You know what the air smells of in the cold early mornings that I wake up to? Not the bacon I could have got the supermarket for $3 off, not the cheap coffee brew that is $5, not even the Starbucks brew that is $7 and most certainly not the $11 aromatic shower-gel which claims to give my skin a shine it will have never worn before.
When I was younger and I heard the children coughing in the 3 degree warm streets, I used to hurriedly stub out my cigarette because I felt responsible somehow for their wellness. Now the very same children share lighters with me, and I regret having unnecessarily squeezed out many of the good ones before I had used them to their fullest. But it will not do for me to hide in the shade and the poverty, I have to find something to eat before I am reduced to chewing my own sweater. And it will be a shame, because I am not nimble enough to steal another one at this age.
I was told, in my youth, that the posture of a lady speaks a lot to her beauty. Sit up straight. Walk upright. Never slouch. Walk confidently. Sway your hips if you have them. Set your feet on the ground with determination as if you have a right to walk the earth. Wear the shoes that scream your birthright. Keep those legs in shape, my girl. You never know when they will come handy. I cannot prowl. I cannot lurk. I cannot sulk or stalk. My old, worn out, uncomfortable heels that I have stolen from someone’s backstage clatter down the unfortunate alley as I sashay my way to find food.
The grubby little girls stop and stare. The grubby little boys stop and stare. When there are so many pairs of poor, filthy and uneducated eyes on me, I have to obviously do something spectacular. I take a long pull on my cigarette and blow it up into the cloudy sky, like the dream-catchers at fairs blowing up sparkles into the night. I live off the idolization of children now. This is what has become of me. It doesn’t even spike my guilt when I hear the children break off into groups behind my backs and practice blowing circles from their thinning lips and fragile lungs into the foggy air which heralds sub-zero temperatures.
Clack. Clack. Clack. Do you hear my heels talking? Exactly. They’re counting out how much I care. I can’t be responsible if they grow up and decide that the only way they seek their worth is by ruining their hard-earned money on cigarettes.
I try to enter the subway station, where the morning rush hour has started. I squeeze my form in their midst. A few of the “Excuse me, please”, “Oh, I’m sorry, don’t mind me”, “Lady, can’t you see where you’re going?” -s later, I have already brushed past 14 different kinds of coats and retrieved 6 different tickets and 3 different denominations of spare change. They smell of perfume and money and leather coats. They smell of the things I can’t have. The smell of the life that I have dreamed of beyond my cigarette-ensconced hell-hole which is comfortably warm because I burn both my money and health to keep it alive.
Finally. Finally I feel equipped. There is the store nearby where the old shopkeeper makes it his business to evaluate the functional operations of my legs, critiquing it from shape to how accessible it is. Clack. Clack. Clack. Clack. My wispy hair tries to follow the wind. Clack. Clack. My presence is announced into the store by the little bell that hangs by the door. All eyes are on me, the show must continue. I pull out five of the seven dollars from today’s conquests in notes that I haven’t bothered to carefully fold. I must dispense with someone else’s money as though it were rubbish and not as if it were my blood. After all, it’s not my blood.
“Two packs,” is literally the first thing I have said all morning. My babies are transferred to me over the counter and even though I am weak in the knees at the thought of tearing off that paper, I hold my ground.
“Will that be all?”
See, this where life is unfair. It should have been all. It should have sufficed for everything. It should have made everything okay, especially in this dingy little world and this pathetic store where I am being leered at and the air is the smell of last decade’s subway.
“Uh….And uh….a soda.” I have declared a momentary truce with my stomach and perhaps I will smoke out the rest of my hunger if that is what this war will take.
For $1.39 and taxes, I have two dollars left. Two dollars that will be negotiated afterwards with my stomach and my escapism and my hopeless need for attention.
The wrapper on them claims that cigarettes are injurious to health, and that there are versions that are “cancer-free”. It almost sounds like the “I will leave my wife and marry you” line that the man says when you realize that only one person out of the two invited you to their life.
You know what the air smells of in the cold early mornings that I wake up to? Happy little cancer-causing lies. That’s what they smell of.