Nonfiction | September 01, 1999
Learning to Smoke
I started smoking at six, or at least that’s the age I give for when I had my first puffs, riding in the car with my mother, lighting her cigarettes, learning how not to wet the ends when I drew in the smoke.
Six, I say when people ask, though I’m reasonably sure I was younger, four or five probably, a nursery school renegade. But I’ve learned that most people won’t buy it. They think I’m making it up, like a story from the Examiner or Star or Enquirer-“Baby Born Smoking”-with a photo of a diapered newborn puffing on a big cigar and a caption underneath: Cuban infant nursed on tobacco. They smile and say, “Really?” with an ostentatious intake of breath and the kind of bright look that people get when they think they’re talking to idiots.
A very few, supremely dedicated smokers have believed me and have even confessed their own delighted discovery of the weed at around that age, but generally it’s regarded as either malarkey or perversion to suggest that a child might puff on a cigarette-and like it-at the same age as she first discovered the joys of playing with herself.
“Six?” shrieked the terrible French teacher at the Alliance Francaise, where I was taking a course in hopes of reviving my once-fluent, now nearly desiccated knowledge of the language. “Sees?” Mais non, Madame, vous voulez dire ‘seize.'”
I held up six fingers. “Un, deux, trois . . .”
She shrugged, defeated. It was a French class from hell that I’d signed up for the month I quit smoking, thinking it would be amusing or educational, or at least a distraction while I waited for the craving to go away. Mademoiselle Estelle d’Estaing was one of those tatterdemalion young women who come into being fully matriculated on the Boul’ Mich’ or rue des Ecoles, near the Sorbonne, with their ideas pre-formed, opinions intact; who regard Simone de Beauvoir as a retro, if not exactly a bimbo, shrink back in horror at the sight of a Coke and who take pleasure in informing you on first meeting that Americans are materialistic, lacking in culture, under-educated and-with an accusatory glare-rude.
“. . . cinq, six,” I continued counting, ending on the extra thumb.“J’avais six ans quand j’ai commencé de-commencé à?-fumer.”
She wouldn’t help me out. In any case, whether I commenced of or at smoking, it was a lie. I wasn’t six; it had happened earlier, around the time I learned to spell my first word, its pink neon flashing at the corner of Queens Boulevard and 83rd Street when we passed it coming home from nursery school. The pink shapes, on again, off again, were hypnotically beautiful, and when tiny Edward Davidson, who sat in front of me in the large station wagon, pointed to the sign and said, “B. A. R. spells BAR,” I was awed. When he turned and repeated it, the letters fixed themselves like rare butterflies in my mind, and as I watched the sounds tumble from his mouth, I fell in love with him, even though he was the shortest boy in our class and I was the tallest girl.
A few days later my mother and I were riding in the Chevy and when we passed the sign I crooned out, “B. A. R. spells bar.” She looked at me with a moment’s incomprehension and then she laughed. She was proud of me, being that smart. Her English was still only tolerable then, and it must have tickled her that the first spelling word of her American child was an international one, like “taxi” or “toilet,” as apt in Paris or Prague as in New York.
It was around this time, the year the war ended, riding in the Chevy alone with my mother, that I began lighting her Chesterfields, making sure to keep the ends dry, holding out to her the torch of my love, handing her the burning proof of it years before I had words to declare myself.
She was beautiful, she held herself tall, she had thick auburn hair swept into a chignon and the profile of Nefertiti. Her clothes were couture, and she rustled when she walked. But I could feel she was imprisoned in a kind of silence where I couldn’t reach her.
She spoke many languages but had no command over any of them. Language was her tyrant as she floundered to keep up, trying to relay her meaning despite or between words that she never actively selected. She simply allowed them to drift in, taking hold of whichever first came to mind in whatever language, and then bending it to her will through intonation and gesture, as she would later shape her sculptural forms into approximations of animals.
As a little girl I felt some of her emptiness echoing through me. Her silences were reproaches, the places I couldn’t fill. Bewildered, annoyed, usually resentful, she was suffocated by words that wouldn’t rise to the surface, drowning in her own inarticulateness.
