I remember struggling to open the sliding-door to our balcony. Mom was out there, where she had spent most of her nights, inhaling a million chemicals into her lungs while fighting off the brisk winter night with a thin blanket wrapped halfway around her body, pretending she wasn’t violently shivering each time she took a puff. She sacrificed her warmth for nicotine. I remember hearing her cough a lot, cursing with the thick rasp of her voice in the moments she could catch her breath. I think the only time she wasn’t coughing was when she was on the balcony. Something about smoking in that moment made her lungs forget they were dying.
The winters since then have only gotten colder. No matter what we do, we can’t keep the house from freezing. Each box we pick up feels like ice. I keep yelling at my son, Vince to shut the door behind him while he loads mom’s things in the truck. He yells back that he knows, but keeps making the same, routine mistake. I zip up my jacket, let out an obvious sigh, and see my breath escaping from my lungs–thick like the smoke I was so familiar with growing up.
As I pushed on the heavy metal door, it would screech on the metal rack, causing Mom to have to move the cigarette from her lips, just long enough to tell me to stop messing with her. She would immediately turn away from me, lean over the railings, and inhale, as if I hadn’t even existed. I would sit at the door, pouting, waiting for her to take notice of the sadness she was causing me, but she never looked back.
I walk into my old bedroom where Vince was supposed to be throwing things away. He was on the floor playing with my old dolls. He was smiling and looked up to me and laughed, “Hey! Look what I found,” The ragdolls show their age as well as I do. One doll has faded red hair and a dusty blue dress. The other doll used to be blonde in pink, but she was falling apart at the stitching now.
I remember sitting on the couch that night, pretending to play with those dolls, waiting for mom to finish her smoke. I knocked on the door to ask her when she was coming in to play, or to ask if I could join her out there. She looked at me and sighed. She yelled through the door without opening it, “What the hell do you want, Meredith?” She thought I didn’t say anything, but really, she just couldn’t hear me through the glass and because she wasn’t actually listening for an answer. She turned back around. I started to cry, as I went back to my dolls. I picked them up, my teardrops making the cloth wet. I rubbed my face on the ragdolls and my drool and boogers were soaked up in their cloth dresses. I wiped my snotty nose on the dolls and threw them at the door hoping it would make a sound. It didn’t.
“Throw it out.” I say. My son seems confused. He stays on the floor, clutching the dolls to his chest and asks if he can keep them. I tell him no and he starts begging for me to allow him to take them home with us in his whiny crying voice. He keeps looking at the dolls trying to convince me of why he should keep them, and I snap back, “Just get rid of it! We are supposed to have this place cleaned out before the funeral tomorrow. I can’t sit here and hold your hand. God damnit, Vince, you don’t listen! Stop being a spoiled brat and do as I asked. I said no, now throw them out!”
He looks at me for a moment, staring into me with a fearful sadness. He rubs his eyes before allowing me to see tears fall down his cheeks. He stands up, leaving the dolls on the floor and pushes past me to go outside. I throw the dolls in a trash bag and go back into my mother’s room to pack up her clothes. I pick up one of her blouses and catch the ghostly whiff of nicotine it had been soaked in over the years.
Mom came back in after chain smoking half a pack of cigarettes that night. I’m sure if her toes weren’t turning blue, she would have finished the box. I expected her to sit next to me, or to even scold me for being up past my bedtime, but she didn’t. She didn’t even look at me, not acknowledging my presence, though I don’t know why I expected her to pay me any mind though. It’s safe to say I never existed on her nights like those. She went to bed. I was hungry, remembering mom was supposed to make a can of soup for dinner, but never did. Instead, I put a chair up to the cabinet, and hopped onto the counter to reach the top shelf. I grabbed the open bag of gummy worms from the very back. They were hard and stale, but I ate them anyway.
I leave my mother’s bedroom to get away from the old smell of smoke, caught in the threads of what she used to wear out on the balcony. I go into the kitchen and drink water from the tap, cupping it into my hands and slurping. Vince had already moved all the glassware. I look around the room, not knowing what to do next. He came back in from loading the truck, not shutting the door. “Shut the door! How many times do I have to tell you?” He closes it, apologizes cautiously, and takes the next box out, slamming the door behind him to ensure I knew he remembered. I grab a blanket, wrap it around my body, and open the sliding door to step out onto the balcony.
I struggled to open the door without it screeching. I didn’t want Mom to wake up. I eventually got it open and stood on the freezing metal chair to overlook the railing. I wasn’t wearing any shoes, so I placed my feet on the part of the blanket that was too long for me. I took a gummy worm out of the package, put it to my lips, and made a click sound with my tongue, pretending to be a lighter. I placed the edge of the stale gummy worm in my mouth and breathed in, then exhaled, watching my breath freeze over in the cold night. I looked out at the city, pretending to smoke a gummy worm, and when the cold became too much, I pushed the gummy worm into the ash tray, and went back inside, promising myself I would never be like my mom.
We have already cleaned up the balcony. The chairs and ash trays were already in the truck. That is all that was ever on the balcony growing up; she never needed anything else out here. I look out at the bright lights and rushing traffic. I take a small carton out of my pocket, take a cigarette out and light it. I breath it into my lungs, and I let it escape me. Once I get to the last puff of the cigarette, I lie to myself and say, “I’m nothing like her.” I light another cigarette.