The Half-Burnt Cigarette : A Short Story

by Awais Aftab

He took a puff of his cigarette, blew the smoke and observed with purposeless acuteness the amorphous wisps of smoke diffusing into the air, thinning out of existence. His lifted his gaze to a yellow taxi, a few cars ahead of his at the traffic signal, to make sure it was still there. ‘Yellow, yellow like guilt,’ he thought, taking another draw. His eyes fell on the rear-view mirror, and he saw a partial reflection of his own face: black, warm eyes; a handsome charming face in the early thirties. His wife, his former college fellow, had often told him how he used to be the crush of a dozen girls during the college days. He had felt a strange, meaningless pride in that revelation by his wife before, but at that moment, as he recollected this memory, he felt doubt. ‘Could this be a lie too?’ he thought. Doubt— a monster which was engulfing his whole life, his whole mind, robbing him of even a single moment of peace; doubt of his wife, doubt of her fidelity. He looked again at the taxi and saw a brief glimpse of her auburn hair. In the past when he nestled his nose against those silky strands, their pleasant fragrance used to fill to his whole body. But since a few days, after he had become a victim of doubt, that aroma had become a pungent odour, setting his soul on fire.

He had never thought of himself as a jealous, possessive husband. ‘I am an educated, cultured man’, he used to say to himself. But time knows better: that even thousands of years of social evolution is not enough to counter an atavistic impulse that runs in the very blood of one’s veins. He believed that he had always trusted his wife, but everyone can trust when times are cordial. It is only in the clash of suspicion and faith that the strength of trust is revealed; like yanking a sheet off a naked body. And it was only when those silent phone calls and wrong numbers started coming that he came to realize that he had never trusted her, never even for a moment. It was all an illusion.

And now, driven by this cynicism, he was following her to whomever she was going. What her suitor would look like, he wondered. Would he be more handsome than he is? More friendly? More strong? Or maybe richer. He had never believed himself to be an ideal husband, but he had always considered himself to be a good one: he had loved his wife, shared his life with her. He remembered the first time he had saw her in business school: her fiery hair inviting him like the fire called for Moses on the Mountain. This is what he used to call her with love: ma flamme, my flame. He remembered her dark brown liquid eyes; her coquettish smile and he had desperately desired her, wishing her to be his. He had thought she was his…until now. ‘Perhaps this is my fault’, he reflected, stuck in that sedentary traffic, ‘I treated her as a possession of mine, maybe as more of a concubine than a true wife.’ He smoked and analyzed his own feelings. He felt neither angry nor mad with rage. He felt uncomfortable and troubled, but it was a totally different kind. It was like examining a festering wound on one’s own body. This was his failure as a husband. He was in an exotic mélange of distress and calm.

But where was he going with all this? Why was he insisting on witnessing this rendezvous between his wife and her lover? And what was he going to do after that? Shoot her, that man and then himself? Nah, he was never of the sentimentalist sort. And besides, he was far too much of a coward to do that. He observed the fading whirls of smoke as if they held some answer to his ailment. The problem was: what to do? Even before catching his wife in the act, he had forgiven her. He had no desire to punish her. His mental disturbance had little to do with the fact that his wife was being unfaithful to him; he was disturbed more by the fact that he was confused about what to do about it. How was he supposed to react? What was he to say to his wife? He vaguely remembered hearing about some work of Sartre in which a husband suspected his wife. He wished he would have read that. But what good would that have done. These philosophers only had questions to offer; they were men looking in search of answers. Just like he was… in the moment he was going through, no philosophy, no manual of ethics, no book of religion would come to his aid. This was his dilemma, his choice; no philosopher, no prophet, no god could make this decision for him.

His concentration shifted back to the road as traffic started to move. He followed her in his car, keeping a safe distance behind so as not to be spotted. He already knew where she was going: Hotel Marionette, Room no 192, where someone would be waiting for her. With his business contacts, it was not so much difficult to find out; the hotel owner was a friend of his. He had even obtained a key of the room, which was lying in his pocket. As he drove, his thoughts began to drift again. He wanted to know, why she was doing this. This question hung suspended in his mind, unanswered. Had she been of an unfaithful spirit right from the beginning? Had she ever been really in love with him? Or perhaps her libido exceeded his abilities in the bed? Maybe it was raw sexual instinct? Maybe it was just a meaningless affair being done out of a sense of adventure? So many possibilities, human nature was as elusive as ever.

The taxi stopped in the hotel parking. He parked at an appropriate distance behind. He saw her come out, pay the driver and tell him to wait for her to come back; the driver nodded and picked up a magazine. He could make out the cover of the magazine with difficulty: “Politician caught in illicit love affair”. Here too was an illicit love affair, an affair which would never get to the cover of a weekly magazine, which would remain buried in his mind until some night when the warmth of wine would cause him to spill this tale to some friendly ear. As she entered the hotel, he came after her, walking slowly as he knew his destination. He took the stairs instead of the elevator to provide them more time. He had heard people talking of ‘seeing God’ during coitus. He himself saw only one thing during the heat of the act: his own animal nature, an ape taking delight in the fulfillment of his biological impulse. But the realization of this monkish legacy did not disturb him; he accepted it as such.

Soon he came to the door of the room. He pressed his ear gently against it, searching for sounds. The creaks and the moans confirmed what he already knew. With no haste, he took out the key, inserted it into the hole, rotated it and calmly walked into the room. He saw a tangle of limbs on the bed. He brought the cigarette to his lips and took a puff. The two lovers were motionless with surprise and shock. He stared into the eyes of his wife as he smoked. And he realized that this was what he had come to see: her eyes. There was clearly astonishment in them, a little bit of fear as well. But nowhere, not even in a trace amount, could he detect remorse and shame. He tranquilly blew out the smoke in the form of a perfect ring; something which he had tried to learn a number of times before but had failed. He looked in her shackled eyes for a few more moments, and after knowing what he had wanted to know, he spoke out in a soft, serene and polite manner: ‘I am very sorry to disturb you two. My deepest apologies.’ Saying this, he threw the half-burnt cigarette on the floor and walked out, making sure to close the door properly. It was an act whose symbolism even he wasn’t aware of. This was what his marriage had turned out to be: a half-burnt cigarette.


[Awais Aftab is a medical student. Equipped with a self-taught knowledge of philosophy, his interests branch out to religious criticism, psychology, modern physics, art and literature. He is still in the process of defining himself and experimenting with different arenas of writing. Eager to share his thoughts and interests with others, he writes on a personal blog, as well as being the author of an online book on the history of modern philosophy. Shaheryar Ali]

Comments are closed.