There are back stairs that lead to a hidden ground floor. I’ve never seen anyone else use these stairs. People avoid them as if there’s an alarm will sound sign painted across the doorframe. But each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10:30 a.m. I walked through the door and down the back stairs, pressing my foot against each wobbly vinyl bump. The plastic edges peeled up at the angle of each step. The stairs lead to a quiet hallway in what is called The Basement; the rooms are only ever used for faculty mixers and the occasional staff baby shower.
Stephen always walked four feet behind me, enough room to look like we didn’t know each other. Perhaps that’s because we didn’t. He never told me his name, but I listened closely to Professor Taylor call attendance. I cross referencedthis with the names on our class website, Stephen with a “ph.”
On the first day of class he walked in five minutes late with his head aimed at the floor. He took a seat in the front row, his cream-colored suit blended into the cream-colored desk, and I wondered why anyone would wear a suit to school. He might be a business major, but most business majors are in fraternities. They wear shorts three inches above the knee and Hawaiian shirts or a Comfort Colors T-shirt with the school mascot and their Greek letters. Though, on business class days, they might wear gray slacks and a school polo. For a presentation, maybe even a button-down and blazer, but their suits are fitted, made specifically for them. Stephen’s was baggy around his hips and ankles, without a belt his pants would have fallen straight down to the floor.
I thought this was just a “first day of school” thing. His dad probably told him to make a good first impression. But every day, he wore a suit. Never black, always light colors. Tan, cream, gray, caramel. All with front pleats of loose fabric bunching around his thighs and sleeves dangling past his wrists.
Stephen walked hard. I could hear each step pound against the tight carpet of the basement floor. He followed me every day for months.
There was one final door at the end of the hallway, one that led to a large patch of gray dirt freckled with wood chips and a single tree. The tree wore a belt of bricks around it, in my head I called it the tree circle, the only place I could go to read or watch or wait.
The tree circle overlooks a faculty and staff parking lot, and on long days I would sit on the bricks and watch professors climb in and out of cars, it was easy to tell who was tenured with a Pulitzer and who was an adjunct.
I sat down on the uneven bricks, shifting my backpack to the front, fumbling through a small zippered pocket for a lighter. Stephen didn’t own a lighter. Might be scared of what they can do. Might be afraid of flames.
I picked out a green Bic and watched him pull a large square carton out of his pocket. He lifted the top off, unfolded the gold tissue paper, and pulled out a single cigarette: a long and skinny black stick with a metallic gold filter to bring to your mouth.
He held the cigarette in the middle and gestured for me to take it.
I didn’t know which end to grab for, and when I finally decided, our thumbs ended up touching.
I lit the cigarette, and he stared as I brought it to my lips. The light bounced off his concrete haircut, which was always combed to one side and set down with a clear gel. One Wednesday it was piecey, and you could see small flakes of dried mousse. I wondered if he contemplated changing hairstyles, or if he slept at a girl’s house, woke up with no gel, and ended up with a handful of John Frieda foam instead. I wonder who loves Stephen. I wonder who he talks to.
I wonder if he told his friends about the girl he followed to the tree, gave cigarettes to, watched.
For the entirety of the semester, Stephen walked four feet behind me, sat two feet away from me, touched his thumb to my forefinger as he handed me foreign cigarettes. He didn’t say much. If he spoke, it was about the cigarette.
“I got these from Spain.” He would pull out a metal case of vanilla-flavored cigarettes.
“Paris.” A Tiffany-blue box with golden tipped cigarettes.
“Vienna.” And a tall white pack with thin black cigarettes would appear.
The cigarettes always had flavors or scents or gold. They always lasted more than the five-minute cigarettes I was used to.
He never smoked them.
Stephen’s eyes would lock onto my lips, as I sucked in, as I pushed smoke out of my lungs, and he would hold his breath, sit up straight, and stare at me.
