Time to myself makes me feel rigid and forgiving. It was easy to be alone before, now it is complex and false and boundless. I’m thinking of someone I stopped to photograph on an evening walk. A woman in a trench coat sitting on a bench, set back into the rise at the centre of the gardens, smoking by herself, her body held away from the path. I watched the red pinpoint move as she typed with the same hand she used to smoke, touching the screen, touching her mouth, the gardens clearing. I am thinking about all the smokers in the gardens and wondering if isolation has made keeping a secret hard.
Things like this make me turn in on myself, make me loop back to small and clear desires. It’s camellia season, starting slow then getting heavy like it always does, a looping walk with a person I love, the way my heart beats fast when I take a photograph of something I could have missed. I felt hot all over in my ears and my cheeks and inside my mouth when I saw the woman with her bright phone screen and pinpoint cigarette light. I felt the same thing a week later, when I saw the arms of two men extended out their ground floor window to tap ash—more smokers, little red lights, as the street turned dark and blue and blue. It’s always quiet now, sound doesn’t shift like it used to.
There are early smokers and late smokers and people smoking as they walk and stand still and place themselves in the clearing to watch the light soften out of the sky. Most nights are a violet fade, most nights I’m here because there aren’t many places I can go.
It was easy to be alone before, now it is complex and false and boundless.
I’m thinking of these smokers because they’re people making time for themselves. This is necessary now. I’m thinking of them as secret smokers with their secrets harder to keep, of them telling the people they live with that they’re taking a walk to cool off, ease a tense moment, change a mood, get air, movement, anything to get out of the house. Maybe they’re worried about the smoke smell caught in their clothing, breath, on the hands, no time to get changed. More likely they’re permitting carelessness, or they don’t need to think much at all. The woman having a moment to herself in the gardens, it is a sharp relief. I think it is important to allow yourself small pleasures now, whatever they are. I don’t need my mind changed.
Now the weeks feel limitless and the things I do to feel well and normal also make me feel bored. When I’m walking I would rather be smoking. I’d rather be anywhere than a wide park on a clear day. I’m thinking about breaking a sweat on purpose, I’m touching a lighter that’s caught in the lining of my coat.
I know there are people still fucking in the gardens. There are markers of intimacy, glow in the dark lubricant bottles, a condom on the soil, touch that is not allowed between us right now, be permissive or be not much of anything at all. It must also be a sharp relief. Intimacies are ceremonies, even in the public gardens. The season gets deep and I begin to see my breath take shape as it comes out of my mouth, this makes me think of smoking, and then of smoking as salve.
I will not need to be told twice what is good or bad for me, especially not now. Without a salve I would dissolve.
I’m also thinking of the baby forming in my new sister and how the baby will one day see smoke, feel joy, have their own life, suffer through extreme heat, make right and wrong choices, be quiet at the sight of something deeply of nature right there unexpectedly. The baby will be the next person I will know forever. How strange it is that they’ll arrive in the middle of all this and that one day we probably won’t think of it like that at all.
I think it is important to allow yourself small pleasures now, whatever they are. I don’t need my mind changed.
I will often roll cigarettes for my social smoker friends when we are out at bars. I had never thought of this as a ceremony but now that I can’t, it feels like one. One night I roll and deliver an emergency cigarette to someone. I seal this cigarette with water and not my mouth as a precaution, think of what I would offer to my friends if I could see them, and how it’s not even about touch but about sitting and listening and watching someone’s body. The next day I see a neighbour smoking with a clear plastic glove on her hand while walking her hay-coloured dog. I freak out when people stand close to me in the supermarket, when I see a man spit in the street, when a runner moves close to me in the park. The hellebores are blooming again with their light green petals and sinister centres, some afternoons there is golden light before everything dulls. They’ve planted pansies in the gardens again, neat rows repeating in new soil. There are still flowers to learn the names of, there are still smoke signals to make with your own mouth.
I can never finish my thoughts now. Isolation again, the months between connect with dread and terror I will never understand. We’ll stay like this until it’s spring, at best—high figures, state lines. Like I could give a damn about what I started writing in April. Time to myself makes me feel cold and cool, baseless, good, cut up, bored, bored, bored.
