A hand-drawn image of an orderly flower vase.

“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” by Sarah Davidson

Sarah is currently an English student at the University of Saskatchewan. “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is a short story that presents the struggle of a woman attempting to balance and heal a broken relationship with her family after committing to a life with her girlfriend. Sarah has previously published poems in contests through the Poetry Institute of Canada. This is Sarah’s first published short story.

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Anna crossed her left leg tightly over the right knee, so it hung there swinging at the hinge of her joint. She used her damp palm to smooth out a crease that had pinched the fabric of her slacks. Her fingers quaked, jittering up and down. Anna had washed and pressed all their clothes. Stains, creases, or loose hems were unacceptable that evening on either of them.

“These pants are too tight, I look ridiculous,” Chloe said. She walked out of the kitchen to model in front of Anna. Chloe pulled at the waistband of her pants while she danced her weight impatiently from one foot to the other. She bent her arm at a sharp angle to rest on her hip, even her jaw was tense and set behind her straight mouth.

“You look fine, it’s just dinner. Just one dinner,” Anna muttered. She set a cigarette between her teeth and reached for the matchbox on the coffee table.

“This really isn’t the time to be smoking, your parents will think I’ve been encouraging your bad habits,” Chloe told her. Everyone who knew Anna knew smoking was a habit she’d never shake, despite Chloe’s well-intentioned efforts. Anna continued to strike the match and light the end, just enough to pull in the sweet gray smoke that would fill her lungs and settle as tar later in life. There was no time for an argument. Anna watched her scuttle back into the kitchen to check on dinner and avoid further discussion on the topic of fashion choice.

Anna’s knee continued its jittering, sending shocks of motion into her legs. Even the cigarette quaked between her fingertips, and only settled when she sucked more life out of it.

The place had been swept three times over. She even washed her hair and painted her face in accents of rouge. Anna bought flowers, white roses, and cut them down to size to fit in the only vase they had. She had never fussed over dust and flowers so much in her life. The only thing that could ruin the evening was the cigarettes. Anna had promised to quit for years, but it had always been her loyal companion.

She had been smoking the first night she met her.

In a small bar on the East side of town, Anna had sat in a tall chair with her legs tightly crossed to keep her dress from riding up her thighs. She had been set up by her mother for the third time that month, on a date with a man with little charisma and yellow teeth. The only time her mother called anymore was to inform about the next date she had arranged. Anna had been 26 at the time, with an endless parade of distasteful dates. Most had been scared away by the permanent indent on her left hand’s finger, the only remaining ghost of her marriage. She couldn’t understand why they felt so scared to compete with a dead man. Anna liked to think that maybe his ghost was watching over her in that way, screening for duds.

She had been sipping a dry cocktail when he arrived, leaving a shadow of beige lipstick around the rim. His name was Martin she remembered. Her date kissed her cheek and checked his wristwatch, as if he were already counting down to the end. Martin asked her where she was from, his voice hissed behind those yellow teeth.

She knew that he would have been forewarned that Anna was widowed. Maybe he minded, and was doing this out of pity or desperation, but maybe he didn’t at all and only wanted a night out. Martin ordered beer in the bottle and clicked his teeth every time he took a sip. Anna’s head had started to ache. The man got sloppier with his words the more he drank. Anna sometimes took a sip from her glass without swallowing any drink at all. She remembered the first date with her husband. She hadn’t liked him right away either but grew to enjoy his company after their engagement. Martin wasn’t particularly attractive. Her date had an odor perfuming from him that she couldn’t quite identify. His damp collar and perspiring forehead must’ve been the culprit. The one thing she hated more than anything on that Earth was a sweaty man. She thought of this while Martin spoke about his career achievements. He was just short of waving trophies in her face with his protrusive pride. She had been told since she was old enough to date that a lady never boasted about herself. Anna had always found that an odd custom of etiquette. Men constantly spoke about themselves. How exhausting that must be, she thought.

By 8pm she beckoned for the bill, which he offered to pay in the patriarchal manner of assuming he was obliged to. She let him, since she hated paying for her drinks on dates that left a bad aftertaste.

After they hugged goodbye, he caught himself a separate cab, and she stood at the curb pondering the letter that his last name had started with.

