A dozen years ago, the doctors took my lung. I didn’t tell my girlfriend, Margot, until just the other day because I was sure she would break up with me. I still smoke (cigarettes and weed) and she hates these habits in general. Now she's worried the remaining lung will suffer the same fate, that if I don’t stop soon, "it’s just a matter of time.” But I quit trying to quit a long time ago and would rather spend what’s left enjoying life.
One day Margot and I are lounging around my pool after lunch and she asks if a friend can stop by. So I say, sure, why not? I should have known something was up. Her friend is an acupuncturist. Before I know it I’m confined beneath an umbrella and have to keep still. Needles parade across my body. I try to relax but keep eyeing my cigarettes and lighter on the table next to me. Just sliding a smoke out of the pack is practically impossible with that many needles on the back of my hand. So instead I pick up the half a joint sitting in the ashtray which, a few moments earlier, the acupuncturist and I were passing back and forth.
In the pool Margot shimmies off the blow-up mattress and wades to the side closest to me. “You light that up, I’m leaving,” she says.
But I light up. “There’s no reason to worry about my lung,” I say, taking two tiny puffs. “Besides, smoking had nothing to do with my illness. They ran tests. I had some sort of weird, rare genetic cancer.”
“Oh, sure,” she says. “Of course you did.” She emerges all curvy and dripping.
I don’t say anything. I tilt my head back and suck in a nice, long drag just for spite. But then I think about if Margot does leave for good, the house empty of our laughter.
“And what if I try to quit but still can’t?” I ask. “Does that mean I love you any less?”
“Do you love me?” she asks. “I wonder how you can claim that, when you obviously don’t care very much about your health.”
I stub out the joint.
Margot drifts to the outdoor shower. As I sit there covered in needles, the acupuncturist dozing in the chair beside me, I watch her soap and rinse through the shrubbery. When Margot comes out her face is wet but her eyes are ember-red, either from the chlorine or maybe tears. And I’m troubled by this because as much as I seek to enjoy every moment with Margot, I want just as much for her to enjoy me, too—otherwise, what’s the point? I fought the cancer after my divorce, by myself. I wouldn’t want to go through that alone again.
* * *
The next morning we awake to the smell of smoke. A haze hangs outside even though the night before was clear. The local news tells us that wildfires are burning across the state. I’m glued to the TV most of the morning.
I work in the field of environmental protection, although the staff under my management amends developers’ agreements, not forest fires. A storm out in the Atlantic is blowing winds south, trapping the worst of the smoke right above central Florida. The reporter concludes by warning that anyone with breathing conditions should spend the day indoors.
I step onto the patio and light my usual morning cigarette. Any smoker will tell you there’s a vast difference between having a cigarette and breathing smoke. But in a few minutes, the double-inhalation of toxic fumes proves too much and I’m clutching my sides in a coughing fit.
Margot waltzes out with our coffee and the Sentinel. She says nothing about my hacking spell, but shoves the ashtray at me so hard that it wobbles on its rim like a hubcap before coming to rest.
“My lung works at eighty-five percent capacity,” I start. “That’s better than most people with two lungs.”
“You’re a coward,” she says.
“If that’s how you see it,” I say. “I try every day not to smoke.”
“You say you love me and want a long, passionate life together," she says, "yet you act to destroy that very possibility every time you bring one of those cancer sticks to your lips. Either you want to live, or you want to smoke and die young. Which is the truth?”
Margot is a lawyer, and for the first time I’m realizing just how she has won her reputation for ruthless cross-examination in the toughest of cases. “Please stay,” I say. “See, this is the reason I love you. You’re right, and you’re the most brilliant woman I’ve ever known.”
“I appreciate that,” she says. “But I assure you, I get plenty of praise from my colleagues and everyone else who wants to get in my pants.”
She strips off the sarong she wears in the morning, struts over to the pool naked, and dips one foot in the water. Then tugs on her swim cap and plunges into the deep end. I smoke while her egg head skims back and forth over the length of the pool. The yard takes on a dull tinge from the wildfire smoke. Even her cap doesn’t gleam its usual bright white.
Then I picture her climbing out, collecting her things, and not coming back. Margot is that type of woman: she won’t waste time if she hits an impasse, but will survey her options and hop the next plane to wherever she wants to go. To the extent that I desire her tongue-lashing insights to keep my own ship sailing, I reel back en route.
