Smoke and Sunshine

By Gillian Smit

My dad smoked a pack a day until his lungs gave out.  Uncle Eddie cried at the funeral before running outside to light up.  And here I am, standing at the corner of Haight and Central, gripping a cigarette like it’s the only thing I’ve got in this world.

A girl waves at me through the window of a coffee shop across the street.  She’s just like my sister described—long blonde braid and a quirked smile. If that isn’t enough, the tie-dyed scarf around her forehead is a dead giveaway.

I mash the cigarette into the pavement and jaywalk to the other side of the street, happy to have it out of my mouth.  After years of trying different brands, I still don’t like the taste.

The smell of brewing coffee hits me as I step inside.  I find her table by the window and drop into the seat across from her.

“I’m Michael.”

“Sunny.”  Her lips twist into another smirk, the kind that makes you think she knows something you don’t.  “It’s nice to finally meet you after all your sister has told me.”

My lighter, the one I got from Grandpa Joe on my sixteenth birthday, is still in my hand.  I flip it a few times nervously.

“You smoke.”  Her sharp words cutting through the room’s hum.

“Since I was fourteen,” I say.

“Oh.”

I stuff the lighter into the pocket of my canvas jacket.  My finger traces a crooked heart etched into the table as I wonder if I should get up to buy a cup of coffee or get up to leave.

“You want anything?” I ask.

“Just a tea is fine,” she says.  As I stand up, she adds, “Matcha latte, half soy milk, half coconut milk.  Oh,

and one pump of sweetener. In whatever their smallest size is.”

“Right.”  I pass a table of three loud women on my way to the counter.  “Can I get a small tea please.” I stutter

Sunny’s list, worried I’m forgetting something.

“Five-fifteen,” mutters the guy behind the counter, a 20-some-year-old with dyed black hair and a nose ring.

“For a small?”

He nods.

“Damn.”  I hand him singles and coins.

The pierced cashier stares at Sunny as he makes her drink.

“She’s out of your league, dude,” I tell him with a grin.

He gives me a once-over.

“And you think she’s in yours?”  He sets the tea on the counter and turns away.

What an asshole.

I bring Sunny her tea and take my seat again, feeling just as uncomfortable as before.

“Thanks.”

“I hope I got everything right,” I say, searching for my next line.  Of all the girls my big sister has tried to set me up with, this is the only meeting I’ve ever agreed to.

She sips her tea.

“Uh, Sarah told me you’re an artist,” I say.

“Yeah.  I’m going to school at the Art Institute.  I grew up in Washington—well, Oregon and then Washington—but I moved out here for college.  Guess I was getting a little tired of my parents and brothers telling me what to do. Anyway, I like to paint and draw and work with mixed media and sculpt.  Well, not sculpting so much because I’m not very good—” She cuts herself off as her cheeks glow a rosy color. “Sorry if I’m rambling. My friends tell me I talk too much.”

“I have to admit, I’ve never been much of an art person.”

“What about old movies?” she asks.  “Do you like those?”

I think back to my seven-year-old self sitting on a stained floral couch watching black-and-white movies with my Aunt Carla.

Humphrey Bogart, she would say.  Now there’s a man.

My dad had called them “chick flicks.”  As soon as he arrived, the screen flickered with a ball game.  I can picture him sitting there, a Budweiser in one hand and a Lucky in the other.

“They’re alright, I guess,” I say.

The clinking of dishes echoes from behind the counter.

“So?” she says.

I stare at her.

“So what?” I ask.

Raising her eyebrows, she nods her head toward me.

“This is the part where you reveal your backstory,” she says.

I drum my fingers against the table and stare at the ceiling.

“I didn’t go to college, I’ve been living in my sister’s extra bedroom for eleven months now, and I work at a music store.”  So much for trying not to seem like a deadbeat.

“You’re a musician?”  Her eyes widen.

“No, I just work there.  Unpacking boxes and working the register and stuff.”  I quickly add, “But my uncle works in construction in Cupertino.  He’s trying to get me a job there.”

“Oh, good.”  She lets out a breath.  “The last relationship I had with a musician didn’t end well.”

I can’t help but chuckle.  

“So, it’s just you and your sister?” she asks.

“And her on-and-off boyfriend.  In her own words, ‘It’s complicated.’”  I swallow. “My dad died three years ago, a few months after I graduated high school.  I haven’t heard from my mom since I was fourteen.”

“I’m sorry.”

I take the paper napkin from underneath her cup and make creases in it, folding edges and corners until it becomes a sloppy paper crane.  Her crooked smile returns.

“That’s cool,” she says.  “I’ve always wanted to learn how to do that.”

“I thought you were an art major.”

“Origami didn’t make it onto my schedule this semester,” she says with teasing eyes.  “Can you teach me?”

“It would look a lot better if it was made of paper,” I say.

“We’ll just have to make do with what we have.”

I grab two more napkins and go through the steps with her.

“That’s good.”  I watch her make the final fold.  “You sure you haven’t done this before?”

“Beginner’s luck, I guess.”

“It’s a hell of a lot better than mine, for sure.”  I set my crane on the table. “Look, he can’t even keep his neck straight.”

She laughs and adjusts the bird’s head to keep it from falling over.

“If you had gone to college, what would you have studied?”  She lines up the three origami birds.

“Criminology,” I say.  “I got into to San Jose State, but when my dad got sick—well, things changed.”

My stomach isn’t in the mood for coffee.  Unsure of what else to say, I pull the lighter from my pocket and start spinning it between my fingers.

“Would you ever consider quitting?” she asks.

“Why?”  I palm the lighter and meet her eyes for the first time in minutes.

“Maybe I don’t like the fact that you smoke,” she says.

“Well, maybe I don’t like the way you dress like a hippie.”

If only that were true.  I can’t stop staring at the braided choker circling her throat and the way her loose white shirt gently moves every time the door opens.

“Humphrey Bogart smoked,” I say.  Maybe if I had one of Bogey’s hats and half of his confidence she’d be more impressed.

“Just because I like Van Gogh’s paintings doesn’t mean I like guys who are alcoholics,” she says.

I give her one of the smirks she’s been sporting since she introduced herself.

“Then you’d be better off spending your afternoon staring at a Van Gogh, sunshine.”

My chair scrapes the checkered floor.  There’s no point in hanging around. With my hand against the door, I give her a final glance.

She sure is pretty.

I shove a cigarette between my lips and greet the cold San Francisco afternoon.