Cigarettes and Subways
by Grace Tsichlis
Runestone, volume 7
Runestone, volume 6
Cigarettes and Subways
by Grace Tsichlis
Friday, 7:55 pm. Helen’s apartment.
We stood outside Helen’s apartment door and I glanced at Henry. He was wearing the only nice shirt he owns – a polo with obnoxiously large stripes. It was Helen’s 25th birthday and she was hosting what she called an intimate gathering, but the group text she sent included at least 30 others. My friends had never met Henry before, and I wanted to brief him before we went inside. I wanted my friends to know I was capable of meeting a decent guy. In a strange twist of events that aligned with my luck, my last two relationships ended because their girlfriends found out about me and I found out about them. My aggressively protective best friend, Iris, said that she would be interviewing Henry at the party. The first use of her journalism degree in eight months.
“Listen, before we go in—” I said to Henry.
“I already know what you’re going to say, Elle. Don’t worry, I’m a people person. That’s how I won you over.”
“No, we started talking because you tried to toss your friend a pack of batteries over three cubicles and you hit me instead.”
“You can’t blame me for your decision to stand up for a break at that exact moment.”
“Yes, I can actually.”
Henry’s smirk turned into a grin and I remembered why I liked him in the first place.
“Just listen to me,” I said. “First, there’s Bobbi. If she’s not laughing, she hates you. She thinks everybody is funny. Just don’t get her started about ridiculous conspiracy theories.”
Henry made a cross with his fingers over his heart. “We never walked on the moon and I will take that to my grave,” he said sarcastically.
“Next. Anthony. If you can get him talking about his cats or the stock market, he’ll love you forever.”
“Pass, but okay.”
I ignored him. “Then, of course, my best friend, Iris. To her, every party is an excuse to dance, but she is giving that up tonight to talk to you.”
“Wait, I thought this was a chill, hang-out, kinda thing?”
I patted him on the shoulder. “And finally, there’s Helen. She’s funny and she teaches math at a community college. She’s also the hottest friend. Don’t worry, we all know it. Especially her.” I laughed.
“Well, I’m excited to meet everybody,” Henry said as he took my hand and with the other, knocked on the door. Helen opened the door, her dark hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and she wore a short, black velvet dress. I turned at just the right time to see Henry’s mouth open, ever so slightly. The kind of expression most people would miss, but an expression that would haunt a girlfriend. If this were a witty, self-aware sitcom, I would look at the camera with a dead-pan expression and mouth, “Fuck. Me.” Which, ironically, is exactly what Henry did not do that night. I spent most of the party talking to Iris when she wasn’t interrogating Henry. But I left the party before he did because I was tired from a long day at work. He was talking to Anthony and Helen, and they all seemed so engaged in the conversation, I didn’t have the heart to ask him to leave with me.
Saturday, 12:30 pm. Outside my apartment.
I had nothing to do and nowhere to go so I called Iris and asked her to aimlessly ride the subway with me. She agreed because she loves me and because her four roommates were in a screaming match about the electricity bill. When I walked outside, she was waiting for me on my stoop, out of breath.
“I jogged here. Practically jumped over a mom and her stroller,” Iris panted. “Glad I didn’t put on my evening gown this morning.”
I chuckled. I have known Iris since we were juniors in high school and I have never seen her wear anything other than jeans or khakis. I was a loser in high school who refused to talk to anybody, not that my classmates were dying to hang out with the moody, blue-haired girl in the back of the classroom. Until, Iris, of course. She made it her personal mission to befriend me. One day she showed up to school, her hair the same shade as mine, and I knew she was someone I wanted to be around. Together, we dyed our hair back to their natural colors the night before our freshman year of college.
We took our time strolling to the nearest subway station and people-watched. A toddler in a stroller dropped his pretzel on the New York City ground. His dad picked it up, looked around, and handed it back to his son. A couple in matching overalls argued about the best Quentin Tarantino film. A family stopped to take pictures in front of a bodega, proudly wearing matching I ❤ NY shirts.
