On the theory that to make progress you have to kill your darlings, I’ve decided to rethink the prologue on my work-in-progress, the thing that’s been constant since my nascent novel was a short story dashed off in a single burst of genius one night after I got home from work. This is my proposed new prologue. My question is, would you read a book that begins this way?

 

I still dream about smoking. Every now and then, when I haven’t thought about it in months, or when I’ve congratulated myself on going for so long without, I’ll be hit in a dream with a vision of the me that was, laughing over a drink and a smoke with some anonymous someone — other people in my dreams are almost always faceless, even if I know who they’re supposed to be — taking deep a draught of hot smoke, letting its feathers tickle the back of my throat, sucking it deep into my lungs and holding it there for a few seconds before blowing it softly back out. When I wake up my brain is convinced that I’ve never quit smoking and I have to remind myself for hours that there will be no cigarettes today or tomorrow or any day after that.

I quit when everyone else did, and for the same reason — no more smokes. Some poor pathetic addicts would roll up dried leaves into a page torn from a book, fire it up and suck it in as if their lives depended on it. There were days in the early going, I won’t lie, when that appealed, but they didn’t last. I have some pride.

And now, if you believe the medical propaganda, my lungs are supposedly as baby pink as they would have been if I’d never smoked at all.

Ironic — I stopped smoking because Henny Penny, as well as wiping out uncounted (so far) millions of people, also obliterated the tobacco industry as collateral damage. And thus saved my life twice.

The funniest jokes are the cruelest, right?

Look at me laughing.

In the dreams when I’m smoking, that’s when I recognize myself, or at least the self I showed to the world back then, confident, self-assured, fuck your surgeon general, these things are part of my makeup, part of my concept of self.

I’m naked without them. I don’t know what to do with my hands. When I’m around people now, and that’s not all that often, I watch them to see what they do with their hands, where they put them, how they hold them. Do they seem to be in anyone else’s way, or is that just me?

After 10 years, yes, I have figured out to live without many things, but other peoples’ hands still fascinate me. What they do in the absence.

(I’m considering ending the prologue here.)

Henny Penny left absences, in splatters, in drizzles, in big splotches that you try not to look at because thinking about the absences is too hard, hurts too much.

I lost less than some but more than many because when others retreated into their family units, or the nuclear groups of friends and family  left standing, there was no place for me. Friends had died or disappeared without warning, like Sophie, who walked out of our apartment while I slept off the remains of the virus.

Would I be in a different place now if Sophie had stayed? I think so. She would never have allowed me to become as isolated as I did, she needed people around her, they were the air she breathed. On the other hand, with her gone I found bits of myself that I’d lost sight of in her shadow. I’m different — lonelier, but stronger in some ways without her. I still miss her like crazy and if I ever see her again the first thing I’m going to do is punch her for being so goddamn selfish. Or was it selfish of me to want her to stay when she was so obviously dying inside, just because I need a social convener?

When the world ends, nobody wins, it seems.

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