The hairs on the back of my neck stand up whenever I see her with a cigarette.
I despise myself for my reaction. I genuinely hate smoking – it’s a filthy habit, vile. It leaves your clothes and hair and breath reeking, fills your mouth with the taste of stale ashes, not to mention the damage it does to your body. If I had my way, tobacco would be top of my list of banned substances.
But then she takes one of those pretentious, brown cylinders out of the packet. Mores. This is not Marlboro Girl, oh no. No Benson and Hedges, no Silk Cut. She used to smoke those black Balkan Sobranie, back when they still made them. Anyway, she eases the cigarette out, taps it on the packet, slowly slides thumb and forefinger from base to tip, tip to base, as if smoothing the paper.
Long, slim fingers, long, sharp nails, long, thin, dark cigarette.
She barely parts her lips; it’s more an insinuation, easing the filter between them. She always lights with a match: a sputter, a flare, a swift, acrid sink of sulphur, the flame contracting as it is sucked from the head of the match into the crinkling tobacco. A brisk flick of the wrist to extinguish it, and then it’s dropped neatly into the crystal ashtray on the table in front of her.
You can see her cheeks hollowing as she pulls that first deep drag of smoke into her lungs, and it makes her cheekbones more prominent, if that’s possible. She half closes those big blue eyes, showing heavy pearlescent-shadowed lids and a dark, smudgy sweep of lashes.
And then she exhales with a sigh, the smoke trickling out of the almost imperceptible gap between the cupid’s bow of the upper lip and the perfect fullness of the lower to curl gently and mistily around her face like a veil.
Even from a couple of yards away, you can feel the satisfaction oozing from her pores.
And those little hairs on the back of my neck lift up, and my scalp tingles, and the palms of my hands grow ever-so-slightly damp.
This is how she must look after sex, I think: the smoke and pleasure blurring the hard edges off the too-angular face, transforming her from bitch to vixen, and she makes me think of Betty Bacall in one of those old Film Noirs, beautiful, edgy, infinitely glamorous and infinitely dangerous.
She catches sight of me staring at her.
She lifts her hand, a tiny beckoning motion, just enough for me to see. I go over.
“Still dreaming, Billy, even now?” she asks, and her voice is pitying.
My face reddens, as my brother descends on us, wreathed in grins.
“Come on, babe,” he urges his bride, “Everyone's waiting. It’s time to throw the bouquet.”