My Welsh roommate, whom I call the Welshman, sits with his feet up on the railing of the balcony of our sixth-floor apartment. It’s winter in Nagasaki, Japan and we are both English teachers working for an English language school. For lack of anything better to do (and drinking money), we have resorted to telling stories about our past.
He takes a drag of his cigarette, blows out smoke, and then looks at the cigarette in his hand at length. “I’d really like to quit, but they’re just so bloody cheap here. And the convenience―right out of the vending machine. Can’t beat the convenience, now can you? What were we talking about again?”
Looking at the cigarette hanging out of my roommate’s mouth, I suddenly crave a smoke. My mask of stoic resistance holds well, I think, until the Welshman asks me if I want to bum a cigarette from him.
“Yeah,” I say honestly. “But I think I’m going to pass all the same.”
“When’s the last time you smoked?”
The last time I smoked was about two months after my foster mother’s death and about four or so hours into what, for lack of a better term, I will call a nervous breakdown. It’s Florida, more than a year earlier and I’m speeding down I-95 in search of the shaggy monsters of my youth so that I can sit out on the beach and feel part of something again.
My lapse into complete and utterly mad sanity doesn’t happen quickly. After Debra dies, I find myself in classes like everything is pretty much back to normal. I carry on with the ritual of my life because I have bills to pay and a degree to finish. Then one day it comes on me like an avalanche. I step out onto the grass in front of the Arts and Sciences building, something deep in my bowels grabs me by the heart and tears something loose, and then I’m crying. It starts with a few tears and then snowballs into something deeper and more painful.
It’s that time in the morning when all the kids are making their way to class. I must look ridiculous with tears streaming down my face, blowing snot and blubbering. But the pain is too real and present for me to care what the other students think.
I find myself going back to my apartment, still sniffling with the occasional blubbering. I pick up a few tools I have lying around, and soon I find myself boosting some guy’s car not too far from my school. It’s the middle of the afternoon, and I’m fairly obvious about it. But the few people that pass by don’t seem to care what I’m doing. For a moment, I stop my blubbering to think about what a beautiful day it is and how great it will feel once I’m on the road speeding down I-95. And soon, I’m on my way somewhere. I have no idea where at first. But it occurs to me that I have some unfinished business. Soon, I’m past West Palm Beach and I’m not stopping. In the front seat, I have a recently purchased bottle of vodka. The pack of cigarettes I find in the glove compartment.
Why not? As a revolt against the last four or five years of my life, I light up and puff away. There is nothing triumphant about my revolt. (A man who claims the puff of a cigarette and the lame chug of cheap vodka as victory is a sad specter indeed.) But there is the bittersweet relief of the fall. In my mind, I can see Debra as she lies there in her final helpless moments, her eyes motionless and her breath fading.
At the age of twenty-one, almost twenty-two, I feel once again like going home.
The congestion of South Florida traffic begins to clear up and with the open road I find a new sense of freedom. I’m a child again, and for me that means simultaneously growing older and more feral. In my mind, I find cats meowing and the cigarette smoke of the Welshman slapping me in the face, and I chug vodka in order to drown out their cries. In the background, the wind is picking up, the convertible dies away, as does the vodka, and I find myself back on the balcony with the Welshman.
I take one of his smokes. The thing in my bowels tries to grab for my heart but instead hits something heavy and motionless, and I smile. The wet soppy, blubbering tears of twenty-one almost twenty-two dry up into the little impulsive tears of almost twenty-three, and there is something triumphant inside me that shouts as the thing in my bowels grasps around helplessly for something to pull apart.
I laugh a little.
“You alright, mate?” the Welshman asks.