Us Boys Made of Smoke by Scott-Patrick Mitchell
Scott-Patrick Mitchell (SPM) is a non-binary West Australian poet, writer and spoken word artist. SPM’s work appears in Contemporary Australian Poetry, The Fremantle Press Anthology of Western Australian Poetry, Solid Air, Stories of Perth and Going Postal. In 2015, SPM performed THE 24 HOUR PERFORMANCE POEM… which was exactly as it sounds. A mentor to many emerging West Australian poets and recipient of a 2019 KSP Writers Centre First Draft Fellowship, SPM is the coordinator for WA Poets Inc’s Emerging Poets Program.
Us Boys Made of Smoke
When we first kiss, I taste tobacco on your lips: rum-soaked ash, calling. For an ex-smoker, this kiss is dangerous. You are dangerous. But the sandpaper stubble of your chin smooths out the edges of my concerns. I sink into your tongue, lick the inside of my mouth. You turn my breath to smoke.
– Do you want a cigarette?
You ask this question after two months of dating. Two months of nicotine craving. These cravings are just as bad as the ones I have for you, for your kiss, for your nakedness heaving into my skin, into me.
– Yeah… ok. But you’re gonna have to roll it…
In time I learn your perfection of rolling a cigarette with hands too small to hold the volume of my lungs. My rollies are crooked, jagging yellow stains across the interior of the middle and index fingers. They are too tight at the tip, too loose at the base. The butts keep sticking to my lips. They aren’t as smooth as yours.
Like our cigarettes, we too are opposites. You: lithe slender man made of smoke, hair a caramel curl cupping collarbones, eyes so blue I am convinced you have stolen them from a work of art, or some long dead god. Me: scrappy, short, shoulders too broad, black stubble chin matching the buzz cut blackening my crown, eyes dark like a forest of hazel trees, squinting out the sun.
In bed, we are opposites again. My hands are confident. They turn your body into rollie papers succumbing to spit. Your hands have a nervous shake, as if desperate to light up, fumbling with how to keep a match aflame. My body is a flammable material so unfamiliar to you that it takes three months for you to learn how exactly to make me burn. I discover your trigger points in a matter of days, reduce you to sizzle. Then, embers.
Balance comes when you finally take the time to teach me how to roll a cigarette properly. In exchange, I show you the points on my body that ignite under tongue. We learn how to cup our physicality into the other. We are not spoons: we are the whole damn cutlery drawer. How we knife, fork, ladle love. Two cooks, our bed a broth. Smoking after sex.
– What do you mean you don’t know how to cook? you say, surprised at how barren my fridge is.
– I… just never learnt.
– So what do you eat?
– Take out. Cereal. Toast.
You try to teach me recipes you know, but all I learn is that meals are just a precursor to having another cigarette.
– You smoke too much, you say.
I just cough.
Somewhere, in the tendrils between us, an image settles into our lungs: black, sticky, uncomfortable. I want to jab a cigarette into our conversations, burn the skin of our speech, say you brought these back to me. But instead, I just exhale another plume into the room. The furniture is beginning to stink.
Outside of this house, smoking is more illicit, unacceptable. The bars in our town have gotten rid of designated smoking areas, so we smoke out on the street. We smoke in places less safe, more dangerous. Out the front of the bar on James Street is where it happens.
-Ya got a smoke?
The guy asking? He is trouble. Mr I’m-so-sketchy. Mr I-haven’t-had-a-decent-night-sleep-in-a-fortnight kinda trouble. His friend is all hollow cheekbones, rat-tail eyes skittering the sidewalk, looking for cigarette butts, opportunity.
These are the type of boys who would return home, hands blackened with ash, clothes stung with arson, only to tell their mother that no, they have no idea who started the bushfire over at the next farm.
You hand them your pouch of tobacco.
– Yeah thanks…!
The guys laugh. They begin to walk away, your pouch of tobacco in hand, their grins sinister, mocking. The f word is hurled from both their mouths – Molotov cocktails hitting piled sticks – jeered and jeered again at us. Scrappy flames flick up my skin. Anger kindles inside me.
– Oi, give it back! I yell, stomping toward them.
– Or what?! The one holding your pouch snarls, squaring up. What ya gonna do, you fucking faggot!?!
More slurs burn up from their throats – pooftas, cocksuckers, AIDS junkies – and are hurled at us. I allow myself to combust. You see, the rage is always there. Part of you learns to live a moment away from being lit up. These bigots just open the door, allow the fireball to come through, glorious. Consumptive.
I reach for your tobacco pouch. Their ashen hands push me back. I mimic their movement, push the ringleader, hard, then his mate, harder. The fire in their faces is furious. I don’t see their fists swing toward me. But I feel them. I hear them. Blood fills my mouth as my nose cracks. I spit the fluid out, not realising I’m spraying these thugs with my blood. They almost wail, beseech. More fists come.
I take them. Do not buckle.
You don’t come to pull me away. You don’t even shout out in protest. You just shrink inside yourself. Something extinguishes inside of me.
Encroaching sirens scare them off. They scuttle, scurry, run. Like rats. Like vermin.
This is when I buckle, slump to my knees. I can feel all eight punches. You rush toward me, but the blood covering my face, my clothes, it halts you, as though you’ve been conditioned to fear the very thing that makes us pump. Not even your hand reaches out to calm me.
I begin to sob.
The police arrive a minute later. You kneel beside me, put an arm around my shoulder. There is no comfort in this.
In the days that follow, I learn that bruises heal but a broken nose is for life. Especially if you’re on welfare. I flinch under your touch. You don’t meet my gaze. I jump when you enter the room. My anger, undiminished, makes me pull inside myself for warmth. One night, drunk, I extinguish a cigarette on myself while you watch.
– What the…!? You exclaim, panicking, slapping my hand away from doing myself harm.
I just grin. I want you to hit me, again.
In the days that follow, I purposefully antagonise you. You make excuses to stay away, stay at yours, stay on the other end of chat and telephone. You take longer and longer to respond. Our love turns to smoke.
I throw out my cigarettes, my ashtrays, all the paraphernalia of flame you helped me bring back into my life. The burn mark turns to scar. My broken nose becomes familiar. Everything we have created together is unlearned.
The cops never catch those two thugs.