The first time I started smoking, I was 14. A five-foot-five, 90-pound, pink-haired, baby-faced teenager desperate to be intimidating and formidable and taken seriously. Looking back at myself as a baby person from my lofty view of adulthood, I can see so well all the ways I chose to armor myself. The intentionally ill-fitting and torn clothes, the spikes around my wrists, the chains around my neck. It makes me laugh now to picture baby-me imagining that I could force others to see me as formidable so easily; by stepping into a costume or following a recipe I could assert power and remain safe; I could build a wall between myself and others that they could see through but could never safely climb.
We would sneak out into the woods or sit under the railway bridge down the road from my house. We would steal smokes from our parents or bribe our older siblings into buying them for us. After I got my license, I made a friend at a nearby gas station who I drove back to jail a couple of times when he was done with his work-release shift, and in return I could buy whatever I wanted without having to worry about being carded. Remembering, I’m struck by what a spectacularly bad idea it was to chauffeur a man I didn’t really know back and forth from jail, but I’d been armed with my boots and my Crass shirt and my frowning and my smokes. Clearly, I was some sort of she-monster of mythical proportions and this man was well-aware of it. And he might have been: this time, in this story, I was safe.
When my mom found out about my smoking, she stood with a sad and disappointed look on her face for about thirty seconds before telling me, “If you’re going to do it, I guess you’re going to do it. Don’t throw your butts in the yard.” She built me a little area out back, between the dog run and the garden that we never used because the owners of the house before us had built it over where the septic tank was buried. Three mildewed old lawn chairs and a big gray bucket, arranged in a tight circle; That’s where my friends and I spent most of our afternoons after school.
My parents were divorced, and for several very good reasons. Where my mom bent, soothed, and accepted, my dad forced, fumed, and controlled. Several months into my career as a badass and a smoker, a friend and I went to see the dyke punk/queercore band Tribe 8. Since we were still baby badasses, we had asked my dad to drop us off a block away from the theater, so we could walk in by ourselves. The theater was small, but uncrowded, the room was dark and hot and loud, and the band was mostly naked. Someone paused to screech something into a microphone about fresh meat and my friend started jokingly pushing me towards the stage.
I remember the music, I remember the laughter of my friend, I remember laughing myself, turning from the stage with a cigarette in my hand and naked, sweaty, screaming ladies just over my shoulder. I remember looking up at the entrance to the theater and making eye contact with my dad. I’ve never been in more trouble with him than I was that night. We left the show, ashamed to be seen with our ride, and were driven home in complete silence.
Once home, I left my friend in my room and went out to confront the Disappointment and Anger and Shame of my father. Waiting for what would surely be an endless and angry lecture about sexuality and bodies and the way I was expected to behave, I was confused but gleeful that the only reason I was in trouble was because he had seen me in the most compromised position he could imagine: I had been standing in real life—in public—with a lit cigarette in my hand. I promised him, emptily, that I would never smoke again. I swore, falsely, that I understood that smoking was one of the worst things I could ever do to my body. He was pleased. Ten minutes later I was back in my room with the window wide open, sneaking a cigarette and giggling to myself.
I smoked for years. I would quit for a few weeks at a time occasionally, but I always went back. For me, smoking cured everything; it could be anything I needed it to be. I could celebrate, mourn, fume, and daydream. It was proof that I existed: I was interacting with my environment and leaving evidence, all the while putting forth pretty much the least amount of physical effort possible. It was an excuse to sit and look at things. I could sit and stare into the middle distance and think to myself all I wanted because I was still doing something: I was smoking.