Smoking

We are walking to the metro when the three boys stop us. I say “boys,” but really, they are young men, in their early twenties. They are looking for an Italian place in the neighborhood that does takeout. They speak English with an accent—Dutch, maybe German?—and we point them in the right direction. As my cousin explains which way they need to go, I marvel at how cool this is—that in the middle of Budapest three boys can stop two women and expect that they will speak English.

My cousin and I look at each other as they walk away and we burst into laughter. We both nod towards the boy we find cutest with his long, blond hair, and that careless, exotic accent. We laugh, because not that long ago—20, 25 years?—we would have walked with these boys to the Italian place. They would have asked us to walk with them. We would have told them about our city and my cousin would have known about the popular clubs and we would have gone there to drink cheap wine and Coke and hope for a kiss in some dark corner.

We are both alone on this night—she is single and I am far away from home, from real life—and for a moment the thought crosses my mind: could we follow the boys? It would take just a word; they are just a few steps ahead of us and the night is still young. How would it feel to fill the next few hours with chatter and flirting and cheap drinks? Would I still want to be kissed at the end of the night and feel disappointed when I am not?

We let the boys go. We watch them—their tall, lanky bodies moving across the square. One of them jumps up and over some concrete barriers like an acrobat or a very young gazelle.

We smoke one last cigarette—I bought a pack just after dinner. I don’t usually smoke, but there’s something about the night air, the huge meal we just finished, the memories stirred up during our conversation. The cigarettes are thin and long and come in a delicate, yellow package. It feels glamorous to be standing here and smoking on this square, in the heart of the city, in the heart of Europe.

It’s been a while since my cousin and I have seen each other, It’s been a while since I’ve had a night like this. We are childhood friends, partners in crime, and we met up on many summer evenings just like this— nights full of possibility, full of boys with cute accents and ripped t-shirts and skinny jeans.

We drank wine and smoked with the French saxophone player at least a decade our senior; the American students who sometimes rented rooms from my cousin and her mother; with the Palestinian university students who knew where the best falafel places were hidden in the city. We were tour guides and friends, and later sometimes lovers to these foreigners coming in and out of our summers, our lives, our city.

We say good-bye to each other and in the humid metro car I see my reflection in the smudged window. I see myself as I am: in the middle of life, knowing languages, directions to where to eat, a little bit about kissing boys and then letting them go, and maybe not much else.

The cigarettes stay in my purse even after I unpack my passport and foreign coins and used metro tickets. I come across the small yellow box almost every day as I rummage around my bag for keys or a snack or a toy soldier or change for the parking meter.

I have no desire to smoke again, but I keep the box, just in case.

 

ZSOFIA MCMULLIN’s writing has appeared in The Butter, Paste Magazine, Motherwell, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and several other publications. Her essay “The Uterus Must Go” was published by Full Grown People and was just nominated for a Pushcart Prize. You can find all of her work on her blog: zsofiwrites.com. Find her on Twitter as @zsofimcmullin.