Paradise is a Feeling by Stella Meadows

It’s a perfect day for a cigarette.

When I smoke I prefer a menthol cigarette, or a “Minty Fresh,” as a friend of a friend once put it. For reasons unknown that name has stuck with me. And if you’ll forgive the expression, goddamn do I crave a Minty Fresh right about now. An American Spirit to be precise – perfectly balanced, perfectly bold. The thought’s enough to spring the taste on my tongue, to tighten my chest and lungs… In the span of a heartbeat my head feels level, my senses distinctly sharpened. My world enters a state of perfect clarity. I can practically feel my fingertips thrumming.

There’s a woman walking past me, and it’s her trail of smoke that’s woken this starving beast within. I tear my eyes from the smoldering butt in her teeth and move to a table further from that titillating perfume. The temptation it offers is too great. I’ve just quit smoking for the third or fourth or twenty-eighth time since first I started.

You start to lose count.

Although I’ve quit, I can’t help but to think – it’s truly a perfect day for a cigarette. The kind of morning that damn near glows upon you, clearing your skin and sinuses – where the air outside kisses your face and the whole of reality is smothered in a blanket of cheer – you know, one of those days where you just wake up feeling inexplicably good. You don’t question it. You revel.

To wit, it’s early November in Monterey. Sweeping over the bay is a delicate wind, not yet harsh, but presaging the gales of winter. It cuts in with those last spirits of autumn that curl the hair about my ears and scoop my bootheels up beneath each step. Despite the nip, there’s just enough sun that I don’t need a jacket. And the sea, the waves, my God! I’ve never seen the Pacific so even-keeled, the calm white peaks a playground for the otters cavorting between boats. I’d always heard there were otters in Monterey, but never quite believed they’d be so… Well, so damn there. You don’t have to take an otter-watching cruise to see ‘em. Just turn up at the beach and you’re bound to have a run in with those velvet blondes. Today they’re out in full force.

I’ve just finished a light lunch and a cup of strong, black coffee. I feel awake, content, sitting on the patio with a post-meal beer. I take a long sip, savoring the moment. It goes down sour, fruity, tart. The beer’s some gauche shade of pink, vaguely artificial, perhaps a bit more alcoholic than I ought to have before noon – but what the hell, I don’t have class today. And though I can’t deny how good a crisp smoke would be right about now, the morning’s glorious enough without extra vices. Glorious! There’s music in the air. Cliché, maybe, but there’s truth to clichés.

Listen, listen closely. I’m sure you could hear it, if only you’d try.

Rapturous voices on a salt-seasoned breeze; they whisper my name, they call me onwards. Where? I lean into the wind, ears open. The wharf? Could that be it? I finish my beer and set the glass aside, letting the music carry me where it will – and yes, with each step I feel myself drawn towards the docks. New players are making themselves known in this symphony. There can be no doubt now, no questioning the percussive shuffle of waves, lapping; nor the woodwind keen of cormorants and terns; nor the brassy honk of a distant seal; even the bells of boats recall their tubular kin in the orchestra’s arsenal. Tchaikovsky oughta be quivering in his grave – this, this is music! Let my feet walk where they will, thumping their bassline outside the Harbormaster’s quarters.

Then I’m neatly slapped across the face by a new intrusion, a whiff of chummy refuse, simultaneously invigorating and repulsive. My olfactories are wakened by the horror that sleeps intrinsic within the sea’s terrible majesty – through blood and bile I’m lifted, temporarily, above my reverie. Then the feeling passes. I might even be growing accustomed to the dead-fish scent; for my every woken sense only contributes to the harmony, a moment both spiritual and physical, a fleeting glimpse of Paradise as seen through sussurating nets, draped languorously off fishing vessels. Close by, a great wall of gulls offers voice to Heaven’s choirs, scored against a backdrop of wind-battered masts, each creaking their lowly rhythm. Talk about a glass darkly! If only we could learn to be present, to simply be, we might find that Paradise is not so far away as we’d imagined.

And yet – a cursory glance proves my worst fear.

Absolutely fucking nobody is impressed.

Sure, they’re as immersed in it as I am, but then – why are they so unaware? Where’s the excitement? Where’s the zeal?

“Wake up!” I want to scream, “Can’t you hear it? Why don’t you listen?”

Fisherfolk beside me laugh, lounging in the backs of empty vans along the wharf. They share out cigarillos, ignoring the NO SMOKING signs posted once every half-dozen feet along the guard rail. The rules, it seems, do not apply to these men. Rules are for outsiders, for tourists. With a shudder I realize that (until quite recently) these men would have lumped me in with the latter. In some ways I still am a tourist. How long have I been living here – two, three months? I feel like an interloper, an impostor, and I hate the feeling. It brings a lump to my throat. I want to stroll up and crack a beer with them, to smoke one of those long, black cigarillos; I want to say, “It’s a beautiful day,” and be greeted in turn; I want to be welcomed, trusted with the secrets of the fold. I want to be privy to the concessions of locals – to fall in with their ways, to eat their food, to sleep in their beds and lie with their women. I want to embrace them wholly and become a part of them, to embody everything that makes them who they are. I want to fall to my knees and beg acceptance from these strangers, these ghosts passing through my life.

But of course, I tell myself, that would be madness.

I watch them and I smile, walking away with my mind wide open. The spectacle of this world’s living religion may be lost on them, but perhaps it’s better that way. They’re a part of it, after all, they’re living it. Why should they bother meditating on the mystery? And the rest of us – are we all so blind to the script? Have we been obfuscated, made unaware of the parts that we play? Is that it?

Well, fuck you, I’m no goddamn understudy. This is it, this is it, dammit! This is the night we’ve been rehearsing for, over and over in the dim and formless voids of history.

Our moment is now!

All right, now I’m really laying it on thick, but I think you know what I mean. It’s just as well that I don’t get worked up. Once I’m back home I’m liable to forget all of this. Everything but the feeling, which I’ll never really forget. That feeling will go into hiding, only peeking out with the next November wind, or lingering on the back-end of a sour beer, or dancing in the wisps of tobacco smoke. Until then, though, I’m blind as a damn fool bat.         

The sun is shining, the breeze is mild, the day is perfect. And the fish aren’t really biting, but the fisherfolk aren’t really casting, are they? It’s a pretense, an excuse to gather, to drink, to smoke, to laugh; and it’s as important as anything. This is what life is, this tableau on the waterfront, and in every listless reeling, casting, reeling in again, these folk are proclaiming, “This Is What We Are,” and there, I hear it again, there! Another low swell of laughter, an ease to the posturing of their bodies, natural as they recline, the glimmer in the whites of their eyes, the bite in their jokes, the luminous, nay, visceral glow of the sun filtering through bottles of amber ale – all of it, every last detail but a contribution to the greatest of masterpieces ever composed:

We are a Part of This – We Have Learned to BE.

In this they’ve become masters, having attained the highest rank of the one true priesthood in this dying world.

And I?

I am but a novice. I am as nothing, and so in the face of their raucous prayer, I ask myself:

How can I hold anything against them?

Stella Meadows is a writer to know. Born in 1996, she’s been active since the age of eight, ever in search of the perfect sentence. Her first story was published in Quirk Literary Magazine in May, 2020. Her other work is forthcoming. Meadows takes a personal approach to story-telling, focusing primarily on issues of identity and self-expression. When not reading or writing, she can be found drinking espresso and chasing down scared raccoons (they need affection too!). A student of Humanities and Communications at California State University, Monterey Bay, she will graduate in early 2021.

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