As we walked home from school, just the two of us, Buddy-roo reached out and took my hand.
“Mama,” she said, “Is there any kind of smoking that isn’t bad for you?”
We’d just passed a lycée, where a pack of high-school students huddled together outside the entrance. Nearly every one of them held a cigarette. The guys went for the pinched between the fingers hold, the girls held their arms out in that affected way that young smokers do, trying to look cool but looking, actually, a bit silly. We pass this school and these kids frequently, and I’ve made it a point to point out to Short-pants and Buddy-roo how not only is smoking bad for your health, but it looks really stoopid too.
Her question required a moment to think about the best right answer.
“There is one kind of cigarette that some doctors prescribe to help sick people manage pain and nausea.” I deliberately avoided the word marijuana. “But it still has consequences to your health if you smoke it.”
Her facial expression was serious, almost worried.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
She hesitated, and then the words spilled out, the pitch and pace of her voice rising and quickening, bringing her to the verge of tears.
“Because I think it looks cool and I’m afraid I’m going to want to smoke and I know it’s bad for me and you’ll be mad at me if I do.”
I gulped, and then remarked, with praise, about her honesty and how I hoped she’d always feel that she could talk to me about anything, even if she knew it might make me angry. I told her it’s a choice she’ll have to make, but I hope she chooses not to, because it’s bad for you.
“Plus it makes you taste like an ashtray,” I said. “Can you imagine kissing an ashtray?”
She started to cry. My heart was breaking. I didn’t want to upset her. But I wanted to upset her.
“Listen, do you feel like lighting up right now?” I made the gesture of puffing on a cigarette.
She shook her head vehemently. “No, I’m too young.”
“Let’s not worry about this yet. Come talk to me when you get the urge to have a smoke.”
~ ~ ~
It was a gorgeous day, a scarcity in Paris since our bleak and wet winter stretched through the end of May. Despite the treasured sunshine, I spent the afternoon in a dark, windowless rock’n’roll club. One of Buddy-roo’s extra-curricular activities this term was the Park Slope Rock School. Every Thursday we’d take the Bus 69 to a further-flung arrondissement where I’d drop her at a real live recording studio for an hour and a half rehearsal with the members of her band. Two other mothers and I staked out a nearby café and it quickly became our practice to park ourselves there with a glass of wine until it was time to fetch our rock’n’roll kids. Last Saturday afternoon we all met up at the Bellevilleoise to hear the final concert.
Nine bands performed, each had been assembled and nurtured by the director of the school, a hipster from Brooklyn and rock’n’roll magician. Though some of the older bands had played together for more than one semester, Buddy-roo’s ensemble was conceived only last February, and in just over three months they learned to play, compose and perform together. Each band did a cover and an original song that they’d written together. Each band really rocked. Buddy-roo’s group – they named themselves “Shut up!” – was one of the newer bands, so they opened the show. Though their performance wasn’t without a hiccup or two, from which they always recovered, it was stellar. Buddy-roo was the front singer of “Shut up!” and despite a few nerves at the start, she found her footing on stage and was at ease holding the microphone. And her moves, well, cool. Smokin’ cool.
I dressed for the occasion in jeans, a black T-shirt and black chucks, which is what I used to wear when I went to rock concerts. After college I worked for a radio station that promoted itself as the rock’n’roll air force, so I had some experience in this sort of venue. I don’t often go to these kinds of clubs anymore, though standing there at the bar, waiting for live music to start, I wondered why I don’t take better advantage of the music Paris has to offer. In those free, coveted days-before-motherhood, I went to see live shows all the time. That was long before the smoking ban, when clubs were hazy with cigarette smoke. I’d come home, strip off my clothes and hang them on the balcony to air out; the stale scent of smokey garments piled on the clothes chair was a poison you didn’t want to face the next day.
~ ~ ~
I loved smoking. My preferred brand of tobacco was Old Holdborn, and I used to roll my own cigarettes. I had many pleasant associations with smoking: that first one of the day, with my coffee, reading the paper; the cigarette to accompany an apéritif or the one to finish a meal; after writing several difficult paragraphs, pushing my chair back, rolling a cigarette and smoking it while reviewing my work. I loved pulling out a thin paper and reaching into the pouch, pinching the moist tobacco between my fingers, spreading it along the fold and getting that first edge to tuck in and rolling it evenly. Each cigarette a chance – a test – for the perfect roll.
The night I met De-facto I persuaded him to stick around and keep me company while I “had a smoke.” Even though he’s never been a smoker, he used the opportunity to charm me. He even indulged my not-heavy-but-more-than-I-reported habit without complaint, though I’m sure he was relieved when I stopped. I quit overnight. One afternoon the pink line turned blue on the home pregnancy test. The next morning I dropped a nearly full pouch of tobacco in the bin. I haven’t had one since.
I do miss the deep inhale, the drawing back, pausing, letting go and pressing the smoke out of my lungs and mouth. I don’t miss the stale breath, the morning cough, or the yellow fingers. I like tasting things, and I started enjoying food more when I quit cigarettes. I hope I knew how to smoke, but I also wonder if I looked as stoopid as those high school girls in front of the lyceé, holding arm and palm upwards in their awkward smoking stance. I don’t know if I smoked to look cool. I know that it felt cool, the experience. But it wasn’t, really. I mean when you stand back and think about it, it’s an absurd habit.
I tell Short-pants and Buddy-roo they saved my life. That getting pregnant and having little people to care for made me want to be healthier. I didn’t want to expose them to the second-hand smoke, but having them also made me think about my mortality, and how it wouldn’t be a bad idea to eliminate the things that might shorten my capacity to watch my offspring grow up.
Even with my no-smoking messages, beaten into their heads from the start, I suspect they will want to experiment with tobacco, and possibly other things that one might inhale. I used to chastise my father for smoking, leaving pictures of people with cancer of the mouth next to his dinner plate. But then, later on, my militant stance went up in smoke. Who knows if Buddy-roo will bring it up with me again, when her adolescent peers start carrying cigarettes and her urge is stronger. I hope I can stay cool, and help her see how cool she already is without having to smoke.