He’s at it; our downstairs neighbor is at it again. I can smell it; I can smell it even from my bed. He’s a smoker; he smokes all the time. He chain-smokes — as far as I know.
By now, I can tell when he opens a new pack, unwraps it methodically, almost piously, like a priest handling the sacramental bread; I can hear a cigarette slip out of a pack, like the bullet leaving a gun’s chamber; I can hear the cellophane crackle as he squashes it; I can hear the lighter rasp and grind impotently when he strives to light it, hunched over it, like a bird protecting its precious nestling; I can hear the flint maltreat the piece of metal inside it, while scratching and scraping it, like a lover in passion. Once, twice, thrice — it usually takes him three attempts to produce a flame: three is a charming flame. And then he smokes, leaning out of the open window, his hands spread on the windowsill — right beneath ours.
I can almost see him staring reflectively into vacancy, staring at the pencil-thin line of the horizon but absorbing nothing, noticing nothing, like a mystical philosopher of some kind, enveloped in the thickening mist of the cigarette smoke, as though it were a white robe. I can see him pausing once in a while to take a nice drag on it; a nice pair of lungs full of smoke. Except that he is also so kind as to share it with us, the smoke, that is. He is like an over-friendly neighbor lending you salt even if you don’t want it, even if you don’t need it at all.
When we moved here, we didn’t know it would be like that; we had no idea. The woman who showed us around the apartment blabbed on and on about the nice view, the nice neighborhood, the nice price, the nice this, the nice that, the nice everything. But what she forgot to mention, what somehow slipped her prattling mind, was the chain-smoking neighbor of ours, being there for our inconvenience, as a kind of twisted package deal — all that for the price of one.
He woke me up again with that smoking of his. I can hear now, from my bed, the car doors slamming, one after the other, as if answering one another’s calling, like dogs communicating over the din of a busy street in the raucous dialect of barking and baying; I can hear the cars pulling in and out of the driveway; I can hear the people chattering in the distance, exchanging the usual early-morning pleasantries and insults; their voices muted and indistinct, as if still coming from an interrupted dream; I can hear the children playing, laughing, on their way to school; I can hear the distant clatter of a passing train, cutting right through our little world like a pin through a pincushion; I can hear the birds swinging on the high-voltage cables, playing that death game with luck — the usual daily stuff. The life is going on as if nothing happened; the people are going about their business as if nothing happened; the day starts and ends as if nothing happened at all. The world won’t stop for you — remember that; it won’t even slow down a little, out of respect, out of pity, out of anything.
I turn in bed, annoyed somewhat.
And suddenly everything seems to be jarring on my nerves: the cars, the birds, the people. Suddenly, everything seems to be there to spite me — every single merry tiny thing, like other people’s money teasing a miser. None of them cares for me. None of them cares for anything else than their own tight little lives, their own tight little homes, their own tight little families, and their own tight little jobs — not one of them.
My husband’s test results have come in; they have just come in. They’re here, still lying sprawled on the table; three innocent-looking sheets of paper, one on top of the other; a neat pile — untouched since yesterday evening. They look like the souvenirs of a drunken night. They look like a roadkill that everyone gives a wide berth — an enormous one even — afraid to touch it.
I get out of bed, carefully straighten my nightgown — my husband bought it for me. I glance at him, still sleeping, still dreaming — oddly motionless. I glance at the papers while passing the table, and walk to the open window. I can smell it; I can smell him from here; I can smell that man again.
“Why now?” I ask myself. “Why him? Why my husband? Why not someone else? Someone who is not worth it? Why my husband?”
I survey the gray, drowsy, and dew-covered cityscape and clear my throat, as if I were a rooster preparing itself for its deathless morning concerto — it’s still fairly early. My hand involuntarily searches for a pack of cigarettes and finds it. A lighter rasps in my hand: one, two.
I did it the second time.