I remember her cigarette, chalky white and speckled with splashes of black Yunan tea, contrasting with her teal painted nails. Her thumb and forefinger convened at an optimal mid-point on the filter, pinching in all the right places, creating furrows that caught the evening sun and turned the ochre paper gold.
She placed the cigarette to her lips where it lay stained scarlet. She closed her eyes and took a long, deep, deliberate breath.
The mournful ash brightened momentarily as the sudden rush of oxygen invigorated the smoldering paper that teetered between two worlds — the chalky white of the past and the unpromising, flakey grey of the future. It burned brightly then became molten and soft, realising its prime had passed in a breath. It joined the long, grey trail that arched beneath its own delicate weight and watched its fate unfurl. Its destiny an ash-filled graveyard of stubbed out ends.
She opened her eyes and lips as a murder of crows flew over and divided us. Grey flakes announced themselves, like the first ominous snows of a long winter, soft, gentle, and foreboding, and settled themselves on her porcelain plate. A final indecisive flake joined late, it swayed and fluttered on its own journey, lifted momentarily by a passing summer breeze, before hesitating again as it fell. It seemed, momentarily, that it was destined for the gilded edge of her plate. But, in that moment, as a wasp rudely interrupted and investigated the remains that lay between us, it fluttered away causing the flake to reposition its course before finally settling on the black surface of her Yunan tea.
We sat and watched each other, watching our future create itself before us. My eyes enlivened, turning and turning in expectation. Her gaze was indifferent at first (a small speck of mascara danced as she blinked) until her crow’s feet stretched and grew into talons.
Some say it takes thirty muscles to smile and twice as many to frown. I watched on anxiously for the birth of the thirty-first. One muscle now in that frozen moment decided our future together. Across the expanse that sat between us, over the remains of her meal (pushed at and involuntarily shared towards the end), through the warm and sweet, tobacco scented air we gazed at each other. And as a passing car sent reverberations that travelled up the wooden legs of the table and disturbed the ash’s peaceful repose in its Yunan bath, I saw the birth of a frown, announced by the tiny pitter-patter of her masseter muscle stretching itself above her perfect cheekbone.
She bent her fingers back, her teal nails chipped at the cuticles, and extinguished the carcinogenic remains in the overflowing tray. Its dying breath released some residual ash which, feeling suddenly invigorated in the winter of its life, danced into the summer air. Others remained, crushed beneath the filter (its ochre skin now peeled back in places, exposing its spongy core, blackened and ravished by tar).
As she lifted her fingers, I noticed particles of stowaway ash had embedded themselves into the shallower indents of her flawless thumb and felt jealous of their intimacy. She turned her head from side to side and surveyed the street. Lovers laughed, waiters danced between chairs, and somewhere a dog delighted as a cat got surprised. Then I realised that this was a slow, deliberate shake of the head. Once. Twice. Three times. It was her final act of exasperated disapproval.
‘Go away’ she said, ‘I don’t want you here’ she elaborated. ‘Stop annoying me.’
I wasn’t surprised by her displeasure. After all, I saw it coming.
I left nursing my rapidly beating, broken heart and glanced back as she lit another cigarette. Feeling happy that the winds of chance had brought an unassuming fly like me to such a beautiful woman’s table. Happy for those brief moments we shared together on that perfect summer’s evening.