john huges

A Personal Essay: Beginnings

My hands trembled at a speed that I didn’t have a prayer of controlling. I couldn’t breathe out the minuscule termites that were itching the plasma between my bones and my skin, testing the reality of the situation – the fact that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. Eliott put my palm in his, lightly rubbing it loose.

“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to.”

“I can do it.”

I shook his hand off of mine, despite my inability to trust my quivering joints with holding his cigarette. I let out one more large exhale, and raised the little tyrant to my virginal lips. Inhale, hold – release. I regained my senses as I returned his precious cancer stick.

“You’re sure this is your first time?”

I laughed and nodded to conceal my shame.

“You’re good at it.”

… Words a sixteen-year-old girl shouldn’t be so pleased to hear about such a rancid habit, particularly from an addict. But at the precipice of young adulthood, I felt comfort in them. Our play had just closed, and I lived in a different county (read: COUNTY). We were just on our way to celebrate with our cast, thus, ending our teenage show-mance. And he was just so cute! How could I back out on the opportunity to spend one more moment of intimacy with this beautiful boy, even if it wasn’t on the stage?

The smell of burning tobacco lingered on my fingers and lips throughout the party. I remember trying to rub it off with the sweat that seemed to incessantly manifest on my palms, in dire fear that my mom would feel the tiny drag shooting bullets of odor at her suspecting nasal passages on the hour-long drive back home.

Like many, I have spent the majority of my life trying to fit in with the guys.  Since childhood, I was enchanted by masculinity.  The autobiographies of female athletes who impressed their male competitors, visiting the ESPN studios with my father and seeing the respect and admiration received by all the female anchors, and all the spectacular heroines in the John Hughes movies that I was obsessed with in my childhood. These examples of feminism like lead to the virulent label of being “guys’ girl.” The last example likely was a culprit to blame for my ambitions for a career in the theatre – a passion that I was given the blessing to embrace all through my adolescence, and one that culminated in a Manhattan college experience while I pursued my B.A. in the arts, specifying in theatre studies.

The youth theatre that raised me trained me to correlate “taking five” with cigarette breaks for our directors and techies. Exiting the green room through the side door of the theatre would without fail drown one’s senses in overwhelming fumes and billows of smoke.  As we grew older and became more cognizant of the activity around us, many of the older kids would join the festivities. So long as we provided our own supplies, we couldn’t be scolded.

There was a bar near the Sam’s Club that we used regulate after rehearsals and shows, or when we were bored and it was too late to go anywhere else. Its main selling point was that it stayed open into the earliest hours of the morning for us lonely teen angst-filled souls who had nowhere else to go. And sometimes they gave us beer.

My boyfriend and I – slightly under the influence of the infamous green plant – had decided it was too early to go home, so we headed to our beloved corner bar and sat at an empty table outside, where we could people-watch and be sociable in a semi-private eye.

The night was visibly humid.  He ordered my usual fish & chips for us to share, and we both drank sweet tea.  All of the above made sense for a late summer night on our island.

Our special pleasure was highly induced by the group of young women who clearly didn’t belong, crammed at a small table by the door.

“You’d better believe that I will be the last girl on this planet to EVER touch you again, you shitty fuck!”

Standing just a few feet from her group, the angry woman slammed her phone shut, and turned around to where her friends supportively participated in the normal post-breakup drinking/swearing/screaming rituals.

Her audience shook off the incident. The blurred black pavement beyond the concrete awning threatened our eventual departure, but we were at home for the time being, in our own depressed civilization.

A perfect gust of smoke intercepted us from a table behind – the nicotine tingling our senses for our own vulnerable reasons. We observed the threesome seated there. Potentially tourists, yet they seemed to fit in well with the scene that I was conjuring in my imagination. Like a Hopper painting, my brain was making brush strokes that would engrain this modern environment of Americana. In their thirties, with not too many visible tattoos, the perfect strangers harmlessly sat – enjoying their laughs, and some beers, and of course, their smokes. As I was observing their fun, my young love suddenly rose from his chair and ran to his car. He returned with a little silver and lime green paper box of American Spirits. He plopped himself back down, and let one dangle from his lips as he offered me one.

