Girl Wants a Cigarette
by Sophia D'Urso
That morning, Emma had stopped at the smoke shop on the corner of her block and impulsively bought a pack of cigarettes— a brand she’d never tried, since they had discontinued Nat Sherman’s that summer, and she’d been trying to figure out what she liked ever since. Nat’s, these were called. Close enough. She had wanted to try one as soon as she bought them— the cashier, after glancing at the clock, 8:13AM, had even offered her matches, she declined— but she had realized too late that she had forgotten her lighter at home, and so could only break open the plastic wrap and peek into the metal lining at the twenty neatly-rolled menthol cigarettes. Stepping outside, so entranced by the packaging that she tripped over the uneven concrete just outside the shop, she plucked one from its box. As Emma rolled the cigarette between her thumb and forefinger, Emma asked God to grant her a passerby with a lighter as she walked towards the subway station. The prayer was left ungranted.
To clarify, Emma considers herself agnostic. Or pantheist. She often has trouble deciding between the two— like when she goes to the dessert aisle of Westside Market, high as shit, and stands before the endless aisle of sweets. Macarons in groupings of six, all different colors. Individual slices of carrot cake, vanilla cake, tres leches cake, chocolate cake, chocolate cake with raspberry filling. Mousses of various flavors. Flan. Mini cheesecakes, cheesecake slices. She didn’t really like making choices. It made her brain hurt. So she’d either leave with her arms full of plastic containers to satiate her cravings of earthy, fruity, and chocolatey tastes individually, or with none at all. She remembered this as she swiped through the turnstile, then realized that, in her freakish obsession, she had forgotten to buy breakfast at the bodega earlier. Usually, she’d smoke a cigarette to stifle her appetite during such oversights. The realization made her stomach sting in frustration. She rode the train like this, hand on gut, sans caffeine, hoping that HR had ordered catering for the offsite team-building event that she now had to mindfully navigate to.
It was supposed to be the event of the year: the email sent out a few weeks ago— which mentioned photo booths, free breakfast, and goodie bags— had caused everyone’s desktop to sound off with a Windows notification jingle all at once, the entire office vibrating at an intrigued frequency. Everyone on the executive committee of the home improvement brand would be there. There would even be prizes for the team-building competition, the terms and conditions of which they said they would reveal during the opening presentation. Having been known to raffle off living room makeovers (sound systems) and bathroom remodelings (toilets, sinks), such packages priced at upwards of a thousand dollars each, most of the employees were planning on coming prepared. Last year, the competition was an escape room, so some of the groups of friends within the corporation had gotten together to practice escaping small, dimly lit practice rooms modeled off of office spaces with little regard for irony. Some even primed their brains with sudoku on the train ride over to the Hotel Pennsylvania, where the event was to be hosted. But Emma just thought about desserts and meaningless choices and God and kicked herself about forgetting her lighter during her commute instead.
As Emma entered the hotel, she donned her too-big collared shirt over her black tank top in an effort to blend more seamlessly into the bitter landscape of off-site corporate team-building attendees. The cigarette box must have cracked open within her tote bag, as the shirt was saturated with the rich sweetness of tobacco. So too, now, were the remaining contents of her bag: a blue Muji pen, tucked into the spiral of a dot-grid notebook; a thin faux leather wallet, with two cards in it— one, her credit card, the other, a punch card for the coffee shop near work, a mere nine punches away from a free drink; strawberry-flavored Lip Smackers; a copy of Capital, of which she still had only read a chapter; rose-scented hand lotion; an empty pocket where a lighter should be; and a tube of sprayable hand sanitizer that had come in the same package as her cat’s urinary tract medication.
Too proud to ask where the Gold Ballroom was, she wandered for a few minutes until she found the relevant signage, which prompted her in the direction of a service elevator in a rumpled section of the first floor of the hotel. Gum wrappers tucked into corners gently reflected the dim glow from the Deco light fixture, and the air had a sharp finish of mildew, which she tried to avoid by breathing through her mouth. The indicator next to the elevator signaled its arrival long before the metal doors dragged open. She pushed the button for the third floor, sprayed her hands with sanitizer, applied lotion between interlaced fingers, and though she expected to have been met with chaos as she stepped off the elevator, she was instead greeted by an empty carpeted corridor and the faint sound of early morning small talk. Her fingers fastened the bottom button of her shirt as she rounded the corner and stepped into the frenzied ballroom.
