by Paul Hiebing
The flint and steel groaned, igniting the zippo's wick. Kyle brought the flame to the cigarette dangling from his lips and blew whispery smoke out through his nose and mouth. He hoped the nicotine would slow his nervousness.
"So," affirmed Virginia, "your pick up line dealt with how fierce yet attractively confident I look, eh?" That wasn't exactly what he said, albeit her paraphrasing had the general idea down. She tossed her head back to glance out the Node coffee shop window, throwing groomed stalks of her black hair across her brown eyes. She started to give him a stinging look of rejection, but halfway through her eyes crinkled upward as a delightful idea crossed her mind. Wisps of smoke from his cigarette danced across the table to her, which she brushed away with a casual swipe.
"I'll tell you what," acidic words came from her mouth. "You have to impress me." Kyle looked up from the table. Consciously, he was fighting his body to keep his pose natural, calm, slightly excited Ð up to a challenge. Inside, Kyle was doing his best not to flood his shoes with sweat. Virginia was indeed more beautiful than any other girl he had approached in the past month, or year, or ever. He hadn't expected her to be so damn confident, though.
"And how would that be," he asked, exhaling a plume of smoke slightly above her head, out of politeness, "do magic tricks? Juggle?"
"Before you've finished smoking, I want you to balance 50 sugar packets on top of one another. If you do it, I'll go have some drinks with you tonight. If not, the conversation doesn't get beyond me laughing at you." Kyle visibly mulled this over, contemplating the remaining three-quarters of his cigarette and imagining a small tower of sugar packets.
"Okay, but one question. Real or fake sugar?"
"Cane sugar. It's clumpier. By the way, you have to smoke that thing, too. You can't just let it do a slow burn." Pleased with herself, Virginia reclined in her seat and took out a cigarette herself, while Kyle dashed to the "fix it yourself" counter to retrieve fifty brown raw sugar packets.
"Excuse me," said Kyle to the kid jockeying the register, "do you have any more raw sugar packets?" He anxiously positioned himself between the kid and the pile of sugar behind him, hoping to trick the soft-eyed cashier.
"Here," he said, handing Kyle a handful of packets. "That should make it about fifty total, I think," he said with a cloy, knowing smile. Had his cigarette not already dwindled dangerously close to the fifty per cent mark, Kyle would have questioned that smile.
Smoke streaming behind him, Kyle raced back to his seat and began construction. All around, the sounds of sipping coffee and the dull groans of east Milwaukee's industrious paper mill slowly eased to nothing in Kyle's ears; the pile of packets began to grow in front of him, and he became elated with the ease of the task. Smoke poured from his mouth, and his eyes darted up quickly to Virginia, whose eyes were also intent on his progress. Kyle's glasses started to slide down his nose, so he moved his hand to push them back up. His forearm brushed the table, causing the mini-tower of twenty-three packets to sway left and right, undulating with his quickening pulse.
"Boom." The word rolled out of Virginia's mouth like an avalanche, sending the pile into chaos. "And," she added, "you're smoke is looking awfully short." Kyle glanced down and saw that his situation was becoming more and more precarious.
To Kyle, no longer was this a battle with an attractive girl over a date and her cocky certainty of his failure Ð this time-limited bet was now a matter of pride. His forehead furrowed deeper as he retrieved the fallen packets, his comrades, his enemies.
Kyle started to smoke more furtively, to gain control of his anxiety. Puff after puff, he felt the worries drain away from his mind and body. He looked at his new pile of ten packets and thought that forty more would be no problem, as long as he could retain his composure. The more intensely he worked in those next seconds, carefully stacking the packets in two's and three's, the more he became aware of Virginia's warming interest in his intensity. He thought he was connecting with her, as the smoke poured through his nose and open mouth.
Maybe, he thought, maybe her widening eyes and slightly open mouth are telling me that it doesn't matter if I do this or not. Kyle's face began to lighten as he thought more about this, watching his stack approach the thirty mark. As if she knew what he was thinking, Virginia spoke.
"Fortune favors fools," she said with a grin, "usually. But in this case, I have to wonder how good that filter of yours is going to taste." She pointed to his cigarette, precariously held in his fingertips. Kyle looked down, and realized there was less than one drag left. Dismay left him almost as quickly as it had crept upon him, for he suddenly remembered the rules: "...before you've finished smoking..."
Kyle reached in his pocket. As he pulled out a second cigarette, Virginia realized she had minced words to her disadvantage. She saw his move coming, and anticipated it with a tug on his stack of sugar packets.
"Hey, I need this for my next cup. I hope you don't mind," she said, rather warmly, as his tower of sugar collapsed about him. "And by the way, keep it up. As long as you are able."
And as he lit his next cigarette with the burning cherry of his vanishing first smoke, and then stamped the near-dead butt out, Kyle thought, just for a moment, for the first time, that Virginia smiled. At him. With him.