by Bodhisatwa Ray
Shadows reached the edges of the lake quietly dipping in, swimming to the centre, pulling a black cloak behind. It was still light at the centre, reflections of buildings shimmering delicately. The day’s last stand I guess.
Light domes in the shaded sit-outs had come on; time for my last lap.
I sprinted into the darkness.
The air became cooler and smelled greener as I jogged away from the park benches. A riot of smells filled me up; of fresh earth from sloping mud banks, of crunchy grass shoots by the lake and nameless wildflowers.
It amazed me how my lungs and nostrils could process this while still on the jog. I’d been dead to these smells for… 15 years? 20 years? Nicotine and tar had probably coated most of my sensory organs.
My breath came shorter; I hated jogging, swearing by “I jogged everyday so that one day I could stop jogging”, or was it “I went to gym everyday…”?
I tripped on a root and after some scrambling, arms flailing and comical facial expressions, I got my balance back.
Damned tree! My recent fling with nature evaporated.
The last mile was run.
The lake was now a blob of ink with lights from nearby apartments shimmering on it like silver and golden candlesticks.
Plopping down on an empty bench I toyed with the idea of an early dinner when a large man in shorts and a T-shirt collapsed beside me.
The bench shook. I shook.
I looked without looking – Indian. He was breathing heavily, wiping his face with a handkerchief, which was helpless in the face of the flood.
A walrus just out of water.
Fishing out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket he thumped his back pocket for a lighter. Finally he found a 7-Eleven lighter.
Smoking topped my baddie list.
But smoke-hate was different from jog-hate. People hate more vehemently that which they had once loved – not because they don’t love them anymore, but because they miss loving them now, yet there’s no going back.
I’d quit smoking a year back.
“Sorry?” I asked.
“Were you a finisher?” He pointed his cigarette fingers at my t-shirt. Damn him.
Standard Chartered marathon.
“This is my brother’s t-shirt. I don’t run marathons.”
“I see. He must be very fit. I too was sooper fit once, played cricket.”
Silence. This is when either of the strangers trots off or both fall silent for a very long time.
There was a third abominable alternative.
“You stay close by? I stay across the lake.” The third alternative was fast taking shape. Conversation.
“I’m visiting my brother. I stay in India.”
“I left Chennai and came to Singapore ten years back. Still miss India. You’re from Kulkuta?”
This was sad, was my face such a dead giveaway? Even in this dark?
“Wonderful city, but no industry no?”
“No.” It was difficult to focus with blue smoke curling up from his mouth and nostrils, the naughty sideways wind blowing them my way more often than I liked.
My smoke-starved neurons snapped to attention.
Once a smoker always a smoker. No!
“… a business here.”
“That’s good”, I said assuming the obvious.
“Sorry I didn’t offer you …” He held out his half empty Marlboro lights pack.
“Very bad habit. I’m trying to quit.” He withdrew his outstretched hand.
A little something died in me.
“I am yet to meet a smoker who is not trying to quit.” Henry, the Quit Smoking campaign’s counsellor would tell anybody who would listen.
I listened. I’d no choice.
“Nice meeting you. I’m Ganesh by the way.”
“I’m Henry,” I shook hands with Ganesh-by-the-way.
Not sure why I lied. I did that often with strangers nowadays. Anonymity felt good.
“I’m Christian” I offered in response to Ganesh gawking at me.
His face broke into a smile, realization spreading like butter on a toast.
Ganesh drew a few quick puffs and threw the cigarette butt on the ground.
Contrary to popular legends about Singapore, it wasn’t much different here anymore. People threw cigarette butts on the ground all the time.
Not me though; I mean when I used to smoke. I always binned it. Atul too. Goody two shoes.
Ganesh stood up and bent his right hand halfway to his face in my direction.
Russell Peters hadn’t caught on to this yet – the Indian half salute.
I too half saluted Ganesh who was already at the lake’s edge, streetlight shining on his bald patch.
It was past seven; my tummy rumbled.
Getting up, a glint caught the corner of my eye – wasn’t that Ganesh’s cigarette packet and lighter on the bench?
Sure it was.
Surely the Walrus couldn’t have gotten far? But strangely enough he had vanished into the darkness.
