I’m fourteen. My friend Rachel and I steal half-smoked Virginia Slims from her step-mother’s ashtrays. We sit at picnic tables at Bartlett Park, lighting the cigarettes with matches. I love the crisp smell of a burning match, the first puff of a cigarette, menthol dancing in my mouth, the way my hand looks holding it between my index and middle finger. We practice flicking the butts into the park trash can, and we miss. I am reminded of Forest City summers, spent walking the deserted street to the drug store. I bought candy cigarettes and sat at the baseball field behind the railroad tracks, pretending to smoke. As children we used the cigarettes to try our take on adulthood, to taste it burning on our tongues. We wanted to run fast through life with wings of fire, setting sidewalks ablaze in our wake. We wanted to rage, seething fire words and deeds, hot-iron pieces of ourselves sticking to the sky or street signs. We imagined burning someone through handshakes or glowing among night trees, aching to stick dynamite in the elastic of our running pants so we could rocket forward into the wind.
There are promises no one tells us we will not be able to keep. No one tells us when we sign the drug-free contracts in sixth grade, that things change. No one tells us that the words we write in little books to God are written in invisible, silent ink. No one plucks our hormones from our pores and tells us to look at the ways biology determines choices we make. They don’t tell us how good it feels to drink a fifth of Jim Beam, to chain smoke in a rented duplex, to dance with lamp shades on your head with friends, to forget to pay your bills. They forget to tell you about the life of a smoker, who plans his days around thirty minute intervals of seven-minute smoke-breaks, the way the sun feels on his foot while everyone sits inside air-conditioning with numb toes.
In sixth grade a man came to our classroom to tell us about drugs. He put pictures on the overhead of marijuana, cocaine, and other drugs. My lungs wanted to explode. I had seen it all before: Plastic baggies with white powder, a small, square mirror, miniature straws. My mother’s teeth sat in a cup on the window sill. We colored pictures of ponies in a giant coloring book. She did cartwheels and laughed. Before she died, she shuffled people in and out of our trailer in Forest City, men with beer and mustaches, women who bounced me on their lap until three in the morning. I don’t remember my mom smoking, but I know she did. She smoked through all four pregnancies. Under the table I listened to the tapping of press-on nails, the way my mom laughed the loudest, cards shuffling across the table. They all urged me to sleep through a smoky haze, and when I refused, they pulled me from under the table and lit something wrapped in thin paper that smelled like burned coffee. Whoever I sat on passed this to me and then I would sleep right there on a lap, only to wake in the morning to stale smoke and silence, wishing for summer, sprinklers, and sandwiches.
As a child I practiced rubbing sticks together to start a fire. I would sit at the creek behind our trailer and become impatient when the fire didn’t come. It never came for me. I always found the two moistest sticks or sat on the rock that jutted too far out of the ground or stopped too many times to watch a bull frog hop into the water and splash drops on the clovers. I would tire of working to start a fire the old fashioned way and pick clovers from the ground by the tree, eating them in secret, one at a time, imagining each one its own prayer. I hoped something would happen. Even when matches sat on the kitchen table, I wanted to start a fire my own way, like I had only seen in movies. When I lived in California, my brother succeeded in starting a fire in the backyard, luckily concealed within a rusted trash can. That same summer, we sat out on our balcony and watched flames scrape the horizon, lifting off mountains on the other side of the valley. A plane dropped orange smoke onto the fires. We watched for hours, sipped iced tea, knowing that in a few weeks when we drove to the city for groceries, we would find only blackened trees on either side of the highway, knowing that somehow the fire had jumped. Even when they put it out, it would continue jumping.
I have never been able to use friction to start a fire. When my body rubs against another’s, I do not ignite them into a low, blue flame. We usually need to turn on the fan or toss the covers to the end of the bed. We sit laughing, but never burning. Not like sticks crackling in a forest wind. As children we slid our slippers along the thick rugs at our grandparents’ houses and touched doorknobs or arms, just to know that spark. The kind you jump back from just because you know it is coming. In gas stations, they say to be sure to rid yourself of your static charge, or the gasoline will collide with your electricity and blow you into a cloud of vapors and ash.
When my mother died, it was the summer of my sixth birthday, and they explained that her death was caused by asthma. For years, I pretended to have asthma. On the playground at school I threw myself into coughing fits, while my face turned red and then purple. I loved how they stood over me, how people rubbed my back and helped me walk to the gazebo to sit. I liked getting soda in the middle of the day at elementary school. Pretending to have asthma was my way of connecting to my mother, though I am not sure I remember enough about her at all. I remember her getting angry after I dropped a whole bottle of baby oil into my little brother’s bath. He slipped like a little fish on the bathroom floor, bumped his little head filled with curls. For days my hands felt smooth as wax. I remember the trailer itself, my bunk bed in the bedroom all four of us kids shared. I remember falling off the top bunk. I remember having migraines. I remember walking in on my mom and her new husband, the new drum set filled most of the room, and my mom lied on the bed naked, half her body covered with a small quilt. Her butt hung off the edge. She had a big brown birth mark on her left butt cheek. I remember her new husband hitting Lori with a plastic golf club – or was that me? And my real dad punching him until he bled, the day of the funeral, then smoking on the porch for hours.
