Drumming the fingers of her left hand on the table, she turned the cigarette package over and over, a forgotten one nearly burned to the filter curled oddly in the ashtray. She opened the package with her right hand, pulled out the last cigarette, put it in her lips, realized it was turned the wrong way, turned it around and lit it, almost without thinking.
Rita wanted to say something but really, sometimes there are things more difficult, and more immediate than the threat of cancer, either hers or Marney’s. There’s other types of cancer than just the obvious ones. Sometimes there is cancer of the soul.
“If I’d have known I was one cigarette short of the end I’d’ve saved this one, now what am I going to do?” Marney asked no one in particular. She took a drag and pulled the smoke deep into her lungs. Too deep. She coughed.
Bea tsk tsked just loud enough to be heard as she stood at the sink and Rita told her to hush up, that was enough from her, couldn’t she see Marney was upset already?
Bea slammed the glass she was drying onto the counter but said nothing. Rita could just tell from the angle of her shoulders that she was biting her tongue, holding back some snarly comment, but then again, Bea was always either biting back a snarly comment or giving one. Definitely not a woman who radiates joy, by any description.
Rita placed her hand softly over Marney’s drumming fingers, but she paid her no mind. Fingers drummed in stacatto rhythm; Rita wondered if Marney was thinking of a song in her head or this was just mindless tapping. Who knew with Marney. No one ever knew with Marney.
Rita said, “Marney, sweetheart, I hate to see you so sad like this. You’re one smoke shy of a pack smoked here while you’ve been just sitting. Talk to me would you? Please? I don’t know how long you’ve been here now, but you know, Bea and I we’ve eaten and done the dishes, and your plate is just over there, bone cold I’m guessing. So won’t you talk to me dear?”
“You know it’s over a man, Rita,” Bea snapped, “it’s always over a man.”
“It isn’t,” Rita shot back, “and Marney, never you mind. Would you talk to me now please? It’s getting late.”
“I’m tired,” she said, rubbing her eyes, “I’m outta smokes and it isn’t about any damned man Bea!”
“Then what is it?” Rita asked. Marney just shook her head. She leaned over and whispered to Marney, “What do you say we go get ourselves a drink, get some more smokes while we’re at it. You want that?”
Marney cast as glance over to Bea, who still had her back turned and likely didn’t hear the question. She nodded yes, and Rita smiled and winked. “So Marney, let’s go get a Tim’s. A coffee ought to perk you up a bit don’t you think?” And without waiting for an answer, the two stood up, chairs scraping.
Bea bristled. “Next time there’s not going to be any of that smoking going on in here Marney, you hear me? You take it outside. You want to kill yourself, you go right ahead, but you’re not taking me with you!”
“Okay Bea,” Marney replied softly. “No more smoking in Bea’s kitchen.”
“You just remember that!” Bea shot back, but the two were already out the door.
Rita laughed. “That Bea. Do you remember when we were kids, she smoked like all hell and now here she’s all holier than thou now that she quit. Like we don’t remember going to school our clothes all stinking of the smoke.”
Marney looked straight ahead as they walked down the street. “My clothes still to stink of smoke Rita,” she said softly.
“And you know what?” Rita replied, “Times like this I’m glad they do.”
The walked in silence for the block and a half it took to get to the Mac’s Milk store. Bea always said everything cost twice as much as it needed to at these convenience stores, but hey, when you need something right now, chances are they’re the place they have it. Marney bought a large pack of cigarettes, and Rita, a small menthol. Rita rarely smoked but when she went out with Marney, which wasn’t often, she liked to have one or two. The rest she would hand to the next homeless person she walked by, with a loonie tucked inside. If they didn’t smoke she knew one of their buddies would be glad to have them, and a loonie made for a hot cup of coffee on a cool fall day. Both good things.
The lottery said the jackpot was $10 million tonight, so they both bought a couple of tickets with a quick pick. Longshots always, but, as their dad used to joke, the Canadian retirement plan. Now they were older, they both knew that he was probably closer to the truth than either cared to admit.
Tonight though, dad was far from their minds. Something was bothering Marney, and Rita had to find the answer. Marney is just a bit different, you see, and Rita knew that with a bipolar sister, anything was possible. Anything at all. Things had been good lately so it was a bit sad to see her at the table, lost in her own world again, the burden of life sucking her into its very dark depths. She was probably off her medication, or maybe she missed a dose. Whatever, the dark had her in its maw again.
Rita knew that giving a manic depressive person a drink is like pouring gasoline on a fire. But sometimes it did act as a medication, and it was that that she was hoping for this evening. She just had to make sure she watched her closely and make sure she didn’t drink too much. There was a Mexican restaurant nearby that had sangria jugs – that was always a good option because it was a wine drink but mixed with juice and ice so it was more of a punch than a straight up drink and with nachos filling their stomachs, it was likely to be okay. She hoped.
They were lucky. Being a little later than eight p.m., on an evening that had been raining, the restaurant was less full than it would normally have been for a Thursday night. There were seated right away, and near a fireplace which was nice on such a chilly evening and soon there were steaming hot nachos and tall glasses of sangria to warm their insides.