I fetch my car keys and call out that I’m going to the pharmacy to buy the latest nicotine patch system. I expect her to smile and wave mid-stroke, but she stands up in the shallow end, coughing. She claims the smoky air hurts her eyes and lungs too much. We retreat and barricade ourselves within the air conditioning. I bring her some water but she is hacking so hard that she runs to the bathroom and throws up.
At the store I buy the most expensive anti-smoking product on the market.
* * *
By evening the air inside tastes of ash despite our efforts to keep the windows and doors sealed. Margot has an early court case so she spends the night at her house. I go to bed with a burning sore throat and stinging nose. The air is so bad that I can’t sleep. I turn on the light and reach for my cure-all remedy (insomnia, nausea, glaucoma)—a joint.
I exhale a lungful and ponder: what’s the heart of the trouble between Margot and me? If in order to truly love someone else, you must first completely love yourself, then aren’t most relationships not based in love but something else—dependency, security, urgency, sex? But then, if in order to love yourself includes accepting your own faults and failures, wouldn’t that mean the other person has to accept those, too? I check the pulse in my neck, feel the blood gushing through my veins.
I recall my most recent visit to the specialist who removed my lung. We examined my glowing X-rays and the doctor pointed out the strange starfish arms branching out every-which-way—the solo lung’s incredible expansion into the cavity left by its twin.
* * *
The next evening after dinner, Margot spots the 5-step nicotine system and reads the box in its entirety while I stock the dishwasher. “So where’d you stick the patch?” she asks.
“I didn’t start yet,” I say. “Today was my last day to smoke.”
“Oh,” she replies, placing the box on the counter as if she had wasted too much time divulging all those directions and diagrams. Then she rummages through her purse for a piece of dark “antioxidant” chocolate, her nightly habit. Between chews she says, “Are you going to stop smoking weed, too?”
“Weed I can quit anytime,” I tell her. “Just whether I want to or not.”
She offers me some chocolate, but I refuse. The stuff tastes like dirt pie mixed with soot, not that I would know.
“I love you,” she says.
“'I love you,’ what does that mean?” I retort, whirling around. “What happens if I quit now but breach contract with a pack of American Spirit in five years? Then you won’t quite love me so much, maybe?”
She’s quiet for a few moments, collecting her thoughts, and when she speaks her voice is steady, each word deliberately chosen. She says, “I want evidence that you believe in the value of your life, an action or something specific. If not, we might as well end this right now because we’ll just keep failing to understand one another.”
This argument isn’t even about me smoking or having one lung. This is about two people defining what love is going to mean between just them. This is laying a foundation for a brick house rather than plodding along and tossing up some shack of twigs and straw, which is what most people settle for instead. And now the time has come for me to throw down the largest brick of all, the cornerstone upon which my life with Margot will either tower majestically or crumble when the pressure heats up later on. Once again squared off with her brilliant insight, I feel overwhelmingly grateful for her.
“Go into the garage,” I say. “Look above the refrigerator in the back. Tell me what you find.”
“What does this have to do with anything?” she says. “What am I looking for?”
“A plastic bucket, orange,” I say. I flick on the garage light for her.
She returns gagging, but not from the smoke. She carries the sealed bucket far out in front of her with both hands, slides its contents back and forth slightly. The bucket sounds like it has a rock inside as she steps closer to me: ker-thunk, ker-thunk.
“Whatever this is, it stinks of chemicals,” she says, wrinkling her nose.
“You really don’t know?” I ask her. “Look. The bucket’s got Xs and crossbones and cuidado marked all over it.”
“Can I throw this away, please?” she asks.
“Absolutely not,” I tell her, pretending to take offense. “That’s my lung.”
She screams and drops the bucket. It hits the floor but luckily the hospital must seal up medical waste to outlast a nuclear war because the lid stays on.
“I had to fight with the doctors to let me keep it as a reminder,” I say. “Even having that old cancer-ridden thing in my house didn’t work to stop me from smoking. And I kept that bucket here and stared at it for a long time, trust me. But that old lung’s still here and so am I, and because of that lung I love every moment of my life.”
Margot just stands there, one hand plastered over her mouth, staring at me. I stoop down and grasp the bucket.
“Jesus,” she mutters. “That’s sick.”
