Dev leaned against the tree at his back and took a drag off his cigarette. He coughed and spat on the ground, then inhaled deep, letting the smoke’s fingers reach down to the bottom of his lungs. He exhaled and coughed again, so hard that he retched. He looked at the cigarette burning between his fingers. He hadn’t smoked since college, not since they’d met. It didn’t take long to get used to the smell again, but it was difficult to smoke now. He still couldn’t shake the nausea or the coughing, but somehow it calmed him down. A wisp of thin, gray smoke was rising from the butt. Knowing he’d regret it, he pressed the cigarette abruptly into the ground where the smoke guttered and died. He watched it curl on the ground and bit the inside of his cheek. It was his last one.
“Have you been waiting long?”
Dev looked up to see Sola standing beside him. She smiled. Her clothes were wrinkled as if she’d slept in them. Dev looked at her, feeling his heartbeat. He shook his head.
“Oh, good. I’m sorry. Anyway,” she looked at him. “Didn’t you want to talk?”
He swallowed. “I—,”
Sola sat down beside him, sending dust into the air. She glanced sideways at him. Dev exhaled slowly, remembering what the therapist had said—deep breaths are good, they help. They slow your heart rate and clear your head. When you feel like everything is spinning, just breathe, okay? Just breathe. Try with me, now…
Dev counted to ten in his head, inhaling on the odd numbers, exhaling on the even. His chest felt tight. Sola watched him. “Dev?”
“I’m sorry, Sola,” he said on ten.
She sighed. “I know.”
Dev shook his head. “No, you don’t. If you did—,”
“I wouldn’t be here?”
“You’ve said this before…”
“But you don’t understand.”
Dev opened his mouth quickly, but then closed it. They lapsed into silence. He counted to twenty, starting from eleven. You can’t blame yourself forever. These things happen and we don’t know why.
But it’s my fault, Dev whimpered, clutching the pillow on the therapist’s couch. Isn’t it? If I had just been there, if I had just—
Deep breaths, remember? Go on, keep breathing. Now listen…
But he couldn’t remember what his therapist had said next. Panic had washed over him, and he had begun to cry right there in the office, sucking in air as if he were breathing through a straw. He started to yell, clutching the couch cushions as the therapist ran for help. When he woke up he was on the floor, drenched in sweat and shaking, and Sola was standing over him.
“Do you miss me?” Sola asked suddenly, taking Dev’s hand. He shut his eyes tight at her touch. “Do you miss me?”
“All the time,” Dev whispered.
“Then what’s wrong?”
“I’m sick. This isn’t happening.”
“Why can’t it be happening?”
“This isn’t happening.”
Twenty-one to thirty.
“You started smoking again,” Sola said suddenly.
“Because I can’t sleep,” Dev replied pleadingly, balling his hands into fists.
“I thought you were sorry,” she said.
“I am sorry, Sola—,”
“You said I didn’t understand.”
“Then what do you want me to say?”
“That it wasn’t my fault.”
“It wasn’t your fault.”
“But it was!”
Dev was suddenly on his feet.
Tears in his eyes, he watched her and felt his heart quicken, beating faster and faster until it hurt. He reached into his pocket and cursed under his breath. He tried the other pocket and the inside of his shirt. Then, sweat beading on his forehead, he began to dig in the dust until the crumpled cigarette, browned from the soil, came into view. Dev picked it up and placed it between his lips. He pulled his lighter out of his shirt pocket and clicked. Spitting sparks danced around his face, illuminating the shadows beneath his dark eyes. Sola watched him, saying nothing. A light breeze sent dust into their faces, their hair. The end of Dev’s cigarette did not burn but began to smolder, sending a weak curl of smoke into the sky. He coughed. There was dirt on his teeth.
She watched him for a moment more, then stood up and took one step towards him, and then another. She took his hand and drew closer, until they were face to face. Dev swallowed, but he did not look away. Her dark, red-rimmed eyes held him for a moment and then she leaned forward to kiss the side of his mouth. She smelled like soot. Dev closed his eyes, took the cigarette from his lips and inhaled. Thirty-one to forty. He winced as her smell tore memory after memory from the back of his mind, presenting them in cruel clarity before him: the flames swaying like seaweed as the wind rustled them, reaching outside of the bedroom window where he had left her sleeping while he went to the store, dinner cooking; he’d only be gone a moment, just a moment; he’d done it a million times before, but now he was watching his apartment burn from the street, one of many in shouting crowd until his voice rang out the loudest—Sola, Sola, Sola!
He squeezed her hand in his and breathed. Sola! Sola! Sola—!
“No,” he sobbed, but his voice caught in his throat. The smell of smoke was strong and close. He trembled, still gripping the small cylinder. He saw her in the arms of a uniformed man, blackened from smoke.
I think the new prescription will help, but remember you’ve got your own tools too, right? Counting to ten, deep breaths, mindfulness, and you’re starting Yoga soon, right?…Anxiety can’t be cured like a cold, but it can be managed and controlled. Trauma can be overcome, you just have to keep doing what you’re doing. Come on—one, two, three, that’s it…
Sola pressed her mouth against Dev’s cheek and breathed. He shook against her. She pulled her hand from his grip. Something fell at their feet with a soft sound. Dev opened his eyes and saw the dirty cigarette beside Sola’s toes. She stepped on it, pushed it deep into the earth.
“Sola,” Dev whispered. Sola shook her head, her face still pressed against his. “It’s okay. It’s gone out.”
Dev’s face felt suddenly wet. He stood alone, hugging himself. Forty-one to fifty.