The thing was that I owned millions of cartons of cigarettes, most of the cigarettes in what was left of the world—but not to smoke them (I don’t smoke). This was at a time when I didn’t know fear. Everyone who smoked came up to me asking for one cigarette or half a cigarette; in exchange they gave me vegetables, bottles of water, socks, soap. I was rich. I lived in the bar with good-looking Craig, who doled beer out into shot glasses and mugs, accepting items of different weights for different quantities of beer—a radish for a small beer, a potato for a big one. Every evening I’d return to the bar after my day of trading cigarettes for goods, load the goods into the bar’s cellar, eat, then come upstairs to help Craig run the bar and trade more cigarettes for more things. Craig himself got his cigarettes for free—he was the only one. He would put the padlocks on the doors in the early morning and we’d sit together reading, holding hands, while Craig smoked. He knew to wash his hands after he was done, and clean his teeth, so that I would let him into our little bed up against the back gate and we could fall asleep with our faces too close even to kiss, the sounds of the city’s chaos muffled by our bodies and the bricks in the walls.
Pretty soon the cars stopped running; people scavenged their chassis and used the seats, the stereos. The destitute built lives inside the empty hulls of the cars, or they used the seats and stereos to furnish forts they built on the sidewalk. Police stopped coming—there weren’t any left. Soon, all the pavement broke apart and plants grew up between the cracks, their roots heaving soil up to the surface. People cleared away the rocks that used to be pavement, picked more stones out of the dirt and planted seeds there. These farmers came to the bar with their arms full of food, and Craig and I ate some of it and used the rest to make more liquor and beer for everyone. We saw far into the future to a time when the bar would not be necessary, when everyone made his or her own spirits out of fruits and potatoes instead of trading them for ours, if they even wanted any; when they would also make their own cigarettes, if they wanted cigarettes anymore. But one morning I had a moment of wonder when I looked in the cellar again, and with joy and satisfaction saw the cartons and kegs and bottles stacked up neatly to the ceiling in great abundance—enough for us, enough for the city. We would never live long enough to see our supply run out, and we had no children.
The man who’s embracing me in the street because I have a piece of dust in my eye: yes, I know him. He grips me above the elbows, makes me fix my flickering gaze upward. Through startled tears I look at a square of sky until a big shape—his face—interrupts one corner.
“Relax, I have saline,” he says. “Relax. Can you see me?” Has all my work culminated now, in something as mundane as a man and a woman hugging?
We’ve shared a coffee cart for years. The first time I saw him was in periphery as I finished buying my breakfast.
“Hey, no fair,” he said, so I pivoted in my mud-spattered boots. “That’s what I was going to get!”
I walk dogs. I said, “Sorry!”, pulled the dogs aside, thought about my Bavarian creme donut in a new way. From that moment, I’d be watching him; I wondered, with satisfaction, how long he had watched me and I hadn’t known.
I wondered what his briefcase was full of. I tried to remember ever having been watched before by someone with a briefcase. He seemed to own things, and I wondered, What kinds of things does he own? but guiltily, because what should have been enough was that he owned his shoulders, his broad back, the hands that put a dollar on the counter and carried away a paper bag.
Now this man’s body is over me and he is flooding my eye with drops of greasy water from a bottle that was in his pocket. Papers swirl everywhere because he has flung down the briefcase, and it has opened. I have let go of the leashes, thrown the coffee cup; the dogs bite the papers and lap the brown liquid. A horse may be whinnying nearby, or I may be imagining that.
I’ll admit I once thought about making love to him surrounded by things he owned: good umbrellas, leather-bound books, letter openers. “Hey, no fair,” I heard myself say, referring to some fine shoehorn or vase, but looking at his mouth which I was about to kiss. “That’s what I was going to get!” We collapsed right into each other.
“I know how to recover from dust in the eye,” I could have said a second ago. “This isn’t the first time dust has been in my eye.” But it’s too late. He grips my chin, like a veterinarian giving a pill to a cat. The drops are giant and cool.
“Blink,” he says, his voice disturbing the hairs inside my ear. “You can see me, can’t you?” The piece of dust floats away in a torrent and I close my arms around him, I smear my wet eyes on his soft, expensive shirt.