The woman raced her son toward nicotine addiction. It began like a game.
She had told him not to smoke. He nodded, but kept smoking. Ashtrays appeared in the kitchen and living room and accumulated soft black anthill piles. She said, Don’t you bring those things into my house. He took them out to his car. You still smell like cigarettes, she said. My friends, he said. He began having to rest after long runs for high school track, hands heavy on his knees and face brutally cheerful in case she might be looking. She said, Those friends of yours won’t stop you from hurting yourself? They’re my friends, he said; they let me make my own choices.
If they won’t — she said. And the game began.
He had several months’ advantage, and smoked extra to spite her at first, but with perseverance she gained quickly. She read up on her options and chose Parliaments, for maximum corrosiveness (cloves seemed too indulgent). The living room ashtrays, scrupulously cleaned out by her a month earlier, filled again. Sometimes they spilled over, scattering their waste on the good blue carpet.
I love you, she said, coming in to kiss him goodnight, fiercely.
To begin with she set herself to a strict regimen, one pack a day. For the first week at least, it was difficult not to be overcome with dizziness from the fourth cigarette on; but she reminded herself that that was all right, that was good, and made sure her son was nearby when she had to lean against the wall for support. She stopped lecturing him, did not even glance in his direction when she would start to cough. Did not speak about it. Just let the coughs, sorry and explosive, shake her frame.
This is ridiculous, he said.
He was worse off, still. His coughing was less frequent but stretched on, thick and gray and dry, and he leaned against the same wall outside his room (my wall, he thought) and considered breaking the habit.
Eventually her equilibrium was restored and she could function on a pack a day, rarely coughing. This would not do. She bought a carton and determined to make it disappear as fast as possible.
He bit his lip. You’ve made your point, he said, and threw his half-finished cigarette down on the porch, crushing it under his heel in a smear of ground black guts.
Not yet I haven’t, she said.
She held his face, I love you, and kissed him goodnight, and her fingertips smelled like ash against his cheeks.
He went to the store for a nicotine patch and stopped outside the door. Decided not to bother with halfways. Turned around, came back, flushed his last pack down the drain one by one till the toilet clogged and they had to call the plumber.
She stopped running. She left the meeting for a cigarette break. Her lipsticks all smelled like Reds. He went through withdrawal and hated her, first for making him and second for having cigarettes when he couldn’t. He shivered.
He came out of his room, not shaking, finally, and spread his hands wide. That’s it, he said. I’m done. And his tired face cracked for a moment into an incredulous smile.
She hugged him. Baby, she said. Baby, baby, baby.
That means you can stop now, he said. She nodded.
He went downstairs in the middle of the night and she was flicking ash off her cigarette. Are you kidding me? He said. She coughed in a long low stretch into her hand. I’m not — she said — I don’t think you’ve learned your lesson yet. I want to make sure.
Oh my god, he said. I love you, she said, not fierce anymore.
A month later the ashtrays were still full. For Christ’s sake, he said, don’t bring those things into the house. So the car’s glove compartment started wafting tobacco. Her coughs thickened into monsters that wracked her body. He would wake up nights and hear it.
I can’t believe you, he said, and moved out.
She kissed him goodbye, I love you, and he turned his head aside to avoid the stench of her breath and her stained teeth.
When she died in the cancer ward — much later — they took her ashes out to sea and scattered them among the waves. At the sight of the ashes he vomited — ran out into the ocean, kicking up sand — went under — searched — found nothing — and resurfaced choking on the water and ash in his lungs, and coughed and coughed.
Nora Offen is a creative writing major at Bard College, New York.