The Way Home – Native Prose
Sam and Helen were driving home from dinner at a restaurant in Methuen when Helen brought the subject up. An old friend of hers, Melissa, was at the end of a long battle with cancer, and wasn’t expected to hold on more than a few weeks. Her friend’s situation had become so hopeless that she seldom broached the topic any longer, but when he lit a cigarette — a habit that Helen had come to despise in the year since she herself had quit smoking — she spoke out.
“God,” she said. “I can’t believe you’re still smoking those things after seeing what Melissa is going through.”
Here we go, Sam thought. He cracked his window to let the smoke drift out of the car, then glanced at Helen. “Well, I am,” he said, annoyed that she had tried to link his smoking to Melissa’s illness. She seemed to be implying that Sam’s not quitting, as she had, meant that he was weak — a judgment that she now expressed often in various subtle ways. Sometimes it was a little comment she’d make, and sometimes it was just a look. In a way, the looks were worse — they made Sam feel that he was being dispassionately assessed, and in the assessment found lacking.
“So tell me,” Helen went on, “what would it take to make you actually quit?”
“God,” Sam said, “I can’t believe you actually want to fight about this.”
“We aren’t fighting. It’s just that you keep promising you’re going to quit, but you don’t. I’d like to know what it would take to make you finally stop.”
Sam stared straight ahead at the road. He decided that if he didn’t let himself be drawn into this argument, Helen would get tired of it and give up. It was a ploy he sometimes used that had served him well in the past.
“Would you do it to save someone’s life?” she suddenly asked.
“What?” Sam said. “What are you talking about?”
“What I mean is, since you won’t quit smoking to save your own life, would you do it to save someone else’s? Hypothetically, I mean.”
Outside the car, mile markers passed in an endless punctuation of the ride.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Sam tossed his cigarette out the open window. “Whose life?”
“Anyone’s. Melissa’s, for example.”
“This is crazy,” Sam said. “For one thing, Melissa didn’t get cancer from cigarettes. For another, how would my quitting smoking save her life?”
“Let’s just say. Say a deal had been made with God.”
Oh boy, Sam thought. He had a feeling that he was being lured into deep and dangerous waters, and while he knew that the best thing to do was to say nothing, he couldn’t help himself. “Since when do you believe in God?”
“That’s not the point. The point is whether or not you’d quit.”
“Look, I’m sorry about Melissa. But let’s leave her out of this.” He turned and gave Helen what he hoped was a significant look. “Please.”
Helen fell silent, and then, just as Sam was beginning to think that she’d abandoned the subject, she said, “OK, then. If not Melissa, what about me? Would you quit to save my life?”
“What?” Sam said. “This is crazy.”
“Just answer me. I’d really like to know.”