Up in Smoke
by Ashley Belisle
Runestone, Volume 1
Up in Smoke
Last September, the Chicago Bagel Authority caught on fire. It happened sometime at night, but you could still see these huge black clouds all the way from campus the next morning. I heard that the whole goddamn building would have burned down completely if the outside weren’t made of brick, and I bet it’s true. See, there was this fake tanning place in the upstairs. It was called like Ultimate Tan or some awful name like that, and they have all those plastic beds that shoot UV rays into your skin to make you look browner. It’s funny, isn’t it, that all these women—and men, too, I guess, to be politically correct and inclusive and shit—want to be browner. They cook themselves in these giant Easy Bake ovens as if their bodies are expendable. I can’t understand it. You only have the one life.
So one day, one of those plastic beds got too hot or blew a fuse or something and the whole place went up in fucking smoke. It was wild, I guess. My roommate wrote a poem about it. (He is an English major, and says that poetry is “always the right answer.” I say that he should tell that to Congress and maybe suggest they pass a poem for a fucking budget.) Anyway, the fire kept spreading and spreading, and they called the fire department, but I guess it took them too long to get there, and by the time they did the whole restaurant was turned to flaky black ashes. We had to go to Bruegger’s for a few months after that.
A week before the Chicago Bagel Authority burned down—it was exactly a week, I remember, because our articles are always due on Wednesdays—I fell in love. I did. It was wild, because I’m not a romantic at all. Ask anybody and they’ll tell you. I’ve never had a girlfriend, really, outside of this month-long stint in eleventh grade, and I don’t even like dates. Why would I want to pay money to make myself uncomfortable by sitting at some too-small table with a girl I maybe kind of know and talk about idiotic and “appropriate” topics that I couldn’t give a shit about? It’s a huge fucking game, and I don’t have the energy to waste my time playing it.
Well, it was mid-September, late enough in the summer for the leaves to start shedding their green skin and curling in at the edges, ready to croak. The reason I remember it was a Wednesday is that I was smoking and pacing. I’m not a smoker, really. I’m not addicted to cigarettes; I just need them at certain times, like when I’m tired, or stressed, or really amped, or scared. You know? And I’m the opinions columnist for this college newspaper we have, and I love it, and it scares the shit out of me. I mean, I guess it shouldn’t, because probably a half of a percent of the student body will ever glance at a single lousy word I write. But, Jesus, it’s a powerful thing, writing.
Anyway, on Wednesdays I have to turn in these op-ed articles, and I don’t know why, but it drives me crazy. I always end up pacing around the quad, wearing this old navy blue blazer that I found at a thrift shop two summers ago, and letting a homemade cigarette sag out of my mouth. I work up a nervous sweat, and I see all these words typed up in a 10 point Minion Pro font floating around in my head. Honest to god, I do. My roommate—not the English major, but the moderate Republican—says that if the Red Line derailed and came barreling through the quad right past me one Wednesday afternoon, I wouldn’t even turn my head. He might be right. I don’t know.
But this afternoon, the week before the fire, as I sucked down a poorly-rolled cigarette and felt the sweat stains start to seep through the armpits of my blazer, something interrupted my ritual pacing. I saw a flash of red out of the corner of my right eye, and I looked up to see this girl just tearing across the quad on her bike. As she got closer to me, I could hear her tires trampling mountains of leaves. The bike was just a little too small for her, and her enormous gray backpack—somehow the exact same color as her jacket—seemed to emerge right from her body. She had this curly hair flying everywhere, and later, when I told them this story, my roommates asked me what color it was, and the truth is I don’t have a goddamn clue. It must have been brown or blonde or something, or maybe in between, but I honestly didn’t notice. I didn’t notice, because her face was so familiar that it hurt.
Do you know what I mean? It was just like walking through a crowded place—like the cafeteria or something—filled with all these people, some I kind of recognize and some I swear I’ve never seen before. And I’m walking alone, focused completely on not dropping all my food or falling on my ass, and I look up to see a big round table with like six friends sitting around it, and one of them sees me and smiles, and we all sit down to eat together, and my heart actually hurts because in this giant crowd of seven billion human beings, there are some really fucking awesome ones that know me. When I saw her—this absolute stranger on my campus—I had the exact same feeling.
So this girl, she was tearing across the quad on this too-small bike, staring off into space with these wide bulgy eyes, concentrating really intently on something, but whatever it was, it sure as hell wasn’t biking. She barreled closer and closer, and I swear to god I don’t know what made me do it, but I just stepped right into her path. I did. A half a second later, we were lying in a heap of leaves, the three of us all tangled together—the girl, the bike, and me. I can’t remember if it hurt.
“Shit,” I groaned. I lay beneath her bike, not moving.
“Ohmygoshohmygosh,” said Biking Girl. “I can’t believe I didn’t see you there. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” She reached for my hand and tried to pull me to a sitting position, but the bike was still caught between us, and I somehow forgot that I could have just shoved it aside, so I was just lying there staring at her like a fucking idiot, and she probably thought I was some sort of psychotic masochist who throws himself in front of oncoming bicyclists, which I guess, in that moment, is exactly what I was.