She was always in a sense “over there”-back in the land of her childhood, where she’d grown up with tennis courts and a French tutor, the prettiest girl in town, who wore a little fur collar in the snow and eventually, as a young woman, came to America like a banished royal, bearing her sorrow with her beauty, an Anastasia on Ellis Island, wearing a babushka.
She was a lady. As a child I never saw her cry, except for one morning when I was about three and a half or four. I’d planned to surprise her, crawling along the hallway from my bedroom to hers on all fours, quiet as a cat, avoiding the creaking floorboard and holding my breath when I came close to her door. It was ajar, and I could see her sitting at her desk with a piece of paper in her hands, doing something strange with her shoulders and her chest, making sounds I’d never heard her make. I was as terrified in that moment as I would be again a few years later-when I was sucked up into an enormous wave at Jones Beach and churned around, my mind going black until I was somehow released-and then I crept away from her door, still holding my breath. From then on I tried to make up for it, for her being alone like that, unable to speak, reading her terrible letter, her mother gassed.
The smoke warmed the car, filled it for us, riding along Queens Boulevard some time after V-E day in the 1939 Chevy, sharing the perfect happiness of a Chesterfield, from my lips to hers.
My first puffs brought me into her world, the magic and silence of Prague before the war, before my birth, before the deaths. I never thought about the ashes of my grandmother and all the others; the smoke surrounded us and held us in a nimbus.
I didn’t start smoking on my own until I was close to puberty, in junior high in the wilds of central Queens, where I was one of the designated goody-goodys, one of the rich-bitch kids with IQs of over 130 who were in the accelerated classes, S.P. (Special Progress), one of the Some People, usually Jewish, who were bused in from Kew Gardens and Forest Hills, who were educationally motivated, richer, younger and far more cowardly than the other students.
We had kids of sixteen still in seventh grade, stuck in remedial reading and taking courses in carpentry or electrical wiring. The girls were tough, full-breasted, and they fought like crazy over boys or imagined insults, tearing each other’s hair out or bashing each other’s heads on the concrete of the handball courts. Only a few students carried knives then, and if they did it was mainly for show. But the cops were called over to the school nearly every day, at morning recess and again at lunch, to break up fights or haul someone off for vandalism.
This was in the early fifties, before drugs and guns came into the schools, but even without them we had violence. We had poverty. A kid in our speedup class (not Jewish, not privileged, just smart) was one of a dozen siblings, all of whom shared a single bedroom. We who didn’t have to go there were attending this school because it was scholastically exciting for all of us, who were sorted according to ability or potential instead of grades, and taught by young, idealistic teachers full of fire and imagination.
We, the Smarties of 7-9 (ninth division of seventh grade) and later 9-9, read Shakespeare, wrote plays, published a newspaper from the days of Ivanhoe and studied either French or Spanish. My two years there were the most stimulating of my educational life-including college and graduate school-but I was a fish out of water, large and pusillanimous, still wearing braids at the time of the poodle cut, shy enough to respond with a flush if a male spoke to me-a child of another era, of prewar Mitteleuropa, where my parents had grown up in the privileged splendor of Russian novels, cultured and assimilated, polyglots at seven and on the run by ’38, fleeing the Anschluss.
As their only child, I knew it was up to me to provide them with something like a family, a shadow of what they’d lost. By the time I started going to junior high, I had already accompanied them on many travels, to Europe mainly, and business trips to South America, spending most evenings alone in a hotel room in the era before television, when a child had to read or write or make up her own stories. My days were with adults, taken along on their pursuits, walking in silence, often not understanding the language they were speaking. I had grown up lopsided, with too much head and too little sense-both common sense and a sense of myself.
Junior high in the slums was a shock; the first months there I cried every morning before leaving for school, and after that I started wearing make-up, bleaching my hair and carrying my own pack of cigarettes.
That was forty years ago. Giving up, as the song says, was awf’ly hard to do . . . particularly since I’d come to depend on cigarettes as my juice, my gas, my inspiration for writing.