But then we both start laughing, and the petrified lung rattles and clunks even more, which makes us crack up even harder. She follows me outside and down the driveway to the trash bin. I throw open the lid and say goodbye to my lung. We wipe our eyes, grip our aching ribs and howl until the smoky air finally turns our chuckles to chokes and we surrender inside to hit the sheets.
* * *
These days life has shifted somewhat. Instead of having my first cigarette while Margot swims, I join her. Mostly I interfere with her laps by swimming around and groping her naked body, and this begins a cycle of her squirming, crying out in protest and finally, embracing me. She hasn’t mentioned my quitting smoking since the night we tossed out my old lung. The wildfires have died down and the wind has shifted, clearing the air. In the late afternoon, the rains come. We make love while the sky pours buckets. Afterward, I sit out back inhaling the clean, cool air brought by the rain and enjoy my only smoke (a post-coital spliff).
One such afternoon Margot slips outside clad in a towel. She prefers the outdoor shower because the indoor one lacks the appeal of geckos and insects darting around her feet, and the slim but sure possibility of a snake. A couple of weeks ago I found a baby rattler while cleaning leaves out of the pool filter. Not what I’d call dangerous or exotic, but Margot likes to pretend we’re living our own version of Indiana Jones.
When the shower jerks to life I suddenly feel confessional. Maybe it’s the weed. “I was afraid you’d leave,” I say. “If I didn’t stop smoking.”
“Is that why you quit?” she sputters from the shower, but her tone is bemused, sparring. “Mr. I-Don’t-Live-In-Fear?”
“Cut it out,” I say. “Would you rather I take for granted waking up next to you?”
Eyes closed, head tilted back, her body is framed by the night-blooming jasmine and papaya trees. “Modus operandi,” she says. “If we love one another, we should use this to keep us in check—that at any time, for any reason, either one of us may leave or die.”
“But you’re staying?” I ask.
“I’m staying,” she says. “And I believe you love me a tad bit more, but that’s just today.”
I nod and think, fair enough. A great horticulturist accepts that no two days are exactly alike in the natural world, no two moments, no two creatures. That’s why living organisms abound with mystery and surprise. I’m fixated by this in Margot, her churning bundle of deliberate yet spontaneous qualities. She’s like a reviving serum that keeps me reborn.
Later on, I rummage in my office. The scraping of boxes and groaning of drawers summons Margot. “What are you looking for?” she asks.
“I want you to see my good lung, so you believe me.”
She helps me look. Together we tear the desk and filing cabinets apart. We move on to the closet. We conduct this ritual together, unearthing gestures and evidence of my devotions to love and life.
She asks, “How can a lung grow, especially with you smoking?”
“In spite of smoking,” I point out. “After the operation, I was still in the hospital but able to walk around, and I went sort of crazy. I did laps around the ward just to prove to myself I was alive. Over and over, all I thought was, ‘I have a fantastic lung.’”
Wedged between a stack of bent Get Well cards and some back issues of High Times, Margot discovers the X-rays. The light is too dim to reveal anything distinct. I turn on the closet light and hold up one sheet of film.
“I don’t see anything,” she says. “Just a dark blob.”
In my hurry to exit the closet, I trip over some boxes. The X-rays fly out of my grasp and fan out across the floor. The afternoon sun hits this side of the house pretty strong when the blinds are wide open.
“Oh, my gosh," she cries. "Is that it?” We both squat near the spread out X-ray sheets. I pick up the transparency on top, walk it over to the window, and stick it inside the frame so that the light shines through.
“Isn’t that something,” she says, and hugs me from behind.
We study the peculiar image before us. Mysterious as a snowflake, my solo lung has great arms. It splays out in my chest like a flesh-made Star of David and reaches out of my body, across the universe.
* This story first appeared in Cimarron Review
About The Writer
Vanessa Blakeslee’s writing has appeared in The Southern Review, Green Mountains Review, The Paris Review Daily, The Globe and Mail, and Kenyon Review Online, among many others. Winner of the inaugural Bosque Fiction Prize, she has also been awarded grants and residencies from Yaddo, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, The Banff Centre, Ledig House, and the Ragdale Foundation. In 2013 she received the Individual Artist Fellowship in Literature from the Florida Division of Cultural Affairs. Her debut story collection, Train Shots, is forthcoming from Burrow Press in early 2014. Find Vanessa at www.vanessablakeslee.com.