“Are you okay?” she asked again, more slowly this time.
“Yeah,” I said. “Oh. Yeah. I’m fine. Sorry. Are you okay?” Biking Girl had sprung to her feet by now, brushed the crunchy leaf dust from her jacket, and thrust her hand out to me again. This time I had enough sense to actually touch her, and I let her help me up. She still had half of this big orange maple leaf sprouting out from behind her ear, but I didn’t say anything.
“Yeahyeahyeah I’m totally fine,” she said. Even after a bike accident, she spewed enthusiasm. She looked at her bike, still lying unconscious in the brown mess of leaves.
“Oh, shit. Your handlebars got fucked up,” I said, reaching down to pick up the bent red frame.
“Shoot,” she said, and her eyebrows scrunched together, and she got this really pensive look on her face, and I swear I don’t know what came over me, but I decided to throw my painstakingly developed date-rejecting, love-hating, fuck-it-all attitude right down the drain, and I blurted out, “I’m so sorry I ran into you. Can I buy you a bagel to make up for it?” I said it in this honest-to-god confident, charming way, and I almost threw up right after because I couldn’t figure out what was making me act like such an actual idiot.
But then she said, “Sure,” and her eyebrows got unscrunched, and she smiled this big wide grin, and the grin somehow made me notice all these little brown freckles speckled all over her face, and I swear to god I fell in love.
“I’m Aidan,” she told me, thrusting out her hand to shake mine. “It’s nice to meet you.”
We sat on a bench right outside the Chicago Bagel Authority. Aidan had ordered this colossal sandwich with like meat and veggies and four kinds of cheese spilling out of the sides of the bagel. I ordered a pumpkin bagel with turkey, cheese, and sprouts.
“Sprouts can give you E. coli, you know,” she told me in this matter-of-fact way as she watched me chew. When she talked, the words rushed out of her mouth. It was as though if she didn’t say everything she thought about as soon as it entered her mind, she would lose the opportunity forever.
“I didn’t know that,” I told her. She seemed unfazed by the potential negative consequences these sprouts might have on my health and kept chattering—about her classes (biology major), her rigorous schedule of extracurriculars (Student Activities Committee and the pre-med club and community service), and the weather (autumn). She bolted down her sandwich, too, but I somehow never caught her talking with even a bite of food in her mouth. She asked me questions, and I’m sure I answered her, but I can’t remember what they were or what I said. I was inexplicably enchanted by this girl on a small red bike, too enthused about the vivid details of her life to address any more practically pressing issues, like avoiding a dangerous bicycle-human collision.
“You’re intensely focused,” I told her as I pulled out a cigarette and grazed the tip of it with my lighter flame. “It’s fascinating.”
“What?” she spoke-shouted, staring at me with those big bulgy brown eyes.
“It’s fascinating,” I repeated.
“No. No. I mean whatareyoudoing?” she shot up from the bench and her eyebrows scrunched up again. Jesus, I never knew eyebrows could say so much. I glanced down at the cigarette between my fingers.
“Oh this,” I said. “Yeah. Sorry. I’m not really a smoker. It’s just, when I’m stressed, or if I’m tired—”
“This is the twenty-first century!” She was really shouting now. “You know better! You only have the one life!”
“I’m not really a smoker,” I protested in this voice that sounded tiny and feeble and absolutely idiotic.
“I’m sorry,” said Aidan. “I just realized I reallyreally have to go.” She swung her enormous backpack over her shoulder and grabbed the mangled bike by its handlebars, and just as quickly as she had entered my life, she was gone. I should have been fuming, like I was every other time somebody told me what to do with my own goddamn life, but I wasn’t. Instead, I was in love. I was in love with this possibly crazy girl on a bike who judged my consumption of bean sprouts and tobacco and whose last name I had somehow forgotten to ask to know. Fuck.
I watched from the front porch of my apartment as the Chicago Bagel Authority burned. My roommate—the vegetarian—read me his Twitter feed as we watched the big clouds of ashy smoke rise from the red-gold brick. It was a tanning bed, they said. The fire department didn’t get there fast enough, they said. I rolled up the sleeves of my navy blue blazer and sighed.
“Burning their own bodies in giant fucking Easy Bake ovens,” I muttered, and my roommate nodded.
“You’ll have something to write about for next week,” he told me with this feigned sort of cheer that all optimists have somehow perfected. I lit a cigarette and began to pace up and down the deck. The redwood planks groaned beneath my footsteps.
“It’s obscene,” I said. “You only have the one life.”
St. Olaf College
Ashley Belisle is a 2015 graduate of St. Olaf College, where she majored in English and Spanish. She served as the executive editor of the Manitou Messenger, the college’s student newspaper, and has had her creative work published in the Messenger and St. Olaf’s literary journal The Quarry.