Cigarettes: A Love Story
We should break up. I know, I know, I’ve said this a thousand times before. I even walked away from you for ten whole months, but then I had a little taste. Just a bit of you mixed in with a joint rolled in an apartment in Malibu. It was like vacation sex; it doesn’t count, right? But you know me better than that. You knew once I got back home, you’d be inside my mind, buzzing, whispering, ghosts of you making me circle my middle finger over and over again on the whorl of my thumb, tracing my lips over and over with the tip of my tongue. You knew I’d come crawling back, bumming a piece of you from friends until shame and need drove me to the local bodega. A pack of love for six dollars and fifty cents.
We belong together, you always said. It seemed fated from our first meeting. Remember? I was seven, and Daddy had taken Adrienne and me out in the boat to replace some trotlines and do a little pole fishing. It was an early spring, just after my birthday. The sun shone like an old friend, chasing away those pesky frosts and too-cold winds. East Texas river water was still too perky for swimming but it felt good to be outside, the grass grown high on the banks, the bass biting and a few catfish trolling the bottom. Daddy settled his pole in the floor of the steel paddleboat, shook you from the pack in his shirt pocket, and lit up. At once, the calm of the water and the sun rolled over him in a wave.
His job had been getting to him, the evidence all over his face. He was a good-looking man, Mama always said. Short for a man, but possessing all the swagger and confidence of someone twice his height. Jet-black hair with just a touch of gray, strong square chin, red cheeks from twin heritages of Ireland and whiskey, small lips that broke easily into a shit-eating grin. But the late nights caused by the collapse in oil prices had aged him – his thick-framed glasses sat hard on his nose, covering dark circles and red-rimmed eyelids. Forehead creases splintered in lines literate only to a gypsy palm reader. His shoulders hitched upward as if the weight of oxygen was something to fight against.
But one puff of you, hot and sweet, brought down the burden. I watched him surrender to the pleasure of place, the sound of the rapids upstream, the comfort of the children of his blood fishing peaceably in his arm’s reach. I’d spent most of the day gibbering and dancing, trying to coax a smile, and you made it possible with just one drag.
“Can I try one?” I asked, gesturing to you when Daddy opened his eyes. He looked at you a long moment, then met my eyes.
My sister and my mother couldn’t be in the same room without a screaming match breaking out, but they shared an ability to look down their nose with their voice.
“No, thank you,” was all she said, recasting her line like we were no better than her bait.
Daddy handed you into my hands and I couldn’t believe how white, pure, and perfect you looked. The line of paper, exquisitely symmetrical, a uniformed cylinder seamlessly joining white spongy filter, a few millimeters of paper at the tip that I carefully folded over like I’d seen Daddy do. You smelled like warm earth, broken leaves, and pepper. You stuck to my bottom lip when I placed you just so, having to guess where the center of my mouth was from memory.
Daddy used the gold butane lighter Pa-Pa had given him just before he died. I’d always loved that lighter, heavy, shiny, looking grown-up in my hand. My thumb found the secret button on the side, slide it forward, don’t press it, and a flame was closer to my face than ever before. You caught fire on the first try but I sucked hard to keep you lit. A bright black line raced towards me, tattered flakes of ash in its wake. I sucked hard again, coughing as smoke trickled through my throat. I used two fingers to take you out, hard, hacking cough interfering with our first date.
You weren’t all white anymore. The filter tip smudged brown, like a deep stain in the carpet. I rubbed my thumb over the dirty-looking blotches but the color lived deeper than my fingers could go. You came to my mouth again, and I took a smaller puff, like a quick kiss Mama gave when she left for work. Better, I could hold the smoke in my mouth; imagine I was tasting the white cloud, chasing the ends over my gums and teeth. I barked the smoke out, still not able to stop the cough. But you were well and truly lit, alive and working with me, for me, burning piece of mystery right in my hand.
And then you were gone. Adrienne overcame her snootiness long enough to rip you from my lips (I can still feel that shock of separation, the tender bit of skin from the inside bottom lip torn, your favorite piece of flesh). She threw you into the water while screaming about my bad behavior and how she was going to tell Mama on me. The river water undressed you, the soaked white paper revealing your tangled brown innards. You caught stream, embarrassed, no doubt, and the current swept you from my sight. Daddy laughed at us both, flicked his own butt towards the bank, and rowed back upstream. He shook another out of his pack, but didn’t offer me any. I didn’t ask.