One day a man rode by on a bicycle, hit a rock, flew over the handlebars, landed face first. He left a smear of blood on the pavement, and Stephen never looked away from my lips. I could see him out of the corner of my eye. I gasped and stood and watched the man pick himself back up, he seemed fine. In my peripheral, Stephen’s mouth parted just a bit, but he never looked away.
I remember the first day he followed me. I remember him standing awkwardly by the tree while I held a cigarette between my lips, arm deep in the largest pocket of my backpack, scraping the bottom looking for that green Bic lighter.
“Do you smoke?” he asked.
I raised my eyebrows, “Clearly,” flicking my chin up and waving the cigarette now between my teeth. “You have a light?”
He nodded no, and I kept searching the bottom of my bag, now wiggling my fingers in between notebooks and folders.
When I finally found it, he was still standing there, but he had somehow produced a silver box with embossed swirls and an etching of roman numerals. The box opened to reveal luxury cigarettes. He thrust the box toward me.
I grabbed one from the box, tucked my Newport back into its partially crumbled pack, and lit the premium cigarette.
I stuck my arm out toward him, the forest green lighter an invitation between us.
“I don’t smoke. Keep them.” He handed me the whole box.
I had already taken a long first drag before he rejected his own cigarettes. I could feel my stomach turning, He’spoisoned me, I thought. He’s here to kill me with luxury cigarettes.
I went home after class, took all my clothes off, threw a lavender and mint shower disc into the bottom of the bathtub, and began scrubbing my chest and stomach as if shower gel would clean the inside of my lungs. I inhaled the floral vapor as deep as I could, hoping it would cleanse me. But I never felt sick.
“Meg!” I heard my roommate shout as she threw open the bathroom door. “Mind if I pee?”
“Sure, but I’m dying,” I wailed.
“No you’re not,” she sighed, unraveling a wad of toilet paper. “What happened now?”
“A boy tried to kill me,” I said through deep inhales of lavender vapor. “He gave me cigarettes. Fancy ones.”
“So, a boy likes you and is giving you nice things? Does he have a brother?”
I pulled back the shower curtain, soap dripping from the ends of my hair.
“He didn’t smoke. He doesn’t smoke. I don’t know.”
“Meg, relax, you’re acting crazy. He probably just wanted a reason to talk to you. He probably likes you. Congrats.”
She flushed the toilet, and I could feel a sudden surge of hot water.
“You’ll be fine.”
I rinsed the remaining soap from my body. She’s right. I’m acting crazy. He probably just had cigarettes a friend gave him and didn’t know what to do with them, and so he shared. Or maybe he recently quit and had extra. Or maybe his brother told him that to get a date he should give someone a gift. That sounds totally reasonable.
For weeks, he continued to follow me. For weeks, I enjoyed the cigarettes, sitting in silence, and every night I went home in fear.
He was plotting my murder. Or he was going to rape me. I was sure of it. There are no quiet men who give gifts for free. This shot through my mind, replaying all the memories of men offering to buy me dinner or to help me move. Of the boy last year who bought me nail polish and pushed his body onto mine in a dimly lit parking lot. Stephen wasn’t innocent, he couldn’t be.
I would lie in bed at night between my star covered sheets, and I would feel his thumb touching my thumb. I would feel his forefinger touching my forefinger. I would dream in smoke signals.
I could feel him inching closer each day until his thighs touched my thighs. His cream-colored slacks caressing my naked shins. His cold hands covered in hair gel sliding between my legs. But then I would wake up, and each day he would sit two feet away, he wouldn’t get closer.
I started paying more attention to him, wondering what his motives might be. My thoughts toggled between him being shy and him being a serial killer. I knew Ted Bundy had killed girls at my school decades before, maybe he was fishing for victims in each of his classes.
Stephen always sat in the front row of our Shakespeare class, his posture was unsettlingly straight. He didn’t speak much, only one-word answers to open-ended questions.