I remember telling my older sister about a dream I had the week before our mom died. Heather and I rode our bikes to St. Patrick’s church, walked along the concrete wall, and played on the teeter totters. I told her how I had dreamed of our mom standing in the middle of the street, arms held open, as her head started turning colors. First pink, then purple, green, and greener. Smoke came out of her ears, just like in the cartoons. Then her head popped off and rolled a little ways down the street where I stood, next to a bunch of dandelions. I kicked her head and let it roll on down the street, smoke still spewing from her ears, her mouth opened in a silent scream, and the smoke, the smoke, the smoke.
I have tossed cigarettes from car windows only to have the wind flip them back in where they land at my lower back, caught in the waste of my jeans. It burns pockets into my back, miniature holes that turn purple and ooze like spider bites. Now I’ve started reaching my arm all the way out of the window and watching in the mirror as the butt falls to the road where clutters with the others at the edge, looking for homes. Tires spit rain onto them, erasing their flames. I can’t remember the last time I drove without a cigarette pressed between two fingers. When I got my first car, I would light cigarettes while I drove just because I knew it made me feel older, I felt people see me, the cigarette smoke twirling out the crack in the car window like a dancer. At least it felt like people saw me. I know I saw myself in the rearview mirror, the cigarette in my lips, drawing attention to my mouth, its suppleness, to my hands and their smoothness. It’s the same in bars, how one shot of tequila flowers in our lungs like a flame. We become dragons, breathe life onto the bar counter, into karaoke microphones. Each drag of a cigarette brings something new – sometimes just enough silence and enough of a pause to look at the cracks in the pavement, to find the biggest robin in the dogwood next to you. If used the right way, a cigarette break can turn into a poem, just as your hand moves to your mouth and away from it, that natural rhythm exposes itself, and you catch the bee that almost lands on your little toe.
When we lived in Southern California, my dad quit smoking after promising my little sister the next time he got sick, he would quit. He stayed home for a week with walking pneumonia, and it was as if one day he smoked and the next he didn’t. I don’t remember him with the crazies, or even using gum or patches to help him. With the money he saved from quitting, he learned how to fly airplanes. He took me up one Sunday in the two-seater Cessna, and just he and I flew over the mountains, over Escondido, over the tigers in the Wild Animal Park. We didn’t talk, not that we ever really had. He flew and I flew next to him. The small plane glided on the wind. When we turned, it flipped almost completely sideways, and I looked straight down at the world below, imagining we would never have to land.
These days my dad tells me I need to “watch my smoking.” He claims that I have a constant cough, and each time he talks to me over the phone he says, “Oh Mary, watch those cigarettes,” and goes on to tell me about how cool smoking was in the late 70s. He went to Milford Technical School in Nebraska. He said they smoked in class, in their rooms, in the shower. The teacher smoked in class. Everyone smoked. When he went to Dr. Humphrey in Mound City to get stitches, the doctor sewed him up with a cigarette dangling from his lips, not flicking the ashes. He just held the ashy cigarette in his mouth, somehow not dropping one fleck into my dad’s wound. My dad claims to have smoked while he slept, to have woken in the middle of the night to use the restroom and lit a cigarette just because he had them and he could, and it was what they all did.
But when I started smoking, I hid it from my dad. If he said I smelled like smoke, I lied and told him someone in my car smoked while I drove them home. In the winter, I would drive down the highway with all the windows down, hoping the wind would freeze off the smell. Every night before going home I parked at Fairview Golf Course, got out, and ran laps around my car in the snow, trying to get the smell off me. Still, I smoked. He grounded me, and I smoked in my room and lit candles to cover the smell.
When I go to restaurants, I sit in the smoking section, chain smoking Camel Lights, drinking Cokes. Today a family of four sits at the table by the window with an unruly toddler, the kind that puts its feet on the table and shakes the plates and silverware. The parents both smoke, ignoring the kid. She bangs her fist on the table, shakes her head. She tells them her mom’s car is blue. The couple next to me stares at the family, smoking in silence. A cough gurgles from a man’s chest. I want to be able to run again, to walk up stairs without it hurting, to stop this cycle of dry mouth. I smoke before bed, after every meal, while I’m driving. I want to bang my hand on the table like that child, to go back to my past and tell my parents to stop smoking, to get rid of the smoke that lingers on my coat, my fingertips, my memories. I want my house to smell like orchids or lilies, for my hair and skin to smell like vanilla, not burned sandpaper. What will I fill this space of time with? I imagine that quitting will be like flying again, like hovering the Sierra Nevada’s without the feel of sand on my tongue, my nerves soothing themselves, each gust of wind lifting me further above the fog.
words: Mary Stone Dockery, Kansas
(co-editor Stone Highway Review )
image: 'Morph/eus' - Susan M. Gibb, Connecticut (Spinning / Hypercompendia)
another wish to get it back: Life in the Sign Business (#16)