Saturday, April 12, 2008

Barely Legal

As some of you who read this blog on the regular might've noticed, I haven't written much lately.
And what I left you with was pictures of my freakin' cats.

Some of you may be worried and think "Holy Crap, Sue you have stopped writing and started knitting sweaters for your cats as if they're your children. Come back to us Sue! Step away from the kittens and back to the dog side!"
And by some of you, I mean my sister-in-law.
I'm here to tell you, I'm ok T. I just love all animals, and don't worry, I can't learn to knit for shit.

I've actually been spending a lot of time writing a monologue/essay for the show Inner Monologues hosted by a wonderful author Alexis Barad. The show has a theme that all the writers use to develop their pieces. April's was Barely Legal.

Since not everyone could make the reading party, I figured I'd publish mine here.

So without too much adieu I present:

Barely Legal
(This could've also been titled:
This Is Why I Smoke Cigarettes
A Love Story)
By Sue Funke

I had my first taste of that sweet, silky smoke when I was about 11 years old. It was my father’s cigarette that laid across the Waterford crystal ashtray that had an elegant F etched in the bottom for FUNKE.

I snatched the cigarette and relit it with a lighter that was embedded in marble. I inhaled the cigarette as if I had smoked for years.
Most people cough their first time; I make this shit look easy.
I thought.

I continued to grab drags like these briefly. Running the cigarette butts up into my room and striking matches from souvenir packs to fix my habit. The guilt afterward made me an enthusiastic teeth brusher and might’ve kept Bath and Body Works in business.

It was the summer between middle school and high school that I had decided to really give this smoking thing a go. I was hanging out with a group of girls, and guys, who were just beginning their addictions as well.

I was eager to share my veteran experience with the group, “I tried smoking. It was ok. I didn’t cough at all my first time.”

I started taking full cigarettes from my dad’s pack of Merit Golds. They were an older gentleman’s cigarette, not very popular with “the guys”. I liked smoking out of the blue pack because they looked cooler. My father rarely bought the blue pack.

Finally, there came a point that the uncoolness and rarity of the cigarette situation needed to change. My friend Jill and I wanted a pack of our own. But how do we get one?

“If we had the money, I could get us cigarettes,” I told her.

I don’t know whose idea it was to steal the money from our friends’ bags while they were in the pool. It was one of those things you do before you fully understand your personal ethics. You don’t realize that you’re fucking with karma; you’re just trying to get a mission accomplished.

We had about three dollars in quarters and we walked the back roads in bathing suits with wet clothing clinging.

“I’ll go in, you stay outside, it’s more convincing that way,” I ordered her in the know-it-all manner I held myself with at thirteen.

“You think they’d call the police?” Jill asked plotting consequences in her mind.

“We’ll be fine.” I said with confidence I was pulling out of my ass. I was paranoid of getting caught, but at the same time I believed in my bullshit plan.

I took the money from Jill and walked into the tobacco shop. The old man behind the counter had seen me before, but I was just one of about a hundred kids my age around this area. We all blended together in front of his black, wide glasses.

“I need a pack of Merit Blues for my Uncle. That’s his car out there,” I pointed to a car sitting outside the store.

The guy nodded and pulled out the pack.

“He said he didn’t want to get out of the car,” I offered up unprovoked.

He looked down at me with a face that seemed disappointed in me for making him think this was a ruse.

“He’s right out there - and he gave you this money to get him cigarettes,” he inquired as he looked down at the pile of quarters in his hand.

“He pays for it out of change in the ash tray,” I said this quickly, so quickly that for a moment I believed I really did have an uncle sitting in that 70’s green Caddy.

The old man was either defeated, or more likely, didn’t want to refuse the money, “Ok.” He handed over the cigarettes and matches.

I walked slowly out. My entire face and ears burned. I could barely feel the cigarettes I was holding. I was convinced it was all a dream and a SWAT team was going to come swarming in and take the cigarettes from me.

Instead, I pushed open the door and walked out onto the sidewalk, a.k.a. base. I was safe.

Jill looked at me amazed, “You got ‘em?” she exclaimed in disbelief.

“Fuck, of course I got them,” I said as I pulled the plastic string to open our cigarettes.

We split that pack- several ways once everyone found out we had it and got it by using my balls, and their money. That was my first split pack of cigarettes.

My first full pack of cigarettes was a month or so after. My partner in crime that day was Alexis , who I had also shop lifted and took shots of vodka with on random-chance occasions. She asked her crush, Tim, to get me a pack. I gave her the money to give him. And that day, after the last school bell rang, Tim was pulling out a pack of Marlborough Reds for me.

As I smoked this pack I felt different about my smoking, before it was all the thrill of finding the way to get the cigarette. This pack was different. It wasn’t as sneaky and fun. I was getting them because there was part of me that felt like should be addicted by now. At least, that’s what all those pamphlets had told me.

As I inhaled the first cigarette from my pack I felt sick: a head-to-toe a feeling of heaviness and regret. This was not the rush I was looking for. It was the exact opposite.

The guilt ate away at my thirteen year old mind.

Who was I becoming? Only 3 years prior I was so upset with my Dad’s smoking. I was supposed to be part of the smoke free class of 2000. I had even sang my allegiance to that concept:
We are the smoke free,
Class of 2000
Two triple zero,
Everyone’s a hero
Or a she-ro
Yet I was already hooked – I mean I’m buying packs, what’s next?