“I just felt weird sitting inside all day today. I haven’t heard from Henry since we left Helen’s party last night,” I said.
“Oh, Henry. What a man.”
I was surprised by Iris’s reaction. “You liked him? I assumed you wouldn’t, you can be quite picky, but you know he’s not bad once you get to know—”
“Oh, no I didn’t like him. Seems like a jackass, perhaps lacking emotional intelligence,” Iris said. “I asked him all my hard-hitting journalist questions and he did not perform well under pressure.”
“Iris. I told you to take it easy on him. What did you ask him?”
“Where are you from?”
I glared at her. “No, but what did you really ask him?”
“Well, because you have a tendency to attach yourself to dead weight, I automatically assume any guy you’re with is irrelevant.”
“I thought journalists were supposed to go into all interviews without any bias.”
“Yeah, sure. Employed journalists. As an unemployed journalist, I follow my own rules. Anyway, I asked him the first thing that caught his attention about you.”
We dodged an oncoming couple, carrying two guitar cases each, who were loudly singing a song I was unfamiliar with. Henry and I hadn’t talked about our first impressions of each other. Maybe there was hope for us yet.
“And what did he say?”
“He said he noticed you because you always get up to take a smoke break after your lunch. Which, I have to say, shocked me because you told me you quit!” Iris said. “Oh wait for me just a moment – I want to run in here and get some tea.”
A few minutes passed as I waited outside the coffee shop. Iris emerged with a new spring in her step and a large drink in her hand.
“As I was saying, really, you’re still smoking? I thought you quit already. Who smokes anymore?”
I shrugged sheepishly. “It relaxes me.”
“Well, Jesus Christ, just start knitting or something.”
12:45 pm. Flushing Avenue Station.
We swiped our cards and entered the station. Five minutes until the next train.
“So, what else did he say about me?” I asked Iris
“Henry? Oh he didn’t say much else about you. He started asking about Helen. He seemed interested. She wasn’t, of course.”
“You deserve better, Elle.”
I shrugged. The next train arrived and we stepped on as other passengers darted between us. We sat across from each other and Iris leaned forward with her elbows resting on her knees.
“Forget him,” she said with a determined expression, right before her large tea spilled onto the seat next to her from the lurch of the subway. “Well, that was a waste.”
12:54 pm. Lorimer Street Station.
“Hey, remember when I dated that guy, what was his name… Jack?” Iris asked.
“Oh yeah, what was his deal again?”
“Well, I had to take back my ‘I love you’ because I caught him donating to an anti-vaxxer campaign.”
“I thought Jack cheated on you?”
“Oh yeah. He did that too. We sure know how to pick ‘em.” She reached for her cup and tried to take a sip before remembering it was practically empty. “Honestly, I needed a reason to get rid of him. Some things just aren’t meant to last.”
“Yeah, I suppose so.”
“Why are you still smoking? What do you have to be stressed about?” Iris asked.
“Would it be too dark and depressing if my answer was life?” I said.
She glared at me wordlessly.
12:59 pm. Broadway Station.
“I was just trying to have a good time, you know?”
The car was filling up and Iris and I gave up our seats for an adorable elderly couple.
“I know, Elle.”
“I should have never brought him to Helen’s party.”
“No, it’s good that you did. Now we know he’s a lost cause.”
The elderly couple looked up at us, looked back at each other, and smirked.
“We can’t all have what you two have,” Iris said to them. She had a way of joking with random strangers. Everybody loved Iris.
The couple laughed, but remained silent.
“Do you have children?” Iris asked.
“Iris,” I chided.
She ignored me and looked curiously at the couple.
“Yes, we have a son. He works on Wall Street, so we’re here visiting him.”
“Oh, a Wall Street guy,” Iris mumbled to me and rolled her eyes.
Iris and her new friends continued chatting until we arrived at the next stop. They waved to us and said their goodbyes.
1: 11 pm. Metropolitan Avenue Station.
“If you had a kid, what would you name it?” Iris asked. We managed to grab two seats next to each other and she turned to face me.
