Sometimes I’ll strike a match, and the sulfur scent brings back that sweet tobacco taste from the first draw on a fresh cigarette. I remember the blue-white smoke curling in tendrils and the hot orange glow of embers illuminating a dark room like secrets shared. Cigarettes were a secret I kept hidden from my mother.
I picked up smoking in college. Away from home on the first lap toward adulthood, I embraced every bad habit I had once railed against. My mother didn’t smoke, but my father did. He wasn’t allowed to smoke in the house, and during my childhood, before their divorce, he sat in a metal glider in the backyard while I lectured him on the evils of nicotine. I accepted, however, the little brown and cream colored coupons from the packs of his Raleigh smokes. You could exchange them for prizes in a catalog, and I was saving up for a transistor radio.
My cigarettes were Benson and Hedges Deluxe Ultra Lights — menthol. Inhaling one of those was like smoking a breath mint. My path through higher education started while the legal drinking age was eighteen. Cigarettes were cheaper than alcohol back then so I exchanged my bottle thick glasses for contact lens and imagined myself in an old black and white movie. I played at cool and sophisticated while I tried and failed to produce a perfect smoke ring.
I balanced painful shyness with a desire to separate from my mother and went away to school a mere 52 miles from what I left behind. When I gazed at the view from my dorm room balcony, I saw the highway that led back to my hometown, a straight asphalt line like an arrow over the horizon.
College was an escape from my mother’s obsessive compulsive disorder. In my mother’s house each daily routine magnified into a complex ritual. Simple tasks like dusting became chores that lasted half a day because every ceramic bird or glass vase had to be removed then placed back in the same position. If they were moved even one quarter of an inch I would have to start the whole task over again.
Home on weekends and holidays it was easy to hide the smoke odor on my clothes. Each time I entered the house I had to stop, strip naked in the laundry room, and drop my clothes in the washer. I walked naked to the bathroom where I showered and scrubbed off the outside world. The whole process would have come in handy at a nuclear power plant.
One weekend my mother announced that she would come visit me on campus. I broke the news the day before her arrival to Ann, my best friend since elementary school, and now, roommate. Ann glanced around our dorm and asked, “Does this mean we need to dust?”
“No,” I replied, then suggested we open the windows and turn off the lights. Books, papers, food wrappers, and discarded clothing covered the surfaces in our room. There was a noticeable coating of dust on our bookcase, which held not books but an assortment of empty liquor bottles.
My mother showed up wearing a light blue polyester pant suit she’d had at least six years. That pantsuit, with easy to wash material and elastic waist pants, was her uniform of choice whenever she left the house. She had other clothes, but she chose the comfort of the familiar over style. I led my mom on a speedy tour of the campus, avoiding any place where I might be recognized. We picked up a pizza to share with Ann back at the dorm.
After we ate we all leaned back, drowsy the way you are after a large meal. The room smelled of pepperoni and as I pushed aside the empty cardboard pizza box, I thought about how much I would like a cigarette. My mother opened her bag, the size and shape of a small black leather suitcase, and bent over to fish around inside it. She set things aside, not looking at them as she searched through her purse. Out came a lipstick, a coin purse, her wallet, and right before she found the tissue she was searching for, she pulled out and set down a pack of cigarettes.
“When did you start smoking?” I asked. I wondered how she got around washing the packs before she opened them.
“Oh, it’s a bad habit I used to have, I’ll quit again soon.”
I wouldn’t have been more surprised if she had confessed to being a serial killer. I laughed and brought out my own pack, then asked if she wanted to step out onto the balcony.
Years later I would discover old photographs, tucked away in albums and stashed hidden in a desk drawer, and in them my mother posed in high heels and dresses. It was hard for me to reconcile the woman she had become, the one who had to wash every grocery item before she stored it away in the pantry, with the smiling woman in the sepia tinted photos.
My mom eloped and got married at fifteen, worked as a cook on a farm cooperative, had seven children, and divorced my dad when I was thirteen. Back then I feared that I would become my mother. As though genetics would dictate I inherit not only her nose and her eyes, but her personality, her failings, her mental illness.
We drew on our cigarettes and stared out over the silent courtyard below. The lights from passing cars flashed along the stretch of dark highway that led back toward my hometown. I glanced over at my mother, dressed in her familiar pant suit as she stood beside me, the smoke from our cigarettes curling over our heads like wispy halos.