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Smoking - Corinne Patrice de Palma

When I awoke that day, I remember the faint sound of the cuckoo clock downstairs. Cuckoo. Cuckoo. Doing. Doing. Cuckoo.

My mother bought that clock back with her from a trip she had made in Italy on vacation. She had loved dolls, music boxes and wind-up toys. She had a section in the corner of her bedroom just with Madame Alexander dolls and all her treasures. This cuckoo clock to me had never fit. It seemed incongruous against the sleek, modern finish of the family room where she had placed it. Maybe that’s why this was an element that stood out for me, a detail that my eye almost inevitably honed in on every time that I went into the room. It looked awkward. Dissonant. But it always got my attention.

But either way on this morning that I woke, I wasn’t centered on the cuckoo clock. I had other things on my mind. I was going to learn how to smoke. I mean really smoke. I had tried smoking before but my idea of smoking had been more like a scientific experiment, stealing a cigarette from our housekeeper, Mary and watching the little circles of smoke form. I don’t think I ever even brought the cigarette to my mouth before she would usually find me, ratting on me and on whomever I was with. Sometimes just the smell alone from the menthol would make me sick. She smoked Newport. It smelled like Nyquil or those mint candies my grandmother always kept in a little dish in her house in Florida. I hated it.

This time, the decision to learn how to smoke came about when I got older after marveling at the way my boy friend, Joey Ponserock had formed little rings with his mouth after he inhaled. He smoked Marlboro and when he smoked dressed in his black motorcycle jacket, he made smoking look so good.

My desire to smoke was made official one day Joey came by my locker at school during break while I was getting ready for gym to let me know that he had football practice, and couldn’t see me that afternoon, but would meet me at my house after school the next day. Before he walked away, knowing of my interest he rubbed up against me and said, “Maybe I’ll teach you how to inhale.”

When he said that I knew he meant business. That was Joey’s way. When it seemed as if he was just merely suggesting something, it was almost always for real. He was very organized and purposeful the way that he went about his relationship with me. Joey was a pretty boy. He was a combination of Polish and Italian, and had pale white skin with a tiny mole next to his mouth. He was considered the most “popular” boy at school.

The first time he kissed me it was all very organized. We were sitting by the bleachers, and he said, “I like you so much that out of respect I’m going to ask you if I can kiss you.” I agreed shyly pretending that I had been kissed before. But when he asked me I became bigger than the universe. I wanted to shout with glee, take one of those loudspeakers in front of the football field and announce, “Joey loves me. Joey loves me. I’m special.” But of course, I kept my cool.

He asked me in that same manner the day he had decided that he was going to tongue me. He picked a day along with some other couples. It was Wednesday to be exact, and he told me ahead of time what it was going to entail. “It’s nothing much. It may seem strange at first, but it’s not going too far. Don’t worry.”

We did it. And I didn’t think much of it. I’m not even sure if he did either. He really loved me and didn’t want anything to get in the way of my believing anything else. He had an unusual maturity for someone his age. In Joey’s family, instead of going to college, people got married, and they married young. That was the deal. I was the new girl at school and I was different. I grew up in a neighborhood than most of the kids at school, where both parents were usually educated, and rather than get married first, they finished their college career. Joey’s father was a construction worker and had never gone to college. I think that he liked the fact that I was different, and may have even pegged me for a prospective wife.

We agreed to meet at my house after school on the day that he taught me how to inhale. Jeanne and Annie, mutual friends of ours came along. My friends had liked coming over my house. They liked my mother who was liberal, and according to them beautiful, and very nice. She, at the same time, liked Joey and my friends at that time so she always encouraged them to come over. It was my first year in public school and my mother was nervous. She had heard that there were rough kids at Burrough’s and didn’t want me to go. I’d been in Catholic school since Kindergarten. I had endured seven long years there and had just about enough of nuns pulling my hair. When my mother consented to my brother going, who had started the year before, as far as I was concerned she had run out of excuses. She had no choice now but to allow me to go.

As I sat cross legged on the floor with my friends in a circle facing the white rattan headboards in between me and my older sister’s beds on the pink, multi-faceted shag rug, I awaited the prospect of smoking with great anticipation. It was as if a séance was starting, or I was ready like a child to take a bite into a piece of candy.

Joey grabbed a cigarette from his pack and lit it with his zippo lighter. We watched with intrigue with all eyes on him as he took his first puff. Then, he turned to me waving the smoke across my nose as if to tease me. “Try,” he said as he dropped the ashes into the ashtray in the middle of us. “It goes like this. You see you bring it to your lips. Then you suck like you’re blowing into a balloon, but in the opposite direction. But don’t suck too hard. Then you’ll start coughing. It’s easy. Really,” he said.

At first I hesitated. Then when I put the cigarette to my mouth I coughed a little. But then by the third puff the smoke went down ever so smoothly.

I was a natural. For me, it was like the way Daddy took me bowling in Bronxville when we were young. The first time I hit the ball at the bowling alley I got a strike. Or, when my grandfather took the training wheels off my bicycle. I told my grandfather it was time and never doubted myself for one moment. I coasted down the hill of the driveway to my house free as a bird.

From the first puff I felt the addiction. It satisfied something deep inside. Smoking for me took like a train gliding on a track.

Looking back, when I first started Burroughs, that whole period can best be described as one of the best periods in my life. I never would have guessed how quickly my fun would be shattered.


Corinne is published in Entropy. She's been a reader on the topic of loss and the mother/daughter relationship for Sirius FM. Corinne wrote a memoir about her tumultuous youth and is currently seeking publication. She writes freelance for various USA Today media outlets, and holds an M.F.A. in Creative Non-Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College where she studied under Pulitzer Prize winner, Vijay Seshadri and reputed, American essayist, Jo Ann Beard.


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