I became a writer early; I was published young. To write, I depended on cigarettes, chain-smoking my Marlboros-“coffin nails,” we joked even then-four or five packs a day, eighty to a hundred little white logs to fuel my passion, churning me into a frenzy that drove me to write 2,000, 3,000, sometimes as many as 5,000 words of a morning. I’d take only two or three hours for it, my fingers dancing a mad tattoo on the Olivetti keys (and the keys of the Underwood before that); coming down from my high in time for lunch, or earlier, for “elevenses” when I lived in England after college, or for gabelfruhstuck in an Austrian farmhouse where I’d escaped to write, when the freshly made dumplings would arrive in my Spartan room, steaming in broth from the newly slaughtered pig or gleaming in butter, with that morning’s pick of ripe plums.
I wrote in a daze, a haze, a trance of nicotine and smoke, scrambling to keep up with the flow of words that streamed out without my conscious direction. I wrote until there was no more oxygen left to breathe, when the room began to take off and black spots danced in front of my eyes, twirling into a dark snow and making me too dizzy to stand, slightly nauseated, lightheaded, gasping for breath, unable to write another word and barely able to walk.
At writers’ colonies, reaching for my Marlboros at dawn, the words already popping like corks, I’d race into day on a rush of bright phrases, roaring my energy over breakfast, the high nicotine wit at the early risers’ table. I’d have four cups of coffee and an ashtray filled by the time I left for my studio with a large thermos of black coffee.
And there, in my studio in the woods or up by the barn, I’d pour out the words, let them spill onto the page like pearls, gleaming. For the next few hours, smoking, in a trance, I’d let the words stream without check, until a silent whistle blew in my head. Time to stop, time to breathe again. I’d look at the clock-a couple of hours gone-and read what I had done.
When I gave up smoking, I spent much time mourning my loss, in dreams as well as waking. I missed the comfort, companionship, the reassurance that life, punctuated by a reliable series of jolts to the system-a drag every every thirty-two seconds of an ordinary sixteen-hour waking day-was somehow doable, one step, one drag, one half-minute at a time.
Without cigarettes, I couldn’t write. Things didn’t hang together. I couldn’t concentrate on anything; new projects or places or people were terrifying, the old grind and ordinary relations became boring to the point of stultification.
My lost cigarettes, my happiness. I fell into a grieving and a physical deprivation, my body not yet adjusted to the loss. I missed the taste of them, the handling of them, the bygone days, my childhood, my mother, our songs, the innocence of the American fifties when More Doctors Smoke Chesterfields Than Any Other Cigarettes and
Smoke gets in your eyes . . .
Those foolish things-
a cigarette that bears a lipstick’s traces . . .
remind me of you.
Cigarettes go back to our first love, the first attachment. Smoking is sucking, our first impulse. Mammals need to suck to survive. We begin practicing in utero. Emerging from the womb (most of us still blind), we nose our way toward the warmest place on her body, the soft areola or the pulpy softness around the teats, plant ourselves there and suck. Sucking is all we know of life. Even proto-mammals, even the marsupials, know how to do it. A half-gestated kangaroo joey no larger than a pinky climbs up the belly and into mother’s pouch, settles deep inside and sucks the fat-rich milk from her lower set of nipples. Sucking is survival, our first act, first instinct, leading to our first taste of life. Sucking is mother; sucking is love.
Freud discovered latency in the libido. Mother love in infancy becomes Oedipal by adolescence. The same goes for cigarettes-they carry us back to the first pleasure we tasted, to the first act we committed on our own. No matter what addictions we move on to later, it was smoking that started us. Most dedicated smokers have started smoking regularly by their early teens.
I was thirteen when I began, my mother twelve, in her faraway snow dome beyond the great castle of Prague. It was Kafka country, circa 1920, at the onset of what would become the flapper decade-fringed dresses, a modern attitude, cigarette holders as part of fashion, emancipation in Europe from the grimness of war; a time for frivolity, costume balls, breast-baring art students, films (the great Garbo smoked, and Jean Harlow, and Dietrich in her tux), gramophone records, and the thrill of Marxist “free love” for every pretty bourgeoise. My mother became a beauty, she stole her sister’s boyfriends, she didn’t like women, not even her mother. She referred to members of her own sex as “female,” and was able to ignore all the women in a room, even a man’s wife, standing next to him. I was named after the cook, she told me, and when she was dying, she sometimes called me by the name of the maid, not through confusion but to make a point. Women were servants, competitors, enemies. When she loved me most, she called me her “best admirer.”
