Shenendehowa Central School in Clifton Park, NY had two junior high schools when I was growing up. 7th graders funneled in each year from 6 or 8 different elementary schools, and then, eventually, into one high school which housed a little under two thousand kids. This arrangement has since changed and another high school added, but, for the purposes of my conversation, we’re talking about what it looked like in 1993. The two junior high schools sat about one quarter mile apart**, and while self-sufficient with individual staffs, it wasn’t entirely uncommon for students to need to pass to one or the other for a specific class. One such was a typing class taught by the high school musical advisor. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I’d walk the path to her classroom with my girlfriend S and we’d “ASDF JKLsemi!” until our hands cramped.****
To get there, we’d walk down a paved asphalt path, direct from the back door of one school to the front door of the other. There was a mostly clear view in between, except for a stand of trees in between which allowed for a minimal amount of cover for the performance of any number of illicit activities. On a cold, early winter day, not far into the cover of these firs, S and I spied, on the ground, a rather flattened half-packet of Marlboro Reds. Cowboy Killers. We were thirteen years old. We were unaccompanied, and, out of our circle of slumber party sisters, we tended to be the most out-spoken and anti-authoritarian. We, of course, picked them up.
The cardboard was damp, and condensation clustered in beads on the inside of the cellophane that protected the bottom. Marlboro was running its “miles” program then, and this box was worth 5, said the UPC strip on the side. We flipped the top and discovered nine or ten misshapen and sorry looking cigarettes. Mangled, but dry and still very much smokeable.
I remember little of the ensuing conversation. Was there a decision-making process? Any peer pressure? Or were we automatic? Did we simply light one with S’s lighter (for incense!) and begin…. What I do remember is the reflexive contraction of my lungs around the smoke from my first tiny puff and the instant high and subsequent growl of my stomach. The head rush hit me and I liked it. Emboldened, I took a drag. Well, no, not a drag, but
A DRAG. A sexy, take-the-smoke-into-your-mouth-and-then-deep-deep-deep-into-your-lungs DRAG.
I thought I was going to die. I was greensick for the entirety of my class and straight through to the dinner hour. The coughing fit alone had me burping smoke for the next hour. You’d think I’d’ve learned my lesson.
That was my First Cigarette Ever.
Soon after that, smoking became a thing I did. I bought in. It was cool. Badass. I liked the feel of a ciggy between the fingers, the look of it, the style. I liked what it did to my voice, and how it helped me to meet people, to talk to that cute boy I liked; how it set me apart from the smart kids that knew me and turned me into a puzzle, into that NerdGirl Who Might Be Okay To Invite Anyway Because She Smokes?
Smoking gave me courage and moxie, and helped me to pretend into the Devil May Care chick that many people will describe me as. It was my cover, my costume. With a cigarette, I was incognito. Untouchable. Adult. I smoked my way through high school and college. Lit one off another at raves and kept one burning in the ashtray behind the bar I tended. Trips were measured in the number of cancer sticks it took to get there and page after page of English paper typed over steaming Earl Grey and a box of Parliaments.
I was well and truly addicted until the day I decided to stop.
My Last Cigarette Ever? Smoked in the wee hours of January 1, 2011.
Aided by a hangover and a promise to my diabetic Dad (who traded my lungs for his health) I let go of cigarettes. Oddly, it wasn’t the trial that it always had been before, the uphill battle to fight nature and social unease. The cigarettes just kind of went softly into that good night. Maybe it was time, or a change in something in me. Perhaps it’s because my iPhone gives me something to do with my hands in awkward social situations, I’m not too intent on finding out. The fact is, I said I was going to, and I did, and out the door stepped a habit 18 years in the making.
**The Reader should note that distances are based on my current memory and can’t be counted on as exact. I haven’t been back to the campus in a certain number of years, so we’re looking at these things through a teenager (and barely). Objects In Mirror May Be Closer Than They Appear
****It also MAY have been an English class…after a certain number of years, the photo begins to turn to sepia around the edges….