BY THOMAS HEALY
Irene entered the hallway closet and pulled the cedar cigar box from the top shelf and took out one of the Jamaican cigars and returned the box to the shelf. She then stepped into the living room, sat down in her velvet armchair, and carefully removed the wrapper. With her fingernail she made a slight incision in the head of the cigar then lit it, puffing awkwardly for a moment. She set the match in the ashtray on the coffee table then alongside it placed the dark brown cigar and leaned back in the chair, quietly savoring the strong masculine smoke.
Today was Walter's birthday. He was nearly six years older than Irene, though he looked considerably younger when they first got to know one another, at times even seemed about her age. Grudgingly she calculated how old he would have been today.
"Thirty-seven," she muttered through her teeth as the bluish-gray smoke swirled up from the crystal ashtray. "It was hard to imagine him that old."
For her, he would always be twenty-six, the age he was when the speedboat he was riding in lost control and crashed into a Costa Rican pier. They had only gone out together a few months before the accident but already she knew he was the person she wanted to spend the rest of her life with and she believed he felt the same way about her. They had spoken often of vacationing together that summer in Costa Rica where his older brother had a home and even had made tentative plans to leave a house near the hospital where he was employed as a physical therapist. And then he was gone and all her dreams and aspirations suddenly vanished as if they had never been a serious possibility in the first place. She had loved him more than anyone she had ever known, and suspected she always would, and yet at the same time she was infuriated at him for doing something reckless enough to cost him his life. Somehow she felt he had betrayed her, as surely as if he had left her for another woman.
A loose ribbon of smoke drifted past her and idly she watched it twist toward the ceiling. The cigar had not developed much of an ash yet, she then noticed, recalling that she had once figured that it took forty-three minutes for one of the thick Jamaican cigars to burn all the way out.
Every year since Walter died she had lit a cigar on his birthday and sat in her living room and recalled some of her fondest memories of him until the cigar grew cold in the ashtray. She really didn't have any mementoes to remind her of him other than a couple of snapshots they sat for in a carnival booth on the waterfront. But the aroma of one of his precious cigars would never let her forget him because he was often puffing on one of the blasted things when she was around him. The smoke, she believed, was every bit as tangible and evocative as any picture or medallion or garment of clothing. She reckoned she was not that different than an uncle of hers who, as a youngster, was rescued from a burning department store and for the rest of his life recalled the lopsided grin of the fire fighter who carried him out whenever he heard a fire engine siren howling down a street.
Today was not the first time this year she had lit one of Walter's cigars. Whenever she was feeling particularly depressed she brought one out, confident the scent would brighten her mood. Three and a half years ago when the first serious strains in her marriage became evident, she started hauling out the cigars, and by the time the divorce decree was granted, she was lighting up four or five a week. The smell got into the upholstery, the rugs, the drapes, into every square inch of the living room, and for a while she could not have been more pleased. Everywhere the air tasted of smoke. Seldom did she recall her former husband even though she was surrounded by objects he had bought for her during the course of their marriage.
"I've always known there was someone like you waiting for me," she remembered Walter telling her shortly before he left for Costa Rica the last time. "I just didn't know if we'd ever meet."
Neither did she, she thought, rotating the cigar enough to loosen some of the ash, but thank God they did.
The first time she ever laid eyes on him was at the therapy pool of the Madigan Park Medical Center where she went to relieve the pain of a shoulder she dislocated in a bicycle accident. Walter was not in charge of the therapy program she was enrolled in but he was responsible for leading the participants through a rigorous set of stretching exercises, which he did from the side of the pool, with an unlit cigar tucked in the corner of his mouth because smoking was prohibited inside the facility. Toward the end of the session he removed his cigar and in a voice almost as craggy as his face led everyone in a rendition of "Yellow Submarine" then warbled through several more Lennon and McCartney songs. At first, she felt rather foolish singing there in the pool but soon she came to relish it as much as the others. Indeed, one of her fondest memories was watching Walter conduct the spontaneous sing-alongs at poolside, his unlit cigar as emphatic as any maestro's baton. So many times she wished she could be back there with him, and though that was impossible, she could always make-believe she was whenever she lit one of his cigars.
Still familiar with the lyrics to "Here, There and Everywhere," she began to sing them in a soft whisper, as if worried someone might hear her, the strong cigar smoke continuing to swirl around her head.
Thomas Healy was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, and his stories have appeared in such online journals as Brink, The Foliate Oak, Lily, and Shine.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007