Rita told her all about her day, and the people on the bus she took to the next town every couple of days (she worked out of two different offices, one here, one is the next town 60 kilometres away). Normally Marney liked her stories of the hooting and hollering people drinking beer in the evening from paper bags and telling dirty stories at 5:30 in the morning, followed by shrill laughter. And how they have these weird bus rules about queue jumping and the names they gave to the uncool patrons like the farter and the guy with the lumberman jacket they called axeman and that sort of thing. Tonight though, there was no response.
After a plate of nachos, which Rita was very glad to see Marney had eaten most of them, and one jug of sangria down that they were both responsible for, Marney pushed her plate away, and chewed on an orange slice from her drink.
Rita called the waiter over for another jug. She’d pay for this one in the morning she knew, but life with Marney mandated such evenings. They just did. If she were ever to understand her, if that were at all possible, then this is what she needed to do once in a while.
Marney poured herself another glass of sangria from the fresh jug, and poured her sister one too. “Hey Rita,” she said, her words a little slurred, “boy is Bea going to be pissed off at you.” And she giggled. Life was good when Marney giggled. That also meant the door was opening and she would talk.
“Remember I told you about Daniel?” She asked. Rita nodded and inwardly smiled. Bea was right, this was about a guy. “Well he’s an okay guy to work with, you know? Nothing special there like, between us type of thing, strictly platonic, but I really admire his way of speaking with people. I wish I could speak with people. Like that I mean.”
Rita smiled and took a sip of her drink. Marney continued. “So on our last trip for that presentation in Timmins last week, I told him about my manic depression. I said, I’m bipolar and I’m on medication and I thought he’d be all proud of me. He didn’t say anything, nothing at all, he changed the subject. So today he comes in to the office with his girlfriend. Or his wife. Who the hells knows. She’s just one of those ladies all makeup and hair done just right and she works out all the time, you can tell, and she’s got these effing manicured nails that these girls have, you know?”
Rita laughed. “Yeah I know the type. Wish I had that kinda time. We’d all look that good if that was all we did, making ourselves look gorgeous.”
“Yeah. So okay, so he’s introducing her around and all and me he just says really loud in her ear like I’m deaf or something and tells her, “that’s Marney she’s manic depressive, you know how they can be,” and this broad she like, backs away and I am so damned tired of this, Rita, I really am, like what am I, some piece of trash or something?”
Rita grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “You’re nothing of the sort and you know it.”
Tears rolled down Marney’s cheeks, and for a moment, Rita envied her open emotions. Marney laughed like that particular joke was the best thing in the world when the wheel was spinning in the up direction, but that dark, that horrible, horrible dark that clawed its way into her soul. That she didn’t envy; but then she thought, what exactly would it feel to be like that? Those highs and those lows, both far stronger than she could ever reach, even perhaps with the right drug if she had it. Still she knew that Marney’s disease meant that having a stable loving relationship was hard, and the possibility of children less that hers was. Not that either one of them were the type of woman Marney was just describing. No trophy girls here.
As Marney bared her heart and her feelings over these comments tumbled out, the patrons at the remaining tables stared and then tried not to, and the sangria jug emptied without her even realizing how it happened, and before she could flag the waiter down he was there, cheque in hand with that usual ‘please pay and get out’ look she’d gotten used to.
They walked home in the damp November air, a light drizzle cold enough to chill the bones, they smoked and somehow Rita got Marney laughing again and she knew that life was good for this one day. Marney had quit yet another job today, and one more person walked through her life not knowing how badly one small remark burnt her heart. But that was today and tomorrow would be what? High? Low? She didn’t know.
Rita walked Marney to the door, hugged her goodnight and told Marney to please call her in the morning, and Rita lit another cigarette. She coughed. She hated menthol, which is why she bought them. There were 12 left she counted, and as usual she put a loonie in the box.
Two blocks away from her apartment, an old guy she often saw was curled up on a parking garage grill; steam from the heating below poured around him in the misty air like a ghostly shroud, and he petted his dog and talked to it as she approached him. “Hey,” she said, “how are you this evening?”
“Good ma’am, good,” he replied.
“I’m trying to quit smoking. Here, have this, for you or a friend, whatever.” She held out the package and he took it without looking.
He turned to his dog and said, “See Angel, she is a nice lady. Looks like someone I went to school with.”
She squinted at him as he said that, and you know, there was an inkling of something there but he looked about 20 years older than her. She bade him good night, and as she turned her back, she heard him say:
“Good night sleep tight don’t let the bed bugs bite you Rita. And now I sing you a song in the key of Q.”
She kept walking, some rambling song this fellow obviously wrote himself while she tried to remember that boy with the dark blue eyes and shock of black curly hair. It was there, just in the tip of her mind, somewhere far in the reaches and she knew someday after he’d moved on to some other place.
As he tucked himself in for the night, the menthols all smoked and the loonie in his pocket, he hugged his dog close and whispered, “I loved her Angel, I did you know, I loved her, all that long ago.”
© Catherine M. Harris, 2006