His hands shook as he took a cigarette out of the crumpled boxed. His fingers, worn and covered in liver spots, were surprisingly delicate; a strange juxtaposition, when compared to his rough, low voice, even, despite the urgency of his tone. Their imperceptible tremble was highlighted by the way the cigarette shook between his nicotine stained fingertips. He looked quite unlike his usual self. Unsure, and shaken up, he looked like a man who didn’t quite know what to do with his limbs. His shoulders hunched forward, and elbows stuck out at an angle that couldn’t possibly have been comfortable, but he sat just like that, crouched on the sidewalk.
“Yeah, yeah I am. I think so.”
He handed the cigarette over to her, and picked one out for himself. He kept a ‘lucky’ one, she noted with amusement as she saw the tobacco peak out of the neat little rows of white filters. She wouldn’t have taken him for a man who believed in any superstition, but then, what did she really know? A sudden shiver ran down her spine as she suddenly realized what had just happened. Her shoulders tightened against her will, and she rolled them to ease the sudden pain. Her cheap, flowly jacket rustled against his arm, and she saw him twitch. But he didn’t move away. Another surprise from the man she’d never thought could surprise her.
“Would you like me to move?”
“We just survived a goddamned earthquake. I think I can survive you sitting next to me.”
She laughed. A hearty, loud laugh, quite unlike the airy giggle he reserved for her customers. It was an unwarranted sound considering their surroundings. A collapsed building, a tree uprooted, resting on a car, and people milling around, looking as dazed as he felt. Some looked at them now, annoyance clear on their faces. He didn’t say a word. Just signaled with the lighter he held in his hand, and she leaned in, cigarette between her pursed red lips. A deep drag later, she exhaled, the smoke from her mouth mingling with his.
He grunted back. Forty years of working at the store. His store. And he had never encountered a whore quite like her. Most stopped working the corner near his in a week or two after they first stepped into the store, and there she was. Back, every night. She always bought the same thing. A pack of lights and a bottle of water. She walked up to the counter with a flounce and arrogance that infuriated him, and smiled as she paid. He knew her smile as intimately as he knew his own, perhaps. Open mouthed, with a chipped front tooth, with a little bit of lipstick gone astray. He knew it well enough to hate it.
She was incorrigible. With her loud makeup, large hair, and clothes that felt like they were created to provoke his anger, not other men’s desire, she was an antithesis of him. He took pride in his near-punishing austerity. Faded blue shirt, faded brown pants with their pleated ironed out, and faded black loafers. He liked being slightly dull. Just slightly wane. He liked to think he represented himself well, with his calm, uneventful life.
And yet, he found himself sitting on a curbside with the prostitute he hated, sharing a cigarette after an earthquake.
He took a last, final drag and stubbed it against the pavement, letting the filter roll off into the gutter. Moving slowly as he got up, he dusted himself off and leaned against a lamppost for support. He suddenly felt old. Older than he had in years. Older than what he felt when his wife died. Older than himself. He scanned the front of his store for any obvious damage. None. He’d probably have to pick up things that fell off the shelves, though. He sighed at the thought. Too old. Too old for this.
As he shuffled towards the door, he heard the clacking of her heels. It was a sound he knew only too well, for it had been discomfiting him for years now, at exactly 9:30pm every night. He turned to her suddenly, causing her to trip and totter as she regained her balance.
“What the fuck do you want?”
“Well. It’s time for my lights and water.”
She smiled at him. Open mouthed, with a chipped front tooth, with a little bit of lipstick gone astray.
And for the first time in the four years of their torrid acquaintance, his lips twitched slightly.