After a short forever of indecision, he snapped the top of the pack closed with just his forefinger, and stuck it in his breast pocket. He was always such a beautiful smoker. His heavy exhale always formed into the most lovely, natural shapes in that absurd cinematic thickness that makes you feel like you’re in Rick’s Café Américain with Bogart and Sam the Piano Man. I don’t think, at the time, he was a “smoker,” but I imagine his impulse to join in the fun of the perfect strangers behind us was acted upon in order to complete the scene I was manifesting, as if he saw the painting materializing out of my mind and onto the stucco of the patio. If a contemporary of Hopper were to snap us into his insta-story, we would look almost perfect – the girls crowded around their table with their revengeful faces and their wine coolers, the threesome of careless wanderers enjoying their laughs under the soft illusion of paradise, my love with his cigarette, and me… with…

When he offered me a drag, I couldn’t refuse. He lit up another, giving me the remainder of his. I finished it down to the filter.

It took a long time for me to become a good smoker. I never knew how to really deeply inhale, which defeated the purpose. But there was something so appealing about two complete innocents setting fire to their lungs outside the grungy bar. It completed the scene.

“How could he do this to me? I loved him so much. Why is he such a fucking asshole?”

The leading lady of the scene crumbled into her chair – her friends running their false nails along her shoulder blades in comfort.

After a few more sweet teas, we paid our tab, and headed home.

The entire summer before college had been filled with nights like those – where the world stopped turning entirely and time was abstract, if not totally absent. My nights with my boys were filled with activity that a good, pretty-little-white girl in the south should not have been partaking in. It took adulthood to understand why I was an exception to what seemed to be a constant argument against my gender when it came to indulging. It likely had something to do with the fact that I was always given the opportunity, as a “guys’ girl,” to say yes. So why wouldn’t I?

Smoking was not, is not, and will not be something that I take large amounts of pleasure in, despite my reoccurring participation in the act. The splendor of the season, abundant with stars and palm trees at their finest hour, has powers strong enough to damage all of your dignity. At this age, I think it’s forgivable to let curiosity take an educational toll on innocence. We played with fire, but only a little. We were good kids. We just had bigger ideas than the beach in the daytime and the movies at night.  We lived on a resort island, but we thought we lived in Harlem in the 1920s. On appropriately celebratory nights, we’d “suit up” and go to dinner at a local Sinatra-style restaurant to attach ourselves even further to the style. It was fun, and admittedly, I loved feeling pretty, and kissing cheeks, and being walked into restaurants on the arms of whichever of my gentlemen dressed the sharpest.

Adam, the epitome of class, was the cool adult that hung out with the teenagers, and always outdid the rest of us. After a rehearsal one night, three of us joined him in the adorable, religiously decorated house that he shared with his parents (who were out of town) to enjoy the simple pleasures of a summer night in the South. Of course, we dressed up – in preparation for whatever the evening might entail. When we arrived, we brought all of his dining room furniture out to his back patio to set up camp for a night of laughs and stories – just four high-spirited, big-hearted theatre misfits looking for sanctuary and understanding in each other’s company. Then Adam lit up, and my brother decided to join him.  As usual, he was prepared that night for what his brain truly craved.

My darling brother is nothing short of a stoner.  His passion for weed is comparable to his passion for photography, which perfectly explains our shared obsession with aesthetic. My brother has never had an absence in taking his turn with the bowl when the time is opportune. Or when it isn’t. This sweetheart is the most experienced smoker, as far as variety of substances, that I have ever met. When his lips touch the bowl, it is the most beautifully horrifying thing to observe; the small flicker that grows larger and brighter as he gets as much as he can out of a single hit of drug-infused smoke is an art form on its own. That little flicker at the end of a cigarette or a joint or a bowl and the way it brightens tells so much about a smoker. For my brother, it is a symbol of the ecstasy of life. For my ex-boyfriend, it is a flame of submission. For Adam, it is a glimmer of sanctuary. For me, for so long, it signified an acceptance to a world in which I was otherwise not privileged to participate within.

