We watch Mona light the first cigarette. She has long, piano player fingers, but she doesn’t play the piano—she quit when she was twelve, and when she smokes she tilts her head up to the sky, as if to bask in an imaginary limelight. Gullies form in her cheeks when she inhales, concavities that make her seem anorexic, which she would probably take as a compliment. When she exhales she does so through a birdlike hole in her mouth, askance like her glances, or the words she mumbles at the tail end of sentences, her verbal fade-outs.
If you were to ask, Mona would say she doesn’t smoke except when she does, and then smile sheepishly at the irony.
After her drag Mona pokes a tiny hole in the piece of tissue paper we’ve tied down over a mason jar with a rubber band. In the middle of the tissue paper is a nickel. The point of the game is to avoid being the person who burns the hole that makes the coin drop into the jar, because that person would be the one subject to Truth.
Mona claims she played the game back in New York all the time, on the top floor of a stuffy Upper East Side apartment building, the sort of place where you’d still find bellboys and elevator operators dressed immaculately in patterned coats with faux-gold buttons, smelling like the particular mélange of brisk city air and cheap cologne that always seems to signify wealth disparity. But Guy, who’s to Mona’s right and takes the cigarette next, swears that this is complete and utter bullshit, that she’d really just copped it from a second-rate Whit Stillman movie called Metropolitan, wherein a gang of teenage socialites really do play the game on the top floor of not one, but several stuffy Upper East Side apartment buildings.
Guy runs a hand through his hair. It’s black and combed back and set in neat ridges that look like waves frozen at their apex. We all envy or resent how good looking Guy is—the guys because he’s gay and still makes out with more girls than they do, the girls because he’s gay and won’t make out with any of them. He’s tall and thin without being gangly, and all of his motions seem slowed down, as if he were gesticulating through water. Legs crossed, exposing just the right amount of elegantly patterned sock, Guy takes his drag and pokes a hole in the tissue paper on the opposite side of Mona’s. He passes the cigarette—a Lucky Strike (we couldn’t get them in the states)—to Jake, who is forced to put down a coffee mug of cheap red wine.
This is Jake’s apartment. The walls are a yolky yellow, the tiles blood red. Right now, we’re sitting on either his futon or chairs, surrounding his only table, which is small, square, and off-white, scarred by O’s of red wine overlapping like Olympic rings, or otherwise the chalky remains of brushed-off ash, staining the surface like artist’s charcoal. The table is perpetually off-balance, though on which leg we could never really determine. Dishes litter the sink, ruins of dinner parties past; a phalanx of trash borders the room, threatening to take the room by siege; and, because Jake has a washer but no dryer, the entire apartment exists in a constant state of laundry. Damp clothes lay over the backs of chairs and the tops of doors—on windowsills or countertops or the microwave—perspiring like addicts undergoing withdrawal and filling the room with moisture, a decidedly detergent-smelling humidity.
Jake holds the cigarette with two fingers on top, one on bottom, and takes a long, deep drag. He is first and foremost a brute. Then he’s an Irish Catholic, the last in a long line of football players and alcoholics hardened by repression. On Jake, this lineage masks his face like rust, casting his eyes in sullenness. A strong brow line broods over the rest of it, sunken cheeks and a big broken nose (from his father, he recalls gruffly) and pouty lips he nibbles on constantly.
Grounding the cigarette in the tissue, he passes the cigarette again to Margot, who changed her name to Margaux upon arriving in France. Margot has stringy, dead hair, like a wig that was put in the wash and improperly dried, the result, we concur, of having been dyed too many different colors in too short a time. Margot has a small, perky nose, a perfect triangle, over which she wears clunky glasses with big square lenses. Margaux has been submitting different versions of the same short story to our literary review for the last year under different aliases, but we all know it’s her, can sense her angst and pretentiousness in the run-around prose and curt, dark dialogue. It’s all very Brett Easton Ellis-meets-Sylvia Plath, crazy and blunt and stylish and sexual explicit, a story that always involves an affair with an older man.
Which we hear actually occurred, one of her first nights in Aix, after an older French man with gaps between his teeth invited her back to his villa, which we hear was actually a villa. In the morning, his mother made them both breakfast, and then Margaux stole her watch (the mother’s) and quickly left, though when we ask her where the watch is now she says she gave it to a homeless man who asked her the time. With each successive draft, it seems as if Margaux is retroactively trying to convince herself that what happened was real. Yet, by now the story has undergone so many cycles—various iterations involving suicide, roofies, vivid descriptions of oral and anal sex, and snorting large quantities of children’s Tylenol— that it’s become clear Margaux can no longer tell the difference.
