My dad used to say that you should never half-ass anything, so when I took up smoking at fourteen, I jumped right into a pack a day. At least, that’s what my mom, an explosive little Latina, told me he used to say. He passed away from cancer when I was young. Mom says he did it out of spite as a part of some great scheme to ruin her life, so after he passed, she went around the house and burned his face out of every picture. When I imagine him now, I see a man with black hair, a straight face, and flap-flap ears that can barely be made out through a veil of smoke. I don’t look like that. I have short brown hair that’s faded on the sides and my lips look like they’re quivering sometimes, and I try to help it but I can’t.
The reason that I bring up smoking at all is because I was smoking when it happened. As anyone in a shit-paying job will tell you, cigarette addicts have it nice. That’s an extra thirty-minute break a day, easy, and when you’re cranking them out like I do, you can spend the better part of a shift out on the curb. I work at The Park. It’s a gay bar, but I’m not a bartender. I’m what they call a tray man. I walk around the club with a flashing tray of Jell-O shots and offer them to schmucks for two bucks. It’s a good gig. The uniform for tray men is booty shorts tighter than a nun and nothing else but a pair of chucks. As you can imagine. looking like that gets you quite the attention. It was after a particularly handsy customer that I figured I deserved a break and headed for the curb.
I was out there, calling my not-really boyfriend and smoking a cig. We dated for two years, and then he decided to go back to school across state and we ended things. A couple months after, I arrived on his campus with a box of chocolates, so he put me up in a hotel and we carried out a mournful, tender, reconciliatory weekend. Those happened regularly for a few months, and here we were, still not together, still not apart.
“I love you,” I said.
“Goodnight, Michael,” he said through the phone. Click. He never said he loved me since we broke up. I figured it might have been because he got a new thing up at college, but I didn’t care, he was still paying for my hotels and picking up the phone when I called him.
I leaned against the wall out front of the building and Deonte, the security guy, gave me a questioning look. “No hope for the boy, huh?”
“Where you pokin’ that big nose, Deonte?”
He chuckled silently and shook his head, tossing the metal detector from one hand to the other. I wasn’t feeling well tonight, so I was just holding the cigarette between my fingers. The door opened, and right then, the most gorgeous set of legs stepped out of that building. Long, smooth, just the right color of tan you know and great big, silver 4-inch heels to show them off. The torso that followed matched, but I was too hung up on the golden tornadoes of hair that bobbed around her shoulders. The Park is no stranger to drag queens, and I’ve certainly seen my share. Locals, celebrities, you name it. None had hair like this. She definitely wasn’t in there when I was, cause I would have noticed.
“You got a fag?” she said
“I got a couple,” I said, flicking one out of the box for her. She draped her lips around it carefully and eyed me head to toe.
“You got a light?” I fumbled around and when I put the flame to her lips, I was certain the coolness would put it out. The details of her face were fuzzy, I couldn’t make them out. My hand was shaking when I finally got it burning.
“Thanks, handsome,” she said, and might have winked. Then she took that first drag and pursed her lips real big and tight and blew a hard stream of smoke right into my face. I couldn’t see anything.
I remembered that story Mrs. Honaker made us read in high school about that guy who goes into the basement and sees that orb of light and in it is everything happening all at once. I saw a blue bird, sharp, sharper than the queen, buzz about my head a few times like I was living in a cartoon land, and spirals, like little twirled purple balls of cotton. I saw stars coming in and out of the night sky and the whisps of smoke swallowed my head.
In the fading cloud, I saw my mother mouthing claveles que propagan el fuego.
I took a step back. I felt dizzy, so I stumbled to the door. Deonte said something I couldn’t hear. I pushed the door open and I realized that I was coughing. My throat tasted hot and sweet. Melted glass running down it.. The music was pounding into my soul. If I had died there on the floor, which I very well might have, that bass kickstarted my heart right back into shape. I saw all these people undressed. Not scantily dressed, like I saw their naked bodies and right clear into their ever-dancing souls. They were all on fire, too, doing dances around the flames.
I felt like I was in a wind blender, becoming one with it all, and it didn’t feel quite right, so I tried to get to the bathroom. It was weird, because as I started for somewhere, the path to it became clear, as if that was the only place I could have ever been. There was flesh pushing me through, my eyes and lungs still burning. I heard a girl scream out from somewhere in the strobed darkness. I wondered if I was drunk. I reached the door to the bathroom andflung it open. The entire fluorescent inside was draped in a cloud. Someone was vaping in the stall. I turned on the sink and buried my head in the faucet to let the coolness wash over me. The water became hot, because I used the wrong handle. When it started burning, I pulled my head out. The water felt good running over my chest. Then I placed my palm on the icy mirror and looked into it.
And there he was. My dad. Looking right at me. I don’t mean I looked like my dad or some Harry Potter shit like that. I mean that the misty, smoky cloud parted and right between it — just for a second — there was my father. A man I had never seen. He had a large nose and a wide, masculine jaw that sloped diagonally from his eyes. His black hair tufted over itself, and he wore a hospital gown. He smiled like someone had just told him that his two-dollar scratcher had won him a $4 dollar prize. I smiled back. I started laughing, so hard that I closed my eyes. I realized that it was the first time I had blinked in forever, and my lungs coughed up fire and everything went black.
Mark Bolinger is a young buck writer, hiker, and camper who lives in Roanoke, Virginia. He recently graduated from George Mason University with a Bachelor’s in English.