Janice looked over her shoulder and noticed the small trail of smoke that lazily danced towards the ceiling. Following the impudent trail of wisps down to its source, Janice struggled not to raise her voice when she noticed the lit cigarette sitting on top of the ceramic bowl that she used as an incense holder.
"Frank," Janice sighed audibly as she walked towards the cigarette, "How many times did I have to tell you to-"
Janice froze. She realised the lit cigarette has a red smear around its filter. Lipstick. Her lipstick. Glancing across the living room with a quick glance, Janice surveyed the room for any sign of her boyfriend. Somewhere in the apartment, she could hear him grunting frustratedly; His voice was too muffled by both distance and thick walls to be decipherable. Reaching down, Janice picked the cigarette up and brought it close to her face. It was her lipstick. Or at least, it was the same brand. But the thing was, Janice didn't smoke.
A thud, muffled yet undeniably present, came from the room beyond.
While carefully considering her options, Janice crushed the lit cigarette against the ceramic bowl. There was definitely someone in the room. Someone who wore the same lipstick as she did and liked to smoke. And that someone was definitely not Frank. Did she really want to know who was inside the bedroom with her boyfriend? Did she really have it in her to confront him and demand an explanation? Was she strong enough to deal with this and leave with her self-respect and esteem intact.
A soft laugh murmured from the same direction. It was a woman's voice.
She imagined hundreds of women.
Tall ones. Blondes. Curvy Latin women with huge smiles and beaming eyes. Sultry Asian women with mysterious eyes and lips that seemed to entice you into strange and exotic taboos. She imagined the clothes the woman must have been wearing. Beige perhaps. The color did go well with the lipstick. Or maybe a crimson shawl over a gray power dress. A business woman. An executive. Frank's boss.
Janice shook her head.
Maddy was ten years Frank's senior. Unlike most women, Maddy was the type of woman with features that seemed to have been chiseled on. Rough, sharp angles formed her features. Midnight hair crowned her head. She always wore her mascara too thick. Janice used to tease Frank that if she were any younger, she'd be a slut.
Frank would tease back that she was an old spinstress.
Janice felt her chest heave and grow heavy. A tightness wrapped around her. She found it hard to breathe. Her trembling hands toppled over the ceramic bowl. Watching the ashes scatter over the table, Janice found herself looking at the opaque glass littered with the white ashes. She remembered the beautiful night Frank asked her to live with him in his small yet homely apartment. It wasn't much, he explained, but it was theirs. And Janice stared at the grandeur of the night and realised all the stars were witness to his request. She said yes.
But now the stars were nothing but ashes.
And the crushed cigarette with lipstick fell to the ground.
Janice had left the apartment without a word.
* * *
"I'm really sorry you weren't able to speak with her," Frank apologised as he held the door open with his free hand. The elderly woman leaned in and kissed him on the cheek. With a smile, she stepped out the door and checked her purse for anything she may had left behind. Snapping it shut, the eldery woman looked up at Frank with a worried eyes, "Oh dear. I left a lit cigarette in the-"
"No problem," Frank assured her although it was clear he too seemed a tad confused, "I can see it from here. Its dead. You must have crushed it earlier."
"Yes," the eldery woman nodded and slipped her hat on, "I guess I forgot." Looking over Frank's shoulder, the elderly woman saw the table and gave a slight pout, "Pardon the mess. Must be my arthritis."
"Again, not a problem," Frank assured her and gave her a kiss on her cheek. Holding her hands tightly in his, he stared into her eyes and smiled a long and meaningful smile. Somewhere behind it, though, was a slight tinge of regret. "I guess you better be going. Again, I really wish you had a chance to speak with Janice. I'm sure she'd love to hear the news. Not to mention, she'd love to see you liked the lipstick she gave you."
"Well it does add a touch of color to my grumpy old face, doesn't it?" the elderly woman pulled her hands back and gave a cheerful wave, "Just tell my daughter that yes, I would not mind it if you did propose to her. I must admit, its a surprise to me that you'd ask me first."
"Oh I don't know," Frank gave a gleeful smirk, "I guess with everyone proposing before telling their parents about it, I wanted Janice to have something different. Something special. Thanks again for coming Mom.. ah, can I call you mom?"
"Of course," the elderly woman replied, "Why, I have no idea why Janice would not say yes. No idea at all."