Just Getting Fresh Air
rating: +13+x

"A medical professional who smokes?”

His neurons tensed. His soul sighed. Now he had to converse when tolerating the proximity of this stranger was enough.

This was not an anti-social man, but one preferring to lean against the cold wall outside the Site-M16 Medical Facility with no obstacles. With his free hand he clasped both metal ends of his stethoscope, draped around his neck like a white towel, and let its tensile strength hold up his forearm. He took a final, uninterrupted drag from the cigarette with his right and accepted the weight of this individual's gaze.

"Yeah, well…"

He paused, struggling to center himself — to resist the invasion of his serenity and carry some of him out into this for a change.

His next words were going to dictate whether this would or wouldn't be another painful retreat into interchangeable phrases of small talk and flimsy acting wherein one or both parties dodge genuine speech, yet continue out of timid social responsibility, finally escaping in the direction of one tangle closer to a brain aneurysm; towards compromises with an agreeable reputation and the feeling that the human spirit has been made infertile by too many unspoken opportunities for effortful eye contact.

"…you know how it's always the preacher's kids who are the worst behaved? Both my parents were doctors."

"Oh."

"It's not strong irony, really. I have 4, maybe 5 cigarettes a week… most days either with my coffee or after a stressful day on the job, like now. I can tell you firsthand; that's a joke to pulmonologists, especially the interventional ones, and just a waste of time to the oncologists. They all measure their patients in "pack-years", which is like asking 'How many years have you smoked 1 pack per day?'"

"My grandfather and grandmother both smoked. They were so alike. Do you still have your grandparents?"

"Not all of them. My grandmother died of emphysema, five years ago now, come next month. So, you know, another reason you’d think… (gestures towards the cigarette). But she never touched a cigarette in her life, she said. Puzzled the doctors, so they concluded she wasn’t being a reliable historian. Sure. It's what I myself would do now, I'd wager. Every time I smoke, I think of her. And I miss her, so I'm surprised I don't smoke more. Maybe if it kills me, I can understand a little bit better what she must have gone through, get me? How strong she must have been to smile through it and concern herself with how her spoiled grandkids saw her. Maybe I can distract the misfortune towards someone who actually deserves it, you know? Maybe that's why I smoke. It's sure as hell why I became a doctor. I don't really know, though, I don't. I mean, is it still therapeutic psychology if you do it to yourself? Can't it only ever get as far as lonely old philosophy?"

"Uhh…"

"Maybe the cigarette is subconsciously phallic. Maybe it forces me to be energized by my mortality… nah, the anomalies do that enough. All I know is that something about it is like the first breath after being suffocated, you understand? There's the irony in this; I only feel like I'm breathing when I'm damaging my lungs. What can I say? It feels like the only real air though. Feels like living air."

"…Well I don't smoke, so I don’t know either. It's probably the addictive stuff in there. But I'd still rather breathe in cigarette smoke than what's going on inside."

"You're talking about the academia?"

"The uh—"

"Yeah, yeah. I thought social life would get better when I was around smarter people too. But I found out the smarter you are, the dumber you can be. I'm proof. We should know better, shouldn't we? But who would have thought that the primacy of the every-day is lessened the farther along the IQ bell curve you are? Instead of speaking to the soul, it's all discussions about the latest research and data outcomes. I'd bet that 85% of what I hear and participate in are gladiatorial rounds of degree-laden individuals trying to beat all the others within earshot with an I'm-smarter-than-you stick. Only as an outlier on that curve — maybe in both directions? I like to think so anyway — does the profundity of the simple return. And it is so refreshing. It makes me ache to believe in God again. It's like a drag of a cigarette when all the air has been already exhaled by people long-dead, recirculated over and over."

“I was talking about the contagious flatulence.”

He looks down, balances the cigarette in his lips, and sinks his hands into his warm pockets. He doesn't take a drag, but lets the smoke pour upwards into his nares on its way swirling.

“Oh. Yeah. I heard about that. You’re participating in that? I’m wearing the mask.”

“Participating in what?”

“The random controlled trial.”

“Oh. Sorry I don’t know what that is. It's a test of some kind I take it? I didn’t realize they were… doing studies on us.”

“… huh?”

“I knew they were housing us, but studying…”

The cigarette almost falls.

“Oh! I… I didn’t know you— so you’re—”

“I’m Linda. Pleased to meet you.”

“Dr. Fiael. I mean, Michael. I’m Michael."

“Aw Michael was my grandfather's name.

"It’s funny, I thought you a stranger but actually I know a lot about you.”

"Yeah, I feel kinda like a celebrity. Only one who had something go wrong for her. Like Brittney Spears. But hey, I know a lot about you too now. Thanks for opening up.”

He tries to mitigate the squeak of flatulence that's decided to expresses itself at this inconvenient time. Embarrassed, he catches her gaze. The two ungather the tension around their expressions and smile. He replies:

“… you should let me do it again sometime.”

He didn’t see it, for it was dark then, but that was the first of 838 times he would make her blush in happiness; the 52nd time he would do so before they wed.

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