J? Jacobson?

W? Wilson?

C? Carter? 

Carter, it could’ve been Carter. The name was ringing an insignificant bell to her and she was satisfied enough with that. Before hailing herself a cab, she lit another cigarette on the curb.

The sky spit rain. Her fur coat clung to droplets but continued to keep her warm as if it were her own skin, her own fur. She would put her foot down next time her mother called. She told herself this as she smoked, heavy intakes testing her lungs capacity. She was happy to be a lonesome widow; it had a romantic sound to it. She felt content being a sad story her mother complained about. It was better than being a boring wife to a boring man, living in a boring house, raising boring children. So, she smoked, and was also content with living the rest of her life with her cigarettes, and maybe a dog. She had always wanted a dog.

“You know those things give you cancer,” a woman said. She had a coat lazily slung over her shoulders and a scarf wrapped around her head, keeping her hair safe from the rain.

“That’s not really any of your business though is it?” Anna asked, irritated that her life was seemingly open for comments, even from strangers. Anna’s words had no effect on the young blonde things. She even smiled.

“Did your date go well?” the woman said. Anna blew smoke away from the woman’s direction, but the wind caught it quickly and wafted it back her way.

“Why? Were you spying?” she said.

“I work here. I sort of spy on everyone,” the woman said with a casual shrug of her covered shoulders.

“Is that a requirement of this place as an employee? To spy on the customers?” Anna said, feeling her wit overtake her.

People bustled around them, calling cabs, gesturing wildly in conversation, everyone submerged in their own worlds. The woman took a few steps closer and faced her.

“Yes actually, they even train you in the art,” she said smiling.

“It didn’t really go anywhere, or it won’t be going anywhere. The date I mean,” Anna said before an exhale.

“You’re probably too good for him I imagine,” the woman said. She stared at her with bright blue eyes that looked nearly luminescent in the streetlight. Her face was smooth. She didn’t appear to be wearing any makeup. Anna felt old in that moment. Painted in makeup like a fool. She self-consciously touched the corner of her eye, worried her mascara might run in the weather.

“That’s quite a thing to say to someone you don’t know,” Anna said. She dropped the cigarette under her shoe and made small circles with the toe of her heel into the cement, killing the burn. The young woman took an abrupt step towards her again and stuck out her hand, her skin was etched in ink scribbles of old drink orders.

“I’m Chloe, what’s your name then?” she asked. Anna felt herself blushing. She hadn’t blushed in years. “Anna,” she said, taking her hand and shaking it. There was a heat between their palms, and Anna’s breath caught in her throat.

“If you’re not going to be seeing that man again does that mean you’re free for a drink? Can I take you out for one?” Chloe was inviting her out, right there in the middle of the street. Anna took a moment to glance at the people around them, wondering if anyone could hear them talking like that.

“As long as it’s to a bar where I can smoke,” Anna watched Chloe’s face light up, and crease into a smile. 

She didn’t light another cigarette for the rest of that night.

Anna thought about their first night as she sat on the couch, her stomach was twisting itself into knots. She couldn’t make herself stand up to help with dinner without feeling sick.

“Will he eat Lamb? I should’ve cooked a chicken,” Chloe called from the kitchen, already exhausted before the evening began.

“I’m sure it’s fine, please quit fussing,” Anna said. She rubbed her temples with her index finger and thumb.

Her head was full of pressure, building and settling at the temples.

They had decided on lamb because it was more expensive than chicken. The success of the evening was all dependent on that cursed lamb. When Anna was younger, the family would eat fresh meat on Sundays, from her father’s hunting trips. She had eaten a lot of pheasant, and deer, but never any lamb.

He would walk into the house with his pipe hanging from his lips. Smoking was in her genes. She would tell Chloe this when she complained about it, which was often. He walked in, blood stains and all. Her mother would curse about stains on the hardwood floors. Dead birds would be tossed to the table for her mother to clean, and sometimes Anna would watch. She’d sit at the other end of the table, her chin leaning against the edge. Doe-eyed she’d observe while her mother plucked out each feather. Anna could still hear the feathers disjointing from the skin, the light popping sounds made her own hairs stand on end. The belly was meticulously cut, just enough to dislodge the inner workings of the animal. Sometimes they’d name the different organs, a quick lesson in anatomy. She was often awarded a candy if she properly named them all before they were thrown to the dog.

