by Ashley Naftule
I found the first one outside the Title Fight show. It was lying a foot away from the ashtray, twisted and bent with a blush of bright purple lipstick staining the end. I knew that color anywhere: Paisley Park No. 9. I still find tubes of it in my apartment, flirting with the loose change between my sofa cushions.
I had stopped smoking six months ago but I still liked hanging out in the smoker’s section outside. I missed the rituals of smoking more than the nicotine rush. The kind of fellowship that can only be earned through shared hardship. When it was freezing outside, there would always be a ring of strangers sharing a fire. Lighting up outside The Basement and listening to the din of amplified music music pulsing through the drywall, I felt closer to my ancestors. Not the ones that hopped off East India trading boats, but the ones that drew battle maps in berry juice on rock walls.
I was thinking about Cynthia when I saw the cigarette. How her purple lips would crinkle with distaste, seeing me slumming it with the smokers. You're just doing that pain slut thing again, she’d say with a sigh. Pining for something you can't have.
I went back in to see the rest of the show. I shouldn't have bothered. They were good, they were great, they may as well have been playing dog whistles onstage: all I could think about was her. The way her hair smelled like whiskey and lilacs. How rough her fingertips were, callused from all the chalk drawings she did at her bar gig. And most of all her unerring ability to find the soft, weak underbelly in anyone.
It's from The Hobbit, she told me after our first night together. We were laying in bed, comparing tattoos and scars, explaining the history documented on our skins. She pointed to the black arrow hovering over her breast, its barbed tip aimed at her heart. It’s the arrow that kills Smaug.
I hadn't read any Tolkien since I was 14, but the story came back to me in a flash. He had a hole in his chest, right? That’s how that guy killed him.
She lit a cigarette and gave me a small smile that I'd come to know very well - the You're Lucky Your So Cute grin. Bard. That was his name. And you know how Smaug got that hole? From sleeping on his riches all day. He got rich, he got soft, and he died for it. It's a parable about the dangers of capitalism.
I was pretty sure she was wrong about that last part, but there's a time and place to argue and it's usually not when your body is still lit up like a firefly with post-coital afterglow.
Cynthia knew my underbelly well. Driving to The Coronado for a nightcap, I could feel all the arrow scars dotting my abdomen ache and throb.
I found another one on The Coronado patio. A small curl of smoke still hung in the air, shimmying like a belly dancer. I leaned forward and breathed it in, hoping that the specter of her perfume was woven into the smoke.
I ordered our favorite dish before the kitchen closed: chili guacamole fries. There was no sign of her inside or outside the cafe. I knew there wouldn't be, but I couldn't help but look. You're just doing that pain slut thing again.
I found the third one outside her bar. I didn't feel like drinking but it was karaoke night and I had no desire to go back to my apartment and let her memory perfume everything again.
The lipstick on this end was extra thick- probably a freshly applied coat. I always marveled at the grace with which she’d apply her warpaint: two steady flicks of her wrist and her lips would gleam like pieces of polished amethysts.
There are still wine glasses in my apartment that are haunted by the ghosts of those lips. Ectoplasmic smudges that no amount of dishwashing liquid can erase.
I saw her in the bar, singing “Borderline.” Cynthia's favorite Madonna song. Blonde hair, pale skin, Paisley Park lips. She looked familiar. It hit me at the end of her song, as a round of applause rippled across the bar: I had seen her at Cynthia’s funeral.
She was a friend of a friend of Cynthia’s. Her name, like so many other things that people had said to me that day, was a black bar in my head. Months and months of redactions in my rear view, and one of them had to pop up wearing Cynthia’s lipstick.
It's a hell of a thing to be haunted by a nameless ghost.
Two drinks and one tone-dead rendition of “Africa” later, I made my way back home. I couldn't smell anything on me anymore: no smoke, no perfume. I collapsed on the couch, letting my hand fall into the crevice between the cushions where I found the No.9 tube the other day. I brushed that empty space with my fingertips. I have soft hands, much softer than hers. It’s why we work so well together, she said the night before the fire. I'm sandpaper and you're silk. Two of either wouldn't be any fun.
I still had the ceramic cow heart ashtray she gave me for our first anniversary. That's where I found the fourth cigarette. I reached out with a trembling hand to pick it up and felt Cynthia’s purple lipstick on my fingertips. It was still fresh.
Ashley Naftule is a writer & theater artist from Phoenix, AZ. He's been published in Vice, Phoenix New Times, Ghost City Press, The Hard Times, Rinky Dink Press, Under The Radar, Four Chambers Press, Daily Bandcamp, The Occulum, and The Dark City. He's a resident playwright and Associate Artistic Director at Space55 theatre.