To Give Up Smoking

Alex Shishin

Starbucks, Shibuya
Photo Credit: St Stev

A man in fatigues enters the suburban Los Angeles convenience store and opens fire with his semi-automatic rifle. The tobacco-reeking young man standing in line behind twenty-eight-year-old Vera Medvedev pulls her to the floor and covers her with his heavy body.

“I can’t breathe! Get off!” she screams amid sounds of exploding glass and other screams.

“Stay put. You’ll be okay,” he says.

These are his last words.

A year later Vera is walking down a street in Kobe’s Motomachi district. It is an early autumn evening. She will teach a special English conversation seminar to a group of middle managers at a well-known Japanese chemical company. She is taking over for a colleague at her university who needed to reduce her load of part-time jobs.

Her family’s vacation apartment is nearby. It is a few minutes walk from Daimaru department store, where she shops and has lunch and dinner, and Starbucks, next to Chinatown, where she has breakfast and where she hangs out in the evenings, enjoying only her own company and luxuriating in the absence of the Second Amendment and gun lobbies. Her Japanese relatives, who found her the university post and with whom she dines on weekends, live in big houses at the foot of Mt. Roko. When she was in high school, her parents sold their inherited Taisho Era Western-style house on Kitanozaka and bought the less troublesome though spacious apartment in Motomachi, where they stay during their periodic visits to Japan.

On the ninth floor of the company building an office lady greets her: “Welcome, Ms Medvedev!” Leading Vera to the conference room where she will be teaching, she remarks, “Your Japanese is very good!”

Seven men are seated at a round conference table and they are all smoking cigarettes. Panes of grey smoke drift through the conference room like harbor fog.

Vera remembers the police extracting her from under the blood-soaked and tobacco-reeking dead man. She remembers crying, “I can’t deal with this.”

“I can’t deal with this!”

The seven men and the office lady do not speak. The office lady’s hand covers her mouth.

“Oh, God, I’m sorry!” Vera says and brings her own hand to her mouth. “I am terribly sorry,” she says in Japanese. “I don’t smoke.”

No problem, no problem, the men tell her in English and Japanese. Soon the office lady has led them to a fresh conference room. The men promise not to smoke.

The businesswoman in Vera takes over. She stands ramrod straight and seemingly unruffled, makes a joke and then introduces herself in English and Japanese. “Medvedev is Russian. My mother is Japanese but my father is Russian-American. He is a company president. My mother is a housewife. My father came to Kobe on business and met my mom. She comes from an old Kobe family. Medvedev derives from the Russian word for bear. I am a mother bear—grrr!—and you are my cubs.”

The men find this uproariously funny and this inaugurates a successful seminar. When it is over three months later the men throw Vera a party at the Chinese restaurant in Daimaru, where smoking is forbidden. They present her with an expensive porcelain tray. Several men say they will try to give up smoking, which makes the other men laugh.

Walking back to her apartment in the cold January night she feels slightly drunk from the Chinese beer and wine and worries she might drop the box with the porcelain tray. When she stops for a light, she hears hurried footsteps approaching. She turns. It is Kurihara-san, who used the name “Walter” in the seminar. The light turns green and she walks briskly across the street.

“Vera-sensei, wait!” he says in English as they are passing by Daimaru. “You are walking too fast. I am out of breath.”

She stops and says, “Okay, what’s on your mind?”

“Sorry to bother you, Vera-sensei. Thank you for the seminar. Can you help me stop smoking? I must stop but I can’t.”

“I’ve never smoked,” she says. “I don’t know how to stop smoking.”

“I have tried,” he says. “My wife wants me to stop.”

“I see,” Vera says and smiles. She remembers he has a family and a house in Fukuoka. “I heard the second day is the worst. Maybe if you can get past that.”

“Tried it,” he says and slaps his arms against his sides.

He is in his early forties. Not a bad looking man, though she thinks he would look better with longer hair and perhaps a thin beard.

“Maybe a change of environment,” she says. “Places where people don’t smoke.”

The man stands still with his arms at his sides.

“Where do you usually spend your free time?” she asks.

“Bars. Coffee shops.

“Try Starbucks. Over there.” She points to the other side of the cross street. There is no smoking inside.”

“I’m afraid,” he says.

“Cripes! Of what?”

“Hippies. I feel I don’t belong there.”

“Hippies? What planet are you from? All sorts of people go there. It’s friendly. No one smokes, except outside.”

“I am shy about new places. Well, good night.”



“I’ll take you.”

He hesitates. She pulls on his sleeve.

Once there, she finds a table, makes him sit and gets two cappuccinos.

“I like this,” he says. “I like strong coffee. Is that hippie music they’re playing here?”

“That’s Janis Joplin. She’s from my parents’ generation.”

“I’m sorry for what happened to you,” he says.

He knows. Therefore the other men know.

“Thank you. How did you find out?”

“Your colleague told our boss, Mr. Kimura. Mr. Kimura said we should be nice to you.”

“I see. I haven’t talked about it very much.”

“You can talk to me about it. If you want to.”