But our first time together stayed with me. In the next five years, I learned a lot more about loving something so much that it inspires people to take it from you. You know the story; you were there in Daddy’s hand for most of the fights, the drinking, the slaps, the struggles. When Mama took me and left, she suddenly became an asthmatic, allergic to cigarette smoke. She was convinced I was asthmatic, too. She got me an inhaler and a doctor’s excuse from physical education. Our house in another town smelled like dead flowers and old furniture – both gifts from my grandmother who couldn’t hide her glee that Mama had finally left that good-fer-nuthin.
Like Daddy and Adrienne, you became something I saw only every other weekend and two weeks in the summer. I drifted along, anchorless and outcast. The kids in the new school in the new town didn’t like how my parents were divorced and how I preferred to climb trees and read during recess. I’d sing old rock’n’roll songs at lunch that I’d memorized from Daddy’s forty-five collection so I wouldn’t have to hear the shouts and taunts from across the way. Mama and I became inseparable, sleeping in the same bed each night. It meant so much to her that I didn’t have the heart to tell her I coughed sometimes to cover up her crying.
But you were there in the scent that awoke me every morning. You were there in Adrienne’s hand as she starting sneaking you out of the carton on Daddy’s dresser and going to meet her high school friends down by the river. Genetically, she and I were ninety percent identical but you wouldn’t know it to watch her laugh and mingle, talk and smoke, at home in a crowd. Ten percent made a difference.
A standard carton holds ten packs of twenty cigarettes each, totally two hundred pieces of you in every box. Ten percent of you equals one pack. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t invited to play with Adrienne and her friends; I had you. Remember how I’d take my one pack and climb up on the roof? That little spot where the plum tree grew too close to the house? It only took three large steps, no shoes, toes clung easier. We’d be right there on the corner of the house, hiding from the sun and Daddy’s new girlfriend. We grew easy around each other.
You taught me to hold you between my fore and middle finger. To smoke from the side of my mouth, so that the burning paper wouldn’t make my eyes water. Mastering the French inhale took longer and required sneaking a mirror up the tree. Holding the smoke, thick and heavy in my mouth, lips parted just so, tongue curled like a cup to gently, slowly allow it to trickle out, pulled up my nose, inhaling you twice, controlling the breath so as not to scare the smoke away.
We practiced blowing smoke rings, too, but you and I both agreed a lady would never engage in such a display in public.
When I coughed and hurt, you soothed away any embarrassment. Who was to see us, you asked. Just the rotted fruit, too high to be picked by the town ladies for jam? Just the beehive several branches up and buzzing, buzzing but staying far away from your scent, masking mine?
The smell of you protected me later, when I had the boldness to reveal our love publicly. The sight of you in my hand, wielded so confidently, my thumb easily switching into a trigger, holding your lit end like a fiery sword between us and the rest of the world. A weird girl who sang to herself and read too many books was not defenseless. The scent of you enveloped me, a cocoon of mystery and adulthood, parting the pathways of junior high and high school, those little girls with their perfect hair and braces covering their little virgin mouths, noses wrinkled. I was a foreigner, an alien launched into their midst who listened to their latest tale about who Johnny was dating with the answering nonchalance of a stream of lung-filtered smoke blown above their heads. What was I going to say? That Johnny let me go to my knees in the boy’s bathroom by the theater and his skinny ass had these pimples that felt like two red buttons threatening to burst beneath my fingers? Such a secret must be swallowed, but you were taken inside and expelled, hot breath all the answer needed.
You kept all those pretty little do-gooders away, those nice little boys with their lying smiles and stupid eyes, those sweet dollops of sugar and spice who hid their panties behind the thumping of Bibles and promise rings.
Of course, they came to me.
Later. Breaking away in from the herd, they came -like Johnny- seeking something whispered in sweet, curling smoke signals. My favorite was when sweet little Heather MacDonald wanted me to tutor her in geometry, then took you from my mouth, inhaled deeply, then tried to kiss me. I think she was shocked when I took her tongue in my mouth, sucked it a little, fluttering a well-trained tip over her top lip, biting softly on the full bottom. She was junior class president with bright wild red hair and her gold confirmation cross proudly displayed over her daily uniform of neatly pressed polo shirts and khaki shorts. I took you back from her hand, enjoying her dazed pleasure. I blew the smoke into her hair, marking her with our scent until her next shower.
