Player's Light
by Jocelyne Dubois

Janet won't kiss Gaston with her tongue. He chews spearmint-flavoured Trident and sucks on breath mints after each cigarette. His brand is Player's Light, the kind you can really taste.

Gaston smokes a pack a day. He even wakes up in the middle of the night to light one as he sips a small glass of orange juice. Janet doesn't visit him at his apartment anymore. She complains that his smoke gets into her hair and clothes.

On Saturday nights, they eat out at Au Vieux Duluth. Gaston is always anxious to finish his brochette de poulet so he can step outside to smoke a few puffs on the sidewalk. Janet wants to sit and talk a while after the meal over coffee and chocolate cake. Sometimes, Gaston excuses himself, goes to the washroom to light up in the cubicle. Janet smells his breath as he sits back down at the table. She holds her nose and waves her hand to push the odour away.

"Poowee!" she says.

Janet fears getting cancer from second-hand smoke. She met Gaston two months ago at a dépanneur where she was buying a Coffee Crisp. He was standing beside her, with milk, and he put a twoney down on the counter and said, "Let me pay for this."

"No, no," she said. Gaston put the money back in his jeans. He gave Janet a wide smile, revealing his crooked yellow teeth. They walked out onto the sidewalk.

"Do you live around here?" Gaston asked.

"Over on the next block."

"We're neighbours!" Gaston said, and added, "I'm surprised I haven't seen you around."

"I walk my dog very early in the morning and again after supper."

"I love dogs." His eyes resembled her dog's, soft, innocent. It made her feel warm inside.

"Would you like to go for coffee?"

"I can't today. Got to feed and walk my dog soon. Some other time maybe?"

"What's your number?" Janet told him her number and he wrote it down inside a match book with a red ballpoint pen. "I'll call you tomorrow."

"After six," she said.

Janet is lonely and thinks Gaston is a "good natured kinda guy." On their first date, he kissed her on the lips. Yes, his breath did reek but he was friendly and generous. But all she sees lately is his addiction.

"But you eat compulsively," Gaston says to her. It's true. Janet is overweight, always nibbling on something.

"I'll sleep with you if you stop smoking," she says.

Gaston buys cinnamon sticks and Nicoderm patches. He opens his apartment windows wide and phones Janet.

"Haven't had a cigarette all day. Why don't you come over?"

"It takes more than a day to clear the air and get the smell out."

"I'll keep the windows open and burn incense."

"I can't stand incense."

"Then my scented candle. Would that be OK?"

"OK, I guess. I'll be there at seven."

Gaston puts his newly-washed ashtrays away in his kitchen cupboard while sucking and biting a cinnamon stick. He has brushed his teeth six times that day and is having trouble calming his nerves. The dépanneur is across the street. He has gone there to buy cigarettes once a day for the past seventeen years. He looks out the window and sees a middle-aged woman walking slowly down the sidewalk, smoking. It is four o'clock. Janet won't be over for a few hours, so he runs out on the street and approaches the woman.

"Can I buy a cigarette from you?" he says, showing her a quarter.

"Well … OK," she says, then turns down the money.

Gaston stands outside his front door, savouring each puff. "I won't buy any," he says to himself. He tosses his butt aside. It lands in a neighbour's rosebush. He rushes back in to brush his teeth and tongue, then unwraps a stick of gum and puts it into his mouth. He washes the dishes and wipes the crumbs and coffee stains off his kitchen counter.

Janet and Gaston watch La petite vie on his faded brown sofa, the kind you sink into. She turns to him and says, "Do you know how to make pâté chinois?" It was the in-joke on the show.

"Steak, blé dinde, patates." They laugh. "Would you like caramel ice cream?" he asks.

"I haven't eaten any sweets today," she says and adds, "How's the non-smoking going?"

"Had one. But a while ago." He can't bring himself to lie. He then leans over to kiss Janet on the mouth. She smells gum and turns her head the other way.

"You don't want to kiss?" he says.

"You smoked today."

Gaston works in a smoke-free office for La Ville de Montréal. He sits in front of a computer all day and looks forward to breaks so that he can join his smoker buddies outside. Always the same old crowd gathered on the sidewalk by the revolving doors. They hover to talk about the weather, what they plan to do on weekends, and complain about their bosses. On really cold days, they just nod to each other, quickly inhale a few puffs, throw their butts onto the ground and rush back in and to their desks, fingers frozen.

Janet won't sit in Gaston's Toyota Echo. "The upholstery stinks," she mutters. She fears getting her peach-coloured outfit smelly. Gaston doesn't mind her few extra pounds. He sometimes grabs her love handles but Janet begs him to wash his hands with soap first. "Your fingers reek!" she says. Her clothes smell of lemon scent Sunlight.

Gaston's attempt to stop smoking lasted one day. He would have had to give up drinking coffee and the cravings after each meal are more than he can handle. The patches don't work. He removes them from his skin, then lights up. Gaston enjoys smoking. "It relaxes me," he says to himself. He gasps as he climbs the steps to his apartment, waits a few minutes until his breathing quiets down, then he sprawls out onto his sofa, flicks through the channels and smokes. He cleans his ashtray once a day.

Janet stops seeing Gaston.

"I can't quit," he says to her.

"I can't stand it," she says.

Gaston takes out a cup that says CUPE, Solidarity Forever in large black letters, and pours himself some Maxwell House. He puts a Player's in his mouth, strikes a match. He inhales deeply, then blows it out, forming a haze in the room. As he sits on his sofa, he glances at his poster of Picasso's Demoiselles pinned up on the wall. They've been looking down at him for years. A dust ball rolls along the hardwood floor. He takes another drag, his nerves calm, his body soothed.

Jocelyne Dubois' short stories have appeared in The Dalhousie Review, Exile, and Transition. Her poetry has recently appeared in Canadian Women Studies (York University). She lives in Montreal and is currently working on a novel.