Picking up the cigarette pack and lighter I inspected both. The lighter’s stone was stuck but my rusty right thumb sprang into action and flicked on a flame.
Standing under the loom of dark trees, cigarette pack in one hand and a flickering lighter in the other, I was an archaeologist admiring a relic.
My palms were moist and I barely breathed.
Maybe just one? For old times’ sake?
I picked one stick; it felt firm, taut with all the smoke inside it, packed tight with nicotine coated memories of good times. And of times when I was trying to quit – when every cigarette was smoked alone, each puff filled with shame, each puff a painful reminder, and yet I couldn’t quit.
Until then, smoking had been fun.
Smoke breaks had meant office gossip; catching up on friends’ lives. Lighting up meant I had finished some work or a thought and this was the reward.
And of course smoking meant I was an intellectual; Atul used to say “The light at the end of a cigarette meant ‘genius at work’.”
Atul started smoking in college. And seeing him, me.
Twenty years up in smoke, before everything changed.
I shook my head to clear away the good times and the terrible times and skipped to more recent encounters.
“When the urge gets strong, go out, do something, look at something. Don’t let the receptors win!” Henry shouted inside my cranium.
But I was already outside and had nothing else to look at in the darkness. Except the pack winking coyly at me.
Damn Ganesh! He was to blame for my predicament… Breathe… Breathe – I kept repeating and breathing deeply.
I sniffed the cigarette. It was perfect. Marlboro Lights had been my brand of choice.
They killed people in style.
It was time – I flicked the lighter; the cigarette dangling from my lips, came to life. Nothing had changed – the small writings near the filter, the faint demarcation of white filter from the white body, it was all there.
Now for the first drag… Plop. What the… !
A slimy goo dropped right on the cigarette stick and my fingers holding it.
It took me a while to gather my wits. But of course – bird poop! Pigeon poop to be precise.
I stood in silent disgust, seething in anger.
Men when angry, become boys – my Hershey’s bar had been snatched away.
I was angry at Ganesh, I was angry at myself.
And I was angry at Atul. How could he do this to me?
I crushed the cigarette stick and threw it behind the bench. Then I threw the lighter.
Wiping the goo off my fingers with the cigarette pack I threw it in the lake.
I’m sure it didn’t reach.
I started running.
Staggering in through the back gate of our condominium I waved at the Malay security guard.
I didn’t meet anyone else on my way up. I felt guilty with the recent brush with my forbidden friend, of a not-so-innocent flirting with an old flame.
Corny, but true. I missed the lighter flame nearly as much.
Our helper answered the door smirking. Did anything show on my face?
I raised an eyebrow and asked her to make tea.
Light from the guest room had spilt a slice on the corridor floor.
As I hurried by, I sensed movement in the guest room and before I could turn, Ranjini’s screams and a hollering male voice erupted.
I turned sharply catching glimpses of Ranjini, Henry and Ganesh skipping towards me.
Ganesh, the walrus out of water; the leaver of cigarette packs.
Ranjini hugged me. I managed a smile.
“What’s up?” I asked eyeing Ganesh.
“Before you punch him, Ganesh is Henry’s neighbour.” Ranjini smiled ear-to-ear.
“Let’s sit buddy.” Henry slapped my shoulders and pushed me towards the living room.
“You see, we had a bet.” Henry grinned at Ranjini and Ganesh.
“I’d bet you wouldn’t last a year smoke-free but Ranjini bet you could. Today’s your first smoke-free anniversary but a bet isn’t a bet until there’s a last minute twist.”
Cobwebs were clearing.
“Ganesh played lead role in this two-actor play trying to get you to smoke.”
“One. He wasn’t acting.” Ranjini pointed at me smiling.
“Right” Ganesh clapped.
“Erm… did I pass?”
“YES!” Henry and Ranjini shouted in unison.
“Funny lah how he called himself Henry saying he stays in India, and his brother was a marathon runner … “ Ganesh stopped midway.
The words “marathon runner” and “brother” hung in the air like an awkward secret.
Eyes turned to the photograph on the mantle beside our TV – Atul beamed at us, holding up his marathon finisher medal.
Lung cancer took him three years ago.
Pic from https://www.flickr.com/photos/lucasartoni/