It was one of those nights. You know, one of those nights that are so dark beyond the reaches of the two outdoor lights you can’t see anything but that beached abyss until it reaches the coast of the stars. Only then can you see the silhouette of the leafless trees shudder in the weak, coughing wind of the autumn night like tuning forks and only then do you realize the leaves fallen from the clutches of those branches are breathing silent whispers across the brown, damp grass as they are pushed with very little force like a million abandoned kites after their strings popped. I bet if you listened hard enough you’d probably here the swan song of summer sifted like flour among the brown and gold, now invisible fallen adornments from the trees above.
I found myself leaning against the rail of the deck behind my friend’s house as a Halloween party rolled and tumbled inside. I was never one to drink but never one to judge because I had been there and I’d had my one-too-many’s and sleepless nights (alcohol gives me insomnia these days) as well as my shouldn’t haves and prayers to the porcelain god. Oh yes, I have made my mistakes and I am old enough to know how to avoid them and I have applied that wisdom to know one. I am not a role model or a teacher, but a doctor of sorts. I have been there too many times to keep people on their sides and near the toilet. I guess you could say I’ve seen it from both sides and so I try to stay away from it when I’m not in the comfort of my own home. Even then, it’s usually just one beer or a finger or two of scotch whisky.
Anyway, I was leaning against the rail of the deck which came up to about my navel. My elbows were under my shoulders and I was tipping forward over the edge staring off into the nothingness that was the night. My neck tucked into my shoulders as a reaction from the cold and I laid the back of one hand in the other, the right one had a newly lit cigarette in between its index and forefinger, slowly burning away, letting off whips of smoke to dissipate off into nothingness where it belonged. I wasn’t paying much attention to it; one never does when between drags except to give it an idle flick to clear away any unwanted ash that had collected around tip. People who have smoked a while do this out of habit, almost unconsciously and without having to make eye contact with their smoke. I remember feeling sort of like that: burning away slowly into ash and smoke.
It was quiet out there except for the trees and the leaves. The holiday itself was still a little less than a week away so there wasn’t much of a ruckus being made yet about costumes, candy, and kids. I was assuming there were just neighbors who were annoyed with the new kids who just moved in and were likely having some sort of drunken orgy and sacrificing small animals on an altar they had fashioned in their garage. Why else would they never see a car exit or enter that structure? Yes, it could be that kind of town but as having grown up strange our entire lives we sang our songs and wore our concert t-shirts and blasted heavy metal one the way to work. I could hear some music start up in the house and wanted no part of it. The night was getting heavy for some reason.
I took a drag as i heard the sliding glass door glide across its track as someone else decided to step outside. I kept my back to the door. At this age, most people are married and have kids so I was feeling like the third wheel in every conversation I was a part of. That’s just a part of growing up. Eventually, everyone gets a family and a “real job” and talks about clients and meetings and how their kid is teething. It’s all so much noise to me now. I’ve taken to politely walking backwards out of those conversation circles and often someplace else where I don’t fit in. This is so typical now. It’s almost a cliché.
“Got a light?” Speaking of clichés. Someone saddled up next to me at the edge of the deck. I reached into my pocket and pulled out a cheap lighter covered in 8 balls. I vacillate between smoker and non-smoker so often I never saw the point in investing anything more than the 89 cents it costs for one at the gas station.
I don’t bother looking at my new companion directly. I just reached into the front pocket of my hoodie and handed her the lighter while I stared out into the darkness and let it stare right back.
Through my peripheral vision I could see the basic shape of what I’m guessing was an average height woman (the voice was a big tip-off) who was staring down the barrel of her cancer stick and lighting the end. I heard the familiar scrape of the lighter sparking a flame and I see small plumes of smoke exit either sides of her mouth. She made a peace sign and placed the now let cigarette between her fingers and handed me back my lighter bottom first. I always wondered why people handed over lighters bottom first but never bothered to ask. Another trivial matter for another trivial day.