After a little of this and a little of that from the gentlemen, and a little of nothing from me, I took my turn with the blunt that my brother had rolled, and later accepted Adam’s tobacco offering – mostly out of boredom. Barely inhaling the smoke from the end of my first-ever full cigarette, my love chuckled from across the circle, juggling both toxins, unable to decide the lesser of the two evils. I’m not sure if there is a term for people who get high extremely quickly (does lightweight apply in this circumstance?), but he sure made the most of his intoxicants. He usually maintains a casual front when he is high. Sometimes he’ll suddenly crave a change in the soundtrack, or spontaneously kiss me. But this chuckle was intriguing – I had to know what his drugs were thinking.

“What?”

“Nothing.” He smiled, “It’s just… when girls smoke, there’s this very old Hollywood feeling of… Like that movie where…”

“… What?”

“It’s just extremely sexy. I’m very turned on.”

I liked attention until it was blatant.  So I excused myself and changed into sweatpants and a t-shirt.

Of course, it didn’t change a lot. I always joke with people that I’m lucky to not be one of those girls who look like Barbie, because I can tell when people take me seriously and when genuine humans just want to know me. And that’s why I loved my own boys of summer – for keeping it classy, and keeping me there because they loved me, and I loved them, no matter what crazy shenanigans we found ourselves immersed in. I came to understand quickly that they only wanted platonic, innocent affection from the girl who wouldn’t judge them and wasn’t afraid to let her guard down every once in awhile, but who would also provide a feminine (or dare I say, maternal) perspective, when something was just too dumb. It was a perfect romance between the group of us and the tiny Bic lighters that were stored in the various places where we spent our time. It was a perfectly acceptable arrangement for the time being, situationally. There were many close calls, but no concerned parents and no run-ins with the law that resulted in any life-ravaging consequences. And to us, there was no harm in the world when we were blanketing the roof, back, and hood of my car with our bodies, watching the skies, sharing a “final joint” with one another as we would send someone in the group off to college someplace too far for our nightly shenanigans.

The only time we were ever caught was on one of those posthumous nights.  After flashes of blue and red from behind us had us slowly falling off the Chevy our hands on either side of our heads, vibrating with terror, and the stub that was our flame of resignation was jammed in the crevice between the hood and the sunroof, we called it a day. The first question they asked was if we were aware that we were past the community’s curfew. We were aware. The second question they asked was what I was doing parked with four adult men at a barn at 1:30 in the morning. I didn’t know what to say. They took down my license plate number, documented our identification, and told us to scram. No searches, no extraneous background checks, just a chance to run. That was how we closed off the escapade. We all raised havoc in our own, quiet way.  The fear was never addiction, it was losing each other, which inevitably happened not too shortly after.

I am a smoker. If I wasn’t before, I am now that I have written the phrase. It tickled my fancy enough to continue creating overcast scenes under the stars. As sad as it may be, the luster of our seasonal escapade will be revived every time I smell the nicotine that once coated our inner throat and nasal cavities. Every time I see my brother on snapchat smoking his pen, or I sit outside the old neighborhood bar during an awkward reunion of my high school friends, or put on lipstick before I light up outside my non-smoking building in Manhattan just because I like to see the red stain on my filter, I’ll remember the structure of a summer where we slept very little and partied very little but somehow saw the world beyond our teenage constraints, living as euphorically as the toxins we exhaled into the universe, drag after drag.

And maybe one day I’ll stop. I’ll realize that cancer isn’t as romantic a way to die as it always seemed. Maybe I’ll find a reason to not be seduced by the incessant need to set myself on fire. But ultimately, what is a vice if not a safety net of escape and a marvel at the mental summer storage of a careless time when all that mattered was miscellaneous joyful companionship? Go ahead. Try me.