Memories trail: Smoke rings over Times Square, spreading out from the wooden o of the Camel smoker’s mouth, round as doughnuts floating down Broadway, in the forties and fifties, when I went to the theater with my parents, usually for a birthday, and then later with boys; fumbling with cigarettes, through my high school years into college, struggling with bras and lipstick, male fingers outlining my areolae, making my nipples strain against the tight purple sweater flecked with angora; hands groping their way under the soft wool like small animals seeking to feed, as I puffed into my womanhood, from the Chesterfields of home to the Marlboros of maturity.
I saw my first pack of Marlboros in the pudgy hand of a blind date, my first year of college. We’d gone to a football game (also my first), Brown vs. Columbia. At half time I was asked to come down on the field to pose for a photo with the home team’s mascot, the Brown bear. I followed instructions, thrusting my chest forward à la Lana Turner, holding the bear by a chain. Afterwards my blind date laid his arm across my shoulders, the plump fingers of his right hand drooping toward the incline of my breasts and edging forward millimeter by millimeter until my throat went furry and my thighs slack. He had a tattoo on his left arm; he’d been in the Navy; he smoked Marlboros. I was still “pure” in those days, hymen intact, and nothing else happened. The fingertips, exploration, the clouds of Marlboro smoke, his tongue in my ear. His name was Julius. I switched to Marlboros.
Marlboros, the world’s best-selling cigarettes, first appeared on the market in 1902. Made by Philip Morris, they were intended for ladies, with a red tip to hide lipstick marks. Cigarette smoking, it was known, kept you slim.
They kept me thin, or at least prevented the bloat. Once out of college, I left America for England. The cigarettes there were perfectly disgusting, due to the bizarre English practice of curing their tobacco with saltpeter in order-so I was told-to discourage libidinous urges in the trenches and on the playing fields of Eton.
But in the byways of Soho, and of course in Mayfair, I could buy Marlboros. They were pricey, desirable. Almost everybody smoked them. Or Gauloises. Or the cigarettes of almost any other nationality. I smoked Austrian cigarettes, Dutch, French, even Spanish. I tried cigars, bought a pipe.
When I gave up smoking, it was not for any good reason. Not, for instance, to avoid death. My lungs didn’t hurt; I wasn’t coughing, and my x-rays were gorgeous. True, I was out of breath after a flight or two en route to a walk-up apartment and I had a tendency to pant after exercising for a few minutes. But these weren’t serious symptoms in and of themselves, and in any case my own doctor, whom I’d gone to since the age of fifteen, still smoked.
I stopped partly to prove I could. Proving things to oneself is undoubtedly both childish and narcissistic, but I was bored, self-preoccupied, unable to write, over fifty with wrinkles showing and I needed an overhaul. I wondered what it would be like to be free of a lifetime habit, not to mention wrinkles. Deciding to quit and actually doing it would prove I was free-or so I deluded myself.
Once I started stopping, I knew I couldn’t stop. And to make sure I’d continue quitting, I concocted the perfectly insane notion that I would write about it, fully aware that I couldn’t write without smoking.
I couldn’t sit down, sit still, remain at the computer or even in an armchair. In order to write anything I had to trick myself, jotting a word or two, sometimes a phrase, in the little black marbleized notebook I carried while walking on the street or down the aisles of the supermarket, while driving or putting on my clothes at the health club, supporting myself against the red metal locker. Writing-the physical activity-was torture. Like an overgrown toddler, I couldn’t stay still long enough to put one word in front of another.
But I persevered, determined to be an observer of myself. My hope in keeping a journal was that it would permit me, by making me the subject and providing my own suspense-Will She or Won’t She?-to accomplish what I set out to do. The reasons no longer mattered. The process itself took over: withdrawal and all its symptoms, the physical changes, easy tears, flatulence, strange dreams, a kind of seasickness, pitching me from wave to wave and mood to mood. There was occasional humor, too like the time I followed a man on Fifth Avenue, inhaling his fumes like a pig nosing for truffles, until he suddenly turned and I blushed, trapped like a deer in lights, unable to explain.
