My latest short story “Smoking” in the current issue of Meat For Tea, edited by Elizabeth Macduffie.
Fabulous issue, you can get it here:
Choosing a brand of cigarette is personal, like a political standpoint or a social stance. I settle on Camel because the packaging is neat. I love animals. But the choices are maddening: filtered, unfiltered, menthol, crush, lights, wides, 99s, whatever. It’s like choosing a topping for your pizza at lunch. Which, thank fuck for cigarettes, I will no longer eat.
The thrilling part about starting to smoke is that everyone around me is trying to quit.
I head down to the elementary school playground and hide behind a brick building (the gym where I used to suck at dodge ball) to drag on my first cigarette. While inside children are learning how to divide and conquer I’m fourteen and a virgin all over again, except this time, I’m not a goody-goody bible thumping nerd who is afraid to toke. I smoke. I shiver because it’s winter and I’m in a black leather jacket wearing black knit gloves with the fingers cut out. I smoke Camel unfiltered because, I thought, if I’m going to smoke, I’m going to smoke. I take a drag and suddenly there’s a slew of motorcycles pulling up inside my lungs. All noise and smog. My pleural cavity is pierced by exhaust. Ouch, the burning pipes. I take another puff and another and I hop on my own Harley, grabbing the handlebars by the horns. I’m revving up. I never look back. I’m a siren in a black and white photograph. I’m New York City. I’m San Francisco. I’m Allison Glee who was cool in seventh grade.
I am no longer bored, because Life, friends, is boring or life became boring. But not if you smoke. Boredom is suspended for approximately five minutes (unless you chain smoke, which I will learn by the end of my habit can be an expensive habit, that you could rack up cigarettes like the minutes on a long distance phone call.) You never have to leave the minutes as long as you are smoking. I’ve concluded that smoking is healthy if only because I am a smoker now.
I’m addicted to my new addiction and suddenly it’s Sunday and I was never so happy with ennui. I drive to the mall. I ask for a soft pack of Camel unfiltered at the kiosk and the man with a zillion tattoos tells me he only has the filtered ones in hard pack and gives me a scrunched up look like he’s about to cry but actually he’s imitating my expression. He turns around to get the filtered ones, I give his back the finger.
I’m sitting on a bench observing obesity saunter in and out of stores. Shoppers tug at sweatshop-inspired clothing hanging on metal racks. Some loiter while finishing triple scoop ice cream cones, the air is redolent with oregano and suddenly I crave pizza. My hard pack of tobacco gems is waiting in my coat pocket. My attention turns to the escalator delivering hoards of people with mounds of shopping bags: teenagers with jeans slung below their waists, whining toddlers fidgeting in their strollers, bickering couples. All of them step off to the barely audible pulse of Muzak and slink away in all directions. I’m thinking, one of these people could very well open fire and shoot up the mall. I’m hoping it will be today. I’m feeling suicidal. I whip out a cigarette and light up: anxiety is squelched. I puff and puff and puff. I’m floating with the Muzak. I am no longer hungry I’m happy to be thin. I’ll pick on a bowl of pasta later, but for now I’m skinny and I’m happy smoking up a hard pack of Camel filtered cigarettes (because the man at the crappy kiosk didn’t have Camel unfiltered cigarettes) on a steel bench in a crowded mall on a Sunday with nothing else better to do. I go to the Ladies Room. It stinks of saccharine cherry-scented toilet cleaner. As I pull down my jeans my cell phone falls out of my back pocket and into the toilet. At least it wasn’t my hard pack.
Stephanie, my teenaged daughter, is waiting, arms folded, for me at the garage door when I get home.
“Where were you?” she says, tapping her foot. “You’re late.”
“I was at the mall,” I say, holding up a shopping bag.
“What’s that smell?” she says.
“What smell?” I say. “I don’t smell a smell.”
“I don’t know,” she says, “it smells like—the public. Were you—smoking?”
“The public?” I say. “Smoking?” I say.
“Hypocrite,” she says.
I brush past her and she follows me. “You were supposed to be home an hour ago,” she says, “the kitchen’s a mess and I’m supposed to cook dinner tonight and how am I supposed to cook dinner when the kitchen’s a mess?”
“So clean it,” I say.
“It’s not my mess,” she says, “it’s your fucking ugly mess.”
“Watch your mouth.”
“What did I say?”
“That my life is an ugly mess. Go out and shovel the snow in the driveway for a consequence.”
“I shoveled it,” she says.
“Then shovel the front walk,” I say.
“The boy down the block did it for thirty bucks,” she says.
“Shovel the lawn then.”
I sneak into the bathroom. I need one badly. I vowed never to smoke when the family was at home but I must. Stephanie is on my back and I have an ugly mess of dishes to load. When did this all start? This loss of control? I sit on the toilet, lid down, window open, incense lit, and suck and suck and suck. When I come out I run into my bedroom and try on my new red boots I got from the mall. Stephanie comes in. I’m turning all around in front of the mirror admiring my new cool high-heeled boots that I’m going to wear when I start going to new cool clubs with my new blonde hair and my manicured nails which is the future version of myself that is forever fixed inside my head. I never materialize.
“They’re hideous,” Stephanie says. “You’re too old for them.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Because it isn’t nice.”
“Dinner’s ready,” she says. “I cleaned your mess. And dad called. He’ll be home late again. He tried calling you, where’s your cell phone?”
“I don’t have a cell phone.”
The front door opens and my son walks in from hockey practice.
“What’s for dinner?” he says.
“Pasta,” Stephanie says.
“You bitch,” he says and he slaps her arm. This means he approves. This is how we communicate. This is how we use speech.
Later on I slip into bed with my not-yet-new not-yet-sexy lingerie that remains decked on the woman in my head but I don’t wait. When my husband says he is coming home late, it will be late. I turn on the TV. I light up. I no longer care about getting caught. Smoking is my whirlwind romance and I remind myself of the dangers youthful habits create. What if I fall asleep and burn the house down? I am thrilled. But sometimes, I remind myself, not to think about it too much. That sometimes a cigarette is just a cigarette.