I could hear the stopped-up inhale of lips pursed around the butt of a smoke and the subtle sigh and exhale as smoke drifted in my direction. A slight breach in etiquette but I let it pass because I, like a delayed mirror took a drag myself and let the smoke glide between my lips like water in a stream. I wondered if her open posture was just natural or if she was just not ready to look into the darkness like I was. People tend to open their stance to people they want to talk to. I hoped she was just one of those self-absorbed girls who didn’t want to lose her phone over the edge of the deck and she’d leave me alone.
“What are you doing out here all by yourself?” She politely asked while she took another drag.
My gaze shifted slightly to my right to see what kind of animal I was dealing with. She was average height with blonde hair. She was average size where you could see some of her flesh bunch up over her belt. I couldn’t tell you what she was dressed as and, quite frankly, I didn’t care. Everyone’s a pretender on Halloween. That’s all you really need to know about the holiday. Actually, you need to know that every day; Halloween’s just an excuse to play dress-up again and play some storyline archetype that’s more revealing of their psyche than they choose to think about.
I took a drag from my cigarette and looked down at my boots as I kicked at one of the support beams.
“I usually come out here to get away from people,” my words as blunt as I could make them. I shifted my gaze with a sardonic grin across my face as I met her eyes.
“I know what you mean.” She turned out towards the darkness, like a captain standing at the bow of a ship, surveying the waters.
“Do you?” I said between inhale and exhale, talking to the air. This should be good.
“Yeah. I only bring cigarettes to parties like this so I have a reason to step away from all the banal conversation. Since when did families and jobs replace hopes and dreams?” She placed both hands, palms down, on the railing with her cigarette sticking up like a pike to impale the night’s insecurities on.
My cigarette in my mouth dropped to pointing towards the floor, barely grasped between my lips. Was there an echo out here? Had I been out here brooding long enough my thoughts had become like a disease and crawled into this woman’s head through her ears? It may not have been Halloween but it felt like there were ghosts in the air blowing cold gusts through my back as I tried to maintain my nonchalant composure. Lest we forget I still didn’t care.
“Yeah…” I said to fill the silent gap she’d formed one side of and left me to throw up the other wall to contain the conversation, otherwise it would lose what little momentum it had. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure what to say and my default is always to say nothing at all. You learn more about people that way as they will generally just keep talking.
“What about you?” She curled her smoke into a question mark for a moment.
I felt my back and shoulders tense up. I came out here to avoid conversation. Of all the things I hate to do. Explaining myself is one of them. I keep to myself. I write and listen to music and rarely does anyone actually want to hear the garbage I have to day. By the light of of the sun I’m a non-entity who does his job and goes home. By the light of the moon I am a writer, a musician, an avid reader, and film fanatic. But nobody cares, or has cared in the past. It’s always just been me and so I found myself a little more than aggravated for a moment as if she was invading my personal space. I was me and I would not be laid bare for anyone.
And of course, I couldn’t lie. She was cute. Damn my eyes.
So, I took a deep breath of fresh air, the kind of breath that jacks your shoulders up to your ears and presses your lungs against the inside of your rib cage like a bursting keg.
“Well… I’m out here because this is where I’ve always been.
In there I am nobody because I don’t have the credentials, the skills, or the energy to be one of them.
This place? This pace drains the life of me like one side of the hourglass and turns me over just to do it to me again and because I care about the few friends I have in there I take it.
Truth is, I’m almost terrified of social situations and I don’t drink to turn it off. I used to drink but it made me a maniac when became too much so I stopped. I don’t even know why I came tonight now that I’ve said all that.” I looked down and realized I’d smoked to the filter, so I lit another one.
I looked down and could feel the sweat from the anxiety and shame. If there had been better light my face had probably turned a nice crimson color. I felt my upper lip curl in scorn. I should never be so honest with a complete stranger. Stupid. I was stupid.
“Yep. That’s about right,” she said. ”Can I borrow your lighter again?”