At the beginning, I was caught up in the sheer physicality of it, unable, as with pain, to do anything but ride the currents of my body’s needs. And then it turned out that most of my reasons for stopping came after I’d done it. It was almost as if I’d been hidden from myself and couldn’t see what I was up to until the smoke began to clear.
Learning to Breathe
The type of smoking I’d been doing most of my life-more than 300 hits per day (for roughly a two-pack habit, down from my peak at 5 packs, 750+ hits)-gave me a certain distinction, and dumped enough nicotine into my system to affect the brain like cocaine. I was, it turned out, a druggy kind of writer, like Henri Michaux or Thomas De Quincey, writing from the equivalent of a cocaine high.
This I learned through my reading, which became compulsive. Obsessed with the cigarettes I could no longer smoke, I started reading about everything to do with smoking, in history and across cultures; medically, historically (tobacco was America’s first cash crop), politically, etymologically (what is a “smoking”?), financially (especially R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris, the Big Board sweetheart), socially, confessionally. I read The Surgeon-General’s Report on Smoking & Health of 1988, the one titled “Nicotine Addiction,” and it was there I discovered that cigarettes can (if you smoke enough of them) affect the brain more potently than cocaine; also, that withdrawal from nicotine is, for some wretched subjects, as difficult as giving up heroin. (The word “nicotine,” I read somewhere else, comes from Jean Nicot, French Ambassador to Portugal at the time when tobacco was imported by ship from the New World. He encouraged the cultivation of the plant in Europe.) I read The Surgeon-General’s Report of 1988 from cover to cover, the whole 639-page, in-depth survey based on the work of dozens of eminent scientists from different fields, and acknowledged to be the most comprehensive study of the subject ever done: the tobacco abolitionist’s Bible.
I read about addictions of all types-to liquor and coffee and chocolate, and to drugs of every type and stripe. I read about behavioral addictions too: of love slaves and money junkies, risk-runners and fitness fanatics. Books on addiction to food, of course, overran the shelves. There was a lot to read, though other people’s addictions seemed excessive and unnecessary to me.
My own symptoms were more interesting. Violent mood changes, too much saliva, a need to chew anything, a lust for sweets, backache, pains of indeterminate origin. Also, I was having breaking-dependency dreams that I recounted for my hypnotist. He called it “growing pains.”
I’d started going to him after my first week, when I heard myself telling my son, “I don’t love you. I don’t love your father. All I love are cigarettes.” My son was grown, but still. The moment of fear sent me to Sandy Touchstone, appropriately named, with hair and eyebrows the color of I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. He lived and practiced in a cluttered apartment on the Upper West Side, about $100,000 short of a river view, crammed with books and the kind of interesting garbage we used to find on the street in the sixties and transform into furniture: orange-crate bookshelves, chianti-bottle lamps, peeling old chests covered with bits of Indian cloth, the glints from the tiny mirrors flitting around the room.
The place was instantly familiar. In the living room, where all activities of life appeared to be concentrated except for the eating and eliminating (those were sequestered behind room-dividing curtains), two enormous armchairs confronted each other like monarchs of equal power. On the floor between them revolved a sophisticated-looking device, something between a barometer and an electroencephalograph machine, which I took to be part of the hocus-pocus, a New Age kind of gizmo intended to measure the rate and rhythm of breathing in the hypnotized subject.
Later, I learned it’s an air purifier. Touchstone is allergic to cigarettes, he explains; his parents were always smoking.
So were mine, I say. His were smoking at each other, he clarifies, justifying his allergy.
