A Nat Sherman cigarette hung loosely from her lips as she leaned on the balcony railing. Inhaling brought the cool autumn air to her senses, but could not clear her mind. She took a long draw and produced a few less than perfect smoke rings before giving up. Behind her, the door slid open. Without looking back she knew who it was. The hint of lemon dish soap that was added to the air was enough to give it away.
“Emily, I wish you’d kick that habit, sweetheart.” This is her mother. The woman who, despite her guiltless badgering and excessive cleanliness, was the greatest woman Emily had ever met. Her strength seemed limitless in times of great despair, causing Emily to wish she was more like her mother, and less like her father, a thought she quickly discarded from her memory.
“I don’t have a job, I still live with you in this one bedroom apartment...”
“Until you get a job and your own apartment, you won’t be smoking.” Emily’s mother plucked the cigarette from her daughter’s mouth and calmly ground it into the railing. Her salmon colored nail polish was chipping on her thumb and index finger.
“I was there too you know, at the hospital,” she said, “and I had to decide whose bed to stand by.”
“You should’ve picked dad over me,” Emily said bluntly. The words sprang from her lips without thought of their consequences, sending her mother silently back into the living room. Emily called after her, “Mom, I’m sorry,” but the door had already closed. The source of her anger would have been easier to cope with if it were a new trait to add to the ever-expanding list. On the balcony below, a puddle of water sat undisturbed. The reflection she saw was that of a stranger. Sighing, Emily reluctantly went inside, leaving the peaceful evening air to those who deserved it.
It was 6:13 in the evening when a truck hopped the median and collided with her car. The speed limit was 45 miles per hour and while they obeyed it, the truck was going ten over. Amidst the broken glass and pieces of scrap metal, two bodies struggled and one did not. Burns from the air bag and seatbelt were the least of their worries as they hung upside down in the still slightly rotating vehicle. The air Emily breathed smelled like gasoline and flesh. Turning her neck as far her seatbelt would allow, her gaze caught her fathers face as he hung loosely in the passenger seat. His expression was twisted, and unmoving. She reached slowly out to him and put her hand on his chest. Her hands trembled. The shirt he wore was damp but she was certain she felt his chest move. Her mouth opened but there was only silence as her breath caught in her throat. Emily closed her eyes and began to cry, bracing herself with her hands against the dashboard. A blur of flashing lights and voices of mixed tones radiated in the claustrophobic space. When she suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder her eyes snapped open. She was now staring at a blood red hand print on the dashboard. Despite her inaudible cries, she was pulled from the car. Then all she saw was red. Red: the color of safety, of control. Associated with: The Red Cross, Valentines hearts and lipstick. A blazing fireplace in a cozy home and that new sports car. Leaves as they change from Spring to Fall and Fall to Winter. And sometimes, red was just the color of blood.
Though the past month had been wasted as long nights were spent wondering the city streets with nowhere to go and arguing with her mother, the first week of this new month had been spent reflecting. Everyday the person staring back at Emily in the bathroom mirror became more and more familiar. She thought about her mother more than she did about herself. Instead of eating dinner over the sink on a paper plate, she sat at the kitchen table and avoided turning on the television. Small accomplishments for the larger issue at hand. The conclusion she came to was that time is funny thing. It can be measured in many different ways. Time is an hour, a minute and a second; and yet time is also a moment, an instant and an occasion. One day the face in the mirror opened its mouth and said “time is funny, because it allows for change,” and Emily suddenly felt reconnected.
The trees outside with amber leaves now stood naked up and down the sidewalk. Emily sat at the kitchen table drinking a cup of coffee from a mug that read “I heart NY”, smoking a cigarette and skimming the classified section of the New York Times. Her dark hair fell into her eyes as she read and the grey sweatshirt she wore itched from lack of laundering. When she heard keys jingling in the hallway and the door creak open, Emily put out the cigarette in her coffee cup and replaced it with a highlighter. Emily’s mother entered balancing grocery bags, her purse and her keys.
“Good morning,” her mother chimed, leaning over Emily’s shoulder to kiss her cheek, “I see you’re enjoying a rather unique blend this morning,” she picked up the mug and fished the cigarette butt from it. Staring at her mothers cardigan-covered back as she washed the mug in the sink, Emily felt ashamed and spoke quietly.
“I think I may have found something.”
“At this point, I wouldn’t mind if you told me you’d decided to go back to school. Anything to get you out of this house!” Emily’s mother joked.
“I’m trying, I’m trying,” Emily said tersely, standing up from the table.
“Stop trying and tell me!” She didn’t look up from the refrigerator.
“There’s a woman who has a stand in Central Park, you know selling baked goods and stuff. This ad says she needs help during her breaks. She’s getting old and could use a helping hand.”
Emily’s mother scoffed, “I wish I could get that kind of help around here,” she said pulling assorted deli meats from the brown paper bags.
“Do you want me out of the house or not?” Emily asked, “wait. Why are you so eager to get this place to yourself?” Emily grinned ear to ear, “do you have a date?” There was a long pause until Emily’s mother said ‘go get that job’ and walked out of the kitchen. As Emily opened the door to leave, her mother poked her head out of the bedroom.
“Hey Em, I’m proud of you,” she said, genuinely smiling for what seemed like the first time in a while. Emily nodded. The clock on the microwave burned 7:28 into her retinas. Time to start living.
The December morning brought a chill to Emily’s bones as she exited the apartment. Her gloveless hands were shoved anxiously into her pockets. Central Park never seemed so far away before but it had to just be her nerves. As Emily crossed the street, a taxi whizzed by her and images of wreckage clouded her thoughts momentarily. “I’m okay with never getting into a car again,” she whispered to herself. Thank God she could walk the distance. She paused for an instant and lit a cigarette as she passed over a small bridge in the park. It overlooked a pond that still had an early morning haze hovering above it. On the opposite bank there was a father and his son assembling a model boat. The man wore a tattered brown leather jacket and a scarf wrapped tightly around his neck. He attached the masts as his boy ran ecstatic circles around him. When it was ready to sail, the boy tossed it eagerly into the murky water. It bobbed for a moment then settled on the serene pond, waiting for a breeze to catch its sails.
The man’s hand rested on his son’s shoulder. Emily’s heart raced as she too awaited the small boats first movements. Minutes passed and still, nothing. The father knelt next to his son and spoke quietly. Emily assumed he was telling him that life would be full of disappointments, which only made the meager achievements in life that much more enjoyable. Just as she made up this conversation in her head, a strong wind picked up that ripped the burning cigarette from her fingers and the boat raced across the pond's bank until it reached the other side. The boy laughed so loudly Emily doubted that there was one person in the park that morning that didn’t hear him. Emily could feel herself smiling. She pulled the familiar pack of cigarettes from her pocket and stared at them. Holding onto the good things in life was acceptable, but attempting to replace those memories is not what she needed. For the longest time she just wanted to be with her father again and smoking, she thought, would bring her to him. Emily needed a fresh start, not a suicidal aide to an inevitable end. Fueled by a pang of self-righteousness, Emily hurled the cigarettes in the pond and continued across the bridge. Behind her, she still heard laughter.