Twelve stout tables, four chairs each, all hosted the same spread: an arm's length each of blue tape and twine, a pair of scissors, a marshmallow, and a handful of uncooked spaghetti. Most of the tables were full of colleagues who were strangers to each other— she could tell by the hesitance they wore in their smiles, and the occasional buzzwords she overheard. Cloudy. Weekend. Rangers. Emma cringed in anticipation. People hopped from table to table accompanied by ambient music, chatting up their work friends, standing with their hands on their hips or leaning on tables towards pierced ears as they gossiped about Pedro, who had recently ghosted pretty Lilian from HR only to be caught at East Village Social with some blonde bimbo on his arm; as she glanced around the ballroom, unable to find a pastry-laden tablecloth, she wondered if this was why the breakfast catering had fallen through. On the monitor at the head of the ballroom was a screen featuring a presentation made in the home improvement brand’s signature white and dusty, uninteresting blue color scheme. Marshmallow Challenge, it read. This, and the lack of breakfast table— or any single coffee urn, for that matter— had exceeded Emma’s expectations of the brand’s stinginess.
“Hi there!” The caffeinated voice startled her. She turned to face pretty Lilian, who now wore caked color-corrector under her eyes to conceal purple puffy bags, and she would’ve felt guilty for her cynicism had she not spied the pale iced coffee Lilian gripped in her French manicured fingers. She didn’t expect Lilian to remember her, but was still disappointed when she asked, “Can I get a name to sign you in?” As she wrote Emma’s name on the clipboard suspended between her chest and the back of her hand, the sound of ice cubes impacting plastic tore through Emma’s ear canal and poked at the grey folds of her temporal lobe— a poking which only stopped when Lilian, after guiding Emma to her table, batted her eyes at the two others already seated and left.
On the L train earlier that morning, Emma had sat across from a man wearing a blue checkered button down shirt; one of the buttons near his stomach was unbuttoned— likely an accident, but she had begun to imagine the logic behind the unbuttoning as a stylistic choice— and she had found herself periodically making eye contact with a few black hairs which, she had figured, were positioned right above his belly button. She now recognized the owner of the happy trail as the gesticulating, over-cologned asshole who she was assigned to share a table with. He was already toying with the yard of string, wrapping it around his finger, rubbing his grime into the fibers. As she took the seat farthest from him, she inhaled deeply. She had just discovered the unfortunate conversation she would likely be subjected to participate in: a rigorous, one-sided defense of the Jets.
“... and Wilson’s gonna bring it back this year, just you wait. I mean, come on. That Pro Day pass went viral, dude. Man’s got an arm.”
Happy Trail’s conversational counterpart— a man she didn’t recognize, but admired the solemn silence and sharp bone structure of— nodded thoughtlessly and glanced towards the presentation deck after each of the former’s inflections. Bone Structure appeared to be somewhere in his late twenties— an age ripe for Jets fandom— but nonetheless looked to Emma as though the conversation made him want to flush himself down one of the brand’s imported toilets. Appearing to answer his prayers, a mic whined, the room groaned, and the CEO stepped towards the head of the ballroom in a pair of walnut Ferragamos.
At once, Happy Trail fell into reverence. Emma watched as his eyes tracked the CEO’s movement from the outer edge of the room to the podium next to the screen, where he adjusted the sleeves of his suitjacket and turned to face half a hundred expectant, tired torsos. The music was replaced with bitter applause, to which Emma and Bone Structure did not contribute.
“How’s everybody doing this gorgeous Tuesday morning?” More applause, a couple of whoops— she could almost hear Happy Trail’s palms becoming red. The CEO held up his hand and nodded a thank you and please be quiet.
“Thank you all so much for coming out!”
It was required.
“And a huge thank you to HR for helping us organize this event.”
Pretty Lilian beamed.
“We’ve partnered with the incredible Tom Wujec to provide this world-renowned, fun team-building event, which— we hope— will help bring you closer to some of the faces you don’t usually get to see in the office every day. Take it away, Tom!” After being replaced by a man who wore a grey collared shirt tucked into uncuffed jeans at the podium, the CEO, absolved of further imminent duties, exited the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, not once looking up from his phone.
Tom explained the rules: using as much or as little of the children’s craft kit provided at the center of each table, the teams of four (or, in Emma, Happy Trail, and Bone Structure’s case, three) would compete for a paycheck bonus by attempting to build the tallest free-standing structure (not suspended from a chandelier, or chair) of spaghetti with the entire marshmallow (not eaten, not disassembled) resting at the top in eighteen minutes, starting now.
There was no applause following his announcement, only the muffled scraping of chairs against carpeting and clamor for materials. The music resumed. Emma looked up at Happy Trail and Bone Structure, the latter unaffected, the former beginning an explanation of the importance of delegating tasks as he drew the string and tape closer to him.
