic.” She looked down shyly, before looking back up at him.
“Jeff.” He nodded. He scratched his chest through the fabric of his t-shirt, suddenly conscious of the tiny hole beneath his fingers.
“Here, put your number in here so I remember your name.” She fished through her purse and pulled out a phone. “I’ll call you, and then you’ll have mine.” He smiled back at her as he typed it in. Women weren’t usually this warm or outgoing, he thought to himself.
“Are you done with classes today?” she asked, taking a gentle drag off her cigarette.
He was. Vic explained that she’d wanted to take up smoking because smokers made such good small talk. She didn’t really need any help talking, he noted. She laughed at his jokes, though, and she made sure to hike down her skirt when they got up and walked around campus for a while. He noticed her doe eyed glances were fleeting, and it wasn’t until the sun began to set that she began to keep her gaze locked on his. She was an art history major, she explained. He was a history major, but he liked art too. As they sat side by side watching the fountain in the center of campus, they agreed upon the aesthetic virtue of fascist uniform designs in WWII. He leaned his shoulders back as he sat slumping, but content, beside her, his arm resting around her on the stone wall behind the concrete bench at the fountain. She looked up at him for a moment, her lips curled into a gentle smile. The last of the orange sunbeams were reaching out from between buildings, casting dark soft shadows of palm trees on lavender-gray sidewalks. It was quiet now, but for their laughter and the splashing of the fountain.
The quiet ended there, though. Her purse began to screech out increasingly shrill chimes and she shirked back quickly to forage through her bag for her phone. She flipped it open quickly, silencing the chimes, her fingers texting something back quickly. She looked back at Jeff, and he was aware that it was now dusk, and the orange glow was gone, and she nodded and smiled and hiked her skirt down just a little again as she stood opposite him. She placed her hand lightly on his shoulder as she pulled herself up. “I’ve got to get going. My, ah, boyfriend wants to take me out to dinner before we go home tonight,” said Vic. Jeff had already lit another cigarette by the time she looked up again to speak. The word ‘boyfriend’ sounded uncomfortable on her lips. He reminded himself they’d only just met a few hours ago, and slowly inhaled a hot menthol breath, too deeply. He coughed. Vic smiled back at him. He felt his discomfort waver, and smiled back a little emptily.
“Have fun,” he said, nodding. She leaned in and gave him a quick hug from round the shoulders, and stepped back again.
“We… have an open relationship so it’s not like I’m trying to ditch you,” she blurted out in one breath. “I had a lovely afternoon. Catch me off guard again sometime.”
“Sounds cool,” said Jeff.
“See you around, Jeff!” She stepped back from him, and nodded and waved her own departure.
“See you later,” he responded. He watched as she walked away towards the south end of campus, her legs like punctuation marks in those tall black boots, the grayness of dusk settling over the campus.
The words ‘open relationship’ hung in the gray sky behind her, and he walked to the bus stop, wondering if she’d ever tell him what she meant by that, and if it meant anything for him.