“I don’t, Kurihara-san.”

“Call me Walter. I like Walter. And please feel free to speak English.”

“Okay, Walter. I always meant to ask why your English is so good.”

“I worked at our New York City office in Manhattan for five years.”

“Manhattan for five years and you’re afraid of Starbucks?”

He shrugs. “You must be lonely,” he says.

“I only stopped by the convenience store to pick up a six-pack for our family barbeque,” Vera says. “I did not know what was happening until the man had me on the floor. Even then I only wanted to run away. Poor guy. There wasn’t much left of his head. Most of it was all over me.”

He nods.

“If I start to cry, please excuse me, Walter.”

“Of course. I understand.”

“Mr. Right-to-Bear-Arms killed three people and then killed himself. I am surprised he didn’t kill more. I am surprised I’m alive. The newspapers said the man who saved me was a hero.”

“He was,” Walter says.

“Yes, he was,” Vera says. “His name was Jack O’Brian. He worked in a warehouse. He apparently had no family because no one claimed the body. Finally my family did and cremated him. We scattered his ashes at sea from our boat. We chose a beautiful autumn morning.”

“That was good of you.”

“Here I was, this rich girl with everything I modestly needed. I expected to lead a quiet academic life at some liberal arts college. I might have married my boyfriend. We broke up after a bitter argument. I told him to get rid of his guns. He accused me of loving a dead man because I couldn’t make love to him after it happened. Excuse me. You look uneasy, Walter.”

“I have to smoke. I’ll go out for a moment.”

He returns after ten minutes and she says, “Whenever my dad has a bad day at work mom makes him a martini and after he’s finished it he says, ‘It’s only misunderstandings. It’ll be okay tomorrow.’ It’s sort of how I handle post-traumatic stress. I am an optimist like my dad, I guess. But I’m bothered I couldn’t save the guy who saved me. Yes, I love Jack. Yes, I’m loyal to him. Yes, I’m grieving. I admit it. I accept it. I don’t care who thinks I’m weird.”

“There is nothing wrong with you,” Walter says.

“Thanks, Walter. You know what, though? I’m more sad these days about not being able to get a martini as good as my mom’s. Funny, isn’t it?”

“It’s not funny,” he says. “By the way, my wife loved martinis in New York. I learned how to make them. Maybe I can make you one some day.”

“I’d appreciate it, Walter. Are you lonely for your wife and kids?”

“Very much. Maybe that is why I cannot stop smoking.”

“Walter, I have an idea. “Why don’t you move into my apartment?”

“I can’t do that.”

“I don’t mean we’ll sleep together. I have three bedrooms. You can have one. You can come and go as you like. Only you cannot smoke. That might do it for you.”

“My wife won’t like it.”

“I’ll write to her. If she agrees, will you do it?

“I’m sure my wife won’t like it. But if she agrees I’ll consider it. Only the company must not know. My wife’s English is very good, by the way.”

After coming home, Vera writes to the email address Walter gave her. She receives an email back a few hours later. “Dearest Vera,” his wife writes. “How kind of you to wish to take care of my husband! As a woman I understand your need to do some good after what happened to you. You have my blessings. I know this might seem very strange in Japan but if it can save my husband from smoking I do not care. With All My Heart, Yumi.”

Their initial daily email exchanges concern Walter’s smoking. Yumi complains how Walter ignored doctors for years and how he would even smoke around the children. Vera writes that she seldom sees him as they come and go at different hours. For several weeks she repeatedly mentions that though he never smokes in her apartment there are times she can smell tobacco on his clothes. In one email Yumi asks if Walter makes martinis for her. He does from time to time, she writes back. Yumi replies that she misses Walter’s martinis.

One evening Vera writes to Yumi that she admires her written English and confesses that though she speaks Japanese well enough, she cannot read or write it. Yumi writes back that she got a master’s degree from Hunter College when they lived in New York. She asks where Vera studied. Vera writes that she was at U.C.L.A. from her undergraduate years to the time she completed her Ph.D. For several days they are no emails from Yumi and Vera thinks that she said too much. Then Vera receives Yumi’s email headlined: WALTER HAS STOPPED SMOKING!! “He called me to say that this time he has definitely stopped. He had not smoked in three days and does not want to smoke again. You have accomplished a miracle!”

Vera writes back: “Come to think of it he has not smelled of tobacco in days. Why didn’t he tell me?”

Yumi immediately replies that he has peculiar habits with regard to information. Then Yumi asks, “How are you coping?”

Vera replies, “Very well most of the time, thanks to your husband.” She does not mention her occasional crying spells when she is safely alone in the apartment.

Yumi replies, “Do you find Walter attractive?”

Vera writes that she cannot think of attraction at this point in her life. She also mentions that when she went to Starbucks earlier than usual she found Walter there with a café latte and a roll.

Yumi’s next email comes a few minutes later. It is about how much fun she had in New York and how much she would like to live there. Vera cannot read it to the end.

Walter is home at eleven p.m. He goes into the kitchen. Vera hears him making martinis.