Heather was the one who told me about Harvard. Hah-vid, she called it, saying it was the best college on earth. We built our dreams on it, you and I. Imagining great halls where we could smoke and shout, crimson badges of honor, every stitched letter letting the world know that here was someone special, someone who knew a thing or two about life. Boston seemed very far away from East Texas where the rednecks drug chained black men behind their pick-up trucks and Daddy married another hard-ridden woman with cracked and bleeding nostrils. Harvard would take us away from all that. Harvard would love us like we loved each other.
It wasn’t easy, but when it was just the two of us, we could devour books like they were kernels of popcorn, just open your mouth wider to fit another handful. Ultimately, Harvard is conquered by paper, test papers, graded papers, clicking letters stacked together telling why we are better than anyone else. You taught me about paper; its purpose is to conceal, hide the truth in pure white cylindrical tubes that burn pure, white, clean.
Daddy was thrilled, but sorry, he couldn’t help with the cost. Daddy couldn’t do the little green papers that make Harvard go. Mama was less excited, Boston being so very far away. Adrienne lived on the other side of town in the trailer park, knocked up by the first guy who breathed Jack Daniels in her direction, but that was too far for Mama to visit, even with her grandchild on the way. Boston seemed just near enough for both of us to breathe.
Boston was hard on us, wasn’t it? It tested my love, marked the first time I tried to leave. I was broken with the cold, with the non-smoking dorms, with the fascist edict of having to step fifteen feet from the entryway. Everyone knew you and nobody liked you. Yankees believed my thoughts were as slow as my words. I learned how to reshape my mouth, clipping syllables so that they didn’t come out like long yawns. I practiced talking while shivering outside. You didn’t laugh at me, but I could feel your disapproval. In Texas, you always warmed me up, heat inside from the first puff; but nothing defeats a New England winter. You didn’t even try.
I never told you why I really broke up with you that first time. I was afraid you’d be mad at me because I was so stupid. Remember Dr. Margaret Early? Dr. Maggie, she told me to call her. She taught that advanced calculus class where we wrote that paper on automatic algorithms as applied to short-term trading models. Remember that? We got the idea for the numbers to be tracked ten percent above and below the bid/ask price on low volume stocks. It was a triggering trap, buy and sell to any sucker that was dumb enough to take the other side of the trade. She called me into her office about a week after we turned in the paper.
‘Caroline, my dear, you’ve got excellent potential, but we must do something about your clothes and that…cloud of smoke that trails you!’ Dr. Maggie said, waving her pretty manicured nails across her face, wrinkling her nose. When she talked to me – I’m sorry, I’m so so sorry for never telling you this but you know me well enough to maybe, maybe try to understand – when she talked to me, I felt all light-headed, like my skin opened into a million tiny mouths and they breathed all at once. She walked me to her personal stylist that very day and my hair was slicked and shaped into a dark, serious-looking bob. My scalp felt tingly under the November snow, like I could feel each and every snowflake descending.
So I left you, breaking the last pack into little leaves of sticky tobacco on the Yard lawn. I dressed in dark, serious navy and wool. Braved the heated classrooms and the crowded barrooms with just the stench of higher learning and legacy to guide my way. I smelled of freshly laundered sheets, chalky diet pills gnashed under teeth, and the bitter steel of a metal bit in my mouth.
Dr. Maggie cooed over me. How well I was fitting in, coming from my disadvantages. I got one, then two after-school jobs, folding clothes for those rich enough to have their laundry done, and washing dishes freshmen placed on the plastic assembly line after they had gulped their over-priced breakfast cereals, sloshing the milk over the sides, my hands trying to get to the bowls before the liquid congealed. The Dominican women who worked the kitchens spoke only in Spanish when I was around. The Haitian dishwasher waited for me to arrive before sneaking out for a quick chat with you.
He never invited me.
I cultivated an air of silence. Sometimes, I could go a whole day without speaking a single word. Sit in the back left row of class, study hour after endless hour in the tomb-like library, walk home alone in the snow where even the traffic of Harvard Square was muted by the brick walls, sit in my dorm room with only the hiss and spit of the radiator to remind me I was alive.