“Oh my gosh, I don’t know. I don’t even want to think about that right now. I finally have a stable job. One that I can sort of tolerate,” I responded.
“What about Otis? Or Jane?”
“Or that seems like a problem for later down the road?” I said. Iris never wanted to talk about children. She says children are vessels of truth, and she remains unprepared for both.
1:26 pm. Bedford Avenue Station.
Two guys in their mid-twenties speaking in German and engrossed in their conversation stepped onto the train. The redhead wore a blue backpack with various ribbons and patches. His stature reminded me of Henry, but Henry wouldn’t be caught dead with a backpack. He considered himself above using backpacks. He always took a briefcase to work. It carried his lunch and almost nothing else. Next to the redhead, his dark-haired friend wore combat boots and a jean jacket, completely empty handed. Henry hated combat boots. Iris opened up Facebook, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from these two strangers. I watched the redhead’s reflection in the subway car’s window and wondered where they were going.
“Should I call him?” I asked Iris, wanting her attention to turn away from her phone and back to me.
“Who do you think? Henry.”
“Hell, no. Let him call you if he wants to explain why he spent more time talking to Helen than talking with you.”
I leaned my head back in frustration. I wanted a smoke. Since I couldn’t, I turned to watch the Germans again. As I did, the redhead made eye contact me, dropped his jaw, and began walking towards us. I felt the slightest flutter in my stomach.
“Iris?” The redhead asked.
Shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. I was pining over Henry only seconds ago.
Iris barely glanced up from her phone and responded “Hey, Ben.” She fiddled with her septum piercing. Her only nervous tick.
“I am so sorry I never called you. We got caught up in some shit, and then I couldn’t remember what you saved your name as in my phone, because it wasn’t under Iris, and you know, we were so drunk, but I really wanted to call you, and I am so sorry—” Ben stood clinging to the metal railing above us. He looked abnormally tall from this angle.
“Ben. Take a breath. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine. We had such a nice time. I want to take you out again.”
What was I watching unfold? His friend, I noticed, tried to inch closer towards our seats and looked just as confused as me.
“Well, I guess I shouldn’t have saved my name as Friedrich, that was my bad.” Iris fiddled with her thumbs and she finally looked Ben in the eyes. “Drunk Iris thinks she’s funny.”
Ben smirked. “I just never thought I’d see you again. New York’s a big city.”
The subway rolled to a stop and Iris grabbed my hand.
“Listen, sorry to run off on you like this, but we have to go. My friend here has a big appointment.”
“What? No, I would most definitely like to see where this goes,” I motioned to Iris and Ben. He laughed, revealing two dimples and a chipped bottom tooth.
“I’ll give you my number this time. Call me if you want to get together.”
Iris gave him a quick hug and we jumped off onto the platform.
1:55 pm. Nassau Avenue Station.
“What was that? Actually, who the fuck was that?” I asked as a loud group of screaming teenagers with skateboards ran past us.
“What?” Iris shouted.
“Who was that?” I repeated.
“Ben. An intoxicating mess. A romp from my past. And most importantly, a European.”
“When did this happen? How many years ago, and why did you never tell me?” I couldn’t believe my best friend had never mentioned him before. He seemed worth mentioning.
“Actually, I met him about two months ago.”
“Two months ago?” I was in shock. “Where?”
“I met Helen for drinks in Manhattan at this dumb bar she insisted on going to. I accidentally knocked over Ben’s beer, so I bought him another. We hit it off immediately. Then he paid for my five shots of vodka, and I forgot I came with Helen. I’m pretty sure she left before we did.”
“Sounds like a fun night.” I wish I could have been part of it. I was probably on one of my first dates with Henry.
Iris fiddled her thumbs again and stared absent-mindedly at her blank phone screen.
“I never thought I’d see him again,” she sighed. “He’s working here for a few months before going back home.”
“Well, you rushed that good-bye.”
“Because the longer I talked with him, the more I feel like I should tell him,” Iris said.
