It’s been a month since I’ve been here. On my first night, I wrapped myself in soft white cloth and remembered something I had never experienced. Embraced in the second-hand smoke of the people who came before me, I became alert to the fact that I was somewhere I deeply didn’t understand. Who still smokes inside anyway?
So I’m sitting in the dining room, the brown table cloth scattered with tiny burn marks. Looking down at me is a picture from sometime in the 1980s, a man standing staunchly in front of an open Arizona landscape. There, he was the cowboy he always dreamed of being. Here, my vision is clouded.
His wife sits across me, the haze from her left hand drifting to meet the cowboy near the ceiling. The walls around her are bare, excluding a few other memories pinned and framed. They keep newspapers of personal importance and maps of places they’ve been, though I’m not sure of the last time something has changed on that wall. She doesn’t walk anymore, but she can still sing. My eyes fall back to her and she gives me a warm smile; I hope she knows that I am happy to be here.
The aging cowboy comes out of the kitchen and gives the soft singer a large kiss on the top of her head, slyly drawing the cigarette from her hand for a drag. He grabs her by the waist and helps her to the other room. Life has slowed down with them, and I’m good moving at their pace.
Their son isn’t like them. Back at his store, he’s a hurricane though the towering stacks. Disembodied items that once had meaning but simply catch ash now cram each available surface. Fallen frames and long-dead animals fill every nook, soft trails of dust curling like exhaust wherever I go. I’ve been working here for so many hours and still have so much to find. The loose tiles crunch beneath my feet as I pass the stairwell that I’ve never seen the end of. It’s strange that I can already see the end of my time here.
Their son is like his store, you see. Always shifting, adding, booming, but never taking the time to sweep away the cobwebs. His days extend to twenty hours and repeat everything in full tomorrow. But he doesn’t smoke — you’re not allowed to smoke inside his store.
His wife is stiff as she strikes a lighter in her office; the flame is the only one to speak. My time with her is quiet, frozen. I hope I am happy to be here.
Even as a time she loved, my mom has told me how hard it was for her to start college. New state, new people, new life. And notably, her roommate smoked. No matter what my mom did, the smell would never wash away. She would bury her face in folds of second-hand haze and cry, loneliness now forever defined by the scent of smoke stained towels.
But the most important part of her story is that things got better.
The aging cowboy and the soft singer took me on a drive today, their car strewn with fossilized ash. Blurring through the green country with tiny towns and happy lives, I thought about a dream. It might not be Arizona, but here is someone I only imagined I could be.
I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard at first. But every day when I step out of the shower, I wrap myself with knowing that I am not alone.
Lambent: (of light or fire) glowing, gleaming, or flickering with a soft radiance.