Sure, I wanted to hang out with the “bad kids”. I grew up listening to Billy Joel, who didn’t want to laugh with sinners? Saints just sat around and cried. I enjoyed their stupid stunts at a close but not-too-close, friendly distance. But, was I really one of them?

The next evening as my mother cooked dinner I paced around her nervously.

“What’s wrong Susie-Q?”

“Mom, can I tell you something?”

“Anything.”

I choked on my confession. This was where I was supposed to inhale and let it out. Tell her that her daughter was a bad ass, but I couldn’t find it in myself to tell her. I couldn’t find the words in myself. I was so ashamed, embarrassed… in shock that I was actually about to confess.
My mother stood, concerned that her youngest child was having a mental breakdown at the age of 13.

“What is it Susie-Q, are you in trouble?”

“I think I’m going to be,” I said wide eyed while my stomach back flipped at the inhalation of pork chops cooking and guilty dry mouth.

“Whatever it is Susie I can forgive you. I love you. It’s ok.”

She sat hugging me for a minute as I found the words and ultimately I blurted out, “I’ve been smoking cigarettes!”

“Well, that’s not that bad,” she said probably relieved I wasn’t pregnant.

My chin rose up and I looked at her.

“I’m not happy about it, but your father smokes, I used smoke. I’d be a hypocrite if I screamed at you. How much do you smoke?”

“Not much,” I said. “I bought a pack this week, but I barely made I dent in it. I hate it.” I pulled the pack of Marlborough Reds out and presented them to my mother.

Her face fell and true disappointment was furrowed in her brow, “Oh Susan, Marlborough Reds? Truck drivers smoke Marlborough Reds. Couldn’t you have smoked something more feminine? Like a Virginia Slim or a Cool?”

The shame I felt for my lack of femininity in my mother’s eyes would continue to be a theme through out my life, as smoking would.

Even though I promised her I’d quit, I couldn’t give up smoking, not even for a mother’s love. It was so tempting with packs around the house and high school. I started getting cartons from friends who worked at supermarkets, smoking anything they’re four finger discount could grab.

The expense for cartons though was much greater than packs, so it required a lot of money. Where does a child who’s not even legal to join the work force get money for cigs? Babysitting.

I was fourteen when Kathy moved across the street with her two children and “old money” husband. Mrs. K was a very relaxed woman, who was in her early forties and had lived a wild and exciting life before settling down with a man who seemed so lack luster compared to her jet-setting finance life style.

“Do whatever you want with the kids, here’s money for the pizza,” she handed me thirty dollars and then utters the magical words, “keep the change.”

It was wonderful tax free money that was ridiculously simple. All I had to do was not fuck up. So, what did I do? Steal her cigarettes.

She caught me puffing on her stashed Merit Ultra 100’s when she came home early from a PTA meeting. There were no mirrors in the yellow kitchen, but I’m pretty sure I turned green.

“Sue, you smoke?”

“Yes,” I squeaked as I stood with it held out toward her as if to say – “You caught me! Take it! Burn me with it! I’m so freakin’ guilty!!!”

She looked at me and nodded, then pulled another pack from her purse and sat down on the patio furniture. “Well, at least I have a smoking buddy now. Just don’t give me shit about smoking while pregnant and we’ll be fine.”

I must’ve blinked a thousand times before I sat down next to her.

“You gonna smoke it or let it fall to ash?” she said to me as she tapped her cigarette, “How often do you smoke?”

I finally realized she didn’t give a shit so I opened up to her, “Well Mrs. K, I smoke as often as I can. Lately not so much, I have this carton of Newports at home and they’re so gross.”

“Ugh, Awful! You should try something lighter.”

“I have, I really like Parliament lights, but I’m kinda at the mercy of whoever can grab me cigs.”

“Ok then, here’s a deal. You baby sit for me all summer and I’ll buy you a carton of Parliament lights every two weeks. And, if my mother-in-law ever comes over and we’re smoking, you say all the cigarette butts are yours.”

I was giving up a lot of other gigs to go solo with her, families I had worked with for years. But I would be crazy to give up on the chance for guaranteed cigs.

“Deal,” I said, but then as I sat there longer I wondered why she still had to worry about what people cared about. I always dreamed that once I turned 18 I could smoke however much I wanted, whenever I wanted. Being a blunt I just came right out and asked her.

“Kathy, why do you have to hide your smoking? You’re an adult, can’t you do whatever you want?”

“I wish. You still have to follow social rules. Sure, I can buy cigarettes, but I’m not supposed to. I’m pregnant and people are telling me how to do everything, but what they don’t get is I love smoking. I’m not saying that I love it more than my child. My life’s changed a lot over the years, and the one thing that hasn’t are my smoking habits. They’re always there to make me feel better, make me feel at home.”

And you might say I shouldn’t follow advice from a smoking pregnant woman, but I did. It was that night that I realized that I wasn’t just smoking because it was cool, or the thrill, or even the addiction. It was because it was my constant too. Maybe I didn’t cough that first time because it was part of who I was from the very beginning, or maybe it’s because whenever I was all alone and didn’t know what to do with myself, I always knew cigarettes were there with me. What I do know is, now that I can get them whenever I want as an adult they aren’t as much fun to buy. That also might have to do with the fact that I don’t have all that indispensable tax free babysitting money, or that I have ethics that bar me from stealing from friends, or the lovely pot habit I picked up in college. But that’s a whole other story.

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