Kelly liked to burn her arms with the butts of the cigarettes.
It wasn’t much of a thrill to Cal, but his knowing was a sort of initiation into the act. It usually happened on Thursdays, sometimes Sundays, always her calling first. She liked Cal’s place because there was a balcony, with rotting wood and wilting plants in teal clay pots that belonged to Cal’s girl, but mostly that the balcony was on the top floor away from the views of any of the other apartments.
Daylight savings had just happened—that night she called there was light still in the sky. Stepping through the threshold onto the cramped little balcony she nodded approvingly to the pink sky and said to Cal, “It’s a good time, tonight.”
“Guess so,” Cal replied, closing the door softly behind him. “Liz sleeps like a rock. Work’s getting to the both of us, I tell you. Good thing about her coming home early is rest. Not me.”
“No kidding.” She grabbed the carton of Camels from under one of Liz’s pots.
“Uh huh. I gotta let some old college bud of mine come around the place to sit and talk good shit about life and how unemployment’s being a bitch.”
Kelly’s laugher was rough and slightly shook the shot glasses in Cal’s hand. It didn’t match her posh cleaned-up Amy Winehouse appearance in that polka-dot dress she was wearing. “It’s not being a bitch anymore!” she started. “I got a contact from a temp lady this week, honest. Something over in San Mateo at a packing place. Assistant, receptionist, or slut one of those.”
“You reply?” Cal poured Jaeger into the glasses and handed one glass—and with a lighter—to Kelly.
“Fuck no. I’d have missed today.” She pulled her bracelets off and over the scars that were well concealed beneath the beads and bangles. She lit up, and after a few calming smokes she stuck the stick directly onto the last infliction that was barely scabbing. She gave the same cigarette to Cal, who snatched it and lightly tapped the lit end onto his upper arm.
“It calms your nerves, makes you want to eat less,” Kelly was saying after a drink of the Jaeger, “but we take it to a whole new level. Of all the things people say about smoking, they don’t beat this.”
Maybe it was the nicotine. Or the ash. The fire was small, and perhaps that was really why the pain wasn’t so harsh upon the skin. After a second tap on his shoulder, Cal looked to Kelly, who was stroking her left arm anticipating her turn. It was charred, it seemed, pocked with raw and rough lesions. Cal’s looked natural, like moles. As Kelly went on cursing the temp woman, Cal wondered about the extent to which his arms would start showing.
Liz started to see the changes. “Holy shit,” she exclaimed one breakfast, pulling his arm back from the espresso machine. The scab was rising through the sleeve of his white v-neck. “I know that’s never been there before, babe.”
He pulled away, rushing to put the ground beans in and over-filled the filter. “I swear that too. Saw it this morning, maybe a bug bite.”
“Hope to God it is so,” Liz said stroking the arm softly.
He made sure Kelly came after dinner that week, as Liz would be out for the night babysitting her sister’s boys. It was a better night; Kelly was more focused, rather enthusiastic. He did the usual two, she maxed at seven. But on his last one she leaned over and kept his hand in place, making sure the butt got deeper and pressed longer against his arm. “It’s a tension release,” she said rather excitedly.
Two weeks passed, and Liz saw that the bump wasn’t gone. Coming home from work, Cal was checked a voicemail from his doctor. “You called Dr. Martin?” he asked to Liz, coming out from the bedroom.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said, sitting down at the kitchen table and burying her face in her smooth, porcelain arms. “Hasn’t it been any concern for you?”
“Bites take time to heal—”
“Bullshit, just bullshit. It’s scaring the shit out of me how it’s gotten worse, and you still think it’s gonna go down.”
There was a long pause. “I’m not going to see Dr. Martin,” he firmly said.
“You could die from this,” Liz spoke softly. “You uncle didn’t he find something like—”
“Don’t be fucking dramatic.” He couldn’t be at the place anymore. He grabbed the keys and walked out.
Kelly was sure surprised, but not in any distress over her lack of accommodating a guest. The room she rented was pretty minimal, white lumpy beddings and a black wooden bed against gray walls where she’d hung some magazine clippings and photos. The only real colors to the room were her red pillows and yellow ashtray—flowing with burnt out butts.
Cal said nothing, only sitting at the edge of the bed and rolling back a sleeve. Kelly had been doing it already herself before his arrival. “Just one more,” she said.
“I can wait.”
He’d forgotten in a matter of minutes, listening to Kelly go on and on about the sensations she was just getting, sipping coke from the can and amusing at the legends before her. Film stars, mafia crooks, Victorian London gentlemen in their humble clubs out playing pool and sitting by fires—they all shared the joys in the cigarette. It got Cal thinking, and he never really thought during these sessions.
“And what joy do you share with them?” he finally asked her.
She flung her head back and smiled. “See those guys, they had to take it in. With us, pal we take it on the outside. I’m not getting killed, I’m not.” She paused on her own words, continuing, “There is joy in smoking, as there is pain. There’s the pain in the burn, the sharp pinch of it and the fire searing into the flesh.”
“I’m amazed Cal. You never once asked why I’m into this shit. You’ve always been a pal, and you’re still one. I’m sure as fuck going downhill, and you, you’re going down with me.”
“I’m not going down, Kelly.” He started thinking—missing—Liz at the apartment, alone and worried endlessly about Cal. She didn’t even know Kelly existed.
“Yes you are. You never questioned me once, but you took interest to the butt. We do it ‘cause we know there’s better out there. The pain of something so small and scarring as the cigarette doesn’t compare to what good awaits us. This is rock bottom, and the burns say so.”
Cal didn’t stir. His hand moved to his shoulder, pressing onto the raw flesh that was charred. He stood up, about to leave—his arm sleeve was still rolled up.
“So soon?” Kelly asked, looking surprised.
“I uh,” he began to answer, “I need to make an appointment with my doctor.”
“You’re not staying for one?”
He stopped, turning around to say, “I guess just one.”
He flipped the cigarette around and took a drag before stepping out.
This was always a story that even now I find difficult to come to terms with. Its shortness, the darkness and play on the concept of smoking– as troubled as I get over this story I am equally proud of it, proud for stepping outside of that comfort zone you seek as a writer, making it all the more difficult to cope with, I guess.