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Egle

*A short story about a dear friend of mine. Her name is more or less pronounced Ag-luh.

Egle woke up that morning with a resolve to quit smoking.

She entered her tiny kitchen whistling a Frank Sinatra tune, picked up the full pack of “Prima” cigarettes on the counter, and broke her morning routine by tossing them into the rubbish bin. She put a pot of water on the stove and watched the steam fog up her view of the city outside the small window. She drew a smiley face in the glass and could see clearly through the eyes and smile the identical gray buildings that surrounded hers. “23” was painted in old flaking red paint on the building directly facing her kitchen. It was the number of years she’s been married; the number of years she’d been smoking. Looking beyond the dirty Soviet-built structures, Egle marveled at the perfect sunrise. It was an explosion of light that striped the sky with a pattern of purples, oranges, yellows, and blues, stretching outward forever from a vanishing point she couldn’t quite see. It bathed the streets below her in a soft orange glow that was reflected in the old rickety autobus that stopped in front of her building, the “welcome” sign of the corner grocery store across the road, and the wet streets, littered with bottles, cans, and a few passed-out homeless men.

She sat on a three-legged stool and drank a hot cup of Summer Bouquet tea, nudging the old dog, asleep under the table, with her slippered feet. Wagging his tail, he got up and put his big boxer head on her lap. He looked up at her with eyes that said, “Let’s walk,” and she agreed.

Egle pulled on her favorite pair of jeans and a soft pink sweater. She removed her house slippers and stepped into her only pair of heels, as black as the sleek boxer eagerly waiting beside her. Her hair was a gray-brown frizz that had a mind of its own, and she carefully pinned it into a French twist before applying some mascara and a light layer of pink lipstick. She pulled out the perfume she’d purchased a year ago at the flea market down the road. They always had cheap imitations of American scents, and this one was her favorite – “Sensuous” by Estee Lauder. Egle only used it on very special occasions. Today she spritzed it on liberally, and the scent of mandarin and sandalwood filled her plain bedroom, taking Egle to a warmer place: one with more sand, more smiley faces, and less concrete. She smiled at the thought that today, the tropics wouldn’t be tainted with the smell of tobacco.

The November air outside looked brisk, so Egle bundled up in her nicest winter things and took an assessing look at herself in the mirror. Her mother had always told her she was too skinny, but with her faux-fur scarf around her thin neck and the cream-colored turban on her head, she felt like Elizabeth Taylor, minus the cigarette.

Their morning walk was longer than usual. They strolled for several blocks, enjoying the sunshine and stopping to browse the wares of the street vendors. Old, weathered women smiled at her and held up their odds and ends: shoelaces, pantyhose, and vegetables. An old paperback romance novel caught her eye, and she talked the old gypsy down to 50 cents. A few blocks later, she bought a small bouquet of wildflowers. Pressing them to her nose, she tried to envision the distant countryside garden they were picked from, somewhere far beyond the walls of building 23. Finally, she bought a jug of grapefruit juice, hoping it would give her mouth a bold enough flavor to resist the “Prima” box that still lay in her rubbish bin, tempting her the more each hour. Then she and the boxer returned home.

Egle carefully placed the flowers in a yellowing glass vase she kept beneath the kitchen sink, then spent the afternoon reading her new book. She gripped its pages especially tight when the urge to smoke became stronger. She knew she should get up, that she needed to boil the potatoes, that it was only a matter of time before he came home hungry. But she didn’t dare go anywhere near the kitchen’s rubbish bin, so she stayed in the living room, hoping he would be so pleasantly surprised by her decision that he would suggest a romantic evening out.

At long last she stood up and returned to the bathroom to freshen up. She put a fresh coat of lipstick on and smoothed out the frizzy stray hairs on her French twist, smiling at her Elizabeth Taylor reflection. She turned the large knobs of the radio to her favorite station, where Frank Sinatra was belting, “You make me laugh with my heart….”

That’s when he walked in.

The door slammed behind him, a cold interruption to her day of peace. He kicked clumsily at the dog, who whined and slumped to his spot beneath the kitchen table, tail between his legs. Timidly, she gave him her news. She was congratulated with shouts of outrage. His scathing words drove the stench of alcohol out of his lips, raging a winning battle against the lingering scent of the tropics. He grabbed the vase of flowers and threw it to the ground. It shattered along with all her hopes for the evening. Frank Sinatra sang on, unaware.

Dinner wasn’t ready.

"Is your figure less than Greek?..."

She looked like a whore.

"Is your mouth a little weak?..."

And if it wasn’t for him, someone would have put her away in a mental hospital long ago.

"When you open it to speak
Are you smart?"

Everything was spinning, and her mouth had tied itself up in knots again.

Her makeup streaked down her tired face, creating a marble effect on her hot cheeks. Swallowing hard, she managed to steady herself enough to flee into the dimly lit bathroom again, where she locked the door and looked in the mirror.

She was not Elizabeth Taylor. She was a circus clown.

Egle waited until his rampage was over, and she could hear him settling in front of the television with something he’d found in the refrigerator. She crept out of the bathroom and into the kitchen.

Shakily, Egle dug into the rubbish bin for the box she had tossed away so freely that morning. She hurried to the balcony and tried to whistle, but the cold night air seized the music trying to escape her lips and turned it into a bitter fog. She could hear the muffled sound of his slurred voice inside, cursing her damn smoking habit.

Egle looked at the dark, fading “23” on the gray brick wall before her. She lifted a cigarette to her lips and closed her eyes.

She would try again tomorrow.

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