Of course, the phone calls from home never stopped, but you weren’t there, you don’t remember. Adrienne called me a week before the baby was due. She sounded tired but excited. Mama called to let me know gently that she didn’t make it. Excessive hemorrhaging took both her and the boy. Daddy called hysterical and crying, saying he had a gun in his mouth and wanted to end it all. I stayed up all night, pleading, begging, speaking words that didn’t make sense, don’t leave me, don’t leave me, don’t leave me.
Daddy’s lighter clicked over the airwaves and I listened to you save his life.
No money to fly home. No one to talk to, since the teaching assistant outside Dr. Maggie’s office told me the professor had left to take a job as Director of Quantitative Trading at Goldman Sachs. I walked around and around the Yard, my hands reaching for you, gloved fingers circling my thumb around and around.
The night they buried my sister, it was seventy-five degrees in East Texas, a last gasp of Indian summer in the Texas bayou country. Cambridge was bracing for another foot of snow and I decided to get very drunk. Brown-bagging PBR on the steps of Holloway dorm facing the Yard. Four-pack of tall boys just made me shiver more, their aluminum bodies lying crushed and cold in the snow. I walked to the newsstand inside the square traffic, looking for more when you smiled at me, multi-colored logos and clear plastic packaging looking like a friend who just knows.
I bought a pack of you, certain you might hold a grudge, canker and cough me silly over my abandonment.
Ah, but you showed up. Like we’d never been apart. Filtered taste of home between the tears, snot, and grief, I gulped you in and my head floated away. My skin became sensitive to the cool wind, but it felt like a caress. My tears dried up because you didn’t like how wet the filter became under my endless boo-hooing. Sobs came forward still, but they were dry, hacking ones, my throat scorched with the welcome of you. Went through half a pack that night, there was so much to tell you. You listened, understood, telling me you’d never leave me again. Never again.
We became rebels, you and me. Fuck school, fuck these ugly Yankees with their endless rules littering the yard with dog-and-pony etiquette obstacle courses. The whole wide world awaited us outside these gates. Friends turned up in droves now that you were back. Remember that little girl hooked on heroine down in Kennard Square? She’d let us sit next to her for two whole hours, she rocking and spinning, the very busy subway station throwing us a dollar or two. More than enough for another pack of you.
We talked wildly, telling strangers all of our secrets. About Daddy’s secretary that would lock the office door when he left to show me her cum-covered panties and demand to know if he loved her. Mama’s bruises when she’d come home from her too-few dates, her quiet little whimpers when she slept. Adrienne was going to call her son Adam, the first man. Her first little man.
Kurt Vonnegut was a fag! we screamed. Emmanuel Kant was a weak-kneed pussy! The evolution of Adam Smith’s economic theory that morphed into a might is right theology could trickle down my leg! Fuck your cultural relativism! Some people just needed killing. Harvard was over-priced and mediocre!
Well, some things are unforgivable. That last outburst in the advanced calculus final couldn’t go unnoticed, especially since we decided wearing pants was optional that day. Busted, baby! They locked us up in the loony bin, the booby hatch, the locked psychiatric ward of McLean Hospital.
God, crazy people fart a lot. All those drugs make the most noxious fumes, the smell inscribed into the very fabric of the crimson polyester-blend couches and armchairs. No matter where I sat in the common room, I could smell bodies and chemicals. There were two televisions, but they only allowed us to watch reality shows. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen an entire psychiatric ward stand in line at the pay phone to vote for Clay Aiken.
Your visiting hour came at ten to the hour, seven to midnight. I’d stand outside, two of you in my hand, along with the orange plastic Bic I had to surrender at the door. The drugs made me photosensitive. I’d get light-headed and nauseous in direct sunlight, so once again, we would huddle and talk beneath the leaves of the solo tree in the courtyard. My words didn’t make any sense, you’d say. I was scaring you, staring off mid-sentence. Three weeks was a long time, you’d say. When did you hear from Daddy, I’d ask. Why don’t you ask them to lower the lithium, my hands were shaking worse than the leaves. Is it really wrong to eat instant grits with sugar in them? I asked. That’s all they had besides cereal for breakfast.