One day, halfway through the semester, we were assigned a project; we had to partner up with someone to perform a scene from Antony and Cleopatra. I wiggled my head trying to make eye contact with him, assuming we were cordial enough to be partners, but he never looked back at me. I ended up paired with a short blonde who swore he’d be a country music star. We got an “A” on our scene, but Stephen never performed; instead he turned in a ten-page paper comparing and contrasting two of the plays we’d read that month. I tried to ask him about it after class, under the shade of the tree.
“Why didn’t you want to do a scene? It was so easy.”
“I don’t know. Just didn’t.”
His eyes followed the smoke from my mouth to the pavement, and any hope of a conversation stopped there, just as it always had.
“I think he’s putting drugs in the cigarettes. It’s the only thing that makes sense,” I poured out the words one Friday at girls’ night. We were huddled around a square high top at The Heist, a dive bar three blocks from our house. I held a soggy chicken wing between my fingers, tearing the meat off the bone with my slightly stained teeth, buffalo sauce on my lips.
“So, stop smoking the cigarettes,” Hannah said, rolling her eyes and sipping her drink.
“I can’t, I have to know what’s supposed to happen. It’s been months. Something has to happen.”
“Maybe he’s just an awkward nice guy. Not everyone is trying to kill you,” she turned her head back toward the other girls. Smiling with tiny black straws between their fingers, sipping on vodka sodas and Moscow Mules. Hannah pulled a ruby gloss from her purse, and added another coat to her lips.
I sucked on chicken bones as one by one each girl left the sticky wooden table for the bathroom, the check, a frat boy.
The final week of classes I continued out the back door, through the hall, out to the tree. I was determined to find out what would happen. I accepted a final pack of foreign cigarettes, lit the end with a strike-anywhere match and threw the burnt stick to the bricks.
Stephen sat to my left, silently staring.
“I like that class,” I whispered, just loud enough to hear over the wind.
“Me too,” he replied. His voice felt stickier than usual, like a clump of gel caught in his breath.
Surely, this was it. His last chance to make a move. I spent the last three days in the mirror practicing ways to politely decline any offers of a date. I practiced saying “yes” to a date but saying “no” to sex. Three packs of cigarettes each week for fifteen weeks each around 15 dollars per pack is over 500 dollars. Surely, I would have to say yes to a date.
I wondered where our date would be. Maybe the fancy French restaurant on the north side of town, or go-kartsnear campus, or perhaps an opera where I would smoke an extra-long cigarette and wear a dress that required no bra.
Of course, there was the possibility he wouldn’t ask me on a date. The possibility this cigarette would kill me. The possibility he would shove me into the trunk of his car, fill my lungs with hair gel, and cut off my lips for his pleasure.
I had hoped for the date.
Sitting at the tree circle, I silently begged for a date. I didn’t want to die.
With every inhale and exhale he made, I waited for the final question. The cigarette was reaching its end, and my heart began beating faster. I could feel my muscles tighten, squeezed my thighs closed. I remembered what they told me in self-defense: shove your palm into his nose in an upward motion, that way his nose pushes into his brain, killing him quickly, or at least stopping him from killing you.
I dropped the remnants of a caramel-colored filter to the ground. I waited for him in his caramel-colored suit to rip my flesh off my bones. But instead he just got up and walked toward the faculty parking lot, just like he always had.
When the next semester started, he was gone. We had no classes together. He wasn’t by the tree circle. He wasn’t by the building where the business school was housed. He wasn’t at any gas stations where I would buy cigarettes. He wasn’t anywhere.
I began smoking Newports again. They tasted stale, rough between my teeth and lips.
I laid in bed, pushing smoke out in rings with my tongue, twelve different packs of cigarettes surrounding me. I couldn’t find them again. The fancy foreign cigarettes were nowhere to be found. Stephen was nowhere to be found. I slathered globs of hair gel across my head, taking puffs of different typical cigarettes.
Rebecca Khera is a Pakistani-American writer. She recently received her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her work has appeared in R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly Literary Journal, Punctuate. A Nonfiction Magazine, and Saw Palm Journal among others.