Staying Pretty / by Cyle Talley

"I've had it. Finished. Finito," she takes a deep drag on the cigarette, cranes her neck back, and exhales. The smoke rises and blooms toward the ceiling and she leans back in the old wooden chair beside the mattress on the floor. Her long bare legs are stretched out before her, crossed at the ankle, and the chambray shirt, buttoned once at the sternum, strains to create some charade of decency as she settles into the back rest, her arms dangling at her sides. "Because it's bad for you. Did you read the thing?"

"Mmm?" The other woman looks up from where she is sprawled width-wise across the mattress on her stomach reading, her elbows propped on the edge. The covers spill in waves onto the floor. The other woman looks up at her and lets the top of the novel's spine tip and touch the marked and scarred and worn wood floor like a conductor's baton calling the orchestra to attention. A few pages flutter as if the musicians are trying to find the right spot from which to begin. The sunlight pours in through the window.

"The skin on smokers' faces- it goes slack sooner," she runs the ring finger of the hand holding the cigarette along the ridge of her throats several times and then takes another drag. "So I'm done. Giving it up. Gotta stay pretty, right?"

The other woman lifts her feet in the air, pointing her toes and kicking her bare legs back and forth, feeling 13 again and wearing the wrong pajamas at the popular girl's slumber party playing Truth or Dare. But she isn't wearing pajamas. She closes the book and sets it on the ground.

"What's there to explain?"

"Well, what happens?"

"Oh," she reaches her hands toward the plaster ceiling, arches her back, and stretches the length of herself. Her heels slide a bit and the shirt keeps the charade going, but only just barely. Sighing, she massages the bridge of her nose, pinching it with her fingertips. "Oh," she clicks her teeth a few times. "I think it's the elastic fibers. They snap- or burst, maybe?"

"So, you're quitting?"

"Yeah," the word rises and blooms toward the ceiling. "Well, probably." She sighs and slouches further back in the rickety chair, rocking its uneven legs back and forth. "Why do all of the things that feel good have to be bad?" She sits up straight in the chair, then leans forward, her elbows on her knees, and stares at the cigarette in her hand. "So what do you think? Do you want to be quit?"

The cigarette does not answer. The other woman kicks her feet gently a few more times for good measure.