I meant to write more about the smokers in the park keeping the smoking a secret, keeping that time for themselves. Make the most of a bad run, illicit tenderness, but now even that seems like a stretch. I want to know if the secret smokers were to get caught out, would they stop, a habit to break, would they still come, would they shift out of the gardens feeling hot with guilt or hot with having got away with it all. I saw the woman in the trench coat once more, same spot, same pose, and now she’s gone. I don’t know what else to say about the smokers, I have been trying to find the neat angle—but really, all it is, is a small way to make trouble.
What have I done with this time? I put a rock in the bottom of a vase so it didn’t tip over from the weight of the flower. Walked around listening to ‘Flirted with you all my life’ for hours (that oh in the middle). Had wavering thoughts of moving back home, cutting my hair, thought of work I could do to become more clear or graceful but I changed my mind. I have done my best to keep it cool. Of course I am sad, always feel it a little, that’s all right, I mean it.
Since autumn I have found 23 four-leaf clovers. After years of looking with no luck, now it is easy. I give them away. I press them all in the same book. The problem with me is I think most things are special, which probably means nothing is. I’m trying to tell you my soft spots.
I stare at the seam of the ceiling in my room, get a text at 2am about two clovers I found. There is a peach pit in a tissue next to my bed.
I swear I saw a fire in the gardens a few weeks ago, right there on the grass, but I wasn’t close enough to tell.
I’m still walking, loops and loops, a pulled muscle in my upper thigh from pushing it too far in the botanic gardens, the camellia segment in romance colours, you know them. Two separate people look at me too long and I can’t tell if it’s in shock or because they think they know me. I check my face in my phone camera, there are no clues and there is no blood.
Smoking in a clearing, someone lights my cigarette—can’t get any closer. I can do it myself but I don’t want to.
What’s the best hour to be outside now? Twilight (it’s no trouble). The gardens changing when nothing else feels like it will, field violets, caught out in a heavy rain but feeling lucky, tension and collapse (flowers and other things). I take my phone out in a plastic sleeve to protect it from the weather. I see three women smoking from an upstairs apartment, half a body leaned out an arch window. They’re not worried. I’m sending weather emojis to my friends as a code—cloud, dove, fog emoji, sun peering from behind cloud. The cigarette emoji complete with double smoke lines. At a dinner between the lockdowns I offer someone a cigarette to get them out of a bad conversation; now that feels like the most important kind of gesture. I have not seen the smoking men again, either, but some mornings there’s a pile of half cigarettes on their windowsill. Intimacies are ceremonies, even if you just see the ash.
Intimacies are ceremonies, even if you just see the ash.
Some days at work I open a picture of a sunset, wide, to make better light on my face for a video call. There’s a set of arch cut-outs on a street near mine and I keep missing the good light through them when I go to take a photograph.
What else have I done? A day spent entirely inside, laying in a dim room fully dressed on top of the bed no shoes, a swollen eyelid for no real reason, my own birthday (picked nasturtiums for the table), sweating more in my sleep than ever, stress leave, deadline driven, all-nighters, an unfinished essay about love flowers and turmoil flowers, a meal plan, a fist full of hellebores, my father in hospital for nothing to do with any virus and then better again, the grotesque feeling of relief that he is well now when others won’t be.
I smoke more and then less and then more and then I don’t go out to buy more filters because I’ve already been to the store this week. I am being careful in some ways. I worry about dying as much as I did before. I wear a mask and it makes smoke from other people’s cigarettes smell strange, cleaner chemicals. There are still small things, little ways to cut through—being given a flower, picking flowers for myself. I almost got caught trying to take a camellia from out front a house—that was a good new thrill.
I saw a poster online in someone’s bedroom that said it is ok for me to have everything I want. What I want is to roll cigarettes for my friends. What I want is to be able to go, to see a landscape that never falters, I want smoke signals, nosebleeds, meadows, low light, to be in the back of the car again. The baby has been born, I watch him fall asleep on FaceTime. I don’t know when we’ll meet. The season cools and evens me out.
Supported by the City of Melbourne COVID-19 Arts Grants