She takes a drag, coughs throatily, covers her mouth.
Then she passes the cigarette to Dylan, whose most distinct feature is that he used to be fat. Otherwise he’s just your average Jew, with too much hair in all the wrong places. Not that he’s balding, per se, but we do suspect that his hairline is receding ever so slightly, crawling back into the past. Dylan’s eyes—bulging inkblots of blue—reveal the fact that he’s in a perpetual state of wide-eyed bewilderment, as if he’s just been made aware of his own existence.
He takes a tiny drag, and pokes the tissue. Before passing it, he holds the cigarette up in his hand for examination.
“Yup—this is me, like 3/4ths chub,” he says. The cigarette is about two inches long at this point. “Nope. I take that back. Fully erect.”
Dylan passes the cigarette back to Mona, who rolls her eyes with her face—a barely-there smile and a quick shake of her head. She takes the cigarette in one hand and her iPhone in the other, and snaps a steely-eyed selfie in an ode to Lou Reed that would probably make him roll over in his grave.
“Christ Mon how many followers do you have now?” Jake always leaves out the “a” in Mona, so it sounds like the English word moan, or else a poor pronunciation of the French word mon.
“1,232,” Mona says blithely, in reference to her Instagram followers. She’s somewhat of a minor celeb in sepia, having taken a number of selfies posing as a vampire in select shades of what she likes to call “dystopia” for a series entitled, simply, “Selfies of a Vampire.” Even now, as Mona pokes a hole in the tissue—precariously, as the rings are starting to melt into each other—she wears her fangs: two sharp caps over her lateral incisors, small enough to be rendered imperceptible on first glance.
Though she obviously didn’t always have fangs, we don’t know when exactly Mona first put them on either: Dylan swears jokingly that she really is a vampire, Jake and Guy agree she wore them one Halloween when she was a kid and never took them off, and Margaux can’t really look any one person in the eye long enough to notice anything weird like that. Since Mona herself dodges the question with her trademark stare-and-silence, it’s become one of those things we’ve just accepted, like a rumor repeated so many times that it’s been hammered into it’s own kind of truth.
“Oh my god Mona, you’re like a star,” Guy says, taking the cigarette and running a hand through his hair. We never just are something in Guy’s book; we’re always like something (a “betch,” an asshole, sooo hot). To Guy, we’re all metaphors of ourselves, which is maybe more accurate than we’d care to admit.
“I’m thinking of making prints and putting them in a book,” Mona says to no one in particular.
“Like an art book?” Guy says.
“What is art, anyway?” Dylan asks facetiously, propping his chin on a closed fist. He’s made a habit of mockingly posing big pretentious questions, and though it was funny at first, it’s just annoying now. “Are we art?”
“Jesus shut the fuck up Dylan,” Jake says. The coin is on a small island of tissue now, and the cigarette is almost finished.
“The project is actually sort of Lynchian, if you think about it,” Dylan posits seriously.
“Like the Talking Heads?”
“No, that’s David Byrne,” Mona says.
“But the fact that you didn’t know the difference is also sort of Lynchian,” Dylan continues, pointing at Guy. “Now that I think about it.”
“Everything is fucking Lynchian or Kafkaesque to you Dylan,” Jake snaps, taking what’s left of the cigarette between two fingers. The way he says it we can tell he hates himself for saying it, just like he hates himself for saying he’s a writer, the sheer admission of which causes him to visibly wince.
Jake pokes a hole on the tissue paper as the cigarette goes out. It’s silent for a moment, so we try not to look at anyone in particular. Mona looks up, feigning obliviousness; Guy ties his shoes, which he may’ve deliberately untied; Margaux fastidiously bites her nails; Dylan stares at a point on the opposite wall; and Jake bores a hole in the tissue paper with dim dark eyes, ruminating on his lower lip.
Without the cigarette to tether us to cliché, we’re just five people sitting around a table in a damp one-room apartment in the south of France, not the vanguards or artists or bold expatriates we’ve allowed ourselves to believe we’d become.
But then the tissue gives way, and we hear the dull tinny ping of the coin colliding with the bottom of the glass.
Sam Eichner is a writer from Chicago. For someone with grandiose literary ambitions, he spends way too much time thinking about reality TV.