“Tell him what? Are you in love with him or something?” I laughed at the idea of a speechless Iris.
“Well, no. It’s not that, I don’t think, it’s just—”
“Please don’t fall in love with a European. That seems like the worst thing you could do. You would drain your bank account just by buying plane tickets to visit him,” I said. “Europeans think they can just win over Americans because of their adorable accents, but I thought you would be immune to that—”
“I’m pregnant. I think that’s gonna have a more long-term effect on my bank account,” Iris said.
My mouth was frozen. I’d spent the better half of our day together thinking about Henry, who now seemed so inconsequential. Iris sat down on the nearest bench, pulled her feet on top of the wood, and put her face between her knees.
“The only reason I even found out was because I scheduled my regular doctor appointment like a week ago.”
“You could have told me.” She looked so lost and I felt like an inadequate support system.
“I know. I’ve just been ignoring it. And I didn’t think I’d see Ben again, but I didn’t want to tell him, so I was sort of okay with that. Whatever feelings I thought I’d developed for him dissipated the moment the doctor called with my blood test results. I sort of wish we never met.”
“To be fair, you say that about most guys,” I said.
Iris smiled but said nothing.
“What do you want to do?”
She blew empty air through her lips. “Not a single clue.”
“Not even an inkling?”
“I don’t know. It’s weird cause I go to pro-choice rallies and I wear my Planned Parenthood shirt a lot.” I nodded; it was one of her favorites. She gave me one for my birthday a couple years ago.
“I just never thought I’d have to deal with it, personally. And I always liked to pride myself for not being naïve.” She looked even more dejected. “To be honest, I haven’t really processed all this until now.”
“Considering you’ve cocooned into a ball on the subway platform, I sort of figured so.”
“Do you think I should have told Ben?” I couldn’t tell what she wanted me to say.
“I really don’t know,” I responded.
“If you were in my position, and it was Henry’s, what would you do?”
I paused. I knew exactly what I’d do. I couldn’t have a baby right now, and Henry certainly wasn’t ready to be bestowed fatherhood. Not that I wanted to ever give him that.
“I wouldn’t want a baby with Henry,” I finally said.
“I thought so. And I know I said at first I didn’t want to talk to Ben, but. . .”
“You’re allowed to change your mind.”
“I might,” Iris said. “Not to make a decision or anything, but just to talk it out with somebody else.”
“Having attractive friends is never a bad thing.”
Iris rolled her eyes, but uncurled from her cocoon. “Should I call him right now?”
“Why not? It’s a Saturday afternoon. No better time to break the news.”
“I’m not going to tell him over the phone, c’mon Elle. But while I do this, you know what you should do?”
“Call Henry. End whatever you guys are.”
I looked at Iris. Her face had already morphed back into her usual confident expression of a smirk and a raised eyebrow.
“I thought you didn’t want me to call him,” I said.
“I’m allowed to change my mind.”
I stood up and called Henry. She pulled out her phone and called Ben. A miracle in itself, they both answered. Our conversations both lasted longer than we thought they would, and eventually we were both pacing around the station, our voices disappearing into the crowds of people. To passersby, we looked like strangers, too focused on our own business to engage with the world, or the people, around us. Henry’s complaints finally came to an end and right before we said goodbye he informed me he would be requesting to move cubicles. I sat on the bench and watched my best friend continue to talk and pace on the phone. She was relaxed, even smiling occasionally. She looked just a little less lost. Then, she pulled the phone away from her face and told me she was meeting up with him in twenty minutes.
“Do you want me to come?” I asked.
“No, I’m okay. I can call you after.”
Not ready to head back to my apartment, I headed for the nearest stairs to continue into the city, surprisingly content for someone without a cigarette in their hand.
Midwestern State University
Grace Tsichlis graduated from Midwestern State University in December 2020 with a BA in English literature and minors in writing and Spanish. Two of her creative stories have been published in her university’s literary journal, Voices. Other than reading and writing, she enjoys baking, traveling, and watching stand-up comedy.