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Smoke Rings
Keith Buie

The cabinets clash with the countertops. Matching mahogany-stained floorboards and cupboards accentuate black granite countertops and backsplash tiles. The intention: a dark, bold appearance. The result: the kitchen looks like a giant Hershey bar. 

Blame the wife, the husband says. She picked the colors, so blame her if the house won’t sell (the husband scoffed at her invitation to peruse color combinations, too fixated on mounting a television above the bar in the basement while muttering about the lack of televisions or bars in his own basement). A total teardown to studs to replace rusted piping and shoddy wiring, they’ve spent their unborn child’s college fund on the remodel. Ratchet up the drama-filled questions: Will the kitchen turn off potential buyers? Will the couple go bankrupt if they can’t sell? Can their marriage survive until the third commercial break?

Suzanne will love this episode.

It’s Wednesday night. Suzanne works at the campus rec center until ten, before she flees home like a newly released felon. A two-minute walk past the library before she’s falling into her spot on the couch next to me. I’ll be half a pack in, but she’ll catch up in no time (her lungs rival a steamboat engine). We’ll spend the night breathing back in our own secondhand smoke while watching a marathon of Sink or Swim. Newlyweds empty their joint bank accounts and flip a condemned house, in lieu of real-world nine-to-fives. Addictive television, perfect for painting our toenails and eating leftover pizza, convincing ourselves the cold fridge temperature somehow lowers the calories in each slice.

The door flings open and Suzanne floats inside. 

“What I miss?” She drops her purse to the floor and unbuttons her jacket, eyes glued to the screen. 

Ten-fifteen, she’s home later than usual. Suzanne missed the couple’s backstory, how they eloped after three months of dating, and the husband lost his job, so what will a failed remodel do to their marriage? This show single-handedly ups the nation’s divorce rate two points annually. 

Suzanne keeps a notepad next to the couch. A warm color palette catches her attention, and she scribbles ideas for a breakfast nook in her fictional future home. “A skylight adds the illusion of increased square-footage,” she’ll sometimes say, or, “master bathroom upgrades pay for themselves on the resale,” when she wants to sound grown-up.

I secretly root for couples to “sink.” I don’t consider myself a bad person, but who slows down to witness two cars parked cleanly on the side of the road? Bring on the fender benders, the shattered windshields, and I’m out of my car, at the scene, asking the victims questions: Are you hurt? Can you still make it to your destination? Is there someone you can call to reschedule?

I point to the television. “Look at those floors. And the black countertops.”

Suzanne strains her neck, staring. “The kitchen’s too dark.”

I nod. “That’s what I said.” 

“Looks like a Hershey bar,” she says. 

We’re like two peas.

The roommate lottery thrust us together freshman year. My parents spent half a day unpacking me at drop-off, while Suzanne drove to campus alone. All good-byes took place in her childhood driveway three hours away. We drained her entire first-week-at-school carton of cigarettes in one weekend, door open to greet all passersby. By first classes Monday morning, the entire floor dubbed our room the official smoker’s lounge.

All semester we smuggled in cases of beer inside duffel bags and bribed the RA to ignore noise from our corner room. She obliged, resuming her five-week cram session for midterms, followed by five more for finals.

After two years sharing a communal bathroom with fifty girls, we upgraded to apartment living (just one block off campus, but far enough away to feel that sense of “adult” accomplishment). Suzanne took the rec center job, and I hand out morning pick-me-ups to work commuters at the corner coffee shop. 

We split the bills: Suzanne pays rent; I pick up utilities. Less an even split, more 65%/35%, but Suzanne says not to worry. Put it all on the plastic. College loan and credit card debt by age 22. She welcomed the whole college experience.

If I found twenty strangers crammed in our apartment on a Friday night, Suzanne invited each of them. Some she met in class, others waiting in line at the cafeteria omelet station. Once I walked in to find her chatting up a telemarketer about a Days of our Lives episode. The woman never convinced Suzanne to switch long-distance providers, but they both agreed the show wasn’t the same since Sami left. 

Suzanne never treats me as dead weight (I bring loyalty to the table, a comfortable presence to witness her morning bedhead, her monthly menstrual bloating). “No judgment, no makeup,” she calls our living arrangement. She doesn’t even close the bathroom door anymore. I’m her practice wife to prepare for her future husband. 