“Hey, you big holdout!” she calls to him from her study. “Congratulations!”

He comes into the study with two martinis.

“Thank you. But for what? Oh, that.”

“You look younger now that you quit. Why didn’t you tell me?”

He shrugs. “I was going to tell you. I did not know if I had really quit until I went back to my apartment today and couldn’t stand the smell. I called my wife.”

“She emailed me earlier.”

“Good. I am glad she did.”

“Cheers!” Vera says. “I saved a life. I am redeemed.”

“Why do you need to be redeemed?”

“It’s called survivor’s guilt, Walter.”

“Talk about it if you want.”

“I don’t want to. You should change your apartment.”


“So stay here. When you need to go back, wear a mask or something.”

“Thank you! You are the only friend I have left.”

“Cripes, Walter! What do you mean?”

“All my friends smoke. I can’t stand them.”

“Funny, after what happened my friends couldn’t stand me.”

“I am insisting that our workplace should be smoke-free. I was transferred to a little room in the basement. I hardly meet anyone.”

“The company works quickly.”

“It does.”

“I hope this hasn’t screwed you up at work.”

“Our boss said it is about time the entire office was made smoke-free. The head office in Tokyo has been smoke-free for years.”

“Good,” Vera. “I ought to mention my mom and dad are coming to visit soon. I already told them you’re my roommate. You don’t have to move out when Mom and Dad come.”

“I want to meet your family.”

“You’ll love them. They are my best friends in the whole world.”

“How could you leave them, Vera?”

“Walter, they are perfectly happy I am in Japan. They actually wanted me to live in Japan a while long before what happened. I want another martini.”

“With an olive or a twist of lemon peel this time?”

“I want it exactly like the last one. Not one molecule different.”

That evening Yumi writes, “I am glad he will continue staying with you.”

Come March, a gloomy Walter comes home and announces that he will be transferred back to Fukuoka.

“Congratulations!” Vera says. “You should be happy.”

He shakes his head.

“My friend in personnel in Tokyo told me something when he was in Kobe.”


“I can’t say it.”

“Please say it.”

“My boss in Fukuoka had me transferred to Kobe so he could have an affair with my wife.”

“We’ve both been deceived,” Vera says.

“Well, I’m going back to Fukuoka and my ex-boss is being transferred to our branch in Saudi Arabia.”

“Right. What happens when you go back to Fukuoka?”

“We’ll carry on. We won’t talk about it. We’ll just carry on. For the children’s sake.”

“I’ll make love to you, Walter.”

He shakes his head.

“I won’t make any demands. I promise.”

“I’m in a bad mood. It wouldn’t be nice,” he says. “I’ll go out on the balcony and smoke.”

“Don’t go out on the balcony,” she says.

“Why? I can’t smoke here.”

“Just don’t. I can’t lose you.”

“I’ll only smoke.”

“I’m afraid you’ll jump.”

“I won’t.”

She seizes his arm. “Smoke here!”


“Please! I’ll smoke with you. I will. Give me a cigarette. Light it.”

“I’m only smoking because I am sad,” he says.

“I’m sad too. Light me a cigarette, Walter.”

“Okay. Just one.”

She inhales the first puff lightly and the second one deeply. With the third puff she holds her breath until she nearly faints. “Oh God!” she says exhaling. “Oh God! I never imagined!” She unbuttons the top button of her blouse, shakes out her hair and collapses on the couch as her head spins. She uses a coffee cup for an ashtray and then puts the cigarette to her mouth. “Beautiful!” she whispers as she exhales.

Walter has lit his cigarette and bends over to flick ash into the coffee cup.

“Sit down next to me, Walter,” she says.

He sits down on the couch at a discreet distance from her.

“I want another cigarette,” she says, snuffing her stub in the coffee cup. “Put it between my lips and light it.”

He does as he is he is told.

She closes her eyes and inhales smoke. She exhales the smoke in Walter’s direction.

“Sit here and put your arm around my shoulder,” she says.

He does so.

“No limp hand,” she says. “Squeeze my shoulder.”

“I shouldn’t be doing this,” he says.

“Yeah you should. Don’t be shy; squeeze. That’s it. How does it feel?”

“Very nice, Vera,” he says.

She inhales and exhales smoke and then leans against him. “You’re right,” she says. “Just go home and carry on. That’s what I ought to do. Go back to L.A. and carry on. I’ll fight for gun control. I owe Jack that.”


“Do you know how to undress a woman, Walter?”

“Yes, of course.”

“I need another cigarette first.”



Alex Shishin is an American living in Japan. His fiction and non-fiction has been published widely in print and on the Internet. His short story “Mr. Eggplant Goes Home” received an Honorable Mention from the O. Henry Awards and was anthologized in Student Body (U. of Wisconsin Press, 2001). The short story “Shade” was anthologized in Broken Bridge (Stone Bridge Press, 1996). “Bulldozer” was named an outstanding short story for 2004 by storySouth‘s Million Writers award. Shishin’s experiments with ebook publishing are available for free on Smashwords. Email: sats_3100[at]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email