map A Moment of Relief

by Tammy Lynne Stoner

Published in Issue No. 190 ~ March, 2013

Photo by Jordan Butler

When I have days like this I nurture the old cravings to smoke. I stash a pouch of tobacco in the freezer. It keeps the leaves fresh but sucks the air out of them, making the cigarettes hard to burn.

I take the packet of rolling papers from the pocket of my white, terry cloth robe. I pick the lint off the cardboard cover and pull out a thin sheet. The ritual of rolling calms me. I grab a pinch of cold leaves, drop them directly in the center, scrunch the paper to break the leaves up and make room for the flame, then roll the cigarette with my bone-thin fingers.

I admire my cigarette. After years of practice, I roll cigarettes that are perfect straws – no more paper caterpillars that grow small at each end and wiggle when they’re on fire.

There was a romantic practice involving straws that was common with New England Puritans during the 18th century. I’d read about it years ago. A young couple would sit before the fire in her parents’ home with a six-foot courting stick between them. The stick was hollowed out like a straw so the couple could speak to each other privately by whispering into it.

Ancient Persian Medes couples announced their engagement by cutting each other’s arms in public then catching the blood in a cup and drinking it.

Hundreds of years before Christ lived, Chinese Emperor Ai loved a man named Dong Xian. One day Dong Xian fell asleep on the Emperor’s arm and, not wanting to disturb him, the Emperor cut off his sleeve and slipped away. As a tribute to their love, members of the Emperor’s court wore their finest clothes with one sleeve cut off.

It’s been two years since my Eyli’s death, since she floated away. Two years and a day since I began feeling this pain behind my rib cage, as if Eyli had put her cat there, a little orange thing who starves and worries when she’s gone. Something I can’t reach to feed or pet or comfort.

My head spins from the smoke.

I’ve had to piss for hours now but I can’t make myself get up and do it. Only twenty-nine steps to the bathroom but my body is filled with lead. Lead and urine and a crying cat.

I stub out my cigarette on an old plate of nachos sitting on the side table near my leather recliner. I see the empty salsa jar. I reach over, grab it, then hold it under the edge of my chair. I slide forward, moving my robe out of the way, and take a good long piss.

My urine warms the jar. It mixes with the salsa residue like a sunset dissolving and I think of Eyli on the day we flew kites on the beach in the last oranges of sundown. Her hair was almost white in the sun. I wore the blue bikini she said she liked, even though I felt too skinny in it – and maybe too old. When the sun was going down we sat down on rocks at the edge of the ocean. Birds nested in the rocks. Two flew down and sat near us.

Her hand was warm when she touched mine on those cold grey rocks. She squeezed the meaty edge of my palm and waited until I curled my fingers in around hers. The front bones of our calves and our faces were turning shades of red in the light from the sunset. The black ocean water hissed up against the rocks in the shadows below us. We smiled and looked down, amazed at what we’d done – we’d held hands.

The two chubby white birds flapped up then rested back down again, a little closer to us.

They’re so brave, she said.

The birds looked behind us at the hotel while we looked out to the slick, endless ocean.

So are we, I said.

The air was cool then the way it is now, thin and icy, when she kissed me. A kiss that started the way some do – with our lips barely touching, as if it was almost too much.

Now, my mouth is dry and stale from the smoke. The weight of the silence in here is making me tired. I think of our kiss again and I wrap myself tighter in my terry cloth robe and fall asleep, lulled by the sound of a cat purring far away.

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Tammy Lynne Stoner dabbles in Portland OR. In 2012 she was nominated for a Million Writers' Award, awarded a fellowship to the SLS Summer Seminar in Kenya, had a painting selected for the cover of the New England Review, and tried deer heart tartar for the first time. It wasn't as brutal as it sounds.