In any case, almost everybody’s parents smoked. Mine smoked all the time. I sat in the car between them on the bump, inhaling their air, their mystery, her unspoken words, the shifts in mood between them, unaddressed reproaches, unexposed memories of the world they had come from, their childhoods, the portion of Europe that had disappeared from the earth. We lived behind veils, my mother’s haute-couture wardrobe making her as glamorous as the fabled Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, the most beautiful royal of Europe. She had a dress with a wide border of large black spangles below the hips; she dazzled when she walked, auburn hair coiffed into an ornate chignon, black dress with black spangles, high heels, striding like an empress. She allowed me into her dressing room and I could watch the secrets of her beauty unfolding: the ball of cotton doused with eau de cologne mowing lanes of cleanliness on her neck. She spat onto the small block of mascara, frotted the caked brush across, touched it to the pale tips of her lashes. She put on jewels, asked my opinion, tried the emeralds, the diamonds, all of it tasteful. She straightened the seams of her stocking, she dabbed on perfume, touches of Femme at the ears, between her breasts. My father, when he came in, was speechless. She was always more beautiful than he could remember. He was permanently banished, like the Emperor Franz Joseph, from his Empress; she distanced herself from him in many ways. They had separate bedrooms; she was an artist and a lady, a grande dame, with the demeanor of a duchess.
She smoked first thing in the morning and first thing on waking in the night, Then she’d go downstairs in her creamy silk dressing gown, her hair tousled, her eyes puffy (like an owl, she called herself, eine Eule; she did a series of them, owls in lithos and woodcuts) and she made espresso, the kind we had then, with the flip-over coffee pots. Earlier, in the forties, she cooked her coffee the way they did in Prague, letting it boil up three times in the pot, removing it from the fire each time until the last, when a single large bubble would form over the liquid like a dome, and she’d turn off the gas.
Coffee and cigarettes, and she never allowed herself to weigh more than 127 pounds, at five feet, six inches. At the end, she lost weight drastically. I dreamed of carrying her in my arms; she turned into a cat, a cat dying as I ran through the streets of my childhood, the closed school, the closed church at the corner, the darkening avenues.
They both smoked, always. I loved the smell, the warmth, the haze it put us under. On the front seat of the Chevy, me between them breathing their smoke, listening to them speak the admixture of languages they used with each other-German and Czech and English, French, bits of Italian, Hungarian-I felt the safety of being a part of all that, of having drifted here from another shore, a bygone world, whose reality receded as we traveled, vague and dreamy, inventing our own landscape.
In Sandy Touchstone’s large chair, with only a few feet between us, I barely hear him. He mumbles, eats his words. He is primarily an eater, an inhaler. We exhalers are different, we cover the world with our own breath, we mark our territory, preserve it for ourselves.
“Eating,” Sandy says, “is harder to stop than smoking. You need to eat to live.”
My HMO is paying for this therapy, so I don’t argue. He gets started on his routine. I can’t hear what he says and don’t fall into any trance. But as he mumbles on, I relax for some reason, though I know he can’t put me under.
“What does smoking do for you?” he’s asking.
“It lets me breathe.”
“Yes. That’s what they all say.”
Ridiculous. I never say what they all say. I want to tell him that, but I’m too lethargic. Let it go. He asks me to breathe, breathe in through my toes, up my body, letting the breath clean out all the debris. (Later all this will be too embarrassing to repeat to anyone, but for the moment, in the huge armchair from which my legs don’t quite reach the floor, I do what he says.) A few more deep breaths like that, up from the toes, cooling as they chase through the body, and I am suddenly remembering-re-enacting, almost-one of my most persistent fantasies from when I was about eight or nine. It was summer. We’d rented a house near Tanglewood, in the Berkshires, a large tumbledown place with a stream on the property and a tiny path cut through a high meadow leading to my mother’s studio. Sometimes I modeled for her there. Her drawings of me show a girl with pigtails, striped shirt, features unfocused.
In that house I read the books left by the owner’s family: The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew. But at night, in my room to the right of the stairs, I preferred telling myself stories before I fell asleep. All that summer, the story was the same.
A band of kidnappers scales the outside wall and come into my bedroom. They take me away to their gangsters’ den, a cave filled with blue, smoky light. There they make me take off my clothes. They put a lighted cigarette between my lips and make me dance for them. I dance, naked, at the center of the circle, the men looking at me with intense interest, the cigarette glued to the side of my mouth, my own little column of smoke rising in the wonderful blue of the smoky cave as I dance, dance, dance, dance.
“Yes,” I heard him say, “Good.” At the end of that session I was refreshed, even happy. It didn’t last long, though. By the time I reached my car the overpowering need, the physical one, was back and made me shake and cry and scream out the window at people as I drove home.
