Sitting on the concrete bench in front of the building, I smoked between classes. I liked the spot, a kind of perch atop the wide stairs that overlooked sidewalks, flowerbeds, oaks planted after the campus burned during the Civil War, and the crosswalk. Despite a flashing neon yellow sign that read, “Stop for pedestrians,” someone got hit there every semester. Stupid kids, driving like stupid kids, and hitting other stupid kids like they were squirrels.
I hogged the bench. I had my feet up, my knees tucked up to my chest. I liked sitting that way – the way they made us hunker during tornado drills or actual tornados when I was in elementary school. With my right arm wrapped around my knees, I clasped my left arm just above the elbow. With methodical timing, I bent my elbow, took a drag, and straightened my arm. Then, I watched as the smoke wafted out of my gaping mouth or streamed from my nostrils. I’m a dragon, I thought childishly and smiled at myself.
“Hey,” someone called to me.
Like a Viewmaster, I blinked to switch from what I thought to the real world. I looked two steps down to find the guy-in-the-Pantera-T-shirt. He always wore one with faded, black jeans, black Chuck Taylor’s, and three wallet chains. This day, he wasn’t wearing his dog collar bracelet or armor ring.
“What’s up?” I asked.
He tossed his backpack at the base of the bench and took out his pack of cigarettes. Since he meant to sit, and I felt polite, I swiveled, letting my feet drop, and sat on the bench normally. He patted himself, and knowing what he sought, I offered him my lighter, keeping my hand out as a reminder for him to return it. He did and sat beside me.
“How’re you doing in this class?” He waved his cigarette at the building.
Simultaneously, we turned our heads and blew smoke over the azaleas instead of in each other’s faces while never breaking eye contact. I rubbed my cigarette under the bench to put it out, not minding when bits of hot tobacco stung my hand, and set the butt on the bench between us.
“Good,” I said in answer to his question.
“I thought so. Could you maybe help me? I mean, I can pay you, some.”
“Yeah, I’m real busy.” After a glance at my watch, I knew I had time for one more, so I bent sideways to fish out a smoke from the front pocket of my backpack. Pantera bumped my arm and offered me one of his.
When I took it, he said, “Yeah, I figured, but look, I’m serious. I have to pass this class.”
I lit the cigarette and took a drag, exhaled and took another, making him stew just a bit. “How about Saturday? There isn’t a game.”
He winced. “I can’t do it then. My friends and I…we build rockets.”
My eyebrows darted up at that. “Really? Like fifth grade science class?”
“Well, not dinky ones.”
“You build rockets,” I mused and thought of the little engines that looked like rolls of coins with tampon strings. “Do they have parachutes?”
He laughed and looked off into the bushes. “Yeah, and one weekend, a buddy of mine had his dad down and he helped us make napalm.”
I choked. “That’s just…not normal.” Then, I laughed because anyone who spoke to me for more than five minutes knew I wasn’t normal. “Yeah, okay Pantera-Napalm-Guy. When are you free?”
We made plans to meet at the library on Thursday afternoon, and when he finished his smoke, I said I’d meet him in class. I sat a bit longer, wondering how much money the University spent on grounds upkeep. The azaleas were quite beautiful, cotton candy pink.
When I stood, my bottom was numb from sitting for so long on that hard, concrete bench. Nintendo butt, my brother called it, like Nintendo thumb. Except now, there was Sega thumb, X-Box thumb, and Playstation thumb. I wondered if anyone had ever used a Playstation dual-shock controller as a vibrator.
I pinched my cigarette just above the filter and rolled it between my fingers. When the hot rock fell out, I scrubbed it across the concrete with my boot and flicked the unburned tobacco free. I always left that little bit because I hated the taste of burnt filter.
After buying a coffee from the street vendor, I pitched my butts into the trash and headed back in the building to class.