It had always amazed Anna how something once so alive could be reduced to parts. She could remember its smell, still warm and richly wild, fully animal. It wasn’t until her mother stuffed it with herbs and cooked its meat that Anna could associate it with her hunger.

Now her shared apartment was saturated in a similar smell, sweet and full of salt.

The clock ticked and let out a chiming cry to announce the time.

Six a clock.

A coo-coo bird poked its polished head into the room. Sensing tension it curled back into the clock.

“Do you think they’re running late?” Chloe said, walking back out from the kitchen.  

“They’re never late,” Anna said. She let out another breath of smoke and crushed the end of the cigarette into the crystal ashtray. It had once belonged to her grandmother, who had found herself quite wealthy in another country before crossing the sea. Anna had stuffed it into her purse the last time she had visited her mother’s house. She could remember the last conversation between them in her head.

Her father wouldn’t even leave his study. He had locked the door and refused to speak to her after the news had caught on. She had been shaking in her coat from the winter storm she had driven in. It had been the woman next door, Mrs. Michaels who told her mother. Anna couldn’t tell if her mother was more concerned with the neighbourhood gossip, or Anna’s sexuality.

“What would Louis say?” her mother had been testing her; it was a threat.

“He’s dead mother so I’m sure he’s not too concerned,” Anna said. Her mother touched the cross that sat against her heart, as if she were worried for the state of her daughter’s soul.

“How could you do this to us?” she said. Her eyes welled with tears.

“I’m not doing anything to you, I would never have told you,” she said.

“I wish you could have just kept this to yourself, why move in together and declare some relationship? It’s vulgar.” Her mother was shaking and kept touching her forehead, as if she were to faint.

“Because I love her, and we want to have a life together. I understand if you can’t accept this, but it doesn’t change that I’m still your daughter and a part of this family,” Anna said. An anger burned hot in her belly.

“No, my dear I’m afraid it does change things. Your father and I would appreciate it if you refrained from coming to this house and withheld any contact from now on. We will not associate ourselves with this sort of lifestyle. I think it best if you go Anna,” she said. Anna stood there in heavy breath, and without words. She remembered how coldly her mother brushed her aside, opening the door for her to make her final leave. It was then, as she passed the side table that she grabbed the ash tray. She wasn’t sure why she had done it. It may have been valuable, but she didn’t care about its financial worth. Maybe it was her fighting back, in that small insignificant way. She stuffed it into her pocket and left her family home. Her name was no longer in the family will. So, the ashtray seemed to suffice for her share of family heirlooms.

Five years of silence was to be reconciled with one lamb dinner.

The phone started to cry. Anna leaped from her seat and out of her daze like she’d be shocked and pulled the headpiece off the wall.

“Daddy? You’re late,” her voice cracked.

 It was just that the forecast called for evening rain, it was just that her brother had made an unexpected trip to visit, and it was just that they detested driving to that side of the city at night.

It was supposedly a lot of things.

She watched Chloe peak around the corner of the wall that separated two out of five rooms they shared together. The kitchen was lightly hazed from something burning on the oven rack, it fizzled out into the living room, sinking into the fibres of every piece of furniture and clothing. She was still cross and sharp looking with those bright crystal eyes, in her businessman trousers. She looked like a curious child, poking her head around the corner waiting for an answer.

 Dinner was canceled.

“It’s better this way,” Anna said under her breath. Chloe nodded her head carefully as she reached out a hand and stroked Anna’s elbow with quiet hesitation, petting a wild beast and scared it might bite.

The alarms began to wail overhead, like burning creatures in a forest fire. The smoke had thickened in volume and stench.

They waved their arms madly to disperse the cloud. Anna would never get the smell out. She didn’t want to live in an apartment smelling forever of that night. They unlatched all the windows and continued waving before they opened the oven door.

The forgotten lamb was black and burnt.

A hand-drawn image of an oven covered by an overwhelming cloud of smoke.

This piece is part of the in medias res March 2021 “Love” Issue. You can read the full issue under the tag “March 2021.”

Images by Olivia Kerslake