But after a few weeks the intense craving was gone. I was still anxious, though, gaining weight, having palpitations, unable to sleep. “I am allergic,” I told Sandy, “to the healthy life.” It would be just my luck to stop smoking and a week later discover I had cancer. That kind of thing is always happening.
When I stopped smoking, life didn’t improve. Yes, food tasted better, everything smelled better, but that only made me grow fat. My heroic battle was insignificant in the eyes of other people, and though I tried to perpetuate a belief in my own bravery, it faltered and finally became an embarrassment. Giving up cigarettes was my only accomplishment-of the month, the year, of the past two years. For how long, after all, can you base your self- image on your success at not doing something?
I gained weight. I hated my clothes, They hated me back, straining and pinching me as I walked, sometimes unwilling to let me sit down. The flesh was weak, sagging. When I went back to Sandy he suggested we “do a little work on self-image.” According to him, I wasn’t even fat, so why did I think I was?
Again I sat back in the ridiculously huge armchair. I closed my eyes, barely able to hear him as he asked me to breathe in the cool air through my body, picture dry leaves rustling in the wind, pull in the air, clean out all the debris inside, let the dead leaves go . . .
My mother and I are driving out to the beach on a sunny day, in the Buick convertible, the top down, the red leather seats gleaming. The wind is ruffling my hair, my new short hair. I am about thirteen, oversized, and I’ve just had a poodle cut finally, my pigtails cut off.
We’re driving toward the small bridge over the lagoon at the basin of the bay, several miles before the obelisk and the parking lots of Jones Beach. We can smell the ocean: the salt and the sweet, fishy decomposition, and we can see the shards of silver sunlight flash across the lagoon, making the water look like wrinkled silk dotted with white sails.
She is sitting tall in the driver’s seat, a scarf on her head. She’s smoking; the end of her cigarette is bright red with her lipstick, and a few specks of tobacco dot her lower lip. She’s wearing sunglasses, smiling lightly. She looks like a film star.
As we begin the ascent toward the bridge I see two boys with fishing gear at the side of the road. They are about fourteen or fifteen, and I quickly turn my face away. If they see only the back of my head, the bouncy curls of my poodle cut, maybe they’ll think I’m pretty.
We drive by. They whistle. I am looking at my mother. “That was for me,” she says, the smile still playing on her lips.
And then I am sobbing in the big armchair, me, the mother of an adult child, facing my mousy therapist and weeping as I never did then.
My mother has been dead for twenty years. There is no gravestone. My father chose cremation for her, as he chose it for his mother, as he later chose it for himself. I never saw her dead, of a particularly virulent cancer that had lain dormant five years, then lashed out and consumed her in a month. The ashes were scattered in accordance with the laws of New York state.
When she died at seventy she was still a young woman, still beautiful except for the skin blackened by radiation, the white roots of her still luxuriant auburn hair. The thoughts she was trying to express still remained at the tip of her tongue, unuttered.
It is now seven years since I gave up smoking. Seven is a magic number. Last week it was twenty years since my mother died. In my back yard, a large bronze sculpture of hers rises from its stand, wings outspread, an owl with its head to one side, feet of clay, unwilling to fly up. It is a beautiful piece, and on the anniversary of her death I planted black-eyed Susans around it. They were her favorite flower, they were in bloom when she died. We had them in large vases at the front of the room at her funeral, and her sculptures were there too.
That’s what remains. No body, no grave. The monument is of her own making, her ashes scattered; hers, and her mother’s before her.
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Editors' Prize Winner
Jun 02 2021
Opera House By Robert Stothart Everything seemed married to everything else. —Gustave Baumann, printmaker, Santa Fe Overture A mere 7,918 miles in diameter, Earth, our home together, travels a minuscule
Jun 02 2021
The Valley of Boys
The Valley of Boys Sage Marshall Boys, boys, a valley of boys. We lived in a small town. The snow rose in silent blankets outside the classroom window. It came
Mar 02 2021
A Series of Tubes
Although widely ridiculed for the statement, the late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens was right when he said, “The Internet is a series of tubes.” He was just off by a