Bone Structure sighed.
Emma tapped her fingers on the underside of the table.
And Happy Trail— after establishing what he thought to be dominance, but was really just a caricature of his own assholery— at last called his teammates into the conversation. “Okay, real quick— let’s do intros. My name’s Trent, and I’m in Supply Chain. This here’s Vasey, he’s in Customer Service.” He smiled and grabbed Bone Structure’s tensed trapezius, but after a brief exchange of glances, quickly retracted his hand. “He’s the brains behind the Live Chat on our e-comm site, aren’t ya, man?”
Vasya (his name neither Vasey nor Bone Structure) was not actually the so-called brains behind the Live Chat— such terminology made him sound like a web developer, and though he had tried taking Intro to Comp Sci in undergrad, he’d dropped it after the shopping period because he had quickly learned he couldn’t code to save his life. At the company, he simply manned the e-commerce Live Chat and answered consumers’ questions about shipping speeds and toilet tradeoffs. Vasya almost corrected Trent, until the thought occurred to him that the subaltern could not speak, so he just nodded and chose to let Trent continue talking at them.
“Name and department?”
“Hell yeah. Thank fucking God. We’re gonna crush this.” He gestured to his wrist. “Been meaning to get a new timepiece. What do you guys think, a Rolex or a Patek?” Before they could respond, “Fuck it, I’ll get both. Drinks are on me after this. E-money and Vasey, man, you guys rock.”
At first, Emma didn’t understand his enthusiasm. With one less member on their team, they were at a disadvantage— but, to be fair, Bone Structure looked like the kind of guy who could fix things, work a power drill if he needed to, a thought which sent her elsewhere for a moment. She came to as Happy Trail concluded that it was he, with his background in Supply Chain, who would “manage the resources. Ya know, we gotta make sure we don’t run out of shit while we’re building. I’ll measure and cut. Vasey, you’re good at communicating,” Bone Structure grunted in ambiguous approval, “so you’ll be handing the pieces of tape and string to our star brainiac Emily—” Emma. “— sorry, Emma over here, who’s gonna do the building. Let’s get it!” And then came the spaghetti and endless barrage of one-inch pieces of tape.
Emma’s fingers quivered from nicotine withdrawal as she sped to create a stable structure out of dried pasta the way any Database Administrator might: frantically, with absolutely not a single fucking clue of how physics worked, attempting to recall the high school science class she spent fawning over Mr. Jorgenson. She decided on a pyramid shape. One long stick of spaghetti was held upright in the center, which would later host the marshmallow. While she worked, Happy Trail passed the time by recalling how he had spent his weekend at East Hampton Golf Club, a club so exclusive it was marked only by a rock bearing an engraving of a hawk and was frequented by a very disgruntled Alec Baldwin who opposed the unsustainable practices of the course but who nonetheless resided on many acres of green lawn near its grounds.
Bone Structure didn’t speak, passing pieces of tape along to Emma with the occasional grunt. He looked American, whatever that meant to any of them, but Emma wondered if he even spoke English. Vasya could— in his own life of Call of Duty with his friends he was actually rather articulate— but he wanted nothing to do with the task at hand, and was only exerting a greater effort at work than usual because the bonus meant covering the cost of his mother’s immigration lawyer. He was also becoming increasingly concerned for Emma, as he noticed her hands shaking when she reached for more tape. The next time she reached over, he grabbed her hand in an attempt to steady it— Emma tried to pull away, eyes wide, but he gently held her hand there for a few moments longer, signaling for her to take a deep breath by raising and lowering his other palm.
She did. She was a bit more bothered now, blushing— but calmer. It only took a few more pieces of tape to complete the structure; looking around, she noticed nobody else was done building, nor were their half-finished structures nearly as tall or stable-seeming. Maybe they did have it in the bag.
Happy Trail expressed his excitement with a stiff dab, Emma cringed, Bone Structure sighed, and he exclaimed, “We did it, boys! Fuck yeah. E-Money and Vasey, that’s how it’s done!” The other tables looked over, rolled their eyes, whispered to one another, and began to snap their spaghetti more quickly and audibly than before.
Bone Structure pointed to the marshmallow next to Happy Trail. “Oh, right, almost forgot. Hey, E-Money, is it cool if I do the honors?” He wanted recognition, and she didn’t care enough to keep him from it. She shrugged, pushing the pasta pyramid in his direction. Vasya sighed and shook his head, but nobody saw.
