“Um, you can’t smoke in here. You have to put that out,” he said.
She narrowed her eyes. “You’re so weird now. Why are you hiding them behind your towels?”
He sighed. “I quit. Jill doesn’t like cigarettes because she’s allergic. I haven’t smoked them in six months since she began to—”
“Began to what? And that’s bullshit. I can smell tobacco on you and in the bathroom mixed with that God-awful Febreeze.” She puffed and blew out a tarnished silver cloud.
“Began to live here—Jill, I mean. She lives with me.” He rubbed the back of his neck with his still-aching palm. “You really need to put that out.”
“I could have figured. Jack, your bathroom has decorative seashell soap!” she laughed, ignoring his request and puffed on the cigarette again. Jill’s automatic air freshener in the living room puffed out a burst of fragrance at the same time. “And you have organized photo-albums. For Chrissake, you’re in a button-down shirt and you only used to wear t-shirts. Or there’s fucking giraffe paintings. Giraffes!” She wagged the cigarette between her forefinger and middle finger, pointing it at the painting of a giraffe eating leaves. He reached for the smoldering stick in Prudence’s hand but it fell, plummeting down to the freshly-vacuumed floor. John had few choices before it hit the ground: the cigarette could burn the carpet and Jill would know he was smoking or he could catch the cigarette and hope it wouldn’t burn him.
“Sonuvabitch!” he yelled as he caught it, ember-ended facing his palm. Then he immediately dropped the cigarette to the floor.
“Jesus, Jack. Let me help you,” Prudence said. “Go to the sink and run some cold water over it.” He grumbled and did so in the kitchen and while she threw out the cigarette in the garbage. He heard cabinets being opened and stock being moved around and then eventually an “Aha!” In came Prudence with a heavy, wet towel cradling a bottle of ibuprofen and a box of bandages.
John stared at the rushing water. “It’s not that bad. I don’t need all of that.”
The cold water caressed his burning hand like Prudence used to. He remembered being pressed against her in the sunken couch cushions while she held his hand during The Ring. All he wanted was for the pain to subside and for her to touch his hand again. Just once. He looked down at her hand, mole-free, and wondered if it felt the same.
“Why do you keep looking at my hand?” she asked, kicking his leg moderately hard to get his attention. He didn’t respond. “Maybe I should just go.” She put the French bread under her arm again. She began to walk away and he turned around and grabbed her arm with his unscathed hand. “Jack….” She sighed.
He pulled her closer and laced his fingers in hers. It was not the aching hand but somehow it relieved his pain so he turned off the water and faced her. She had to crane her head a little to see his eyes. His other hand worked to free her top cardigan buttons from their holes as he said, “I still want to be—” but she cut him off by taking the loaf of bread and smacking him in the face.
She squinted her eyes and looked away from him. Prudence held tears back but not enough to stop a glossy sheen from painting her eyeballs. She gripped the bread and despite the hearty slap, he still held onto her hand.
“I’m not here to get you back, okay? You have a girlfriend. A lovely Jill who hates smoking, loves the sea and giraffes, and you. And I—I had a mole removed from my hand shortly after we broke up. They thought it was cancerous. The one you asked me about.” She let go of his hand and he stared at her. “Stop it, it wasn’t. But I wanted to talk. You were my friend—maybe my best friend, I don’t know.” She ran her fingers through her hair.
“Prudence—I don’t know what you want from me. Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine,” she said mostly to herself while re-buttoning her cardigan. “I shouldn’t have come. But—but I just missed you.” She looked up and sighed out, “I’m not in love with you, Jack. But I do love you.” She waited for a response but he kept staring at her hand like all of a sudden, the thing that was most familiar to him was now the most alien appendage. “When you broke up with me, you said you needed someone more serious. ‘Stop dyeing your hair pink and green. Do something normal for once in your life. Why do you try to be such a goddamned individual?’ I have a good memory too, you know. And so I stopped dyeing my hair bright colors and stuck with this purple here—I’ve been told it looks like kind of natural. You know, if purple was a natural hair color. Anyways, I stopped with the crazy clothes and attitude for the most part too.”
“You changed for me?” He smiled.
“No, I didn’t fucking change for you. I didn’t change at all. I’m still a goddamned individual but now I look all right to work in an office,” she said. There was a pause. He tried to grab her free hand again but she put it in her skirt pocket.
“You’re right.” He shrugged his shoulders. “This was a mistake. It always was.” He scratched his head. “I’d appreciate you leaving before Jill gets home from the gym.”
Prudence rolled her eyes and John expected her to slip in some sarcastic remark about Jill being one of those girls so instead she bit the inside of her lip too and walked out of the apartment, French bread in hand. Before closing the door behind her, Prudence said, “Goodbye, John.” The door thudded behind her.
John stared at the door knowing that she was not going to return again. He had started a new life with Jill. It was one that was less dramatic and didn’t end in shouting, a flip of the finger, and a thud of the door at the end of the night. One where he had stability. He sat on the couch and finished Prudence’s glass of wine and then his.
It was cabernet, he thought. Nursing the bottle of wine in one hand, he reached out his other hand, trying to picture Jill’s hands in his. He thought hers were small and smooth— imperfection free. As he bent his fingers, he didn’t feel any lingering ghost, but just his bent fingers touching his palms. He took a swig.
If Jill walked in, it would look really strange that her Johnny was clenching his fist, holding a bottle of wine. She would run over to him, glistening from her work-out, and open his palm to hold his hand. When she would see the burn, she’d be concerned and ask if he was all right. Then she’d see the ash on the carpet and smell the air. When her Johnny would reply that he felt nothing there at all, her next words would be: “We’re throwing the cigarettes out now.”
Christina Mortellaro is a junior English (creative writing) and Communication major at SUNY Geneseo. In 2012, “Pretty in Blue” placed first in Nonfiction in Geneseo’s English Department writing contest and was published in Gandy Dancer’s spring 2013 issue. In addition, she had a review featured in the May 2013 issue of Pif. Her poetry has been recognized in The John Gardner Writing Society and Genesee Community College writing contests. In her spare time, Christina cross stitches and watches too much Netflix. If she could have tea with any author, she would with Agatha Christie because she’s English and would make delicious tea.