Until then, we’re enjoying these “best years of our lives” like the brochures instructed. We taped up a poster of John Belushi wearing his “College” sweatshirt from Animal House—College 101 wall attire. Empty beer bottles sit as trophies on the coffee table. We paint our faces for football games but spend the entire game pre-partying in the parking lot. Pay for drive-through tacos with exact change and “borrow” handfuls of cafeteria napkins or plastic silverware for home use. Graduation arrives in less than a year. Plenty of time before we need to buy real silverware.

Suzanne falls into the couch, cigarette lit with one hand, one flick of her lighter. Such the pro.

We puff away through the open-house scene, as potential buyers leave shaking their heads at the dark kitchen. There’s no life in those cabinets, they mutter to themselves. How can they expect to entertain guests? 

Suzanne blows out a cloud of smoke. “I met someone.”

“Amazing.” I exhale my drag. “Tell me more.” The roommate, the best friend, I’m always at the ready with programmed enthusiasm.

“We talked for an hour at the front desk,” she says. “When he heard the announcement the gym was closing in five minutes, he headed to the track and ran a mile. A full mile in five minutes, I watched him run all six laps. He took his shirt off on lap three. My God, he has abs. Can you believe that?”

I stump out my cigarette in the treadmill cup holder next to the couch. The treadmill broke six months ago when I vowed to lose those extra freshman fifteen pounds—three years later, but who’s counting? The tread stopped milling, if you will, stuck at the quarter-mile mark of my initial run. Now I wear sweatpants six days a week, and the cup holder works as a perfect ashtray.

“He’s a grad student,” she says. “Chemical engineering. Already co-opting with some big company. But he still makes time to run a mile each day. Says it’s not much, but one day he’ll have time to run more. He wants to stay prepared.”

We meet boys all the time. College is like fishing. We’re the bait and the boys are the fish. Even when we’re not reeling, something’s biting. Strictly catch-and-release, Suzanne says. Why waste time bringing home guppies?

I turn back to the screen, watching more couples leave the open house without making an offer.

“I don’t think they’ll sell,” I say. “This will be a total sink.”

“You never know.” Suzanne smiles. “Someone might show up and fall in love with the place.”

They aired this episode earlier, during that stretch between afternoon classes starting and work days ending. The couple received no offers on the house. The husband even hinted about divorce and moving back in with his parents. 

I puff away, watching the big reveal anyway.

* * *

The thing about an undecided major is the open-ended curriculum. History of Jazz, Ballroom Dancing, Latin 101—I’ve taken every general elective possible. My advisor pleaded that I stay enrolled in a class—any class—as a built-in break before deciding on a specific major. Still, I took last semester off, needing a break from my break.

After the holidays I enrolled for a class, to keep my active status with the university. I opened the class guidebook to a random page and pointed to Beginning Psychology, and now three days a week I listen to a professor compare my mind to an iceberg. The exposed tip of ice represents our conscious, the middle the memory, and the part submerged deep underwater is the repressed subconscious hiding our secret fears and wishes. This part controls our behavior, but he claims we’re all too afraid to swim to the bottom to fully figure ourselves out.

My only contribution in class so far was raising my hand one day to ask if survivors of the Titanic had a deeper outlook on life.

“They hit an iceberg head-on,” I said. “That kind of metaphor can’t be ignored.”

I sit in back of the class most days and doodle after half a page of notes. My grade remains a solid C- (I’m great as guessing on multiple choice exams). After three years it’s the class I skip the least.

Problem is, I’m paying for those three credit hours up-front. After my semester off I never reapplied for financial aid, assuming the money would return when I reenrolled. My first college loan bill arrived in the mail, the minimum due each month for freshman biology and English classes, plus 12% interest. I’m not graduated, but the bank dubbed me “Academically Ineligible for Aid.” 

Does that title come with a diploma?

* * *

Suzanne walks in the door and stops behind the couch. She doesn’t sit down, just standing behind me, watching the television over my shoulder.

Almost midnight, she missed the past four episodes and “swims” for four happy couples. She’s just in time to watch prospective buyers rave over a master closet. One woman breaks into tears at the floor-to-ceiling shoe rack like God cashed in her latest prayer, while the husband takes the hint and talks numbers with the Realtor. Make it five “swims” in a row.

“Sorry I’m late,” Suzanne says. “Stuart walked me home. We took the long way. Through Briar Path.”

“Briar Path?” I ask. “This time of night?”

“It’s actually quite a nice walk,” she says, “when you’re not worried about potential rapists hiding in the bushes.”