The marshmallow, pierced by the central spaghetti noodle, was almost entirely stable, would’ve probably held up, had Happy Trail not applied too much pressure too fast, causing the pasta to break, leaving a shard within.
“Three minutes left, everybody!”
The center piece of spaghetti was now too short, and the point at which the outer pieces met would be too thick and blunt to penetrate the marshmallow. “It’s fine it’s fine it’s cool it’s fine, we’ll just put another one in the center, right E-Money?” Emma. She sighed, and tried to tape another piece of spaghetti on top of the broken one. It drooped sideways. She tried taping it again, and again, but each time it either broke in her frantic fingers or the tape didn’t hold securely enough and the pasta limply succumbed to gravity.
“What the fuck, Emma? Are you even trying?” She tried taping it again, this time with two pieces of tape on either side, their adhesive edges meeting, and it worked for a moment, until the spaghetti noodle began to tilt towards one side.
“Two minutes left!”
Happy Trail, in denial, bargaining, tried again to put the marshmallow on the haphazard spaghetti noodle— the entire structure leaned under the weight of the marshmallow, which eventually came to rest on the tabletop as the tower tipped onto its side.
“Come on, we don’t have time for this! Just put some more sticks on it!” Vasya looked around, and noticed that one table, though their structure was admittedly shorter than theirs, happily hosted a marshmallow at the top. Emma tried to reinforce the center piece of spaghetti with more noodles, but even then, the pyramid resisted, tipping over each time the marshmallow was pierced.
Trent was desperate now. They were about to call the minute, and tables were finally placing their marshmallows on the top of their spaghetti towers with increasing success. Trent wanted the watches, sure, and maybe drinks— but he mostly wanted to shake the CEO’s hand, compliment his Ferragamos, earn his way to an office friendship and, later, maybe even a promotion. He was good at his job; he did the math, crunched the numbers, cut costs, saved the company thousands of dollars. He was important. Not like these two bumbling idiots, one who didn’t even speak and worked a basic job answering random questions online, the other who couldn’t even make a simple tower out of goddamn spaghetti. She was supposed to be smart. She worked in IT. Why the fuck would she even choose to work in a job in IT if she couldn’t do basic shit like this? “Why the fuck would you even choose to work in a job in IT here if you can’t even do basic shit like this?”
Emma had gone to Smith undergrad. She had spent a gap year working at a decently-sized skincare company owned by one of those luxury brand conglomerates before getting an MBA at Columbia Business School: a fraternity of future leaders who would make excel spreadsheets and design frivolous pop-up playpens and cut costs and articulate the perfect verbiage to get people to click a button to buy things, their things. But many women had also decided to become a marketer, and they were better at convincing people to click buttons— or perhaps were just better at small talk, concealing eye bags, having industry-leading fathers— so she had to read the job market a little harder and complete a certification online to work in IT. After all, there was a shortage of women in tech. This was how she ended up working at the home improvement brand: a half-choice. A surrender. A rushed grab at a piece of cheesecake in the Westside dessert aisle because it was the only one left and she needed to own something.
All this she remembered as she stood, locking eyes with Happy Trail, feeling the spaghetti structure splinter when she crushed it in her fist. Small shards of dried pasta ricocheted against the tessellated carpet. Marshmallow oozed between her fingers. Emma glanced at her hand— a sensorial nightmare. She flung the broken tower onto the center of the table, scraping the marshmallow off of her hand with her fingernail.
If Emma had waited an additional twenty-two seconds, she would’ve heard Tom Wujec deliver the final time call, and a roar of midday applause. If she had taken a moment to look up from her fist before she turned around and left the Gold Ballroom of the Hotel Pennsylvania, she would’ve seen Vasya’s chapped grin, proud of her choice. Instead, she stepped outside the hotel doors into the early-September heat, peeling off her button-down and using it to wipe the remaining marshmallow goop from her palm. She sprayed her hands with sanitizer, followed by an application of hand lotion. As she pushed the shirt into the depths of her tote bag, her fingers grazed the carton of cigarettes; she pulled them out, and glanced across the crowded avenue, wondering if it would be worth the descent into Penn Station in search of a purveyor of lighters.
She didn’t need to. Emma felt a familiar palm gently come to rest on her shoulder, and she turned to face Bone Structure; Vasya noticed the package she held as she turned around, produced a thick blue lighter, and passed it to her. She thanked him and offered him a cigarette.
She lit hers, handed him back his lighter.
He lit his.
She inhaled deeply, sighing smoke, satisfied.
He told her his name, and they laughed together.