You saved me. As week five met week six and I could barely keep awake hour to hour, you staged a desperate rescue mission. It started as a whisper in the mind, a strong, silent voice urgent against the tide of professionally concerned mouths that asked me more about Daddy, about Mama, about Adrienne, about this exotic locale known as “Texas” where the humans apparently lived in trees.
Listen, you said. It’s just you and me, ain’t no one gonna break us out of here unless we do it ourselves. Now roll up your sleeve, no the other one, don’t use your right hand, you’re right-handed, always go for the less dominant. Good, now, find a spot high up but not in the crease of the elbow. Don’t ask stupid questions. Do you want to get out of here or not? Right, now smoke me down real quick, faster, who cares if the butt gets wet, faster until I’m just a stump. Okay, now imagine that patch of pink skin is an ashtray, a hard glass one like Daddy used to steal from Vegas hotel rooms. Right. Now put me out. Yes, right there. Do it now! Fat Elvis Nurse is looking this way. Hold on. Count to ten, one, two, three, four..
Oh, love! I saw the world that day, every blade of grass, whiskey dirty river water, complex calculus equation made sense, the scientific reasoning behind destroying a village to save it, yes, the ease of skin evaporating and blood cauterizing, the center of the sun right there on my arm, blazing past thirty years of pharmacological certainty, spitballs against the wall, silly putty corpses holding plastic cell phones making long distance phone calls to Antarctica, vote for your pleasure, vote for your mind, vote for secret hiding places in burning houses, you have to get out, let it in, hide the walls, and free your mind.
Love burned away everything and left a crusty little ball of puss and protective fluid. That day, you seared me awake, alive, physical evidence that time and pain had passed through this body and I could be free. For once, I could see the words others wanted printed on the paper of their faces.
‘I look forward to being a better person, Dr. Mengele.’ I said, smiling as he made a note of such optimism in his file.
‘What I’m seeing and what is actually happening are different. It’s something I’m struggling with, Nurse Sauerbach,’ I said, learning the too easy trick of tonguing the drugs to be spat out later, sticky and gooey going down the toilet.
It was a powerful thing you did for me in there. You gave me a cure for crying and I can never repay you. You gave me my last line of defense, white hot pain that zaps out the secrets, eradicates its burdens; not gone, never gone, but lip-synched sociability with a piece of flesh bought.
McLean released us two weeks later and spring never felt so good in Boston.
We resumed our regularly scheduled life, achieving all the small-cap accolades our potential could garner:
graduating with honors! from harvard! hooray!
hundred hour weeks at one hundred broadway!
huge bonuses! haircuts! haute couture!
We went out together when Daddy called to say he’d met someone new, when Mama called to cry over her guilt, when we had to step outside of any social gathering, when we had to smile and network, when we carried the banner of Harvard superiority into the next generation, when we remembered what secrets and Prozac taste like mixed together, when some new man said we tasted like ashtrays, when our apartment in Tribeca banned our love from its five thousand dollars a month hallowed halls.
We were a team, you and I. We knew we’d go the distance together. I knew you’d be there before and after every white knight and new craze. We’d break up, of course. Every relationship has its ups and downs. Ricky was a real threat, no doubt. For ten months, I lost myself in his warm bed and cold money. He was the Wall Street type, exercise freak, who made my two-pack-a day habit get up and jog with him in the morning. It was worth it to see the sweat slide over those shoulder blades. He had the tastiest shoulders blades in all of the East Coast. I’d hold him down, face in the cotton pillows, lap up salty warm skin.
But he left, as they all do, and some colleague in Malibu rolled a spliff, like he knew I needed you. Knew I could use a friend, my oldest friend. Vacation sex became make-up sex, didn’t it? We should break up, everyone says so. This pack should our last time together.
Bang, bang, bang against my wrist. I can tell by the feel how much you like it, three times, each side. Unwrap the top plastic coating, quick and fast, flip up the top with just the tip of a thumbnail. Silver paper tongue just begging to be ripped out. I see you, twenty white nipples, pure, white clean. Some of you will come and go, fast and sneaky, stolen slots of ten minutes each. But most of you will be savored, tip of tongue wetting the spot just in the center of my mouth. The first drag will search out my secrets, hidden right behind my eyes. Blow out, forming a slight ring with the last gasp.