“Hey, you! I’m on my way — just running a little bit late.”
I laughed. I knew the routine. That was Tom — my mentor, best friend and the love of my life. He was on his way to pick me up for dinner, but only after he’d driven around the block a few times with his windows open and the fan blasting so I wouldn’t notice the cloud of smoke that enveloped his head. Yes, I was well aware he still smoked, but — he swore — he was down to one cigarette a day. His nasty little habit had been a major fallen log across our road to romance. I’m highly sensitive to cigarette smoke. Just a few minutes in a smoke-filled room could land me in bed — coughing, congested and almost completely incapacitated — for days. But I loved him. So I let him think he was fooling me — and my hair blew in the breeze of my open window like that of a deliriously happy Afghan Hound on her favorite doggy car ride.
Eight months ago, the pretending stopped. Tom was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer which had metastasized throughout his body. Three months later we said our final good-byes.
So here I am in the middle of my first tax season without the man who called me every evening to chastise me for working so late — on the way home from his own office. Tom was also an accountant, a CPA. I’d always put him on speaker phone so we could swap stories and exchange advice as I packed my briefcase and locked up the office. Oddly, we spent more hours together during a time when one would expect we had so few available than we did during the remainder of the year. I miss him so much. But, like me, Tom was an unapologetic workaholic. He’d have been beyond disappointed had I let my grief interfere with my profit.
So, each morning I now plaster on my very best fake smile and trudge off to work.
My first client on this day leaned back in her chair and smiled as I forged my way through the pile of paper she’d just dropped onto my desk. Within moments my nose, filled with the faint stench of burning tobacco, began its telltale tingling and fluid began accumuling in my lungs. I assumed the noxious vapors were coming from her documents.
Between coughs, I queried: “Do you smoke?” I was perplexed because my client, in addition to being a medical professional, was a rabid health nut. I could hardly imagine her smoking, but the evidence was as clear as the snot that escaped my nostrils.
“No, but that guy standing over your left shoulder is smoking like a chimney.”
“Ohhhkaaayyy,” I thought, as the faint echo of the theme from the Twilight Zone played in the space between my ears. I was aware that she was reputedly visited by those who’d passed to the other side, so I wasn’t really too concerned, but this did make the little hairs at my nape curl themselves a bit tighter. I considered asking her to describe him, but I thought better of it. I returned to her paperwork and tried to give nothing away. My eyebrows knitted themselves into knots as I attempted to focus again on the issue I was trying to untangle.
“He says that if you need help with something, he’s here. He’s always here. Just close your eyes and ask him. He’ll tell you what to do.”
Okay, that was it; I was convinced. The odor of cigarette smoke alone — at times and in places where there should have been none — I would have dismissed as I always had recently. But she didn’t know him; how could she have possibly have come up with his words? I’d often wondered if he visited. There were many moments in which I’d felt a shift in the energy surrounding me — and hoped it might be he — but I’d always dismissed this as another figment of my overactive imagination. He’d never appeared physically, so I’d poo-pooed it as wishful thinking and moved on. So why appear here? And why now? And why the burning cloud that he knows’ll fucking kill me?
“He says to tell you the smoke is so you’ll always know it’s he; you didn’t ‘get it’ before.”
“And he says to tell you he loves you.”