He smokes overhanded like a soldier. She notices that right away. He's hiding the glowing ember in the cup of his hand just like he's been taught to do. Her grandfather once told her that the military demands its soldiers to smoke like that. That way, if the men were ever hiding as if their life depended on it - on their belies in a muddy trench with the enemy barking just over the next hill -- and the nicotine itch started raging so bad that they'd rather go screaming from that muddy trench to bum a smoke off the enemy than go one more minute with that nicotine itch...then. Then it's already ingrained in them how to shield the smoldering ends of their cigarettes and enjoy their buzz without the comforts of a POW camp awaiting them, just for one smoke. They are trained so well to smoke after dark in enemy territory that those little dots of fire will never give their positions away.
But this is his territory, not hers. He knows the bartender, the owner and every sad case with their ass on a barstool, leaning over their fifth beer at 5:00 P.M. on a Monday night. The bar is a dark hole with no ventilation, not even a plastic mini-fan next to the TV playing the 24-hour-all-sports network. Every cigarette ever smoked inside that hole is still lingering in the air. This is his territory, and this is the air he breathes. Still he cradles his burning cigarette like he's protecting his life. It's his habit to hide.
She's brought a bag with her, some papers to show him. She's done the research and she wants to show him how smart she is, how much she deserves to be there with him. No one else in there has a bag. No one else is discussing business. She stuffs it under the table.
He blows smoke and asks her if she knows what pine needles are. She can't think of anyone who wouldn't know what pine needles are, so she just says yes. He says that, when he was a child, he and his friends would load pine needles into BB guns shoot them. He doesn't mention what they were shooting at, but she knows and she wants to tell. She might be the only girl he's ever met who also shot her childhood friends with semi-dangerous weapons for fun. So she acknowledges that pine needle trick is a good one and that she had wished she'd thought of that. Then she imagines exactly how she'd do it. Find the a dead needle, a brown stiff one not a bendy green one, and stick it down the gun barrel with the black bulbous sappy end first. That sap doesn't wash off with soap. Rub your hands on denim or bark to scrape it off. Sap is a mess to work with, but the results are worth it. Better yet, use the sap to bunch needles together and then stuff them down the barrel. Fire and they might spray. Improve the odds of hitting your target.
She asks him if he ever used a CO2 BB pistol. It's an arrogant question. She wants to tell him she belonged in that world too without saying it outright. He raises his eyebrows and says he never had one.
He puts his cigarette in the ashtray on the small table between them and folds a piece of neon green paper with beer specials listed on the back into the shape of the state where he grew up. He points to landmark cities and she argues with him about the accuracy of his geography. Their fingers touch lightly while they move imaginary cities from the coast to inland, giggling and teasing. Then she refolds the beer flyer into the shape of the foreign country she's always wanted to visit. She teaches him the exotic names of the cities and makes him repeat them. She points to how they will get from one city to another. We will take the speedboat. We will get a day pass. We will visit the museum. We will rent a motorbike. We. Us. The words ease into the conversation but neither one is calling attention to it.
As she speaks, she clicks her wedding ring on the table but neither one is calling attention to it.
Later, at home, she sits in her car inside the garage with the radio on. Her lips are burning and she digs in her purse for Chapstick. She smears it all over but it won't stop the burning.
She makes a run for it: into the house, past her husband and three kids doing homework at the dinner table. She waves and smiles and doesn't answer any of the twelve questions that all start with, "Mommy?" and says she has to pee. Behind the locked bathroom door she strips her reeking clothes and seals them tight in the hamper. Then she turns on the bathtub tap and doesn't wait for the water to warm. She sticks her head under the tap to rinse the smell out of her hair.
The cold water is a shot to the head.