At freshman orientation they warned all girls to never walk Briar Path alone after dark. Pick up any campus phone and call for an escort, but never dare the stretch alone. The last attack occurred five years ago but still. 

Suzanne and I braved the walk together once sophomore year. Less a walk than a slight jog, our heads swiveling to peek over our shoulders the entire way. But we felt liberated, ready to take on the world. An excuse to split an entire carton of Rocky Road ice cream that night, if nothing more. 

I offer Suzanne a cigarette, but she shakes her head.

“I’m running with Stuart in the morning,” she says. “Need to give my lungs a breather tonight.”

The couple sells the house and announces the wife is pregnant. They’re going to be parents. They look so happy, the two of them. 

I frantically flick my lighter, inhaling a long drag of a new cigarette.

“He’s got a friend,” Suzanne says. “We should double.”

“Amazing,” I cough. “Tell me…” I choke out, “more.”

The four of us do dinner. Suzanne’s new man, Stuart, wears a sports jacket and makes eye contact when speaking. He orders from the list of specials, a fish entrée I can’t pronounce, and drinks whiskey and water with ice like my father used to drink sitting by the fire on Christmas Eve night. When Suzanne samples a bite off his fork, Stuart dabs a napkin on her lip to wipe off some left-behind glazing.

My date chews with his mouth open and pronounces the word, “supposably,” when answering my question about his spring graduation. He stares over my shoulder at the basketball game playing on the television above the bar, and an unbuttoned shirt reveals fraternity letters across his white T-shirt.

After dinner, Suzanne comes out holding an overnight bag, announcing she’s staying at Stuart’s. Last week her shampoo disappeared from the bathtub. Her contact lens case vanished from the edge of the sink. She even bragged of going grocery shopping and cooking, from scratch, dinner (spinach lasagna) and dessert (raspberry cheesecake). In almost four years living with her, the only thing I’ve seen Suzanne cook (and burn) is microwave popcorn.

Suzanne hugs me in the parking lot, like old friends saying good-bye after a night of reminiscing. 

My date walks me home and unhooks my bra while kissing me good night. I let him unhook all the rest, and he breathes tequila breath on my neck until he finishes, falling asleep afterward. In the morning he says it was a fun night. Let’s do it again sometime. He asks if he can call me, and he walks to his car without asking for my number.

I watch him drive away. 

* * *

Moonlight shines through the window. I switch on the lamp, but the bulb stays dark. The remote control refuses to power on the television, meaning tonight couples will sink or swim free of my viewership.

I never paid the electricity bill last month. The coffee shop reduced my shifts from three a week to zero because of my propensity to hit the snooze button, so some sacrifices had to be made. Electricity finished third to gas and water, so perhaps the utility companies are shutting off services in reverse order.

Suzanne officially moved in with Stuart, as she’s now graduated and working in an office downtown. She agreed to pay a few months’ worth of rent to help me out. The eviction notice the landlord slid under the door this morning shows Suzanne’s generosity has lapsed.

The window shade pulled open, enough moonlight illuminates my bare legs lying on the couch under a cloud of my exhaling smoke. 

Once, during freshman year, a power outage hit the entire dormitory. Suzanne and I sat in in the dark blowing smoke rings all night. The moonlight cast just enough glare to see the rings rolling off our lips before evaporating into darkness. We counted the seconds of each one, awarding make-believe medals to the longest formed rings. 

I beat Suzanne that night, with a smoke ring lasting a full fifteen seconds. That gray ring hovered in front of me, seemingly never fading. We counted out loud, screaming once we hit double digits, swearing that ring would stay with us forever. Then the ring faded away, and we spent the rest of the night trying to beat the record but failing. Time wasted until the power returned, the night served no greater purpose to anyone, and we never mentioned the night again.

Tonight, in the dark, I blow another ring, counting to three before watching the smoke vanish under the moonlight. 

I light up another cigarette and puff away. The record is fifteen seconds, but I can beat it. Even if it takes me all night, I can beat my old record.

Keith Buie's work has appeared in Burnt Tongues, the award-winning (USA Book News, This is Horror, INDIEFAB) and Bram Stoker-nominated anthology edited by best-selling author Chuck Palahniuk. His work is also forthcoming or has appeared in Eleven Eleven, The MacGuffin, Sand Hill Review, Natural Bridge, Pisgah Review, Crack the Spine, Quiddity International Literary Journal, Rio Grande Review, Willard & Maple, Metal Scratches, and Ghost Town. He is currently writing his first novel.